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

Surprising Lessons from the Latest Superstar Athlete to Go Broke

Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson (7) during the NHL game between the Boston Bruins and the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, OH. The Boston Bruins defeated the Columbus Blue Jackets 4-3 in a shootout.
Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson (7) during the NHL game between the Boston Bruins and the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, OH. The Boston Bruins defeated the Columbus Blue Jackets 4-3 in a shootout. Aaron Doster—Cal Sport Media via AP Images

In Jonathan Rosen’s 1997 novel Eve’s Apple, a character describes her mother as someone who wanted to “have her kids and eat them, too.”

It’s hard not think of such parental malevolence when considering the recent bankruptcy filing of Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson, whose financial woes were caused almost entirely by the financial evildoings of his parents. But despite the extreme nature of this case—and because of the surprising frequency of money troubles for professional athletes—there are two valuable lessons in Johnson’s travails that are relevant to sports fans and the rest of finance-fogged America.

Lesson 1: We should start teaching personal finance in kindergarten.

Despite a tremendous increase over the past 30 years in the number of reliable sources offering solid financial advice instruction to anyone who cares to learn—from Money magazine to motleyfool.com to most reputable financial services companies—most Americans are woefully ignorant when it comes to basic principles of money management. As a country, we just don’t know enough about borrowing, saving, investing and insurance. And while some some states are being taken to address this problem, we’re only at the early stages of what will be a very long process.

Don’t believe me? Check out the four main recommendations of the President’s Advisory Council of Financial Capability—all of them smart—and tell me how close you think we are to solving the problem. Every school, in every state, needs to incorporate financial literacy into curriculums from the earliest stages, i.e., from the time kids learn their ABCs and numbers. The only way to overcome the inherent tedium of personal finance—a topic about as exciting as someone else’s golf score—is to make it less of a “subject” and more of a tool. I’ve been writing about personal finance, on and off, for nearly a quarter of a century and the only way to successfully educate all but the biggest money nerds is to make zucchini bread. That is, we have to hide the good-for-you-but-unappealing-stuff (apologies to zucchini farmers) in more exciting fare.

Lesson 2: Professional athletes are particular vulnerable to being ripped off.

When we look at professional athletes we see (or imagine) any number of positive qualities: talent, discipline, focus, commitment, bravery. But while most of those traits exist to greater and lesser extent in all sports stars, the one quality that must be present is what insiders call “coachability.” For every athlete MLB, NBA, NFL or NHL athlete there were dozens of others with similar skills who weren’t able to make it to the big leagues because they wouldn’t or couldn’t follow directions. I worked at ESPN for 14 years and I was struck by nothing so much as the willingness of otherwise supremely confident and self-directed men and women to listen to their coaches, trainers and managers. For good reason, too: These authority figures possess expertise that athletes respect and desire, a treasury of knowledge and experience from which they hope to achieve success and extend their careers.

Accurate, real-time salaries for thousands of careers.

The problem with this malleability is that it often applies to experts in fields outside their core sport—such as health, nutrition or fitness—but especially comes into play with complex or arcane subjects like finance. Once an athlete trusts a financial adviser, heaven help him or her if said adviser is up to no good or even simply incompetent. (Heaven help all of us if it’s a parent who’s doing the exploiting.) Most of the major sports leagues and players’ unions recognize this and try to provide guidance, protection and warning to their athetes, but they could and should do better. I write this knowing how difficult such a challenge is, not just because athletes work as hard and as long as they do to earn their rich salaries but also because they are, generally, young and cavalier about risks of all kinds. Such is youth.

If I were King of The Sports World—a development unlikely to occur any time in the near future—I would require that a majority of every pro athlete’s earnings be directed to some kind of TIAA-CREF type organization that would safeguard their fortunes until they are through with their careers. Such an arrangement might not be popular (or legal or practical) but it would ensure that far fewer pro stars are fleeced because they haven’t been taught well to handle their money and have been taught too well to follow orders.

Oh, yeah, one other rule in my hypothetical sports realm: Even after athletes retire, I wouldn’t give them control of their money until they’ve taken a few financial literacy courses.

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 Kids and Money

4 Costly Money Mistakes You’re Making With Your Kids

parents cheering softball players
Yellow Dog Productions—Getty Images

Help your kids become financially literate.

When you’re a parent, it’s easy to get caught up in day-to-day money issues: Which brand of milk is a better value? Is Old Navy having a school uniform sale? How much lunch money is left in the kids’ accounts? But parenting is ultimately about the long view, with the goal of raising capable, self-sufficient adults. Dealing with daily details, we sometimes neglect important money issues that can have a huge impact on our kids — and on our finances — as they prepare for college and adult life.

