MONEY Budgeting

How to Keep Fantasy Football from Fouling Up Your Finances

Fantasy Football
How much does your weekend pastime cost you? iStock

Make sure your weekend hobby doesn't wreak havoc on your budget—or your marriage.

Allison Lodish used to be a huge football fan.

Her affection for the game evaporated when her husband got fixated on fantasy football, a leisure pursuit where participants draft their own dream teams and compete against each other, based on how those players fare.

Before she knew it, he was in three leagues of fantasy football. Then, it became 10. “It was crazy,” says the 41-year-old personal stylist from California’s Marin County.

Crazy not just in terms of time expended, but money. Since many fantasy leagues charge fees for entering, trading players, or picking up free agents, the sums involved can be substantial.

At the height of her husband’s involvement, the hobby was costing north of $1,000 a year, Lodish estimates.

Indeed, the fantasy game has plenty of fans, with more than 41 million players in North America, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. That’s up from 27 million in 2009, with the typical player dropping $111 a year on the hobby, and others, far more.

In an era of stagnant incomes and rising prices, it’s no wonder some spouses are alarmed by the amounts involved. The average player spends more than eight hours a week perfecting his or her team, the trade group says.

So, is there a fix for the obsession?

Experts say the first steps toward resolving familial conflicts around a fantasy sport involve turning off the TV for a few minutes and not obsessively checking statistics. Then, start working through marital differences that can easily spiral out of control.

“You have to figure out the crux of the problem,” says Sharon Epperson, CNBC’s personal finance correspondent and author of a financial advice book for couples, The Big Payoff. “It may be about the money, or it may have nothing to do with that. It may be the amount of time being spent away from the spouse or the children that is really annoying the other person.”

If a partner feels neglected, or the cash involved is being drawn from other family pots, that is a problem, says Matthew Berry, ESPN’s senior fantasy analyst and author of Fantasy Life, which chronicles the exploding interest in the field.

“Everything in moderation,” he says. “I don’t think fantasy football is different from any other couples issue. It’s about communication, and understanding what’s important to the other person.”

Here are some tips that may safeguard the family budget, or your marriage, from an unchecked fantasy-football fetish:

Family needs come first

“I don’t think spending money on fantasy sports is a bad thing—as long as you can afford it,” says Epperson, herself a devoted Pittsburgh Steelers fan who grew up watching greats like Franco Harris and Lynn Swann.

But if that cash is being siphoned from other critical needs, it’s a guaranteed recipe for marital discord. So before you sign up for multiple fantasy leagues, get your other bases covered.

Epperson’s advice: Stay current on all monthly bills, save 20% of your income in long-term vehicles like 401(k)s, and another 10% in short-terms savings like a household emergency fund. Then you can set aside 10% of income for “fun money”—and that’s where your fantasy-sports budget needs to come from.

Avoid secrets

Everyone likes to spend a little time and money on personal passions, whether it’s fantasy sports or designer shoes. And that’s okay – unless that information is being hidden from your significant other.

“It’s only a big deal if you are not telling your spouse,” says Epperson. “That’s like loading up a credit-card that your spouse doesn’t know about. That’s financial infidelity, and that’s a big problem in marriages.”

Involve your partner

If your spouse pushes back against your fantasy-football interest, take it as a compliment: They want to spend more time with you. So here’s an elegant solution: Get them involved, if you can.

“My advice is always, ‘Try it, you’ll love it,'” says ESPN’s Berry. “My wife now plays in my fantasy league. That way, Sunday becomes a day you can spend together, instead of apart.”

Hand over the winnings

If your spouse has zero interest in fantasy sports, here’s a novel approach: Pledge that any cash you win will go directly into their bank account.

“That’s what I did with my wife originally,” says Berry. “Whatever I won, she got to spend. So when I won my league, she got a brand new purse. It worked out great. Nowadays, if I’m falling behind in third place or something, she tells me to get it together and start studying up.”

Still, the outcome may not always be so collegial.

Allison Lodish eventually set up a website for fellow fantasy-sports “widows” and ended up splitting with her husband.

