MONEY Insurance

Why Millennials Resist Any Kind of Insurance

Young adults are the most underinsured generation of our time, which makes sense—up to a point.

Millennials are the most underinsured generation alive today—which makes a certain amount of sense. They have relatively few assets or dependents to protect. Still, the gaps in coverage are striking and offer further evidence that this generation has been unusually slow to launch.

Roughly one in four adults aged 18 to 29 do not have health insurance, twice the rate of all other adults, according to a survey from InsuranceQuotes.com, a financial website. (Other surveys have found lower uninsured rates, but this age group is still the most likely to go without.) Millennials are also far less likely to have auto, life, homeowners, renters, and disability coverage.

Young adults have always been slow to buy insurance. They often feel invincible when it comes to potential health or financial setbacks. But something additional appears to be at work here. This generation has famously overprotective parents who awarded them trophies just for showing up. Millennials may view moving back home or calling Mom and Dad for a bailout as their personal no-cost, all-purpose insurance plan.

Millions of young adults routinely boomerang home after college or get other family financial support. The trend is so broad that psychologists have given this new life phase a name: emerging adulthood, a period that lasts to age 28 or 30. MONEY explores this trend, and its costs, in the September issue reaching homes this week. Remarkably, the parents of boomerang kids don’t seem to mind providing the extended support.

A quarter of parents supporting an adult child say they have taken on additional debt; 13% have delayed a life event, such as taking a dream vacation; and 7% have delayed retirement, the National Endowment for Financial Education found. Yet 80% of such parents in a Bank of America Merrill Lynch survey say helping is “the right thing to do,” and 60% are willing to work longer, 40% to go back to work, and 36% to live with less if that’s what it takes to help their adult kids.

“Millennials have had very supportive parents throughout their life,” says Laura Adams, senior insurance analyst at InsuranceQuotes.com. “When you don’t have a fear of the unknown, a fear of life’s what-ifs, you are not likely to think about insurance.”

Yet young people overlook certain types of insurance at their peril—even though these policies may be relatively inexpensive. Most striking is how many skip health insurance, even though the Affordable Care Act mandates coverage and allows children up to age 26 to remain on a parent’s plan. Millions more young people now have health coverage as a result, recent studies have found, and their uninsured rate has dropped. But, still, as many as one in four still go without.

This may be classic pushback against a law young adults see as unfair. They understand that their insurance premiums subsidize the health benefits of older Americans who are far more likely to need care. Yet if Mom and Dad won’t pick up the bill, a visit to the ER can cost $1,000 or more for even a simple ailment. Things get much more expensive for broken bones and other treatments that even the young may need. Among other findings:

  • 64% of millennials have auto insurance, compared to 84% of older generations. Many millennials may have decided to skip car ownership. But if you rent a car or borrow one from your roommate, you have liability. It probably pays to have your own policy, which might cost $30 a month.
  • 10% of millennials have homeowners insurance, compared to more than half of those aged 30 to 49 and 75% of those 65 and older. Fewer millennials own a house, for sure. But this generation isn’t buying renters insurance either: only 12% have it. Renters insurance is cheap: $10 to $15 a month, and it comes in handy not only when someone steals your bike from the storage area but also if Fido bites a neighbor.
  • 13% of millennials have disability insurance, compared with 37% of those 30 to 49. This kind of coverage costs around $30 a month and may seem unnecessary. Yet one in three working adults will miss at least three months of work at least once in their life due to illness, Adams says, adding, “Anyone can throw out their back.”
  • 36% of millennials have life insurance, compared with 60% of those 30 to 49. Again, this coverage is relatively cheap: around $20 a month for $500,000 of term life. If you have no dependents you might skip it. But if you have debt that Mom and Dad co-signed, you should have enough coverage to retire the debt. It’s only fair, given your parents’ years of extended financial support.

 

 

MONEY first jobs

Marissa Mayer’s First Job Was Working as a Checkout Clerk. Tell Us Yours.

