MONEY Kids and Money

3 Ways To Help Your Kids Become Good Gift Givers

Cashew-caramel brownie in baking pan, elevated view
James Baigrie—Getty Images

Children spend a lot of time thinking about what they'll get for the holidays. Use these tips to turn them into givers too.

Ah, the holidays. The season for time-honored traditions like decorating the tree, lighting the menorah, wrapping gifts … and wondering whether you have raised the most selfish kid in the world.

Almost every parent has felt this at one time or another, as toddlers and teens obsess over accumulating more and more holiday stuff. Robin Gorman Newman is no different.

“Like any kid, my son loves to receive,” says Newman, mom to an 11-year-old in Long Island, N.Y, and founder of the organization Motherhood Later for moms over 35.

“They’re all obsessed with getting, especially when they’re younger,” Gorman says. “If you saw my basement, you would know what I’m talking about.”

Which is why Newman embarked on a campaign to shift her son’s mindset from getting to giving. First on the agenda: Baking brownies to bring to the local firehouse, and to families of sick kids staying at the local Ronald McDonald House.

For parents who are trying to encourage giving instead of getting, it can often feel like shouting into the wind, especially at this time of year. American adults are planning to splurge an average of $861 on gifts this holiday season, according to a new survey by American Research Group.

That’s up 8% in a single year, surpassing 2007 numbers for the first time since the recession hit. As a result, little Johnny and Janie can expect to rip the wrapping paper off more boxes over Christmas or Hanukkah.

But don’t despair. There may be hope for turning kids into givers.

According to data from Allowance Manager, a service that helps parents automate allowance payments and track their kids’ spending, many children are setting aside a surprisingly healthy amount for gift-giving.

Roughly 9% of allowances are allocated for gift purchases, a figure that spikes in November and December. And that does not even include charitable donations, which account for an additional 6% of allowance use.

The key question: How do you trigger that mental shift, to get kids thinking of others rather than just themselves?

Have Them Use Some of Their Own Money

Obviously, young children are not going to have a lot of financial resources to tap. But even if it involves very small amounts, have them use some of those resources for gifting.

It drills in the critical personal-finance habit of setting up different buckets for different purposes, one of which should be devoted to others.

“Handling money is best learned through first-hand experience,” says Dan Meader, CEO and co-founder of Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.-based Allowance Manager, which has over 200,000 users. “So we think it’s important that kids get the chance to use some of their own money for gifts, instead of just using their parents’ money.”

Enforce Artificial Limits

Since we’re dealing with modest sums like allowances, you don’t want kids spending everything they have on holidays gifts, or feeling inadequate for not being able to purchase very much.

One elegant solution: Set a hard cap on how much can be spent, advises Ron Lieber, the “Your Money” columnist at the New York Times and author of the upcoming book The Opposite of Spoiled.

“See how may things you can buy for under $20, or figure out the most fun you can create for under $20,” he says. “If you put a cap on it that way, kids can be generous in spirit, without spending every cent they have.”

Set Up a Matching Program

To maximize your kids’ giving, consider what many charities do to supercharge donations: Create a matching program.

If your child saves $5 for family gifts, match it dollar-for-dollar, suggests Lieber. Then take it up a notch: If they save $10, contribute $1.50 for every dollar. If they reach $20, match each dollar with $2 of your own.

“That way it ratchets up, so the more generous they’re willing to be with their own funds, they will have exponentially more impact,” Lieber says.

Encourage Non-Monetary Gifting

There’s no rule that says more spending equals more thoughtfulness, despite what all those TV commercials might suggest. As every parent knows, some of the best gifts don’t come with any price tag at all.

But it may require some creativity. One idea from Lieber: A ‘coupon book’ of handwritten gift certificates that family members can give each other. “A dad might give a coupon to drop whatever he’s doing and play a game, or to ditch work once in the next 12 months and do whatever the kid wants to do,” he says.

“Things like that don’t cost anything, and are often incredibly memorable.”

Indeed, when Robin Gorman Newman looks around her house, her most cherished gift from her son wasn’t bought in a store at all. It’s an acrostic of the word ‘Mommy,’ with each letter standing for its own phrase such as “M is for Making Me Smile.”

“It doesn’t get any better than that,” Newman says. “That’s worth a million bucks right there.”

MONEY retirement planning

Flunking Retirement Readiness, and What to Do About It

red pencil writing "F" failing grade
Thomas J. Peterson—Alamy

Americans don't get the basics of retirement planning. Automating 401(k)s and expanding benefits for lower-income workers may be the best solution.