“It should be a fun game that brings people together,” she says. “But if it’s driving people apart, that is where you need to take a hard look at it.”

MONEY Budgeting

This Hangover Cure Will Make You Richer

People paying for drinks at bar
Do you know much money you waste by getting wasted? Roy Hsu—Getty Images

Okay, you may not want to give up drinking just to save a buck. But if you're having trouble trimming your budget, add up what you're spending on wine, beer, and liquor. You may find the numbers sobering.

Would you give up alcohol to help balance the family budget?

I posed that very question on social media recently. These were some of the answers I got:

“Yeah, right.”

“Gosh no – it’s what gets us through the week.”

“As if that would ever happen.”

And so on, in the same vein. Most responses ranged from sarcastic to outright incredulous.

But one other answer stood out, which got to the heart of the matter:

“I quit drinking – and it was like we won the lottery!”

And there’s the rub. We all tend to complain, in an era of stagnant incomes and rising prices, about how we just can’t make ends meet. There is just no place we could possibly find more savings.

But is that really true? Consider this: The average U.S. household spent $445 on wine, beer, and spirits in 2013, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That amounts to roughly 1% of our household expenditures, and it compares with an average household figure of $268 in 1993.

That is more than we spend on all nonalcoholic beverages combined, by the way. Keep in mind those averages include nondrinkers, too. That means some households are spending much, much more than that already-hefty average on alcohol.

So let’s be honest with ourselves. It is not always the case that we can’t squeeze any more savings out of our budgets. It is that we choose not to, because we just don’t want to give up the booze.

When New York City’s Jenna Hollenstein sat down one day and calculated what her drinking was costing her, she was shocked.

The 39-year-old dietician used to enjoy a nice bottle of wine or some gin after work, and it was starting to add up. “Even if it was only a $15 bottle of wine, three times a week, that was $45,” she remembers. “That’s $180 a month, or over $2,000 a year.

“That’s a significant amount of money—and that’s not even including going out for cocktails with friends.”

Hollenstein finally decided to give up her pricey habit, and even wrote a book on her experiences, Drinking to Distraction. But she is hardly alone in having a taste for a nip after work.

After all, 64% of American adults report drinking occasionally, according to Gallup’s most recent poll on consumption habits. Through boom times and bust, one of our most consistent national traits is that we enjoy our booze, and are not willing to give it up.

“We’ve been asking this question since the 1930s, and the numbers are remarkably constant,” says Frank Newport, Gallup’s editor in chief. “Even in an era of huge demographic changes, the percentage of drinkers just doesn’t seem to budge.”

Our Beverage of Choice

Beer is America’s beverage of choice, by the way, followed by wine and then spirits. The average drinker enjoys a shade over four alcoholic beverages a week, according to the Gallup poll.

But 9% of people have more than eight drinks over the same period, and 5% of folks are guzzling more than 20. And that can get very expensive indeed—especially if you do your drinking in restaurants or bars with high markups.

We might not even realize how much we are spending on this habit, since it drips out in relatively small increments—a beer or two here, a carafe of wine there. Personal-finance expert Tiffany Aliche, author of The One Week Budget, suggests forcing yourself to do the math—just as Hollenstein did—before tossing back yet another nightcap.

“Let’s say you drink three nights a week and spend $30 each time,” she says. “That’s over $4,000 a year, or as much as a trip to Paris or Rome.”

It is not an all-or-nothing proposition, notes Aliche, who is not a drinker herself. You don’t have to become a teetotaler in order to realize massive savings. “Instead of drinking three times a week, just drink twice—and then go on your vacation, too,” she advises.

As for Hollenstein, who had a long and complex relationship with alcohol, she thought it was best to give up drinking altogether. She did not necessarily do it for the money—but when she did, she noticed that her finances changed overnight.

“As soon as I gave it up, the money thing became so clear,” she says. “Drinking was just a mindless, habitual thing I did on a daily basis. And I didn’t really notice it—until I got my credit card bill or looked at my bank account.”

TIME Saving & Spending

Young Adults Have Basically No Clue How Credit Cards Work

Close up of teenage girl texting on mobile in bedroom
Cultura/C. Ditty—Getty Images

Cause for concern?

