TIME Saving & Spending

The 10 Most Livable Countries in the World

114637145
Michael Echteld—Getty Images/Flickr Select

A surprising number one pick

This post is in partnership with 24/7 Wall Street. The article below was originally published on 247WallSt.com.

Based on the most recent release of the Human Development Index by the United Nations Development Programme, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the most and least livable countries. Data from the Human Development Index is based on three dimensions of human progress — having a long and healthy life, being knowledgeable, and having a good standard of living. According to the index, Norway is the most livable country in the world, while Niger is the least livable.

One factor that influences a country’s development is its income. The U.N. used gross national income in its calculation of the Human Development Index to reflect the standard of living in a country. In the most developed countries, gross income per capita is generally quite high. All of the world’s 10 most livable countries had among the top 30 gross national incomes per person. The top-rated country, Norway, had the world’s sixth highest gross national income per capita of $63,909.

At the other end of the spectrum, the world’s least developed countries typically had very low incomes. Six of these 10 least livable nations were among the bottom 10 countries by gross national income per capita. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, which had the lowest gross national income per capita in the world, at just $444 last year, was the second least developed country worldwide.

Click here to see the 10 most livable countries

Similarly, these countries also generally had extremely high percentage of their populations living on just $1.25 a day or less, adjusted for purchasing power. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in Burundi, more than 80% of the population lived on less than $1.25 per day.

Life expectancies, another factor considered in the Human Development Index, were also far better in highly developed nations. Switzerland, Australia, and Singapore were all among the top rated countries with life expectancies greater than 82 years for individuals born in 2013. By this metric, the United States is a relative laggard. The median life expectancy at birth in the U.S. of 78.9 years was ranked just 38th worldwide.

For individuals born in the world’s least developed nations, the average life expectancy was far lower. In all but one of these nations, a person born in 2013 had a life expectancy of less than 60 years. Sierra Leone, the fifth-lowest ranked nation, had the worst life expectancy, at just 45.6 years.

Sadly, among the factors contributing to these low life expectancies are, almost certainly, high mortality rates for infants and young children. Sierra Leone, which had the lowest life expectancy, also had the highest mortality rates for infants and children under five, at 117 deaths and 182 deaths per 1,000 live births.

Education also plays a role in determining development. In all but one of the most developed countries, residents aged 25 and older spent an average of more than 12 years in school. By contrast, in all of the world’s least developed countries, adult residents had less than four years of education on average.

ALSO READ: America’s Most (and Least) Educated States

The most and least developed nations also tend to be clustered geographically. Five of the 10 most developed countries are located in Europe. All of the least developed nations, on the other hand, are located in Africa, where political turmoil, health crises, and lack of infrastructure are far more common.

Despite their low scores, however, several of the world’s least developed nations have worked towards improving their economies in recent years, and their Human Development Index scores have improved as well. Mozambique is perhaps the best example. While it is still the 10th lowest rated nation, its score had risen by 2.5% per year between 2000 and 2013, faster than almost all other countries globally. Burundi’s score also rose substantially, by 2.3% per year in that time.

To identify the most and least developed nations, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the latest Human Development Index figures published by the U.N. The index included three dimensions made up of select metrics. The health dimension incorporated life expectancy at birth. The education dimension was based on the average and expected years of schooling, for adults 25 and older and newly-enrolled children, respectively. The standard of living dimension was determined by gross national income per capita. We also considered other statistics published by the U.N. alongside the index, including inequality measures, mortality measures, poverty rates, and expenditures on health and education as a percent of gross domestic product (GDP). All data are for the most recent period available.

These are the most livable countries:

1. Norway

> Human Development Index score: 0.944
> Gross nat’l income per capita: $63,909 (6th highest)
> Life expectancy at birth: 81.5 years (13th highest)
> Expected years of schooling: 17.6 years (6th highest)

According to the Human Development Index, no country is more livable than Norway. Relative to the country’s population of just 5 million, Norway’s economy is quite large. Norway had a gross national income of $63,909 per capita last year, more than all but five other nations. Oil revenue has helped Norway become quite wealthy and accounts for a majority of the country’s exports. Like several other highly-developed countries, and Scandinavia in particular, 100% of retirement age Norway residents receive a pension. Norwegians also enjoy particularly good health outcomes. There were just two deaths per 1,000 live births in 2012, tied for the lowest infant mortality rate.