Did you have a terrible first job — or a summer gig that launched a career?

Everyone has to start at the bottom of the ladder. For Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, that rung was the County Market in Wausau, WI, where she worked as a grocery checkout clerk the summer she turned 16. She told Fortune,

I learned a lot about family economics, how people make trade-offs, and how people make decisions on something fundamental, like how to eat. And, quirkily, I picked up the habit of turning all the bills in my wallet to face and be oriented the same way, because we needed to do this as we counted out our tills at the end of our shifts. It still bothers me to this day if a bill in my wallet is turned the wrong way.

At MONEY, we’re looking for the funniest, grossest, and most heartwarming stories about first work experiences. Tell us yours. What was your first job? What did you learn? What advice do you have for kids today?

Tweet us at @Money with #firstjob, or write us using the form below, and we might publish your response. (Answers may be lightly edited for length and clarity.)

MONEY College

What Your College Kid Isn’t Telling You About Money

More than half of students admit they keep financial secrets from Mom and Dad, a new survey finds. And one of the biggest may be how much debt they're racking up.

It is an American rite of passage. Little Johnny finally grows up, goes off to college, and starts handling money on his own. He probably spends a little too much, and racks up some debt.

Does Johnny tell mom and dad the truth—or keep it a secret?

More than half of college students (55%) admit they hide information from dear old mom and dad about all that money they are spending, according to the 2014 RBC Student Finances Poll. But only 33% of parents realize that’s the case.

Another disconnect: While 90% of parents claim to be on top of how much debt their kid owes, just 78% of students agree their parents are up-to-speed on their finances.

Welcome to a college course that is not really on the curriculum, but that every student is grappling with. Call it Secrets and Lies 101.

“It may be that a student doesn’t have as much money as their peers, and is trying to keep up with what their friends are doing,” says Christine Schelhas-Miller, a retired faculty member at Cornell University and co-author of Don’t Tell Me What To Do, Just Send Money: The Essential Parenting Guide to the College Years.

“Or they may be getting lots of credit card offers, and naively sign up,” Schelhas-Miller adds. “Then they’re not sharing this information with parents, because they’re afraid of getting into trouble.”

Of course, money disconnects between parents and kids are nothing new. In fact they are par for the parenting course, whether they revolve around tooth fairy money or allowance sizes.

The difference when kids reach college is that the sums involved are taken to the next level. Serious money, which can, in turn, have very serious consequences, like debt accumulation or poor spending habits that could dog families for years to come.

After all, the average Class of 2014 graduate with student-loan debt is in hock to the tune of $33,000, according to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher at Edvisors, a site about planning and paying for college. That’s the highest number ever.

The potential scenario, for a college student whose only financial-planning experience has been with Monopoly money? A couple of adviser Darla Kashian’s clients were gobsmacked to find out that their kid—unbeknownst to them—had blown through a significant inheritance in his last years of college, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars.

“They didn’t know what he had done, and were astonished to find out,” says Kashian, who is an adviser with RBC in Minneapolis. “In their minds, he was using the inheritance to pay off his student loans, and now he was returning home with lots of debt. He was totally unprepared.”

Of course, students may suspect how badly they are screwing up financially. According to the RBC poll, 26% of college students admit they may be doing damage to their credit rating. Only 17% of parents think their little angels could possibly be doing such a thing.

Tough Talk

Such blind loyalty to one’s offspring isn’t cute; it’s actively harmful. But when it comes to such a delicate and emotional topic, many parents just don’t know where to start.

“It’s like the sex conversation: Parents are worried about how to even bring it up,” says Schelhas-Miller. “But they need to get over that hurdle, and think of it as a big part of their parenting responsibilities.”

Her advice: Arrange a pre-emptive strike, and have The Talk over the summer, before your kid even heads off to campus. Then arrange for regular money conversations throughout the school year—maybe once every couple of weeks, or maybe once a semester, depending on how responsible they are—to ensure budgets stay on track.