Almost two-thirds of young adults today don’t have a credit card, but maybe that’s for the best, given their sweeping lack of know-how about this common financial tool.

Although Americans of all ages are less reliant on debt since the recession, millennials are far and away the most credit-averse age group. Bankrate finds that, among adults 30 years old and older, only about a third don’t have any credit cards at all. New research from Bankrate.com finds that 63% of millennials, defined as adults under the age of 30, don’t have any credit cards. Among those who do, 60% revolve balances from month to month, and 3% say they don’t bother to pay at all — more than any other age group.

There’s a good possibility that these young adults aren’t irresponsible, though, just misinformed. BMO Harris Bank recently conducted a survey that found almost four in 10 adults under the age of 35 think carrying a balance improves your credit score (it doesn’t). And roughly one out of four say they don’t check their credit score more than once every few years. Perhaps that’s because a third of them think checking your credit score hurts your credit (again, it doesn’t). BMO found that 25% of young adults don’t know even know what their credit score is.

And young adults also think it takes much less to get a good credit score. BMO finds that, overall, most Americans think a score of 660 or higher is a “good” score. In reality, that may have been true pre-recession, but it isn’t anymore. BMO says a good score is one that falls in the 680 to 720 range. Millennials, though, believe than anything above a 625 means you have good credit — a misconception that could cost them in the form of higher interest rates on credit cards and loans.

Millennials are also more likely than any other age group to think that store credit cards don’t count towards your score and that the credit card companies control their scores.

In reality, it’s up to the individual to maintain their credit score, and if millennials continue along not bothering to learn the essentials of credit and how to use it responsibly, they could end up paying for it in the form of lost borrowing opportunities or higher interest rates, Jeanine Skowronski, Bankrate’s credit card analyst, warns in a statement.

“The responsible use of credit cards is one of the easiest ways to build a strong credit score, which is essential for qualifying for insurance policies, auto and mortgage loans, and sometimes even a job,” she says.

TIME

Time to Kiss Your Free Checking Account Goodbye

Your checking account could be bleeding you dry

Just when you thought banks couldn’t get any stingier, the number of banks offering free checking has fallen below 50%, a drop of around 10 percentage points in only a year. Now, want to hear the bad news?

Depending on your usage habits and how much money you have, the price you pay for that account could be an eyebrow-raising $700-plus.

As of June, roughly 48% of banks offered free checking, according to financial research company Moebs $ervices, compared to just over 58% a year earlier. “The Banks are exiting Free Checking because it is too costly,” says Mike Moebs, CEO and economist of Moebs $ervices. The number of credit unions offering free checking fell by a fraction of a percentage point, but nearly 80% still offer free checking.

Not only is free checking harder to find, but a new survey from personal finance site WalletHub.com finds that the privilege of having an account can run into the hundreds of dollars — and banks make the most off customers who are financially struggling or who travel to or send money to other countries most often.

According to a new analysis of 65 different checking accounts offered by the 25 biggest banks, the average annual cost for a checking account runs for just under 18 bucks — that’s for “old school” customers who don’t bank online, use paper checks, never use another bank’s ATM or overdraw their accounts — to $499 and change for the customer segment WalletHub characterizes as “cash-strapped;” that is, those who overdraw and don’t have direct deposit. The bite is the most serious for these customers who have the M&T Free Checking account; WalletHub says this would cost a person with these usage patterns a whopping $735.

Within those averages, though, there’s a lot of variability, and WalletHub points out that just because a bank may offer a good deal for one customer segment doesn’t mean that they’ll be equally affordable for customers with different banking habits.

For instance, it finds that the First Republic Classic Checking account is the best deal at a (still pricey) $185 or so a year for internationally-oriented customers, but it’s the most expensive of the bunch for the consumer groups WalletHub classifies as “young and high-tech” and “everyday Joe,” with annual costs of roughly $300 and $397, respectively. Customers whose living or job situations change drastically could find that the bank account they always counted on suddenly becomes a money pit.