The mistake: Not talking enough about money

Too many parents don’t talk about money with their kids at all. Others skirt topics they don’t know much about, like investing and debt. Parents are the main source of money information for children, but 74% of parents are reluctant to discuss family finances with their kids, according to the 2014 T. Rowe Price Parents, Kids, and Money Survey. That’s too bad, because ignorance about money can set your kids up to make bad decisions — and eventually pass those bad habits on to your grandkids.

The solution: Make financial literacy a family value

In her book, Do I Look Like an ATM?: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Financially Responsible African American Children, Sabrina Lamb details “the business of your family household.” Lamb, founder and CEO of WorldofMoney.org, says all families should work together on five financial topics: learning, earning, saving, investing, and donating time or funds to causes you value. She recommends a daily diet of business news, occasional meetings between the kids, your banker, and other financial advisors, and support of your older kids’ entrepreneurial goals.

The mistake: Believing in the “Scholarship Fairy”

A lot of parents pin their hopes on pixie dust when it comes to funding their kids’ college educations. Eight in 10 parents think their kids will get scholarships. In the real world, less than one in 10 U.S. students receive private-sector scholarship money — an average of $2,000 apiece, according to FinAid.org.

Even more unrealistic is the myth that great grades and high test scores will lead to a full scholarship. The truth, per scholarship portal ScholarshipExperts.com, is there are many more 4.0-GPA students than there are full-tuition awards, and only one-third of one percent (0.3%) of all U.S. college students earn a full-ride scholarship each year. The time to learn this hard truth is now, not when college acceptance letters start arriving.

The solution: Save something now (or accept that you can’t)

Accurate, real-time salaries for thousands of careers.

There’s a considerable body of literature out there on the merits of 529s, trusts, and other college savings options. Don’t let the details distract you from the real issue, which is that if you want to help finance your child’s higher education, you must save regularly, starting now.

If there’s no money to save, be honest with your kids about it. You can start educating them about ways to finance college through loans and cut costs with community college transfer credit and placement tests. It’s perfectly acceptable to expect your kids to take responsibility for their own higher learning as long as you prepare them properly to face that reality.

The mistake: “Investing” in extracurricular activities

Everyone’s heard about overscheduled kids with too many after-school activities. Not as much is said about the huge dent extracurriculars can put in your budget — hundreds or thousands of dollars each year for lessons, league fees, uniforms, and more. If you’re sacrificing because you think these activities will pay off when your child gets an athletic scholarship, remember that the Scholarship Fairy is rarely seen. The odds of any particular student getting even a small athletic scholarship at a Division 1 school aren’t significantly better than the odds of a student getting a full-ride academic scholarship.

The solution: Treat extracurricular activities as extras

If your child loves soccer, piano, or hip-hop and you have the time and money to spare, that’s ideal. But if it’s a choice between paying for extras and saving for college, save for college. Find cheaper after-school options for now, and don’t apologize for making that decision.

The mistake: Not teaching your kids to negotiate

There’s a big distinction between a child who’s been taught how to speak up when appropriate and one who’s been trained to be passive in the face of authority. The kids who know how to negotiate tend to earn more money as adults, even when they’re doing the same jobs as those who keep quiet. Salary.com found last year that workers who negotiated a raise every three years earned a million more dollars over the course of their careers than workers who simply accepted whatever they were offered.

The solution: Teach your kids how to deal

Show your kids the ins and outs of deal making through trading games, doing some haggling at garage sales, and expecting them to keep their word. You can find specific age-appropriate suggestions here.

By talking about money and business a little each day, being realistic about college planning, and giving your kids the skills to advocate for themselves, you’ll give them long-term advantages when it comes to understanding and earning money. That’s a valuable legacy to pass from one generation to the next.

MONEY financial literacy

Why Workers and Retirees Missed the Roaring Bull Market

Glass half Empty
Jupiterimages—Getty Images

Investor optimism dips, especially among retirees, a new survey finds. Maybe it's because 1 in 10 investors haven't noticed the huge gains in the market.

Quick, how much did the stock market gain last year? Tough question, right? Okay, let’s try a multiple choice: Based on the S&P 500 index, did the market rise 10%, 20%, or 30%? Evidently, that’s a tough question too because the vast majority of investors haven’t a clue.

Only 11% of adults with at least $10,000 in savings and investments got it right in a Wells Fargo/Gallup poll. This stands in stark contrast to the 67% that rate themselves somewhat or highly knowledgeable about investing and underscores the extent to which so many people simply don’t know what they don’t know.