2. Australia
> Human Development Index score: 0.933
> Gross nat’l income per capita: $41,524 (20th highest)
> Life expectancy at birth: 82.5 years (4th highest)
> Expected years of schooling: 19.9 years (the highest)

Australia had one of the longest life expectancies in 2013, at 82.5 years. Residents 25 and older had also spent more time in school than adults in any other country, at 12.9 years on average as of 2012. Australia’s per capita gross national income of $41,524 last year was roughly on par with other highly developed countries. Additionally, at 5.2% last year, the country’s unemployment rate was far lower than similarly developed countries in Europe as well as the United States. Australia’s economy has benefitted tremendously from a mining boom in recent years, although the economy is currently rebalancing as iron ore prices have dropped and gorwth in China — a major trade partner — has slowed.

3. Switzerland
> Human Development Index score: 0.917
> Gross nat’l income per capita: $53,762 (9th highest)
> Life expectancy at birth: 82.6 years (3rd highest)
> Expected years of schooling: 15.7 years (28th highest)

Known for its political and economic stability, Switzerland also had the third highest life expectancy out of all countries reviewed, behind only Japan and Hong Kong. Switzerland’s gross national income was $53,762 per capita in 2013, higher than all but a few countries reviewed. Switzerland also scored among the highest in terms of gender equality, with exceptionally high female labor participation and educational attainment rates. In addition, there were less than two teen pregnancies per 1,000 people reported in 2010, nearly the lowest adolescent birth rate. Foreigners, however, may not necessarily have option of moving to this highly livable country. Switzerland, which is not part of the European Union, recently approved quotas and other controls on immigration.

4. Netherlands
> Human Development Index score: 0.915
> Gross nat’l income per capita: $42,397 (17th highest)
> Life expectancy at birth: 81.0 years (18th highest)
> Expected years of schooling: 17.9 years (5th highest)

The Netherlands is among the more equitable countries measured by the United Nations, with a Gini coefficient far lower than that of the United States and a number of other highly developed nations. The country also scored well in gender equality due to its low maternal mortality rate, low teen birth rate, and the high level of female representation in parliament. Last year, 37.8% of representatives in parliament in the Netherlands were women, well above the 18.2% in the U.S. Congress.

For the rest of the list, please click here.

TIME Money

This Is the Scariest Number Facing the Middle Class

Official Figures Indicate Britain Is Heading Into Recession
Christopher Furlong—Getty Images

The $20,000 retirement plan

The average middle class American has only $20,000 in retirement savings, according to a new survey that shows large swathes of the public are aware of those shortfalls and feeling anxious about their golden years.

Wells Fargo surveyed more than 1,000 middle class Americans about the state of their savings plans. Roughly two-thirds of respondents said saving for retirement was “harder” than they had anticipated. A full one-third of Americans said they won’t have sufficient funds to “survive,” a glum assessment that flared out among the older respondents. Nearly half of Americans in their 50s shared that concern.

But perhaps the most startling response came from the 22% of Americans who said they would prefer to suffer an “early death” than retire without enough funds to support a comfortable standard of living.

TIME relationships

Why You Need to Talk About Your Partner’s Credit Card Debt

couple-talking-credit-card-laptop
Getty Images

This article originally appeared on Refinery29.com.

The modern dating scene is tough — we know that all too well. Finding a great partner feels like hitting the jackpot, so you might be tempted to overlook certain serious red flags in the name of love. But, what if you’re ready to take the next step with your partner and discover that he or she is deep in credit card debt? This is an issue you definitely shouldn’t dismiss — money is one of the main reasons couples fight. Failing to address your partner’s debt before you move in together or get married could cause heartache down the road. So, should you move forward or hit pause? Here’s how to decide.