Imagine boarding a jet and heading for your seat, only to be told you’re needed in the cockpit to fly the plane.

Investing expert William Bernstein argued in a recent interview that what has happened in our workplace retirement system over the past 30 years is analogous. We’ve shifted from defined benefit pension plans managed by professional financial pilots to 401(k) plans controlled by passengers.

Once, employers made the contributions, investment pros handled the investments and the income part was simple: You retired, the checks started arriving and continued until you died. Now, you decide how much to invest, where to invest it and how to draw it down. In other words, you fuel the plane, you pilot the plane and you land it.

It’s no surprise that many of us, especially middle- and lower-income households, crash. The Federal Reserve’s latest Survey of Consumer Finances, released in September, found that ownership of retirement plans has fallen sharply in recent years, and that low-income households have almost no savings.

But even wealthier households seem to be failing retirement flight school.

Eighty percent of Americans with nest eggs of at least $100,000 got an “F” on a test about managing retirement savings put together recently by the American College of Financial Services. The college, which trains financial planners, asked over 1,000 60- to 75-year-olds about topics like safe retirement withdrawal rates, investment and longevity risk.

Seven in 10 had never heard of the “4% rule,” which holds that you can safely withdraw that amount annually in retirement.

Very few understood the risk of investing in bonds. Only 39% knew that a bond’s value falls when interest rates rise—a key risk for bondholders in this ultra-low-rate environment.

“We thought the grades would have been better, because there’s been so much talk about these subjects in the media lately,” said David Littell, who directs a program focused on retirement income at the college. “We wanted to see if any of it is sinking in.”

Many 401(k) plans have added features in recent years that aim to put the plane back on autopilot: automatic enrollment, auto-escalation of contributions and target date funds that adjust your level of risk as retirement approaches.

But none of that seems to be moving the needle much. A survey of 401(k) plan sponsors released last month by Towers Watson, the employee benefit consulting firm, found rising levels of worry about employee retirement readiness. Just 12% of respondents say workers know how much they need for retirement; 20% said their employees are comfortable making investment decisions.

The study calls for redoubled efforts to educate workers, but there’s little evidence that that works. “I hate to be anti-education, but I just don’t think it’s the way to go,” says Alicia Munnell, director of Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research. “You have to get people at just the right time when they want to pay attention—just sending education out there doesn’t produce any change at all.”

What’s more, calls for greater financial literacy efforts carry a subtle blame-the-victim message that I consider dead wrong. People shouldn’t have to learn concepts like safe withdrawal rates or the interaction of interest rates and bond prices to retire with security.

Just as important, many middle- and lower-income households don’t earn enough to accumulate meaningful savings. “We’ve had stagnant wage growth for a long time—a lot of people can’t save and cover their living expenses,” says Munnell, co-author of “Falling Short: The Coming Retirement Crisis and What to Do About It” (Oxford University Press, December 2014).

Since the defined contribution system is here to stay, she says, we should focus on improving it. “We have to auto-enroll everyone, and auto-escalate their contributions. Otherwise, we’re doing more harm than good.”

Munnell acknowledges that a better 401(k) system mainly benefits upper-income households with the capacity to save. For everyone else, it’s important that no cuts be made to Social Security. And she says proposals to expand benefits at the lower end of the income distribution make sense.

“Given all the difficulty we’re having expanding coverage with employer-sponsored plans, that is the most efficient way to provide income to lower-paid workers.”

Read next: The Big Flaws in Your 401(k) and How to Fix Them

MONEY Kids and Money

Trouble Talking to Kids About Money? Try This Book Instead

parents trying to talk to teenage daughter
Getty Images/Altrendo

A new book hopes to impart important money lessons in just a few words and pictures

Talking to your kids about money is never easy. We have so many financial taboos and insecurities that many parents would rather skip it—just like their parents likely did with them. If that sounds like you, maybe a new easy-to-digest money guide written for teens can be part of your answer.

As a parent, you have to do something. Kids today will come of age and ultimately retire in a vastly less secure financial world. Their keys to long-term success will have little to do with the traditional pensions and Social Security benefits that may be a big part of your own retirement calculus. For them, saving early and building their own safety net is the only sure solution.

