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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Slide Show: Backstage at Obama\'s Election Night Event

News media arrived in Chicago at the McCormick Place Lakeside Center where President Obama's election night event will be held Tuesday.

The Caucus Click: Costumes and Characters

Damon Winter/The New York Times

A host of costumes and characters punctuated the crowds at campaign events throughout the year. Go to Slide Show '

Secrets of High Credit Scorers

Have you ever wondered: Just what do I have to do to have a superhigh credit score?

MyFico.com, the consumer arm of FICO, creator of one of the most widely used family of credit scores, has published a report on those it considers “high achievers,” or those with FICO scores of 785 or higher.

FICO scores range from 300 to 850 - the higher the score, the better your credit profile, and the more likely you are to get a loan at a favorable interest rate. Scores are based on information reported by lenders to credit reporting bureaus like Experian, TransUnion and Equifax. You can have multiple scores, depending on what sort of loan you're seeking and which credit bureau is doing the reporting.

More than 50 million people - about a quarter of all people with credit scores - have scores of 785 or higher, and they exhibit “strikingly similar” credit habits, regardless of background and life experience, according to myFico. (The analysis is based on April data and used FICO 8 scores, the most recent version of the “general purpose” FICO score.) Over all, those with the highest scores keep low revolving balances relative to their available credit; they don't “max out” their credit cards; and they consistently make payments on time, even if it's just the minimum required amount.

High credit achievers aren't debt-free. One-third have total balances of more than $8,500 on nonmortgage accounts. The rest have total balances of less than $8,500.

But while they may carry a balance, 96 percent of high achievers show no missed payments on their credit report. And those who do have late payments had one four years ago, on average. Less than 1 percent of high achievers have an account past due.

This is important, because payment history represents 35 percent of an individual's FICO score. So making at least the minimum payment in every billing cycle helps support a high score.

Even those with excellent FICO scores may have had bumps along the way. About one in 100 high achievers has a collection on a credit report, and about one in 9,000 has had a tax lien or bankruptcy.

But high achievers often keep balances low and use an average of only 7 percent of their available revolving credit.

The FICO high achievers have a well-established credit history and seldom open new accounts. Over all, their average credit account is 11 years old.

“While people with a high FICO score are not perfect, their consistently responsible financial behavior usually pays off over time,” Anthony Sprauve, credit score adviser for myFico, said in a statement.

How does your credit behavior compare with those of the “high achievers?”

The Caucus Click: Cellphone Nation

People used cellphones and cameras to snap pictures of President Obama during a campaign event in St. Petersburg College in Florida.Doug Mills/The New York TimesPeople used cellphones and cameras to snap pictures of President Obama during a campaign event in St. Petersburg College in Florida.

The presence of cellphones has become ubiquitous during the campaign, whether for taking photographs or shoring up support. Go to Slide Show '

Live Coverage of Election Day

Americans went to the polls on Tuesday to decide whether to give President Obama a second term or to replace him with Mitt Romney after a long, hard-fought campaign that centered on who would heal the battered economy and what role government should play in the 21st century. Times reporters around the country will be providing live updates, analysis and results throughout the day.

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Understanding the High Cost of Veterinary Training

Taking a patient to the lab at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine.Jodi Hilton for The New York TimesTaking a patient to the lab at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine.

As a child, I dreamed of becoming a veterinarian. I collected pets of all sorts: gerbils, dogs, cats, rabbits (one of which was eaten by one of my cats) and finally, when I was a teenager, a horse. I devoured James Herriot's series, “All Creatures Great and Small,” about a country veterinarian. My future career seemed clear.

But squeamishness about blood and a dismal year of organic chemistry in college (they call them “weeding out” courses for a reason) persuaded me that my professional future lay elsewhere.

But I still love animals, a nd admire the people able to persevere through veterinary school, in the face of daunting odds and heavy financial challenges, to care for them. As this week's Education Life reveals, veterinary school grads carry an average debt of $125,000, while veterinarians have an average income of $121,000.

A recent post I wrote about the high cost of pet drugs elicited some strong comments from veterinarians, and their parents, about the economic challenges facing veterinarians:

From a comment by Chris in Chicago:

New vets graduate with huge school debt ($146-250k) after 8 years of training and soon won't be able to find jobs even where needed because no vet clinic can afford to pay what they need to be paid just to pay their school loans. What will we do then?

And this from a parent in Pasadena:

My daughter is a vet. She does not drive a big or expensive car. She works long hours. It will be many more years before she pays o ff her student loans. Nobody complains about her prices. Nobody.

Does understanding the cost of veterinary school make your pet's medical bills seem more reasonable?