If you just avoid the subject and table the conversation for later, an unprepared college kid could stack up debt very quickly indeed, and it could be too late.

Kashian is a fan of online budgeting tools like Mint.com, a unit of Intuit, which can be set up to allow access to both parents and their kids. That, of course, requires plenty of trust from both sides.

“That way you can have real transparency, and open up a dialogue about the spending that is happening—instead of just shaming and screaming.”

More on student debt:

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.”

MONEY First-Time Dad

These Are the Countries with the Best Maternity Leaves

Luke Tepper
Mrs. Tepper took off four months to take care of this guy—and was paid dearly in smiles and dirty diapers. Ken Christensen

New dad Taylor Tepper argues that America needs to catch up with the rest of the world in terms of providing paid time off to new moms.

Two weeks ago, Mrs. Tepper returned to her full-time job—almost six months after giving birth to our son Luke.

She wasn’t altogether excited about the idea of leaving Luke in the hands of someone else while she relived paler experiences like commuting. Nevertheless, Mrs. Tepper soldiered on, and we ended our four-month experiment of living in an expensive city with a new child and without the income of the chief wage earner.

Right up there with “Is it a boy or a girl?” and “What name are you going with?” is another question every new mother should be prepared to answer: “How much paid time off do get from work?” If your answer is anything longer than a few weeks, you can pretty much guarantee kind words and jealous eyes in response.

We were fortunate. Mrs. Tepper, who works as a teacher, received around two months of paid maternity leave and was allowed to take the rest of the school year off unpaid. I got two weeks paid.

Most Americans are not so lucky. The land of the free and the home of the brave is one of two of the 185 countries or territories in the world surveyed by the United Nation’s International Labor Organization that does not mandate some form of paid maternity leave for its citizens. Many are familiar with the generosity of Scandinavian nations when it comes to parents bringing new children into the world, but who would believe that we trail Iran in our support of new families?

Iran mandates that new mothers receive two-thirds of their previous earnings for 12 weeks from public funds, according to a the ILO report. In America, mothers are entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave—but only if they work for a company that has more than 50 employees, per the Family and Medical Leave Act. And, for some context, more than 21 million Americans work for businesses that employ 20 people or fewer, per the U.S. Census Bureau.

The ILO report is full of unflattering comparisons that will leave American workers feeling woozy. Georgia—the country—allows its mothers to receive 18 weeks of paid time off at 100% of what they made before. Mongolia gives its new moms 17 weeks of paid time off at 70% of previous earnings. (Mongolia’s GDP is $11.5 billion, or about a third of Vermont’s.)

Lest you think paid time off for moms is a poor-nation phenomenon, Germany’s mothers receive 14 weeks of fully paid time off, while Canadian mothers can look forward to 15 weeks of 55% of their salary.

There are pockets of help stateside. Five U.S. states provide paid maternity leave: New York, New Jersey, Hawaii, California and Rhode Island. In Rhode Island, for example, mothers receive four weeks of paid leave—ranging from $72 to $752, depending on your earnings.

Meanwhile, however, the ILO’s maternity leave standard states that all mothers across the board should be entitled to two-thirds of their previous salary for at least 14 weeks.

Look, I’m not really saying that American women should defect to Iran or Mongolia or Georgia to push out their progeny. But it defies logic that we are the only developed nation not to have a national system in place that helps new families adjust to their new lives.

The benefits of implementing some compulsory system of continuing to pay women for a defined period of time after they give birth are known. Based on California’s family leave policy, which was instituted in 2004, economists found that employment prospects for a mother nine to twelve months after childbirth improved (meaning: more moms at that stage were employed after the bill than before it). Additionally, other research has found that mothers who return later to work are less likely to be depressed.