Most parents get that. After all, adults have seen first-hand the long-running switch from defined benefit to defined contribution plans that took flight in the 1980s. Yet only in the last 15 years have we really begun to grasp how much this change has undermined retirement security. Now, more parents are having the money talk with their kids. Still, many say they find it easier to talk about sex or drugs than finances.

The big challenge of our day, as it relates to the financial security of young people, is getting them thinking about their financial future now while they have 40 or 50 years to let their savings compound. But saving is only one piece of the puzzle. Young people need to protect their identity and their credit score—two relatively recent considerations. Many of them are also committed to making a difference through giving, which is an uplifting trait of younger generations. Yet they are prone to scams and don’t know how to vet a charity.

In OMG: The Official Money Guide for Teenagers, authors Susan and Michael Beacham tackle these and other basics in a breezy, colorful, cleverly illustrated booklet meant to hold a teen’s attention. The whole thing can be read in an hour. I’m not convinced the YouTube generation will latch on to any written material on this subject. And while the authors do a nice job of keeping things simple, they just can’t avoid eye-glazing terms like “liquidity” and “principal.”

But they make a solid effort to hold a teen’s interest through a handful of “awkward money moments,” which illustrate how poor money management can lead to embarrassing outcomes like their debit card being declined in front of friends or having to wear last year’s team uniform because they spent all their money at the mall. “Kids are very social and money is a big part of that social experience,” says Susan Beacham. “No teen wants to feel awkward, which is why we chose this word. If they read nothing else but these segments they will be ahead of the game.”

The Beachams are co-founders of Money Savvy Generation, a youth financial education website. They have a long history in personal finance and created the Money Savvy Pig, a bank with separate compartments for saving, spending, donating, and investing. In OMG, they tackle budgets, saving, investing, plastic, identity theft, giving, and insurance.

A new money guide for young people seems to pop up every few years. So it’s not like this hasn’t been tried before. Earlier titles include Money Sense for Kids from Barron’s and The Everything Kids Money Book by Brette McWhorter Sember. But most often this subject is geared at parents, offering ways to teach their kids about money. Dave Ramsey’s Smart Money Smart Kids came out last spring and due out early next year is The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who are Grounded, Generous and Smart About Money from New York Times personal finance columnist Ron Lieber.

In a nod to how tough it can be to get teens to read a book about money, Beacham suggests a parent or grandparent ask them to read OMG, and offer them an incentive like a gift card after completing the chapter on “ways to pay” or a cash bonus after reading the chapter on budgets and setting one up. “Make reading the book a bit like a treasure hunt,” she says. That just might make having the money talk easier too.

 

 

 

MONEY 401(k)s

Are You Smart Enough to Boost Your 401(k)’s Return? Take This Simple Quiz

141119_RET_SmartEnough
Pete Ark/Getty Images

If you can answer these 5 basic questions, you'll likely earn bigger gains in your retirement plan.

Can knowing more about investing and finances boost your 401(k)’s returns? A recent study suggests that may be the case. But you don’t have to be a savant to improve performance. Even if you don’t know a qualified dividend from a capital gain, lessons from this research can help you fatten your investment accounts.

The more you know about finances and investing, the higher the returns you’re likely to earn in your 401(k). That, at least, is the conclusion researchers came to after giving thousands of participants of a large 401(k) plan a five-question test to gauge how much they know about basic financial concepts and then comparing the results with investment performance over 10 years.

You’ll get your turn to answer those questions in a minute. But first, let’s take a look at what the study found.

Savvier Investors Hold More Stocks

Basically, the 401(k) participants who answered more questions correctly earned substantially higher returns in their 401(k). And I mean substantially. Those who got four or five of the five questions right had annualized risk-adjusted returns of 9.5% on average compared with 8.2% for those who answered only one or none of the questions correctly. That 1.3-percent-a-year margin, the researchers note, would translate to a 25% larger nest egg over the course of a 25-year career. That could be the difference between scraping by in retirement versus living a secure and comfortable lifestyle.

But while the 401(k)s of participants with greater knowledge didn’t outperform the accounts of their less knowledgeable peers because of some arcane or sophisticated investing strategy. The secret of their success was actually pretty simple (and easily duplicated): They invested more of their savings in stock funds than their financially challenged counterparts. And even when less-informed participants did venture into stocks, they were less apt to invest in international stocks, small-cap funds and, most important to my mind, less likely to own index funds, the option that has the potential to lower investment costs and dramatically boost the value of your nest egg.