Overall, WalletHub dubs USAA the most affordable in its checking account offerings, with, Capital One and Union Bank, respectively, behind it. The priciest overall choice is M&T Bank, and the second-most-expensive Fifth Third.

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

6 Things You Must Know About Money and Happiness

Money stack
Getty Images

If you were offered a well-deserved raise at work or a no-strings-attached wad of money, would you take it? You’ve surely heard that money can’t buy happiness, but it can certainly get you closer to an enjoyable life, right?

Yes and no, says Elizabeth Dunn, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and author of Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending. “It turns out, what you do with your money seems to matter just as much to your happiness as how much you make,” she says—good news for those of us without a sudden windfall or promotion in our near futures.

Health.com: 15 Myths and Facts About Depression

Here are six facts that may surprise you—and tips on how to live the good life, no matter how much you’ve got.

Don’t sweat the six-figure job

“There is definitely a correlation between income and happiness,” says Dunn. “But actually, money buys less happiness than people assume.” And in some ways, it buys happiness only up to a certain point: A 2010 Princeton University study found that emotional well-being—defined by the frequency of emotions like joy, anger, affection, and sadness—tended to rise with salary, but only up to about $75,000. Beyond that, people continued to rate their lives as more satisfying, but they didn’t seem to experience any more happiness on a day-to-day basis.

Spend on experiences, not things

Material goods may last longer, but a 2014 San Francisco State University study shows that life experiences—like trips, fancy dinners, and spa treatments—provide more satisfaction in the long run. Researchers interviewed volunteers before and after they made purchases of both types, and found that afterward, most people viewed the intangibles as a better use of money. However, they add, an experience has to fit a person’s personality in order to have benefit; someone who doesn’t like show tunes, for example, probably won’t see the value in a Broadway play.

Health.com: 20 Ways to Get Healthier for Free

Donate to charity

Giving to people or organizations in need “has a direct correlational effect on happiness that is basically equivalent to a doubling of household income,” says Dunn, citing research from a Gallup World Poll. How you give matters, too, she says: You’ll get more of an emotional reward by supporting groups you feel closely connected to, or when a close friend asks for your help. (In other words, accept that Ice Bucket Challenge already—the giving money part, at least!)

Pay it off early

“The pleasure of consumption can be dragged down by the pain of having to pay for it,” says Dunn. One way to get around that? Put money down for things as early as you can, even if you won’t actually experience them for a while—book trips months in advance, pre-order books and albums you’re excited about, or purchase credit for a service you can redeem at a later date. “Research shows that what lies in the future is much more emotionally evocative than what lies in the past,” she adds. “If we paid for something last year, it’s almost like our brain forgets we ever spent money on it.”

Health.com: Money Trouble? 14 Depression-Fighting Tips

Give thoughtful gifts

When money gets tight, it may seem wasteful to splurge on presents and tokens of affection—but Dunn’s research shows that spending money on others, especially a loved one, is one of the happiest things you can do with your money. (In one study, people who had been asked to spend $5 on someone else felt better at the end of the day than those who’d been asked to spend it on themselves.) It’s the thought that counts, too: Both givers and receivers are happier when a gift is a good fit for the recipient’s personality.

Use a debit, not credit card

Being in debt is negatively associated with happiness, and is linked to health problems such as depression and anxiety. It may be hard to avoid all forms of debt, but one way to keep from falling deeper into it is to make everyday purchases with debit accounts, rather than charging them. “Debit cards are way happier plastic,” says Dunn. “They provide a lot of the same conveniences as credit cards, but don’t have the same long-term problems associated with them.”

Health.com: 14 Reasons You’re Always Tired

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

MONEY Ask the Expert

The Secret To Saving For Retirement When You Have Nothing Saved At All

140605_AskExpert_illo
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I am a 52-year-old single mother. I have NO savings at all for any kind of retirement. What can I do? Where should I start? I also want to start something for my daughter who is 13. Please, I would really love your help. – Anita, West Long Branch, NJ

A: No retirement savings? Join the crowd. A recent survey by BankRate.com found that 26% of those ages 50 to 65 have nothing at all saved for retirement. But even in your 50s, it’s not too late to catch up or at least improve your situation, says Robert Stammers, director of investor education at the CFA Institute.

“You shouldn’t panic. People who start late have to forge a fiscal discipline, but there are lots of tools you can use to ramp up your savings,” says Stammers, who recently published a guide to the steps to take for a more secure retirement.

First, figure out your retirement goals. When do you want to retire? What kind of lifestyle do you want? What will your biggest expenses be? The answers will determine how much you need to save. If you want to maintain your current living standard, you’ll need to accumulate 10 to 12 times your annual income by 65, according to benchmarks calculated by Charles Farrell, author of Your Money Ratios.

You’ll probably end up with some scary numbers. If you earn $75,000 a year, you might need $750,000 to $900,000 by age 65. That amount would provide 80% of your pre-retirement income, assuming a 5% withdrawal rate. You probably won’t need 100% of your current income, since some spending eases up after you quit working—commuting costs and lunches out—and your taxes may be lower.

If you can live on less than 70% of your pre-retirement income—and many retirees say they live just fine on 66% —you may be able to retire at 65 with a $500,000 nest egg. Delaying retirement till 67 or later can lower your savings goal further to perhaps $400,000. (All these targets assume you’ll also receive Social Security; see what you’re eligible for at SSA.gov.)

Don’t be daunted if these figures seem out of reach. Even getting part-way to the goal can make a big difference in your retirement lifestyle. To get started, find out if you have access to a 401(k)—if you do, enroll pronto and contribute the max. People over 50 are eligible for catch-up contributions, so you can sock away even more than someone younger and you’ll save on taxes. You’ll also likely benefit from an employer match, which is free money. You can use calculators like this one to see how your contributions will grow over time. Someone saving 17% of a $75,000 salary over 15 years will end up with nearly $400,000, assuming an employer match.

If you don’t have a 401(k), then set up an IRA, which will also permit catch-up savings. Still, the contribution limits for IRAs are lower than those for 401(k)s, so you’ll need funnel additional money into a taxable savings account.

To free up cash for this saving program, review your budget and find areas where you can cut. “You’ll need to make some hard decisions about your lifestyle,” says Stammers. Small moves can help, such as downgrading your cable and cellphone plans and using coupons to lower food costs. But to make real savings progress, you’ll need to go after some big costs too. Can you cut your mortgage or rent payments by downsizing or moving to a cheaper neighborhood? Can you trade in your car for a cheaper model?

You can speed up your progress by tucking away any raises or windfalls that you may receive. And think about ways you can bring in more income to save—perhaps you have a room to rent out or you may be able to earn extra cash with a part-time job.

As for your goal of saving for your daughter, it’s admirable, but you need to focus on your own retirement. In the long run, achieving your own financial security will benefit your daughter as well—you won’t need to lean on her when you’re older. And by taking these steps, Stammers says, you’ll also be a good financial role model for her.

Do you have a personal finance question for our experts? Write to AskTheExpert@moneymail.com.

MONEY retirement income

5 Tips For Tapping Your Nest Egg

Cracked egg
Getty Images—Getty Images

Forget those complex portfolio withdrawal schemes. Here are simple moves for making your money last a lifetime.

It used to be that if you wanted your nest egg to carry you through 30 or more years of retirement, you followed the 4% rule: you withdrew 4% of the value of your savings the first year of retirement and adjusted that dollar amount annually for inflation to maintain purchasing power. But that standard—which was never really as simple as it seemed— has come under a cloud.

So what’s replacing it?

Depends on whom you ask. Some research suggests that if you really want to avoid running out of money in your dotage, you might have to scale back that initial withdrawal to 3%. Vanguard, on the other hand, recently laid out a system that starts with an initial withdrawal rate—which could be 4% or some other rate—and then allows withdrawals to fluctuate within a range based on the previous year’s spending.

JP Morgan Asset Management has also weighed in. After contending in a recent paper that the 4% rule is broken, the firm went on to describe what it refers to as a “dynamic decumulation model” that, while comprehensive, I think would be beyond the abilities of most individual investors to put into practice.

So if you’re a retiree or near-retiree, how can you draw enough savings from your nest egg to live on, yet not so much you run out of dough too soon or so little that you end up sitting on a big pile of assets in your dotage?

Here are my five tips:

Tip #1: Chill. That’s right, relax. No system, no matter how sophisticated, will be able to tell you precisely how much you can safely withdraw from your nest egg. There are just too many things that can happen over the course of a long retirement—markets can go kerflooey, inflation can spike, your spending could rise or fall dramatically in some years, etc. So while you certainly want to monitor withdrawals and your nest egg’s balance, obsessing over them won’t help, could hurt and will make your retirement less enjoyable.

Tip #2: Create a retirement budget. You don’t have be accurate down to the dollar. You just want to have a good idea of the costs you’ll be facing when you initially retire, as well as which expenses might be going away down the road (such as the mortgage or car loan you’ll be paying off).

Ideally, you’ll also want to separate those expenses into two categories—essential and discretionary—so you’ll know how much you can realistically cut back spending should you need to later on. You can do this budgeting with a pencil and paper. But if you use an online tool like Fidelity’s Retirement Income Planner or Vanguard’s Retirement Expenses Worksheet—both of which you’ll find in the Retirement Income section of Real Deal Retirement’s Retirement Toolboxyou’ll find it easier to factor in the inevitable changes into your budget as you age.

Tip #3: Take a hard look at Social Security. The major questions here: When should you claim benefits? At 62, the earliest you’re eligible? At full retirement age (which is 66 for most people nearing retirement today)? And how might you and your spouse coordinate your claiming to maximize your benefit?

Generally, it pays to postpone benefits as your monthly payment rises 7% to 8% (even before increases for inflation) each year you delay between ages 62 and 70 (after 70 you get nothing extra for holding off). But the right move, especially for married couples, will depend on a variety of factors, including how badly you need the money now, whether you have savings that can carry you if you wait to claim and, in the case of married couples, your age and your wife’s age and your earnings.

Best course: Check out one of the growing number of calculators and services that allow you to run different claiming scenarios. T. Rowe Price’s Social Security Benefits Evaluator will run various scenarios free; the Social Security Solutions service makes a recommendation for a fee that ranges from $20 to $250. You’ll find both in the Retirement Toolbox.

Tip #4: Consider an immediate annuity. If you’ll be getting enough assured income to cover most or all of your essential expenses from Social Security and other sources, such as a pension, you may not want or need an annuity. But if you’d like to have more income that you can count on no matter how long you live and regardless of how the markets fare, then you may want to at least think about an annuity. But not just any annuity. I’m talking about an immediate annuity, the type where you hand over a sum to an insurance company (even though you may actually buy the annuity through another investment firm), and the insurer guarantees you (and your spouse, if you wish) a payment for life.

To maximize your monthly payment, you must give up access to the money you devote to an anuity. So even if you decide an annuity makes sense for you, you shouldn’t put all or probably even most your savings into one. You’ll want to have plenty of other money invested in a portfolio of stocks and bonds that can provide long-term growth, and that you can tap if needed for emergencies and such. To learn more about how immediate annuities work, you can click here. And to see how much lifetime income an immediate annuity might provide, you can go to the How Much Guaranteed Income Can You Get? calculator.

Tip #5: Stay flexible. Now to the question of how much you can draw from your savings. If you’re like most people, an initial withdrawal rate of 3% won’t come close to giving you the income you’ll need. Start at 5%, however, and the chances of running out of money substantially increase. So you’re probably looking at an initial withdrawal of 4% to 5%.

Whatever initial withdrawal you start with, be prepared to change it as your needs, market conditions and your nest egg’s value change. If the market has been on a roll and your savings balance soars, you may be able to boost withdrawals. If, on the other hand, a market setback puts a big dent in your savings, you may want to scale back a bit. The idea is to make small adjustments so that you don’t spend so freely that you deplete your savings too soon—or stint so much that you have a huge nest egg late in life (and you realize too late that you could have spent large and enjoyed yourself more early on).