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Connecticut Representative Rosa DeLauro (both Democrats) introduced the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act last year which, among other things, would provide new mothers with 12 weeks of paid leave at two-thirds of their previous salary up to a cap. But the Act is not yet a law.

A few years ago, Mrs. Tepper was in graduate school, and I waited tables. We made much much less than we do now and enjoyed no financial security. Often when I’m playing with Luke I find myself thinking, “What would we have done if he was born then?”

Taylor Tepper is a reporter at Money. His column on being a new dad, a millennial, and (pretty) broke appears weekly. More First-Time Dad:

MONEY College

4 Best Credit Cards for College Students

Mom helping her daughter move in to college dorm
Make sure she's packed one of these cards. Blend Images—Alamy

Send your kid off with one of these options this fall, and you'll sleep better at night.

You’ve no doubt heard harrowing stories of college students applying for their first credit cards, then racking up thousands of dollars in debt. It’s the stuff of parents’ worst nightmares.

The CARD Act of 2009 lessened the potential trouble students could get themselves into. The law mandated that, in order to qualify for a card, applicants must be over 21, get an adult to co-sign or prove they earn enough money to make payments.

But it’s left many parents of underclassmen with a tricky decision. Do you sign on the dotted line for your kid—thus putting your own credit score on the hook if your kid doesn’t pay the bill?

Shielding Junior from having his own credit card may seem sensible, but it’s penny-wise and pound-foolish. Length of credit history accounts for 15% of one’s FICO score. So by protecting your son or daughter from plastic, you are inadvertently hurting his or her creditworthiness. You also miss out on the opportunity to handhold him or her through an important financial lesson.

Of course, striking a proper balance between the value of credit and the dangers of its excess is paramount. Revolving debt hurts a credit score, too, and can be very costly to a kid living on a ramen budget—with APRs averaging 15% and as high as 23%.

Three options for you to consider, depending upon how much risk you think your newly emancipated child can handle:

The Training Wheels: A secured card or a low-rate, low-limit unsecured card.

If you are worried that terms like “credit limit” and “due date” will be lost on your child, you might want to sign him up for a secured card, which uses cash as the credit limit collateral.

The benefit is that Junior won’t be able to spend beyond the cap, so it’s a good way to give him practice using a card of his own without doing a lot of damage to your finances or your credit score. The downsides: You’ll have to front the cash. And unless you set a large credit limit, he may use a high percentage of his available credit, which is bad for his credit score (ideally he should use no more than 20%).

Alternately, if you don’t want to put up your cash as collateral—or your kid has enough income to qualify on his own—you might start him off with an unsecured card that has a low rate and a low credit limit. This also pens him in until he demonstrates reliability.

Once he proves himself able to handle either of these cards, have him shift to one of the advanced cards in the next category.

The picks: MONEY’s Best Credit Cards winners Digital Credit Union Visa Platinum Secured or Northwest Federal Credit Union FirstCard Visa Platinum.

The APR on Digital Credit Union’s Visa starts at a low 11.5%. To apply for this secured card, you do have to be a member of the credit union, but that be accomplished with a $10 donation to Reach Out for Schools.

The FirstCard’s rate is even lower—a fixed 10% APR (most cards today are variable rate). This card, which has no annual fee, is designed for people who don’t have a credit history: It requires applicants to take a 10 question quiz on credit knowledge and has a credit limit of just $1,000.

The 10 Speed: A rewards card

Cards that offer rewards typically have higher APRs than those that don’t. So if you child revolves debt on one of these cards, he’ll likely erase the perks earned.

Thus, rewards cards are best reserved for those students who’ve already proven themselves capable of paying off a secured or low-limit card in full and on time for a year or so. These are also good choices for those students who are over 21.

The picks: Capital One Journey Student Rewards Card and Discover It for Students.

