The year's top 10 personal finance stories

By Michelle Singletary
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 18, 2010; 3:56 PM

Right about now, many people look back on the year that was and measure the triumphs and tragedies.

Some of the biggest news stories in 2010 centered on pocketbook issues, with most of them involving great losses as many people across the country continued to struggle to find employment and hold on to their homes. As I reflect on the year, I thought I would give you my list of the Top 10 personal finance stories. Here they are, from top to bottom:

1. Unemployment

Hands down, this has been and still is the wrench in the cog of the economic recovery. And it may continue to be the big story in years to come. Economic forecasters in a survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia predicted that the national unemployment rate will continue to be high, staying above 9 percent next year, then dropping to 8.7 percent in 2012 and 7.9 percent in 2013.

2. The Great Recession was declared over.

It took more than a year, but the National Bureau of Economic Research affirmed this year that the economic downturn that started in December 2007 officially ended in June 2009. It was the longest downturn since World War II. The news was met with lots of sneers. Technically, the recession may be over, but the financial suffering continues.

3. President Obama signed into law the most sweeping overhaul of financial regulation in decades.

Part of the landmark legislation includes the creation of the independent Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a watchdog agency whose mission is to protect consumers from the abusive lending practices that contributed to the crisis. The government also has new powers to seize troubled financial firms.

4. Flash Crash

On May 6, the financial markets experienced a dramatic drop in prices, declining more than 5 percent in a matter of minutes, only to recover a short time later. "The whipsawing prices resulted in investors selling at losses during the decline and undermined confidence in the markets," wrote the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission in a joint report.

5. Foreclosure-Gate

Major lenders halted foreclosure sales nationwide after reports that mortgage loan servicers signed thousands of foreclosure documents without verifying the information. The practice known as "robo-signing" led to a joint investigation by all 50 state attorneys general.

6. Major phases of the Credit CARD Act went into effect.

Among other things, credit issuers can no longer push you over your card's credit limit with fees or interest charges. Issuers can't charge interest on the fees. Adults younger than 21 can't get credit unless they can prove they have the income to pay the debt or have a co-signer.

7. New federal rules took effect aimed at reining in shady debt-settlement companies.

Debt-settlement companies now have to make specific disclosures to potential customers - how long it will take to get results, how much the service will cost and the potential negative consequences that could result from seeking debt relief.

8. Introduction of an online clock showing the billions in student loan debt that is being amassed.

The Student Loan Debt Clock at keeps a running tally of outstanding federal and private student loans. In June, the total debt on student loans exceeded debt on credit cards for the first time.

9. Social Security turned 75.

Despite the fact that Social Security has kept many people from slipping below the poverty line, we are still debating whether it's a worthy social program. Notably this year, former U.S. senator Alan K. Simpson, co-chairman of Obama's bipartisan debt commission, got in trouble for saying this about Social Security: "We've reached a point now where it's like a milk cow with 310 million tits!"

10. Velma Hart

Hart became the symbol of middle- and higher-income folks unhappy with the lack of economic progress by Obama and his administration. Hart expressed to the president during a town hall meeting in Washington her fears about the economy, and this turned her into an instant media darling. Her quote for the history books: "The financial recession has taken an enormous toll on my family. My husband and I joked for years that we thought we were well beyond the hot-dogs-and-beans era of our lives. But quite frankly, it's starting to knock on our door and ring true that that might be where we're headed again. And quite frankly, Mr. President, I need you to answer this honestly: Is this my new reality?"

Two months later, Hart was let go as the chief financial officer for Am Vets, a nonprofit Maryland-based veteran services organization. Turns out her fears were justified.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Her e-mail address is Questions are welcomed, but because of the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible.

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