For the record, the S&P 500 rose 30% in 2013—you received a total return of 32% if you reinvested dividends. This is the 13th biggest gain in a calendar year since 1926. Forget about getting the percentage right. Anyone paying attention should at least know that last year was a huge winner. Yet only 64% of investors even knew the market was up. Of those who did, 57% thought the gain was just 10% while 27% thought the gain was 20%. About 1% was looking through rose-colored glasses and thought the market rose 40% or more.

The poll also found that retirees were feeling much less optimistic in the second quarter. The Wells Fargo/Gallup Investor and Retirement Optimism index declined modestly overall but the portion looking only at retirees plunged 41%. This too seems incongruous. Second-quarter GDP surged 4%, one of the sharpest quarterly gains since the Great Recession.

One reason for this gloom is that about half of both retirees and workers are worried they will outlive their money, the poll found. Sadly, this may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Playing it safe and earning 1% in a money market account won’t amount to much over time. Meanwhile, those who stayed true to a diversified portfolio of stocks through the downturn are doing better than ever. They were present for that 32% market gain—even if they have no idea how great last year was for them.

As a whole, the findings suggest that many people remain fixated on the past. The recession was a harrowing and humbling experience. But it is over. Real estate prices have turned up and the job picture is better. The stock market has more than doubled from the bottom. Yet when asked what they would do with a $10,000 gift, 56% in the poll said they would hold it as cash or stash it in an ultra-safe bank CD—not invest for growth. At this rate, expect more declines in optimism, especially as retirees stuck in cash see further declines in income.

Related stories:

 

MONEY 401(k)s

Are You a Saver or an Investor? It Matters in a 401(k)

Close-up piggy bank
Fuse—Getty Images

Most 401(k) participants see themselves as savers, new research shows. And it's holding them back.

The venerable 401(k) plan has many failings and is ill suited as a primary retirement savings vehicle. Yet it could do so much more if only workers understood how to best use it.

The vast majority of 401(k) plan participants view themselves as savers, not investors, according to new research. As such, they are less likely to allocate money to 401(k) plan options that will provide the long-term growth they need to retire in comfort.

Only 22% of workers in a 401(k) plan in the U.S., U.K. and Ireland say they are knowledgeable about investing, State Street Global Advisors found. This translates into a low tolerance for risk: only 27% in the U.S., 15% in the U.K., and 10% in Ireland say they are willing to take greater risk to achieve better returns.

This in turn leads to sinking retirement confidence. Only 31% in the U.S., 26% in the U.K., and 16% in Ireland feel they will save enough in their 401(k) plan to fund a comfortable retirement, the survey shows.

The faults of 401(k) plans are well documented and range from uncertain returns to high fees to failing to provide guaranteed lifetime income. Economic activists like Teresa Ghilarducci, a professor of economics at the New School and author of When I’m Sixty-Four, have been arguing for years that we need to return to something like the traditional pension.

But the switch to 401(k) plans from traditional pensions has taken more than three decades. A broad reversal will be slow too, if it comes at all. In the meantime, workers need to understand how to best use their 401(k) or other employer-sponsored defined contribution plan. Like it or not, these plans have become our de facto primary retirement savings vehicles.

At a basic level, plan participants of all ages must begin to embrace higher risk in return for higher rewards. The State Street survey reveals broad under-exposure to stocks, which historically have provided the highest long-term returns. A popular rule of thumb is to subtract your age from 110 to determine your allocation to stocks. But the latest research suggests that even just a few years from retirement you are better off holding more stocks.

There is much more to making the most of your 401(k) plan than just adding risk. You need to contribute enough to capture the full employer match and be well diversified, among other things. But it all starts with understanding that saving in a secure fixed-income product is not investing, and it is not enough to get you to the promised land.

Yes, the financial crisis is still fresh and the market’s deep plunge is an all-too-real reminder that stocks have risk. But just five years later the market has fully recovered, and 401(k) balances have never been plumper. Fixate on the recovery, not the downturn. A diversified stock portfolio almost never loses money over a 10-year period. It took the Great Depression and then the Great Recession to produce 10-year losses, which were less than 5% and disappeared quickly in the recovery.

If you feel nervous about investing in stocks, consider opting for a target-date retirement fund, which will give you an asset mix that shifts to become more conservative as you near retirement. While they may not suit everyone, target-date funds tend to outperform most do-it-yourselfers, research shows. With your asset mix on cruise control, you can focus on saving, which is enough of a challenge.

MONEY Aging

Why It’s Never Too Late to Fix Your Finances

Those over 50 may become less sharp, but a little personal finance instruction can make a huge difference in their financial security.