The better-informed investors’ results come with a caveat. Even though more financially savvy participants earned higher returns after accounting for risk, their portfolios tended to be somewhat somewhat more volatile (which isn’t surprising given the higher stock stake). So they had to be willing to endure a somewhat bumpier ride en route to their loftier returns.

I’d also add that while more exposure to stocks does generally equate to higher long-term returns, no one should take that as an invitation to just load up on equities. When investing your retirement savings, you’ve also got to take your risk tolerance into account as well as the effect larger stock holdings have when the market heads south. That’s especially true if you’re nearing retirement or already retired, as portfolio heavily invested in stocks could suffer a setback large enough to force you to seriously scale back or even abandon your retirement plans.

Mastering the Basics

Ready to see how you’ll fare on the study’s Financial Knowledge test? The five questions and correct answers are below, followed by my take on the lessons you should from this exercise, regardless of how you score.

Question #1. Suppose you had $100 in a savings account that paid 2% interest per year. After five years, how much would you have in the account if you left the money to grow?
a. More than $110
b. Exactly $110
c. Less than $110

Question #2. Imagine that the interest rate on your savings account was 1% per year and inflation was 2% per year. After one year, how much would you be able to buy with the money in this account?
a. More than today
b. Exactly the same
c. Less than today

Question #3. Is this statement true or false? Buying a single company’s stock usually provides a safer return than a stock mutual fund.
a. True
b. False

Question #4. Assume you were in the 25% tax bracket (you pay $0.25 in tax for each dollar earned) and you contributed $100 pretax to an employer’s 401(k) plan. Your take-home pay (what’s in your paycheck after all taxes and other payments are taken out) will then:
a. Decline by $100
b. Decline by $75
c. Decline by $50
d. Remain the same

Question #5. Assume that an employer matched employee contributions dollar for dollar. If the employee contributed $100 to the 401(k) plan, his account balance in the plan including his contribution would:
a. Increase by $50
b. Increase by $100
c. Increase by $200
d. Remain the same

The answers:

1. a, More than $110. This question was designed to test people’s ability to do a simple interest calculation. To answer “more than” instead of “exactly” $100, you also had to understand the concept of compound interest. (Percentage of people who answered this question correctly: 76%.)

2. c, Less than today. This question gets at the relationship between investment returns and inflation and the concept of “real” return. To answer it correctly, you must understand that if your money grows at less than the inflation rate, its purchasing power declines. (92%)

3. b, False. Here, the idea was to test whether people understood that a stock mutual fund contains many stocks and that investing in a large group of stocks is generally less risky than putting all one’s money into a the stock of a single company. (88%)

4. b, Decline by $75. This question gauges people’s understanding of the tax benefit of a pretax contribution to a 401(k) and its effect on the paycheck of someone in the 25% tax bracket. (45%)

5. c, Increase by $200. This was simply a test of whether people understood the concept of matching funds and the effect of a dollar-for-dollar match. (78%)

Average score: 3.8 All 5 correct: 33% All 5 wrong: 2%

Okay, so now you know how you stack up compared with the 401(k) participants in the study. But whether you did well or not, remember that your performance on this or any other test isn’t necessarily a prediction of how your retirement portfolio will fare. Very financially astute people sometimes make dumb investment moves. Sometimes they try to get too fancy (think of the Nobel Laureates whose hedge fund lost billions in the late ’90s). Other times there may be a disconnect between what people know intellectually and how they react emotionally.

Nor does a lack of financial smarts inevitably doom you to subpar performance. You don’t need a PhD in finance to understand the few basic concepts that lead to financial success: spreading your money among a variety of investments instead of going all-in on one or two things, keeping costs down and paying attention to both risk and return when investing your savings.

So by all means take the time to educate yourself about investing. But don’t feel you have to go beyond a few simple but effective investing techniques to earn competitive returns and improve your chances of a secure retirement.

More from RealDealRetirement.com:

Can I Double My Nest Egg In the Final Years of My Career?

How To Save On Retirement Investing Fees

How To Build A $1 Million IRA

MONEY retirement planning

Why Americans Can’t Answer the Most Basic Retirement Question

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marvinh—Getty Images/Vetta

Workers are confused by the unknowns of retirement planning. No wonder so few are trying to do it.

Planning for retirement is the most difficult part of managing your money—and it’s getting tougher, new research shows. The findings come even as rising markets have buoyed retirement savings accounts, and vast resources have been poured into things like financial education and simplified investment choices meant to ease the planning process.