My suggestion: Every year or so go to a retirement calculator like the ones in Real Deal Retirement’s Retirement Toobox and plug in your current financial information. This will give you a sense of whether you can stick to your current level of withdrawals—or whether you need to scale back or (if you’re lucky) give yourself a raise.

MORE FROM REAL DEAL RETIREMENT

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TIME Saving & Spending

The Huge Mistake Most Parents Are Making Now

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Blend Images - Terry Vine—Getty Images/Brand X

Hey kids, hope you’re saving your pennies. They might not have gotten around to telling you yet, but there’s a good chance your parents expect you to fork over your own money to help pay for college. Even if they don’t, there’s a good chance you might have to dig into your own pockets anyway, because even though more parents are setting aside money for their kids’ college funds today, many are still way behind on their savings goals.

A new study from Fidelity Investment finds that just over a third of parents have asked their kids to set aside money to help pay for school, a jump of nearly 10 percentage points in only two years. Keith Bernhardt, vice president of college planning for Fidelity Investments, says there’s a serious disconnect between parents’ intentions and actions.

Even though 85% of parents think kids should kick in something towards their educational expenses, fewer than 60% of those with kids already in their teens have bothered to bring it up, and only 34% have actually come out and asked their kids to contribute.

“With the cost of college rising, it’s increasingly unrealistic for parents to cover the full cost of college,” Bernhardt says. “Families are still struggling. They are on track to save just 28% of their college goal.” Even though more families are saving, and the dollar amounts they are socking away are greater, that 28% is actually a drop compared to previous years.

In spite of these grim numbers, parents today are actually more optimistic about their goals. Respondents told Fidelity they expect to cover, on average, 64% of their kids’ college costs, up from 57% two years ago. What’s more, 44% think they’ll meet these goals, up from 36% in 2007, when Fidelity started conducting the survey.

Most of them won’t, which means today’s generation of kids could be equally unprepared when it comes time to paying for college. “It’s critical that families have open conversations and discuss together how they will approach funding their college education,” Bernhardt says.

Bernhardt calls a dedicated savings vehicle like a 529 plan “a great way for parents to keep their college savings separate from other savings goals.” Today, 35% of parents have a dedicated account for college savings, nearly 10 percentage points more than when the survey began in 2007. About half of the parents in Fidelity’s survey who said they have a plan for retirement savings have a 529 set up, versus only about 10 percent of those who don’t have a savings plan.

Having a strategy for accruing college savings makes a big difference. “Parents with a plan are in better shape with their college savings,” Bernhardt says.

These parents say they’ll cover an average of 71% of their kids’ college costs; those without a plan estimate that they’ll only be able to pay for a little more than half. On average, parents who have planned to save are already almost halfway towards their goal, while those without a plan have only scraped up about 10% of what they want to save. Parents with savings plans have an average of $53,900 socked away, versus the average $21,400 families without a savings plan have amassed.

MONEY Kids and Money

What It Costs to Raise a U.S. Open Champion

Serena Williams of the U.S. raises her trophy after defeating Victoria Azarenka of Belarus in their women's singles final match at the U.S. Open tennis championships in New York September 8, 2013.
Does your kid want to be the next Serena Williams? Start saving now. Mike Segar—Reuters

Want your kid to win the U.S. Open? Start shelling out $30,000 a year.

Serena Williams won her first U.S. Open at age 17 and her fifth at age 31, just last year. But can she defend her crown against the newest upstarts? It all starts on August 25, when Williams goes head-to-head with rising star Taylor Townsend. And 18-year-old Townsend won’t be the only young talent to watch in Queens: 20-year-old Canadian Eugenie Bouchard is seeded no. 7, and 19-year-old Australian Nick Kyrgios will try to build on his surprise upset against Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon.

If those youthful feats fuel your kid’s dream of tennis stardom, then get ready to open your wallet. In the United States, families of elite tennis players easily spend $30,000 a year so their kids can compete on the national level, says Tim Donovan, founder of Donovan Tennis Strategies, a college recruiting consulting group. That can start as early as age 11 or 12. At the high end, Donovan says, some parents spend $100,000 a year.