Consider The Why
Discuss your financial situations. It’s important to get to the bottom of why he or she is dealing with debt. Asking specific questions about how the balance was incurred will give you a better sense of your beloved’s overall level of financial responsibility.For instance, did your partner face a major emergency that they didn’t have the cash to cover? In this case, the debt can be chalked up to an expensive, one-time event. It doesn’t indicate a pattern of irresponsible financial behavior. But, if your partner carries credit card debt due to reckless spending, you should give this some thought. If you budget carefully and live within your means, you might have a hard time coupling up with someone who doesn’t share your values.

(MORE: Why I Don’t Feel Guilty About My Credit Card Debt Anymore)

Consider The How
Next step? Consider how your significant other is dealing with the shortfall to decide if the relationship is worth pursuing. Even if a mountain of credit card debt is the result of frivolous spending, your partner may have realized the blunder. If your mate is taking steps to pay off the balance — moving to a smaller apartment, going out less, taking on an extra job — count these as good signs. Everyone makes mistakes, and working hard to correct a financial misstep means your partner is trying to get on the right track.However, if he or she seems unconcerned about the debt and isn’t making an effort to pay it off, you should take a step back. Credit card debt is a serious financial burden, and your partner should be treating it as such. Ignoring a lingering balance could signal a lack of judgment when it comes to money.

(MORE: Do You Really Need A Credit Card?)

In The End, It All Depends — But Tips Help
Money is a highly personal and emotional topic, so only you can decide if your partner’s credit card debt is a deal-breaker. The important thing is to discuss the issue before taking a major step in your relationship, and keep the lines of communication open. This will help you assess the direction of your partnership and keep you informed about how your mate’s financial situation is evolving.If you want to help improve your partner’s credit card habits, consider sharing these tips: Keep a budget and track your spending — this will keep you from spending more than you can afford to pay off. Pay your bill in full by its due date — you’ll stay out of debt and keep your credit score healthy. Never use more than 30% of your available credit — this will help you achieve and maintain good credit. Read your monthly statement carefully — you’ll be able to spot fraud if it occurs.

The Takeaway
Understanding why your partner is in credit card debt and how he or she is dealing with it is an important step to take before getting serious. Consider it one more stepping stone on the road to finding “the one.”

(MORE: How to Keep Your Finances Safe After a Breakup)

MONEY Love + Money

5 Super Easy Online Tools that Can Help Couples Feel More Financially Secure

hearts made out of money
iStock

Can't seem to get on the same page with your partner when it comes to money? Help has arrived.

In order to achieve common goals, getting on the same financial page with your romantic partner is critical—but it’s also challenging.

As our own MONEY survey recently revealed, a majority of married couples (70%) argue about money. Financial spats are, in fact, more frequent than disagreements over chores, sex and what’s for dinner.

The Internet can offer some strategic intervention. From budgeting to paying off debt, saving to credit awareness, these five online financial tools can help everyone—and, in particular, couples—get a better handle on their money.

The best part: They’re free.

1. For help reaching a goal: SmartyPig

SmartyPig is an FDIC-insured online savings account that—besides paying a top-of-the-heap 1% interest rate—is designed to help consumers systematically save up for specific purchases using categorized accounts like “college savings,” “summer vacation” or “new car.” Couples can link their existing bank accounts to one shared SmartyPig account and open up as many goal-oriented funds as they desire. You see exactly where you stand in terms of reaching your goals, which can motivate you to keep saving.

Additionally, SmartyPig has a social sharing tool that lets customers invite friends and family to contribute to their savings missions. Don’t want people to bring gifts to your child’s next birthday? In lieu of toys, you can suggest a ‘contribution’ to his SmartyPig music-lessons fund and provide the link to where they can transfer money.