The no-fee Journey gets your kid 1% cash back on everything, but the reward is bumped up by 25% every month he pays his bill on time. “This is a good card for incentivizing students to have the right behavior,” says NerdWallet.com’s Kevin Yuann. There’s no foreign transaction fee (a plus for those studying abroad), but a late payment fee of up to $35 and a steep 19.8% APR should scare away parents who aren’t sure about their child’s bill-paying vigilance.

The It, which also has no annual fee and no foreign transaction costs, gets your kid 2% cash back on the first $1,000 at gas stations and restaurants each quarter, and 1% for everything else. Because of the extra rewards for gas, the It is a good card for commuters, says Yuann. Cardholders also receive a free FICO score, derived from TransUnion data, on monthly statements.

While there is no fee on the first late payment, your child will pay up to $35 after that; and after a six-month no-interest window, the APR ranges from 13% to 22%.

Whichever card you end up co-signing for your child, definitely make sure you ask to get account access—and sign up for balance alerts so that you know when you need to swoop in for a teaching moment.

RELATED:
Best Credit Cards of 2013
Money 101: How Do I Pick a Credit Card?

 

MONEY Ask the Expert

When Parents Can Say No to Picking Up the Tab for Insurance

140603_FF_QA_Obamacare_illo_1
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q. My ex-husband has been responsible for providing health insurance for our kids until the age of majority. My sons are now 21 and almost 18. My ex has family coverage for himself and his new wife, but he wants me to put the kids on my insurance now that they have reached the age of majority. Covering the kids doesn’t cost him anything extra, but for me to switch from a single plan to a family plan is an extra $175 a month and I can’t afford it. Since the age of majority for health insurance is now 26, is it possible he still is required to keep them on his insurance?

A. No, he’s not obligated to keep them on his health plan. Under the health law, insurers must offer to cover young adults up to age 26, but parents aren’t obligated to provide it, says Timothy Jost, a law professor at Washington and Lee University and an expert on the health law.

Further, the requirement to offer coverage isn’t related to the age of majority, which is defined by individual states and is generally between 18 and 21, says Randy Kessler, an Atlanta divorce lawyer and past chair of the American Bar Association’s family law section.

The health insurance coverage arrangement that you describe is pretty typical, says Kessler. You could go back to court and try to get your child-support payments increased to cover the cost of providing health insurance for the kids, but “it would be unusual for the courts to be helpful,” says Kessler. Absent some significant change in your or your ex-husband’s finances, or unforeseen and costly medical expenses for your children, in general “you can’t have another bite at the apple.”

With no legal requirement to compel either of you to cover your kids, it’s something the two of you will just have to work out, says Kessler. In addition to covering your children on your own or your ex’s plan, it’s also worth exploring whether they might qualify for subsidized coverage on the state marketplaces or for Medicaid, if your state has expanded coverage to childless adults. If they’re in college, student health coverage is worth investigating as well.

Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

MONEY Kids and Money

Go Figure, Grandkids Want to Hear About Your Money Memories

Having seen tough times already, young adults crave money conversations with grandparents who have seen it all before.

What young person doesn’t enjoy a good story? And it doesn’t have to be about vampires or super heroes. The top thing young adults want to hear from grandparents is about experiences and decisions that shaped their life, new research shows.

This is especially true of events having to do with money, according to a survey from TIAA-CREF, a financial firm with $613 billion under management. The finding suggests that grandparents who are willing to talk about their financial follies can play an important role in helping their grandkids learn early to save, manage debt and stick to a budget.

Only 8% of grandparents say they are willing to start a conversation with their grandkids about money, the survey found. Yet 85% of grandkids aged 18 to 24 say they are open to such a conversation. In a further sign of this divide: only 30% of grandparents believe they could have an influence over their grandkids’ money habits; but 73% of young adults say their grandparents already have such influence.

How can perceptions be so different? For one thing, young adults have got the message and are intensely interested in understanding how to manage their money. In the survey, 97% said they were concerned about saving for their future. They see their grandparents as a role model: 59% rated their grandparents as very good or excellent savers.