When we speak of financial education today, in most cases we are referring to the broad, global effort to teach students how to stay out of debt and begin to save for retirement. But what about those who already have debts and may already be retired?

Clearly, we should teach them too. It’s never too late to improve your financial standing—and unlike financial education among the young, elders exposed to basic planning strategies adopt them readily, new research shows. This underscores the sweeping need for programs that address financial understanding at all ages and why even folks well past their saving years may still have time to get it right.

Last year, AARP Foundation and Charles Schwab Foundation completed a 15-month trial of financial instruction designed specifically for low-income people past the age of 50. After just six months of training, the subjects exhibited significant improvement in things like budgeting, saving, investing, managing debt and goal setting.

For example, only 42% of participants had at least one financial goal at the start of the program and 63% had set at least one financial goal after six months in the program. The rate of those spending more than they earned fell by a third and 35% had paid down debt. Many had begun to track spending and stop overdrawing accounts and paying late fees.

Participants saying they were “very worried” about money dropped to 14% from 22%; those saying they were “not very/not at all worried” jumped to 42% from 34%. These are remarkable gains in such a short period and among such a generally disadvantaged group. Half in the group had saved less than $10,000 and average income was about $35,000.

The research suggests that the 50-plus set can make big strides toward a secure financial life with some instruction. It jibes with other reports illustrating the value of financial inclusion for the unbanked millions and how a higher degree of personal financial ability might even save our way of life for everyone.

But let’s be clear: this isn’t just a way for low-income households to improve their lot. Plenty middle-class and even affluent households have a savings problem. And as we age we tend to make poorer money decisions regardless of our net worth. So it’s nice to see the financial education effort move beyond the classroom—increasingly to places of employment as part of benefits counseling and now, maybe, to community centers and retirement villages where willing adults can find it’s never too late to learn something new and feel good about their finances.

MONEY Personal Finance

Money Know-How? American Teens Are, Well, Just Average

Students taking test in classroom
Roy Mehta—Getty Images

A major study shows that American 15-year-olds are barely average when it comes to knowledge of personal finance—and way behind the kids in Shanghai.

For a country whose grandest export might be capitalism, we don’t do very well with our own kids. American teens land smack in the middle of the pack when it comes to simple personal financial know-how, according to a groundbreaking new global study.

Topping the list are kids in Shanghai, Belgium, Estonia, Australia and New Zealand. Bringing up the bottom are teens in Colombia, Italy, Slovak Republic, and Israel. The U.S. rates just below Latvia and ahead of France.

These findings come in the newly released 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a widely recognized comparative measure of student proficiency in 65 countries. In the past, PISA has focused on math, science, and reading. For the first time, in 2012 it added testing on personal financial concepts.

Only 18 countries opted into the financial literacy component, which is a statement all by itself. This is a relatively new field of education and most countries have little more than a fledgling effort. Some who take it seriously and have broad financial education programs, like Australia and New Zealand, scored relatively well. But Shanghai, which is not regarded as a leader, produced the best results of all.

The assessment looked specifically at 15-year-olds. Those in Shanghai had a mean score of 603—well ahead of second-place Belgium (541) and 9th-place U.S. (492). In last place was Colombia’s mean score of 379. PISA is part of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The 2012 results, eagerly awaited in education circles (and especially in financial education circles), were a bust in at least one big way. The goal is to figure out how to raise the financial I.Q. of people around the world by starting early and teaching in classrooms about budgets, credit cards, saving and investing. Asked what seems to work best, Michael Davidson, head of schools at the OECD, said, “The easy answer is we don’t know.”

The strong scores in Shanghai correlate with strong math scores there, he noted. But in other countries, the highest scores correlated with simply having a bank account. In general, strong financial literacy scores were also highly correlated with students demonstrating problem-solving skills and perseverance. So it may be that the best approach is a focus on math, offering kids some exposure to real world financial decisions and cultivating their will to ask questions and not give up so quickly in all spheres of life.

Among U.S. students, the OECD found that:

  • A worse-than-average 17.8% do not reach even a baseline level of understanding about money concepts, meaning that at best such students will understand an invoice or the difference between a want and a need. They have little aptitude for even simple things like a basic budget or loan.
  • A nearly average 9.4% is a top performer, meaning they understand things like fees and transactions costs and can make financial decisions with no immediate benefit but which will be good for them in the long run.

These are discouraging numbers, especially when weighed against the results in Shanghai, where just 2% of 15-year-olds do not reach the baseline and 43% are top performers—and efforts at formal financial education there are way behind those in the U.S.. With numbers like these, it’s the Chinese in Shanghai that soon may be exporting capitalism.

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