2. For help boosting your credit scores: Credit.com

If you and your partner need to improve one—or both—of your credit scores and seek clarity on how, Credit.com can help. The Web site offers a free credit report card that assigns letter grades to each of the main factors that make up your score: payment history, debt usage, credit age, account mix and credit inquiries.

A side-by-side comparison of each person’s credit report card can—even if the scores are roughly the same—actually reveal that one spouse scored, say, a D for account inquiries, while the other has a C- under debt usage. From there you can tell what, specifically, each person needs to improve upon. “It may lead to some friendly competition,” says Gerri Detweiler, Director of Consumer Education at Credit.com.

3. For help tracking your expenses: Level Money

Called the “Mint for Millennials,” Level Money is a cash-flow-management mobile app that automatically updates your credit, debt and banking transactions and gives a simple, real-time overview of your finances. It includes a “money meter” that shows how much you have left to spend for the remainder of the day, week and month.

A spokesperson tells me that couples with completely combined finances can share a Level Money account and see all bank and credit card accounts in one place. They can get insight into when either partner spends money and how that affects cash flow. The company says it’s continuing to build out tools for couples.

4. For help eliminating debt: ReadyForZero

If you and your partner need some nudging to get out of credit card debt once and for all, ReadyForZero may be of service. Launched three years ago, it’s an online financial tool that aims to help people pay off debt faster and protect their credit. The free membership gets you a personalized debt-reduction plan with suggested payments. The site tracks your progress so you can see how well—or how poorly—you’re doing and regularly posts “success stories” on its site to motivate users. You also get access to the ReadyForZero mobile app which sends you push notifications suggesting an extra payment towards your balance if you just placed a larger than normal deposit in savings or checking.

For couples, the tool can help one or both partners to stop living in denial and to come to terms with their financial obligations. Says CEO Rod Ebrahimi, “it demystifies the debt.”

5. For help syncing up generally: Cozi

When I asked attendees at the annual Financial Bloggers Conference last month about what sites, apps and online tools they like to use to keep their finances in check in their relationships, a few pointed to the website and app Cozi. It’s not a financial tool per se, but Cozi helps households stay organized, informed and in sync with master calendars and household to-do’s like food and meal planning, shopping and appointments.

Want to schedule a meeting to talk about holiday gifting and how much to spend? Put in in Cozi. Want to plan meals for the week so you’ll know exactly what to buy at the market and not be tempted to order in? Tap Cozi to make a list.

Ashley Barnett who runs the blog MoneyTalksCoaching.com says she and her husband have been using Cozi for years. “My favorite part is that the calendar syncs across all devices, so when I enter an event into the calendar, my husband will also have it on his,” she says. Cozi’s actually gone so far as helping the couple minimize childcare costs. “Before Cozi, if I accidentally booked a meeting on a night my husband was working late, I had to either pay a sitter or reschedule the client, which is unprofessional and hurts my business,” says Barnett. “Now when I pull up my calendar I see his work schedule as well. No more surprise sitters needed!”

[Editor's Note: Cozi was recently acquired by Time Inc., the company that owns MONEY and TIME.]

Farnoosh Torabi is a contributing editor at Money Magazine and the author of the new book When She Makes More: 10 Rules for Breadwinning Women. She blogs at www.farnoosh.tv

TIME Sports

Tour de France Prize Money Way Up

Tour de France 1934
Frenchman Rene Vietto tries to break away from Spanish rider Vicente Trueba as they climb the mountain pass of the Tourmalet (Col du Tourmalet) on July 23, 1934 during the 18th stage of the 28th Tour de France AFP / Getty Images

With Wednesday’s official announcement of the route for the 2015 Tour de France, the best cyclists in the world know exactly where they’ll be next July. They also know what they stand to win: there are about 2 million euros (about $2.6 million) at stake, with a €450,000 prize for the final winner and €22,500 for the winner of each stage (that’s about $576,000 and $28,800, respectively).

That’s considerably less than the prize pool available for the famously lucrative International Dota 2 video game championships, but it’s plenty to get excited about — especially compared to the money that used to be available for Tour de France winners.