Grandparents may be missing their influence due to cultural differences, the survey authors say. Many grandparents today are Baby Boomers, the generation that once upon a time didn’t trust anyone over 30. They wonder why young people would listen to them about anything.

But Millennials are coming of age in different times. They embrace the new multi-generational workplace and family. Through the Great Recession, they have seen first hand how tough life can be and they tend to respect elders who have muddled through despite life’s many ups and downs, says Joe Coughlin, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab, which collaborated with TIAA-CREF on the study.

Coughlin suggests initiating the money conversation with grandkids when they are teens or earlier. Saving for college is a great starting topic. This may require crossing another divide, however. Grandparents are largely in the dark as to how expensive college has become. Four-year university costs easily run to $100,000 and can shoot to $160,00 or more at a private school. Yet one in five grandparents believe the total to be under $50,000 and a quarter believe it to be $50,000 to $75,000, TIAA-CREF found.

In speaking to grandkids about money, the trick is framing the discussion as a personal experience. Kids love to hear stories about rituals, big decisions, frugality and home life, he says. Grandparents can find ideas and conversation starters for teens here and for younger kids here and here.

Taking on this subject can be a fun and rewarding way to get to know a grandchild better—and it may be a huge help to parents. “Life has gotten very busy for dual income households,” Coughlin says. “Grandparents can fill in the gaps. They have the time and the stories to tell.” They just need to understand that, unlike themselves in younger days, the kids will listen.

Related stories:

 

MONEY First-Time Dad

Why New Parents Deserve to Splurge on Themselves Sometimes

Illustration of parents eating at elevated table above baby toys
Leif Parsons

Living in an apartment stuffed with all kinds of toys for his son, this reporter found that spending $350 to create an oasis for himself and his wife was totally worth it.

Part of the joy of raising an infant is accumulating his toys and books and play mats and teethers and clothes and pacifiers and chairs and bottles and strollers and carriers and … well, you get the idea. Clutter is a part of life, and the fact that Luke, our 6-month-old son, is gathering enough junk to take over our apartment means he’s becoming a person. I own, therefore I am.

Still, there is one tiny section of our tiny Brooklyn home that’s off-limits to Luke’s stuff. It’s an alcove just big enough to hold a circular marble table and two tall cushioned chairs. If the rest of our home is a Gymboree, this patch of paradise is the Four Seasons.

We carved out this island of adulthood a few weeks ago, buying the $200 marble table secondhand and plucking the marked-down chairs off the Internet for $150.

Spending $350 on ourselves might not sound like a big deal, but Luke’s goodies aren’t cheap, so most of our discretionary spending is earmarked for the little guy. My wife is a teacher and I’m a journalist. We’re in the early stages of our careers and must make rent while still chipping away at our student loans. In our world of limited sleep and vanishing funds, a vacation, dinner out, or even a night at the movies is a rare treat.

Yes, we could have used the dining set we already owned. But our old furniture felt as though it belonged to cohabitating grad students, not a married couple. My wife and I tied the knot a few months before Luke’s birth, so our friends and family look at us more as new parents than as newlyweds. That’s usually the way we see ourselves too. Marriage, though, requires as much attention and devotion as parenting. You can easily get lost in the wonder of watching your son explore the world around him and forget that less than a year ago you stood in front of the people you love and pledged to be with each other forever.

Now, after Luke falls asleep, Ali and I sit down in our new cream-colored chairs. We rest our glasses of wine on the table and talk about our day. And for a moment, it’s only us.

Taylor Tepper is a reporter at Money. His column on being a new dad, a millennial, and (pretty) broke appears weekly. More First-Time Dad:

MONEY Kids and Money

Would You Spend $60 for Your Kid’s Lunch Box?

Laptop Lunches Bento Set with Sandwich and Yogurt.
PB& J in a Spiderman lunch box, or a Laptop Lunches bento set with carrots and yogurt? Laptop Lunches

In search of toxin-free, reusable, leftover-friendly lunch gear for their children, some parents are willing to pay a premium.

When it comes to kids’ lunches, we’ve come a long way from PB&J, an apple, and a cookie in a brown paper bag.

Beau Coffron, of Fremont, Calif., packs his daughter’s school lunches in stainless steel containers that cost at least $20 a pop. He apportions all of her food into little compartments, making cartoon characters like Charlie Brown and animal shapes such as tigers and llamas out of the ingredients. Her sports water bottles cost about $10, and the sack to carry it all came with the lunch kits but would retail separately for about $25.

Everything is toxin-free and reusable, naturally.

What started as simply a creative way to pack lunches has become a movement in the U.S. to reduce waste from individual packaging, save money by buying in bulk, make use of leftovers, and have toxin-free food containers—and share it all on social media.

Coffron, who posts pictures of these lunches on his blog, is part of this wave of moms and dads who are willing to pay much more than the cost of a box of plastic baggies at the dollar store for these benefits.

Parents who are investing in fancy lunch gear say it’s worth the upfront costs because it lasts longer than disposable items. The annual savings from reusable items amount to an average of $216 a year, according to a study by U-Konserve, whose lunch kit runs $39.95.

While popular in Japan, Bento-style lunch gear, where a variety of food is packed in small containers or compartments in a specialized, lidded tray, is still a very small portion of $1.4 billion food storage industry, according to research firm Euromonitor International. However, the small companies that sell these products report phenomenal U.S. growth during the last several years as the trend has exploded.

Laptop Lunches, one of the oldest and biggest of these companies, launched in 2002 and now sells more than 500,000 units a year, according to the company. On the smaller end of the spectrum is PlanetBox, which sells under 100,000 units a year. Launched five years ago, PlanetBox says sales are up 150% the last two years.

Products vary from all-in-one solutions like PlanetBox, which has a $59.99 Bento lunch kit with a bag and stainless steel lunch tray, to multi-piece solutions like Laptop Lunches’ $32.99 kit. A simple Goodbyn tray with three compartments runs $8.99.

That’s a lot of cash for something that is likely to end up lost within the first week of school, which is why more manufacturers are offering customization. For example, PlanetBoxes offers magnets to put on cases and Goodbyns come with stickers so that the items are easily recognizable in the lost-and-found bin. The heft of these products makes children realize they need to take care of them, too.

Mix and Match

Investing in one expensive lunch kit might not be enough, which is why there’s some mixing and matching that goes on, parents say.

Venia Conte, based in Las Vegas, has two PlanetBox lunch kits, in case one gets misplaced or is dirty, plus a couple of LunchBots lunch kits, which run $20 for the stainless steel containers. She also uses stainless steel food thermoses, which cost around $25 each, plus $1.50 re-usable napkins from Etsy.com and various water bottles.

“When you look at their shoes, which they grow out of in six months, $50 for a lunch box doesn’t seem so bad,” says Conte, who blogs about her lunches to keep herself engaged for 180 days a year.

While the bento lunch fad has been ongoing in Japan for years, most of the companies selling these products in the U.S. emerged after the recession in 2008.

“When I started the business, parents were like: $25 for a lunch box, that’s like way too expensive. But parents are factoring that equation differently,” says Sandra Harris, founder of ECOlunchbox, whose three-compartment stainless steel kid’s tray runs $12. “Now, BPA-free is a household word,” she says, referring to the Bisphenol, a chemical that is found in polycarbonate plastics.

For Tammy Pelstring, who started Laptop Lunches, the biggest surprise has been the community that has sprung up around these lunch kits, fueled by social media. Her company started before Pinterest and Instagram, so the first thing she noticed was people posting photos on Flickr of lunches packed in her lunch boxes—thousands upon thousands of them.

“We completely hit on something,” Pelstring says. “There’s this joy that people get when you create a beautiful lunch. It feels really good.”

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