Questions Answered About Pension Plans

Questions Answered About Pension Plans

Readers recently submitted questions about pension plans to Mary Williams Walsh, a business reporter for The New York Times who has written about how companies manage their pension plans; what happens when companies go bankrupt; public workers' pensions and how they may affect state and local finances; and Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. (Not all questions can be answered in detail, and some questions have been edited.)

Q. It seems that conservative politicians are bashing public pension systems in addition to their assaults on public workers. What implications does that have for the future of public pension systems? - Steven M., Sacramento, Calif.

A. Yes, criticism of public pensions has increased sharply. But years before the politicians chimed in, there was already a dead-serious debate as to whether these systems were sustainable. It wasn't among politicians so much as actuaries, economists, accountants and other specialists, some of whom had begun to believe that states and municipal governments - and the professionals who advise them - were routinely underestimating the cost of the pensions they were promising to thousands and thousands of workers. As a result, too little money was being set aside in advance, and some places were bound to come up short when the baby boomers retired. From what I can tell, their concerns were valid, and yet it was years before they could get anybody to take them seriously. In the meantime the problem grew.

Defined-benefit pensions are really good benefits, and it shouldn't come as a surprise that we can't provide them out of thin air. Yet if something is threatening public pension systems, I suspect it's not politicians bashing them, so much as the sticker shock that more and more ordinary Americans will feel when they find out how much they are expected to pay in the coming years for benefits they thought were already paid for.

Q. I've been told that public employees' pensions in New York are “guaranteed” by the New York constitution. Are they? - Smotri, New York

A. I've heard the same thing, not just in reference to New York, but some other states as well. When I've asked legal specialists, I've been told there is no such “guarantee,” in the legal meaning of the term.

What New York State does have is explicit constitutional language stating, in effect, that the pension formula in force on the day an employee joins the public retirement system cannot be reduced for the rest of that employee's public career. This is better protection than workers in the private sector get from the federal pension law; it's also fairly unusual among the 50 states.

The states use a wide variety of legal approaches to protecting their workers' pensions. Amy B. Monahan, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, has written a detailed overview of the state provisions, available here from the Social Science Research Network. (The Network requires registration at no cost.)

Ms. Monahan brings up the concept of a state's “police power,” which means its inherent right “to preserve the public security, order, health, morality and justice.” In a state with the type of legal protection New York offers, she writes that just about the only way to curb public pension obligations would be to do so pursuant to the state's police power.

Q. My wife will be turning 62 in November 2014. When should she enroll for Social Security? I will be 65 in March of 2015. When should I enroll? Thank you. - kenb100231, Egg Harbor Township, N.J.

A. There is no single right answer to this question - it depends on personal circumstances that can vary greatly. But for starters, here are a few things to consider. You can apply for Social Security any time from age 62 to 70, but the Administration sets a “normal retirement age,” when a retiree collects a “full benefit.” People who apply ahead of their normal retirement age will have that benefit reduced.

The Social Security Administration has been gradually ratcheting up everybody's normal retirement age. You and your wife both appear to be in the group whose normal retirement age is 66. If your wife worked outside the home and would be applying for her benefits at age 62 - four years ahead of her normal retirement age - her “full benefit” would be reduced by 25 percent. (If she were applying for a 50 percent spousal benefit, the reduction would be 30 percent.) Social Security benefits are adjusted for inflation, but those substantially reduced amounts would be her base benefit for life.

You, on the other hand, would be enrolling just one year early if you signed up at age 65, so your reduction would be considerably smaller, a little less than 7 percent.

But there are many other factors that you and she should consider. What other resources do you have to live on? Does either of you plan to keep working after enrolling in Social Security? (Doing so below your normal retirement age can affect your benefits.) What are your plans for health care? (Medicare, and its required premiums, normally begin at 65, even if you decide not to enroll in Social Security until later.)

In New Hampshire, Romney\'s Last Pre-Election Rally

MANCHESTER, N.H. - Even Mitt Romney looked a little surprised to see a crowd of 13,000 and several thousand more waiting in the below-freezing temperatures to get into the Verizon Wireless Arena here Monday night.

At his final rally before Election Day, Mr. Romney took the stage after 11 p.m. after a brief performance by Kid Rock. The crowd shouted “U-S-A” and waved “Romney-Ryan” and “Women for Mitt” signs. Mr. Romney, the Republican candidate, took it all in.

“These last months of our campaign have seen the gathering of strength of real movement across the country. It's evident in the size of these crowds like this tonight - my goodness,” he said, to applause. “And I understand that there are a few thousand people outdoors who couldn't get in, too.”

It was a homecoming of sorts for Mr. Romney, who kicked off his presidential campaign in New Hampshire, first in the Republican primary and then in the general election. Polls have tightened in the state recently, with Mr. Romney by most measures trailing President Obama by a few percentage points.