When TIME first covered the world’s most famous cycling event, in 1934, only 60 competitors were entered (versus 198 today) and the stakes were much lower:

L’Auto, Paris sportpaper, founded the race in 1903 as a circuit of the Auvergne highlands, enlarged it by stages to its present scale. L’Auto foots the bills for meals & lodging, furnishes to each contestant his bicycle, as many tires as he can wear out, $2.64 per day for pin-money. This year publicity-seeking merchants have scraped up 800,000 francs ($52,800) for prizes. The winner of each of the 23 daily laps gets 1,.000 francs ($660).

Even accounting for inflation, that’s not much compared to today’s prizes: $52,800 in 1934 dollars is $937,207.88 today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator, and $660 is $11,715.10. That means the winner of each stage stands to make twice as much as he did 80 years ago, and the overall prize pot is nearly three times as big. And the prizes haven’t exactly climbed steadily: in 1954, TIME reported that the winner of each stage would take home a mere $570 (about $5,000 today).

At least 1934’s racers could afford a train ticket, if not necessarily first class. And, as TIME wrote in its coverage of the race, that was important: “One race was so swift and grim,” reported the magazine, “that after the finish a rider was reported to have bought a train ticket over the route so that he could inspect the scenery.”

Read more: A Brief History of the Tour de France

TIME Earnings

Warren Buffett Just Lost Another $1.5 Billion

Billionaire investor Warren Buffett speaks at an event on September 18, 2014 in Detroit, Michigan.
Billionaire investor Warren Buffett speaks at an event on September 18, 2014 in Detroit, Michigan. Bill Pugliano—Getty Images

Losses in IBM and Coke add to a recent rough patch for Buffett

Another day, another $1 billion down the market’s drain. Spare a thought for Warren Buffett, whose portfolio is not doing him any favors this week. On Monday Buffett lost nearly $1 billion on his third-largest investment, IBM, after the company posted disappointing earnings. On Tuesday, Coca-Cola did the same thing, posting third-quarter revenue that fell short of expectations and warning of currency headwinds.

Coke is Buffett’s second-largest investment and has been one of the stalwarts of his portfolio for decades. (He left Coke’s board in 2006 and his son Howard took a board seat there in 2010). With 400 million shares, Tuesday’s decline of $2.72 cost…

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME Money

European Commission Fines Banking Cartel $120 Million

US-FINANCE-JP MORGAN-MADOFF-PENALTIES
The headquarters of JP Morgan Chase on Park Avenue December 12, 2013 in New York. STAN HONDA—AFP/Getty Images

JPMorgan will pay the lion's share, followed by UBS and Credit Suisse

The European Commission levied a $120 million fine against JPMorgan, UBS and Credit Suisse on Tuesday, for manipulating key interest rates through an illicit cartel.

JPMorgan incurred the largest fine, $79 million (62 million euro), for fixing the Swiss franc Libor interest rate, Reuters reports. The bank will pay an additional $13 million (10.5 million euro) for participating in a cartel with UBS and Credit Suisse to rig interest rates on derivatives.

UBS and Credit Suisse will pay $16 million and $12 million fines, respectively, though Royal Bank of Scotland escaped sanctions for alerting European regulators to the price fixing scheme.

[Reuters]

TIME Aviation

Airlines Hike Prices on Domestic Flights

JetBlue initiated the $4 fare increase

The five biggest U.S. airlines all increased their base fare on domestic flights in the past week, despite declining fuel prices and apprehension over the potential spread of Ebola.

JetBlue initiated a $4 fare increase last Thursday, and United, Delta, American and Southwest followed suit, the Associated Press reports.

Though the airlines are trying to boost revenue with an across-the-board price increase, the effect it will have on the average consumer is less clear. Even with a base fare increase, airlines change prices frequently to adjust for evolving demand.

The move comes despite a slip in fuel prices (one of an airline’s largest expenses) and worldwide fear over Ebola. Both factors might seem to give airlines reasons to cut fares.