Some 64% of households at least five years from retirement are having difficulty with retirement planning, according to a study from Hearts and Wallets, a financial research firm. That’s up from 54% of households two years ago and 50% in 2010. Americans rate retirement planning as the most difficult of 24 financial tasks presented in the study.

How can this be? Jobs and wages have been slowly improving. Stocks have doubled from their lows, even after the recent market tumble. The housing market is rebounding. Online tools and instruction through 401(k) plans have greatly improved. We have one-decision target-date mutual funds that make asset allocation a breeze. Yet retirement planning is perceived as more difficult.

The explanation lies at least partly in an increasingly evident quandary: few of us know exactly when we will retire and none of us know when we will die. But retirement planning is built around choosing some kind of reasonable estimate for those two variables. But that’s something few people are prepared to do. As the study found, 61% of households between the ages of 21 to 64 say they can’t answer the following basic retirement question: When will I stop full-time work?

Even the more straightforward retirement planning issues are challenging for many workers. Among the top sources of difficulty: estimating required minimum distributions from retirement accounts (57%), deciding where to keep their money (54%), and getting started saving (51%).

Those near or already in retirement have considerably less financial angst, the study found. Their most difficult task, cited by 33%, is estimating appropriate levels of spending, followed by choosing the right health insurance (31%) and a sustainable drawdown rate on their savings accounts (28%).

For younger generations, planning a precise retirement date has become far more difficult, in part because of the Great Recession. Undersaved Baby Boomers have been forced to work longer, and that has contributed to stalled careers among younger generations. The final date is now a moving target that depends on one’s health, the markets, how much you can save, and whether you will be downsized out of a job. Americans have moved a long way from the traditional goal of retirement at age 65, and the uncertainty can be crippling.

Nowhere does the study mention the difficulty of estimating how long we will live. Maybe the subject is simply one we don’t like to think about, but the fact is, many Americans are living longer and are at greater risk of running out of money in retirement. This is another critical input that individuals have trouble accounting for.

In the days of traditional pensions, many Americans could rely on professional money managers to grapple with these problems. Left on their own, without a reliable source of lifetime income (other than Social Security), workers don’t know where to start. The best response is to save as much as you can, work as long you can—and remember that retirees tend to be happy, however much they have saved.

Related:

How should I start saving for retirement?

How much of my income should I save for retirement?

Can I afford to retire?

Read next: 3 Little Mistakes That Can Sink Your Retirement

MONEY Kids and Money

Why More Parents Are Talking to Toddlers About Money

toddler counting pennies on table
Derek Henthorn—Corbis

The money talk is occurring as young as age 3. Here's how that could change the world.

Talking about money at home has long been a taboo subject. But the Great Recession changed that, and now we’re seeing evidence of more open discourse—and maybe even a payoff.

Nearly two-thirds of parents with children between the ages of 4 and 12 pay their kids an allowance to teach them basic money management lessons, according to a survey from discount website couponcodespro.com. On average, these parents began teaching their kids the value of money at age 3, the survey found.

In a similar study two years ago, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants found about the same percentage of parents using allowance as a teaching tool. But they did not start as early. In that study, kids typically received allowance by age 8. In another study, fund company T. Rowe Price found that 73% of parents talk to their kids regularly about money—and about one in five stepped up the frequency since the financial crisis.

Talking more openly about money inside the household is one of the recession’s silver linings. Many families experienced such a financial blow that they could not avoid the discussion. But even setting aside the recession, starting earlier and talking more frequently makes a lot of sense. In the online world, kids begin making money decisions earlier than previous generations, and when they come of age they will have far fewer safety nets. They need to begin saving with their first paycheck and never stop.

The most common money conversations between youngsters and parents revolve around saving in a piggy bank (73%), working for pay around the house (66%), budgeting for things the kids want (57%), and finding bargains at the grocery store (29%), according to the couponcodespro.com survey. The survey also found that the average weekly allowance across the age group was $13.50, which is higher than the often-recommended rate of 50¢ to $1 per week per years since birth.

The survey also found that 73% of parents paying an allowance admit to buying their kids treats, a practice that can undermine the value of paying allowance in the first place. “Sweets and clothes I can understand,” says Nick Swan, CEO of couponcodespro.com. “But buying them toys for no reason when they are being given an allowance can backtrack on everything they are trying to teach their children about money.”

Still, money talk may be beginning to make a difference. In a recent survey of Gen Z teens (aged 13 to 17), Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate found that half say they know more about money than their parents did at their age. Two-thirds attribute their knowledge of money matters to discussions in the home, and two in five credit discussions in school. Three in five have already begun saving.

This youngest generation also seems to be managing credit cards more adeptly than their older cousins, the Millennials. These are encouraging trends that, if they persist, will help the economy long term and may just insulate this youngest generation from another crisis.

 

 

 

MONEY Kids and Money

The Surprising Thing Gen Z Wants to Do With Its Money

Teen in front of home
Getty Images

More than half of teens would give up social media for a year and do double the homework if it guaranteed they’d be able to buy a house when they're older.

During the Great Recession, home ownership took a beating as the ideal for the American dream. The median home nationally lost a quarter of its value, prompting adults of all ages to adopt other elusive goals—like retiring on time for boomers or working on their own terms for millennials.

Just 65% of Americans own their home, down from 69% pre-bust. And four out of five Americans are rethinking the reasons they’d want to buy a house in the first place. But Generation Z—also known as post-millennials, born after the 1990s Internet bubble— seems to prize home ownership like no generation since their great-grandparents.

An astounding 97% of post-millennials believe they will one day own a home; 82% say it is the most important part of the American dream, according to a survey of teens age 13 to 17 by Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate. More than half would give up social media for a year and do double the homework if it guaranteed they’d be able to buy a house.

This yearning stands in starkest contrast to the aspirations of millennials, older cousins who pretty much created the sharing economy and in large numbers prefer to rent. The housing bust and foreclosure epidemic scarred millennials, probably for life, as some watched parents and neighbors lose everything. In a key part of this generation—heads of households age 25 to 34—renters increased by more than 1 million in the years following the crisis, while the number who own a home fell by 1.4 million.

Post-millennials saw the carnage, too, though at a tender age that left them more confused than traumatized. Where millennials hardened and vowed never to repeat the errors of their parents, post-millennials sought the comfort of family and togetherness, says Sherry Chris, CEO of Better Homes and Gardens. “Many of these Gen Z teens were 7 to 11 years old when the recession hit,” Chris said. “At that age, children equate home with stability.”

The innate quest for stability leads them to prize a family home above things like going to college, getting married, having children, or owning a business, according to the survey. And the dream appears firmly grounded in reality. Chris observed that today’s teens have more information than any previous generation at their age and show early signs of financial awareness. Asked for an estimate of what they might spend on a house, the 97% who aspire to be owners gave an average response of $274,323—strikingly close to the median home value of $273,500.

Half say they know more about money than their parents did at their age. Two-thirds attribute their knowledge of money matters to discussions in the home, and two in five credit discussions in school. Three in five teens have already begun saving, the survey found. Post-millennials, on average, aim to own a home by age 28—three years earlier than the median age of first-time homebuyers reported by the National Association of Realtors.

These are encouraging findings. A home remains most Americans’ single largest asset, and while the housing bust will have lingering effects, home prices nationally tend to rise every year—and have been trending up again the past few years. Not all of the news is good: Only 17% of post-millennials believe stocks are the best long-term investment; half prefer a simple savings account, TD Ameritrade found in a survey that defines the generation as slightly older (up to age 24).

But the TD survey also found that post-millennials have half the post-college credit card debt of millennials. And the Better Homes survey suggests that our youngest generation is at last learning more about money at an early age, which is the goal of a broad public-private financial education movement. A generation of financially adept youth who begin to save and gather assets that will grow for four or five decades is the surest way to avoid another meltdown and solve the retirement savings crisis.

Related:
Why Gen X Feels Lousy About the Recession and Retirement
Our Retirement Savings Crisis—and the Easy Solution

MONEY Kids and Money

Ace a Personal Finance Game, Win a College Scholarship

H&R Block is the latest financial firm with a program to teach kids about money. This one can earn students a college scholarship.

As the financial industry has worked to restore its image since the meltdown six years ago, one popular approach has been underwriting financial education programs aimed at teens and young adults. Tax preparer H&R Block unveiled its salvo on Monday, offering $3 million in college scholarships to high school students who ace an online budget game.

Block joins a bunch of national and regional banks from Bank of America to Key and FirstBank that sponsor some kind of financial education program. Credit-card company Visa and accounting giant PwC have made big commitments to youth financial education. The result of this broad push has been a disparate and often questioned effort to teach young people practical money skills while the financial industry nurses a badly damaged reputation.