“This is a special moment for Ann and for me because this is where our campaign began,” Mr. Romney said. “Your primary vote put me on the path to win the Republican nomination. And tomorrow your votes and your work right here in New Hampshire will help me become the next president of the United States!”

Standing in front of a giant blue sign that read “Real Change on Day One,” Mr. Romney accused Mr. Obama of worsening the partisan divide in Washington and caring “more about a liberal agenda” than the economy. “I won't waste any time complaining about my predecessor,” he said. The crowd roared.

That sentiment struck a particular chord with Stefan Skalinski, an 18-year-old high school senior who said he planned to vote for Mr. Romney on Tuesday. Mr. Skalinski, bedazzled in Romney-Ryan buttons a nd bumper stickers stuck on his sweatshirt, hovered by a heat lamp waiting to get into the Verizon arena.

“After the past four years Obama keeps blaming Bush, but he's done nothing,” Mr. Skalinksi said. He shook his head, “He promised us so much change in 2008.”

Martha Garron, 52, held a homemade sign that said, “Hope is not a plan.” She shivered outside the arena waiting to clear security and get inside.

“We wanted to see Romney before he becomes president,” Ms. Garon said. She said the economy was the most important issue, but that Mr. Obama had let her down on other counts. “It's everything,” she said. “And Libya to boot.”

As a former governor of Massachusetts, Mr. Romney feels a particular closeness to neighboring New Hampshire, which only carries four electoral votes but has a particularly high voter turnout and a large number of independent voters who can sway the state's electoral votes. His final campaign rally carried a mix of exhaustion (particularly by the traveling press corps who had an hourlong bus ride to Boston ahead of them when the event ended), nostalgia for previous victories in New Hampshire and anxiousness to see what Tuesday's vote brings.

“We're one day away from a fresh start, one day away from the first day of a new beginning,” Mr. Romney said. “My conviction is that better days are ahead.”

The size of the crowd at the Romney rally might not translate to voters. Many of the attendants said they had driven in from nearby states - Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey - to see the event.

David Perry, a 60-year-old director of development at the Boy Scouts of America, and his wife drove two-and-a-half hours from their home in Windham, Conn., to attend the Romney rally. “I've got five grandchildren and I don't want to leave an enormous debt for them,” Mr. Parry said. “I think there's a real crisis going on in America.”

Amanda Fiedl er, a 21-year-old senior at Gordon College, a Christian school in Wenham, Mass., drove to Manchester with a few friends because she said they are scared they will not find jobs when they graduate. “Obama has had four years to improve the unemployment rate,” she said. “We're all worried about getting jobs.”

The Caucus Click: Stars and Stripes From the Campaign Trail

Damon Winter/The New York Times

The versatility of the American flag as seen at campaign events. Go to Slide Show '

Tuesday Reading: Reassessing Flu Shots

A variety of consumer-focused articles appears daily in The New York Times and on our blogs. Each weekday morning, we gather them together here so you can quickly scan the news that could hit you in your wallet.

  • States accommodate voters displaced by Hurricane Sandy. (National)
  • Hacking of tax records puts states on guard. (National)
  • Bracing for an upturn in lodging rates. (Business)
  • Jump-starting air travel after everything went dark. (Business)
  • The costs of shoring up coastal communities. (Science Times)
  • Old, frail and in harm's way. (The New Old Age)
  • Reassessing flu shots as season draws near. (Well)
  • The big swipe: Debit card fees. (Economix)
  • A cold shoulder for Amazon as publisher. (Bits)
  • A key addition to phones lacking keyboards. (Gadgetwise)
  • Lessons from a marathon not run. (Well)
  • When hospital patients continue to smoke. (Well)
  • Fish may beat pills for Om ega-3s. (Well)
  • Questions answered about pension plans. (Booming)
  • November college checklist for seniors. (The Choice)

The Early Word: Finally

Today's Times

  • Consider yourself an armchair pundit? Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenberg have composed a guide on what to look for as election night unfolds.
  • The ads may stop running and the rallies will cease, but Ohio's choice for president may not be known until December, John M. Broder reports. The all-important swing state has a labyrinthine recount procedure that ensures weeks of delay and the likelihood that campaign lawyers will be busy for quite some time.
  • As the campaigning comes to an end, the gulf between cable news channels is expanding, especially when it comes to coverage of a particular party and candidate. Jeremy W. Peters looks at how MSNBC and FOX News have pushed their partisan stridency to new levels.

 Around the Web

  • Rapper Jay-Z made the line famous, but Mayor Cory Booker of Newark made it viral, The Huffington Post reports.