Wall Street seemed to reward the price increase with shares in the major airlines all gaining by at least 3%.

[AP]

TIME Saving & Spending

Here’s Exactly How You Waste $1,700 Every Year

Money in jeans pocket
Image Source—Getty Images

If you do this, you might as well be lighting a pile of money on fire

Traffic congestion isn’t just a frustrating part of commuter life; it’s expensive. A new report finds that every household with a car-commuting member loses $1,700 a year in time and gas burned thanks to bumper-to-bumper traffic.

If you think that’s bad, it’s going to get worse: Researchers predict that annual cost will soar to $2,300 by 2030. Between now and then, the total tab adds up to $2.8 trillion.

The Centre for Economics and Business Research found that last year alone, wasted time and gas from sitting in traffic cost us $78 billion, and it warns that we’ll face greater congestion in the future because our population is growing and we’ll buy more cars, adding to the rush-hour standstill. (The study was commissioned by INRIX, a company that makes traffic-navigation software.)

Researchers say traffic jams also generate indirect costs. The group estimates that $45 billion worth of costs incurred by freight stuck in traffic gets passed along to consumers, and the carbon from the gas we burn has an annual cost of $300 million.

An expanding population and economy are the main culprits, says INRIX CEO and cofounder Bryan Mistele. More people and a higher GDP make car ownership more ubiquitous and more affordable.

And while you might think recent decreases in the price of gas might help, researchers say this actually hurts our traffic prospects in the long run: Cheaper gas means people are more willing to plunk down the money for a car and more likely to get behind the wheel, rather than considering alternatives like consolidating trips or carpooling. This, of course, means more vehicles clogging our roads at any given time.

According to the American Automobile Association, idling burns about a gallon of gas an hour even if you don’t go anywhere. So, what can the average commuter do?

Unfortunately, the answer for many right now is “not much.” Mistele suggests that in-car software or smartphone apps can help by giving drivers real-time congestion information and suggesting alternate routes. (That’s true, but sometimes even an alternate route will leave you staring at brake lights as the clock ticks.) Workarounds like alternative work hours are telecommuting can help, if you’re one of the lucky few who has that kind of job flexibility, but many of us don’t. Alternatives like public transportation, walking or biking will work for some, but will be inconvenient for anybody trying to haul a little league team or a warehouse club-sized package of paper towels across town.

Along with trying to consolidate trips and carpooling, the AAA recommends resisting the temptation to speed up as soon as there’s a bit of a break, then jamming on your brakes again a minute later. “It takes much more fuel to get a vehicle moving than it does to keep it moving,” the group advises, so try to keep a slow and steady pace if you can. Get the junk out of your trunk and remove unused third-row seating to lighten your load and improve your mileage.

TIME Retirement

The Last Will and Testament of a Millennial

Portrait of woman writing letter at desk
Portrait of woman writing letter at desk, circa 1950 George Marks—Getty Images

It started with leaving my boyfriend my share of the rent — then things got complicated

I’m going to die, I reminded my boyfriend. My eventual death was something I’d been mentioning to lots of people, on Facebook and at engagement parties and at my high-school reunion.

It wasn’t that I thought death was going to come any time soon or in any special way, it’s just that, as they say on Game of Thrones, all men must die. So I was writing a will. I’d downloaded a template. I’d filled it out. I just hadn’t signed it yet, and in the mean time it had become my favorite topic of conversation: I’m going to die, we’re all going to die, I’m filling out paperwork about it, what’s new with you?

I asked my boyfriend: Is there anything else you want me to leave you? Besides my share of the rent. Besides the fish tank and the fish. Besides the coffee table, the pots and pans, the things that I call ours that are legally mine.

He said: Yes, but don’t tell me what it is. Make it something special.

That was a good answer, which wasn’t surprising. He takes deep questions seriously, and we’re well past the point where you have to act like it’s awkward to imply that your relationship will exist more than a few years in the future. So of course he had a good answer — but it was also a difficult one. What object that I owned could possibly say what I needed it to? There was, it must be said, not too much to choose from.