On what, you might ask. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Court time. Practice makes perfect, but practice can be expensive, especially if you need to practice indoors in the winter. In Boston, where Donovan is based, court time costs about $45 an hour. In New York City, court time can run over $100 an hour.
  • Training. Figure $4,500 to $5,000 a year for private lessons, plus $7,000 to $8,000 for group lessons—in addition to the aforementioned court fees to practice on your own.
  • Tournaments. National tournament entrance fees run about $150. Plus, you have to travel to get there. Serious players will go to 20 tournaments a year. Donovan estimates that two-thirds of the tournaments might be a few hours away, but elite athletes will need to fly to national events six or seven times a year. Want to bring your coach with you? Add another $300 a day, plus expenses.
  • School. You’ve already racked up $30,000 in bills. But if your kid is really serious, you might also spring for a special tennis academy. Full-time boarding school tuition at Florida’s IMG Academy costs $71,400 a year.

So what’s the return on investment? While most parents don’t expect to see their kids at Wimbledon, many still hope that tennis will open doors when it comes time to apply to college. But the reality is that athletic scholarships are few and far between. In 2011-2012, only 0.8% of undergrads won any kind of athletic scholarship, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Edvisors.com.

Opportunities are particularly limited for boys. Donovan notes that because of Title IX—which requires that schools provide an equal number of scholarships for men and women—a Division I college with a football program might offer eight full tennis scholarships for women, but only half as many for men, because male scholarships need to go to the football players.

Bottom line: If you spend $30,000 a year hoping your tennis star will go to college for free, you’ll probably be disappointed with your ROI.

“Recipients of athletic scholarships graduate with somewhat less debt than other students but not significantly so,” says Kantrowitz. “The main benefit of athletic scholarships is providing access to higher-cost colleges without increasing costs, moreso than reducing the cost of a college education.”

That’s where Donovan comes in: For $3,500 to $10,000, Donovan Tennis Strategies provides different levels of assistance with the college application process. Oftentimes, Donovan’s clients are able to pay full tuition but want additional help leveraging tennis to get their kids into better (and more expensive) schools.

The strategy can pay off. According to Donovan, recruited athletes have a 48% higher chance of admission, sometimes even with SAT scores that are more than 300 points lower than those of non-athletes. “The coach can go in and significantly advocate for somebody and change the outcome,” he says.

So if you’re a parent to a budding tennis star, can you foster his or her talent for less? The IMG Academy does offer scholarships to promising young athletes whose parents can’t pay full freight, and the United States Tennis Association offers some grants and funding. But ultimately, players need to log hours on the court to get good, and that costs money.

“The more you’re playing, the better you’re going to be,” Donovan says. “That’s pretty well documented … and that adds up over time.”

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And America’s Best Tippers Live In…

Dollars and cents
Finnbarr Webster / Alamy

Data from the mobile payments company Square reveal some huge regional differences in the generosity of customers

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This post is in partnership with Fortune, which offers the latest business and finance news. Read the article below originally published at Fortune.com.

By Miguel Helft

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New Yorkers are stingy with their cabbies (though not quite as stingy as their neighbors in New Jersey). Indeed, New Yorkers are among the worst tippers in the country in a number of categories — but not when it comes to personal hygiene. For some reason, a visit to the barber or stylist inspires generosity in the Empire State. Folks in Seattle and Portland reserve that same kind of giving spirit, no surprise, for their baristas, and Floridians and Texas extend it to their bartenders.

The observations derive from tipping data collected for FORTUNE by Square, the San Francisco-based mobile payments company, whose smartphone and tablet credit card readers have become a feature of thousands of small businesses across the country.

Interestingly, some tipping trends are fairly uniform across the country. Beauty and personal care professionals tend to receive the biggest tips — on average closer to 20% than to 15%. Taxis and limousines skew lower, with average tips below 16% in many states. Tips at restaurant bars show the most variability, with New York fast-food joints receiving an average of 14.77% and bars and lounges in Texas getting 19.66%.

For the full list, please go to Fortune.com.

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