Block is not a bank or credit company. It never sold anyone an exploding subprime mortgage. Still, when the company began looking around for a signature cause it landed fairly quickly on financial education for youth. “It’s appalling how clueless many teens are about money,” says Block CEO William Cobb.

He makes no apologies that Block’s “budget challenge” is as much about smart marketing as it is about helping teens get smart about money. The challenge concludes on Tax Day, April 15. But Cobb says educating high school kids about student loans and more is also “the right thing to do” and is “at the emotional center” of what the company stands for.

In a recent PISA assessment spanning 18 countries, the first of its kind, American 15-year-olds were found to be just average in terms of money know-how. Numerous other studies have shown that young people have a flunking knowledge of things like compound growth, inflation, taxes, investing and budgets.

Block’s program is built around an online game that simulates real world decisions. It is designed as part of a class with a teacher augmenting lessons that adhere to the Jumpstart Coalition’s standards for youth personal finance instruction and the Council for Economic Education’s standards for financial literacy.

The carrot for high school students is a college scholarship. The first challenge will begin Oct. 3 and last for nine weeks. Five more challenges will run through mid-April next year. Students need about 30 minutes to set up their profile and about 30 minutes per week after that in order to compete.

Students who score well by making smart decisions about insurance, retirement saving, fees, unexpected expenses and more may win as much as $20,000 toward college tuition. There will be 132 such awards along with some prize grants for teachers and classrooms—and one grand prize scholarship of $100,000 going to the top student across all six challenges.

The Block program appears both fun and engaging. Participants will have access to a real-time leader board to see where they stand and, Cobb says, winning isn’t as simple as just choosing the most conservative options. As in life, things are constantly changing. Kids will need to figure which trade-offs make the most sense in this simulated world of money so that, maybe, one day they’ll be good at it in the real world.

Related:
3 Mistakes That Will Cost You a College Scholarship
How to Get Full Credit When You Swap Colleges

MONEY Savings

Our Retirement Savings Crisis—and the Easy Solution

Skinny piggy bank
Barry Blackman—Tarhill Photos Inc./CORBIS

The numbers show we face a major savings shortfall. But there's a simple way out if we act now.

Data can be misleading. Mark Twain reminded us: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” Yet more often than not sets of numbers tell a compelling story, and that is the case with 29 charts recently compiled by Vox Media.

Start with this data point: the savings rate in the U.S. will be about 4.1% this year, which ranks 17th among 24 countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. It’s a slight number next to savings rates like 13.1% in Switzerland and 9.9% in Germany. It’s also a shadow of the 10% or better savings rate we enjoyed in the U.S. 40 years ago. And consider this: Our savings rate is only this high now because of a renewed focus on putting money away and paying down debt since the Great Recession. It had been running at about 2.5% before the financial crisis.

This low savings rate explains at least part of our retirement savings crisis. Some 36% of workers have saved less than $1,000. That includes workers in their first year of full-time employment. So it’s not quite as bad as it sounds. Still, 69% have saved less than $50,000 and just 11% have saved more than $250,000.

Looking at folks already retired, the numbers don’t change much: 29% have saved less than $1,000 and 17% have saved more than $250,000. These are bleak readings. Experts estimate that you’ll need to bank eight to 12 times final pay in order to retire comfortably. If you peak at a salary of $75,000 a year, you will need a nest egg equal to $600,000 to $900,000.

The current generation of retirees has a big advantage that helps explain how they are getting by on so little savings: many collect a traditional defined-benefit pension, which guarantees lifetime income, in addition to Social Security. Three decades ago, 38% of private sector workers had such a pension while 17% had a defined-contribution plan like a 401(k). Those figures have reversed. Today, 14% have a traditional pension while 42% have a 401(k) or similar plan.

This means individuals are becoming increasingly responsible for their own retirement security. Yet we are doing little to prepare them. Financial concepts are not widely taught in schools in the U.S., where 15-year-olds recently tested in the middle of the pack for financial literacy—behind Latvia and Poland, and more importantly behind nations like Australia and New Zealand, where financial education is a government priority.

We’re not teaching kids about money at home either. Teens’ top source of money is gifts from friends and relatives. The share that holds a summer job is down 50% the last 20 years even though the value of summer work goes well beyond learning how to save and budget.