That’s a big part of the reason why young unmarried people with no children — that’s me: 28, legally unattached, childless — don’t usually bother with a will. Unlike a medical directive, which everyone should have, wills are something we can do without. The law of intestacy, the statutes that cover what happens when you die without said last testament, should take care of you just fine unless you’re very wealthy, whereas I fall into the It’s A Wonderful Life category: worth more dead than alive. I’m living comfortably, but my life-insurance policy is my most valuable asset.

Plus, most young people don’t need a will for an even more basic reason. Most of them don’t die.

However, even if death is a constant, life has changed. Last year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released a report finding that nearly half of American women 15–44 cohabitated with a partner prior to marriage, using data from 2006–2010. That was a major increase from past studies, and by now the numbers may well be even higher. A cohabitating partner is entitled to nothing when the other dies. Marriage and children are also coming later in life, which means that people are acquiring more wealth before the laws regarding spousal inheritance kick in and before they have to choose a guardian for their child. So for people like me, without a will, there’s no way to say give this thing to my friend, give this thing to my brother, donate this thing to charity.

Hence, my will obsession. If all goes according to plan, it will be the umbrella that keeps the rain from falling, rendered obsolete within a few years. Marriage and children and my inevitable Powerball victory will change my priorities, and I’ll have to write a new one. But, as anyone who’s ever thought about a will must have realized, not everything goes according to plan.

***

Given changing social norms, estate planning ought to be a mainstay for millennial trend-watchers, except that there’s no way to know how many of us are actually out there thinking about the topic. There’s no way to know how many wills there are, period. Lawrence Friedman, a professor at Stanford Law and the author of Dead Hands: A Social History of Wills, Trusts and Inheritance Law estimates that — though there’s no way to track them — wills may be getting more common as popular awareness increases. A century ago, even counting the super-wealthy, he thinks probably half of the population gave it a thought. But, he says, the role of wills is also changing, as people live longer and are more likely to give their children money while everyone is still alive.

What’s not changing is that wills are fascinating to think about. Whether it’s the buzzy economist Thomas Piketty discussing the way inherited wealth affects society or a historian analyzing Shakespeare’s bequeathing his “second-best bed” to his wife, people who look at wills see more than what the dead person wants to do with his stuff. “I used to say to my class that what DNA is to the body this branch of law is to the social structure,” Friedman puts it.

Though it may seem obvious today that each adult has the right to leave his property to whomever he chooses, that privilege isn’t necessarily a foregone conclusion. Historically, there have been two competing theories behind inheritance law. One side holds that having a will is an inalienable right; the 17th century scholar Hugo Grotius wrote that, even though wills can be defined by law, they’re actually part of “the law of nature” that gives humans the ability to own things. John Locke agreed: if we believe property can be owned, it follows that we must believe that ownership includes the right to pass that property to whomever the owner chooses.

On the other hand, there’s just as long a tradition of the idea that wills are a right established by government and not by nature, because, not to put too fine a point on it, you can’t take it with you. If ownership ends at death, the state should get to decide how inheritance works, for example by saying that all property must always go to the eldest son, or by allowing children written out of a will to appeal to the state. Perhaps due to colonial American distaste for the trappings of aristocracy, the U.S. ended up with the former system — and Daniel Rubin, an estates lawyer and vice president of the Estate Planning Council of New York City, says it’s a right worth exercising. “For most young people, it’s not going to be relevant. But it’s a safeguard. People should appreciate the opportunity to do what they want with their stuff,” he says. “We’ve got a concept in the United States of free disposition of your wealth. You can choose to do with it whatever you want.”

Most wills written by young people won’t be read — except maybe by our future selves, nostalgic for the time when a $20 ukulele was a prized possession — and the ones that will be seen will be sad. If I die tomorrow, that will be what’s known as an unnatural order of death, the child going before the parents. Inheritance is not meant to flow upward. On that, tax law and the heart agree. It’s one area where millennials’ will-writing and older generations’ diverge: usually, estate law is a happier field than one might expect, something I’ve been trying to keep in mind. Rubin says he cannot imagine practicing any other area of law and finding it so rewarding.