These data points suggest a downward spiral of sorts: we don’t save enough even though we are more responsible than ever for our individual financial well being, and we aren’t doing enough to break the trend among younger generations that will have even less of a safety net. Much of the issue would disappear if individuals simply bumped up their savings rate to at least 10% (better yet, 15%) and young people started early and let compound growth over an additional 10 or 15 years do the heavy lifting for them. Forget anything the critics say: financial education can change that. Until then, though, only households in the top 40% of net worth (at least $164,000) can expect their kids to have as much wealth as the parents. These numbers don’t lie.

Do you need help getting your retirement planning off the ground? Email makeover@moneymail.com for a chance at a free makeover from a financial pro and a story in Money magazine.

MONEY Saving

This App May Let You Retire on Your Spare Change

Acorn App
Acorn

The new Acorns app rounds up card purchases and invests the difference for growth, with no minimums and low fees.

Americans spend $11 trillion a year while saving very little. So it makes sense to link the two, as a number of financial companies have tried to do over the past decade. The latest is the startup Acorns, which hopes to hook millennials on the merits of mobile micro investing over many decades.

Through the Acorns app, released for iPhone this week, you sock away “spare change” every time you use your linked credit or debit card. The app rounds up purchases to the nearest dollar, takes the difference from your checking account, and plunks it in a solid, no-frills investment portfolio. So when you spend, say, $1.29 for a song on iTunes, the app reads that as $2 and pushes 71¢ into your Acorns account. With a swipe, you can also contribute small or large sums separate from any spending.

The Acorns portfolio is purposely simple: Your money gets spread among six basic index funds. The weighting in each fund depends on your risk profile, which you can dial up or down on your iPhone. More aggressive settings put more money in stocks. But you always have some money in each fund, remaining diversified among large and small company stocks, emerging markets, real estate, government and corporate bonds. The app will be available for Android in a few weeks and through a website in a few months.

Why Millennials Are the Target

Micro investing via a mobile device clearly targets millennials, who show great interest in saving but have been largely ignored by financial advisers and large banks. Young people may not have enough assets to meet the minimum requirements of big financial houses like Fidelity, Vanguard, and Schwab. With Acorns, there are no minimums. There are also none of the commissions that can render investing in small doses prohibitively expensive. “We want small investors who can grow with us over time,” says Acorns co-founder Jeff Cruttenden.

This approach places Acorns in the middle a rash of low-fee, online financial firms geared at young adults—including Square, Betterment, Robinhood, and Wealthfront. Such firms hope to capitalize on young adults’ penchant for tech solutions and lingering mistrust of large financial institutions. Cruttenden says a third of Acorns users are under age 22. They like to save in dribs and drabs—and manage everything from a mobile device.

Acorns charges a flat $1 monthly fee and between 0.25% and 0.5% of assets each year. The typical mutual fund has fees of 1% or more. Yet many index fund fees run lower. The Vanguard S&P 500 ETF, which invests in large company stocks, charges just 0.05%. If you have a few thousand dollars to open an account, and the discipline to invest a set amount each month, you might do better there. But remember that is just one fund. With Acorns you get diversification across six asset classes—along with the rounding up feature, which seems to have appeal.

Acorns has been testing the app all summer and says the average account holder contributes $7 a day through lump sums and a total of 500,000 round ups. Cruttenden says he is a typical user and through rounding up his card purchases has added $521.63 to his account over three months.

A New Twist on an Old Concept

Mortgage experts tout rounding up as a way to pay off your mortgage quicker. On a $200,000 loan at 4.5% for 30 years your payment would be $1,013.38. Rounding up to the nearest $100, or to $1,100, would cut your payoff time by 52 months and save you $26,821.20 in interest. Rounding up your card purchases works much the same way—only you are accumulating savings, not cutting your interest expense.

Bank of America offers a Keep the Change program, which rounds up debit-card purchases to the nearest buck and then pushes the difference into a savings account. Upromise offers credit card holders rewards that help pay for college. But Acorns’ approach is different: the money goes into an actual investment account with solid long-term growth potential.

One possible drawback is that this is a taxable account, which means you fund the Acorns account with after-tax money. Young adults starting a career with a company that offers a tax-deferred 401(k) plan with a match would be better served putting money in that account, if they must choose. But if you are like millions of people who throw spare change in a drawer anyway, Acorns is a way to do it electronically and let those nickels, dimes, and pennies go to work for you in a more meaningful way.

Read more on getting a jump on saving and investing:

 

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