“It’s never sad. Sometimes people are reluctant to deal with these issues. Perhaps they feel it brings bad luck although they rarely express it that way. It’s probably that they just don’t see the need to do it because they don’t think they’re going to die soon,” he says. “It’s almost uniform that even the most reluctant clients will sign their wills and then leave my office and feel great.”

***

Of course, it’s not as if “what if I die” is a rare thought, even for people under 30. Tom Sawyer took it to extremes; Freud thought we’re all itching to find out. People will be sad, we hope. Maybe we care about funeral arrangements, like the tragic Love, Actually character whose pallbearers march to the sound of the Bay City Rollers. Maybe we think we know what comes next; maybe we think nothing does. Maybe we’ve thought about who gets the heirlooms, the things that always carry a whiff of death about them.

What happens to the ordinary stuff that fills our homes is less likely to cross our minds. And lot of what we have, or at least what I have, is just crap on some level, mostly. That used starter-level Ikea, left behind by an old roommate who moved to California, isn’t exactly something I’d pass down. My most valuable possessions are mostly Bat Mitzvah gift jewelry. And my favorite possessions aren’t necessarily valuable. And if I did give these things away, how would they be received?

Once, I got a gift from a family friend days before she died. It was a beautiful silk scarf. The death was not unexpected, but I didn’t write a thank-you note in time. The envelope meant for that task was on my desk for years. It was hers, though she never got it, so I couldn’t send it to someone else. Nor could I bring myself throw it away. So I put it aside, indefinitely, until I moved apartments and it was lost in the shuffle, quite literally, in a box marked “stationery.” I didn’t want my crap to become that envelope, useless and painful and eventually lost. Potential candidates: an Altoids tin full of spare buttons, my half-filled journals, decade-old mix tapes; pens and pencils, giveaway tote bags, decks of cards, reference books; nice things like a painting, a laptop, that scarf; the stuff that goes unnamed in the will, under the clause that includes the words “all the rest of my estate.”

The things we leave behind can be heavy. Perhaps the most special something I could leave my boyfriend would be the freedom not to carry me with him. I was reminded of a poem that the rabbi always reads during the memorial portion of the Yom Kippur service. “When all that’s left of me / is love, / give me away,” it ends. I’d never really thought I was paying attention during that part, but it was there, in my brain, waiting for such a moment. (I looked it up; it’s called “Epitaph,” by Merrit Malloy).

That’s the other option — and, for a while, despite having spent so much time thinking about my will, I was tempted. I could write a simpler will, with only the instruction to give everything to charity, or I could follow the long-standing young person’s tradition and just scrap the whole endeavor.

Except stuff is the only language left to speak. Even Rubin, who says his work is 97% concerned with money rather than objects, knows the feeling: he has a samovar that came to America with his family when they left Eastern Europe with almost nothing. It’s worth little but referred to throughout his life by his mother as his yerushe, Yiddish for inheritance. And “leave me something special” wasn’t all that my boyfriend said. It’s sad to think about, he said, but I like the idea of being named in your will. It’s a privilege to hear someone speaking to you when you thought the chance was gone, he said. No matter what it says in the will, he said, I’ll be happy to hear your voice. He has a point. After all, the verb “bequeath” is from an Old English word meaning “to speak.”

So I decided not to give up on the will. I’ll give my junk and my money to the people I love — though I did end up adding two more clauses before I felt finished. First, I added a few sentences in my own words to the legalese of the template I’d found online: don’t feel bad if you have to get rid of something, I told my heirs. Legally enforceable? No. Worth saying? Yes. Second, I found that something special, something not too heavy.

I printed the will. I found some witnesses and we signed the paper. I folded it up and put it in an envelope and put that envelope somewhere safe. And then I went back to my life.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser