MONEY Kids and Money

This App Will Have the Kids ‘Beg’ for More Chores

sisters doing dishes
Marcelo Santos—Getty Images

Here's how to keep the kids busy this summer, and teach them a thing or two about money and responsibility.

Any website that promises “your kids will beg to do their chores” deserves a skeptical eye. What might they promise next? They’ll eat all their vegetables? Floss after every meal?

Yet while the designers at ChoreMonster may be given to hyperbole, they also just might have hit on an answer to getting the kiddos to make their bed and empty the dishwasher without being asked for the thousandth time—and learn something about money and responsibility in the process.

Online chore charts are nothing new. You might even say the space is getting overcrowded for websites and apps that let parents assign chores to youngsters, tweens and teens, monitor progress and bestow awards for a job well done. The family can get organized at MyJobChart, ChoreBuster and FamilyChores. Places that connect allowance to household duties include Famzoo, iAllowance, allowance manager, Tykoon, GetPiggyBank and Threejars. The idea is to get the kids to pitch in, without all the nagging. That means doing it online and offering an incentive.

What makes ChoreMonster different is its engaging platform, which has plenty to offer parents and kids alike—like a timely list of seasonal chores you may not have considered, and funny little sounds and animated monster rewards. This is especially welcome as the dog days of summer roll in, and the kids are home all day and there are so many extra things that need to get done around the house. You know: cut the grass and wash the car.

Through a tie-in with Disney, ChoreMonster parents were able to reward kids with exclusive pre-release clips of the Pixar movie Inside Out in May and June. The company says it was a popular reward, and that other partnerships and unusual tie-ins will follow. In the meantime, rewards like TV and other screen time as well as cold hard cash should work just fine.

For this summer, ChoreMonster suggests having the kids clean the barbecue grill and the wheels on the family car, in addition to things you are more likely to have considered, like watering the garden and sweeping out the garage. Cash rewards should come with a money discussion, according to the site, which suggests 25% be set aside for a new game or book, 25% for a trip or other outing, and 50% for a future car or college. This conversation may be the most important one you have with your kids this summer, as it should get them thinking about concepts like wants vs. needs, budgeting, and saving. You might also have them consider carving out 10% for chartable giving.

The average allowance comes to $65 a month, according to a study from the American Institute of CPAs. Six in 10 parents pay allowance, half start the kids at age 8, and 89% expect their kids to work around the house at least one hour a week. There is a big debate about whether allowance should be tied to chores. Most of the sites and apps make it easy to keep track of which chores have been done and how much has been earned—whether it’s for allowance or straight pay.

What are the most popular rewards? Half of parents grant screen time (typically one hour); 14% pay cash; 11% give ice cream or some other treat; 6% buy a toy; and 3% pay for an outing. The top chores assigned are brush your teeth, make the bed, feed the pets, organize your laundry, and clean your room.

Monday is the best day for chores being completed and Friday is the worst, according to ChoreMonster. More assigned chores get completed on the West Coast than any other region, the company found. So much for that laid back California culture. Their kids probably eat their vegetables, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

MONEY Social Security

This Surprising Sign May Tell You When to Claim Social Security

old woman facing younger woman in profile
Liam Norris—Getty Images

For aging Americans, the condition of your skin can be a barometer of your overall health and longevity.

Skin is in, and not just for beach-going millennials. For boomers and older generations, the condition of your skin, especially your facial appearance, is a barometer of your overall health and perhaps your life expectancy, scientists say. And as the population ages—by 2020 one in seven people worldwide will be 60 or above—dollars are pouring into research that may eventually link your skin health to your retirement finances.

What does your skin condition have to do with your health and longevity? A skin assessment can be a surprisingly accurate window into how quickly we age, research shows. Beyond assessing your current health, these findings can also be used as to gauge your longevity. This estimate, based on personalized information and skin analysis, may be more reliable than a generic mortality table.

All of which has obvious implications for financial services companies. One day the condition of your skin—your face, in particular—may determine the rate you pay for life insurance, what withdrawal rate you choose for your retirement accounts, and the best age to start taking Social Security.

Skin health is also a growing focus for consumer and health care companies, which have come to realize that half of all people over 65 suffer from some kind of skin ailment. Nestle, which sees skin care as likely to grow much faster than its core packaged foods business, is spending $350 million this year on dermatology research. The consumer products giant also recently announced it would open 10 skin care research centers around the world, starting with one in New York later this year.

Smaller companies are in this mix as well. A crowd funded start-up venture just unveiled Way, a portable and compact wafer-like device that scans your skin using UV index and humidity sensors to detect oils and moisture and analyze overall skin health. It combines that information with atmospheric readings and through a smartphone app advises you when to apply moisturizers or sunscreen.

This is futuristic stuff, and unproven as a means for predicting how many years you may have left. I recently gave two of these predictive technologies a spin—with mixed results. The first was an online scientist-designed Ubble questionnaire. By asking a dozen or so questions—including how much you smoke, how briskly you walk and how many cars you own—the website purports to tell you if you will die within the next five years. My result: 1.4% chance I will not make it to 2020. Today I am 58.

The second website was Face My Age, which is also designed by research scientists. After answering short series of questions about marital status, sun exposure, smoking and education, you upload a photo to the site. The tool then compares your facial characteristics with others of the same age, gender, and ethnicity. The company behind the site, Lapetus Solutions, hopes to market its software to firms that rely heavily on life-expectancy algorithms, such as life insurers and other financial institutions.

Given the fledgling nature of this technology, it wasn’t too surprising that my results weren’t consistent. My face age ranged between 35 and 52, based on tiny differences in where I placed points on a close-up of my face. These points help the computer identify the distance between facial features, which is part of the analysis. In all cases, though, my predicted expiration age was 83. I’m not taking that too seriously. Both of my grandmothers and my mother, whom I take after, lived well past that age—and I take much better care of my health than they ever did.

Still, the science is intriguing, and it’s not hard to imagine vastly improved skin analysis in the future. While a personalized, scientific mortality forecast might offer a troublesome dose of reality, it would at least help navigate one of the most difficult financial challenges we face: knowing how much money we need to retire. A big failing of the 401(k) plan—the default retirement portfolio for most Americans—is that it does not guarantee lifetime income. Individuals must figure out on their own how to make their savings last, and to be safe they should plan for a longer life than is likely. That is a waste of resources.

I plan to live to 95, my facial map notwithstanding. But imagine if science really could determine that my end date is at 83, give or take a few years. It would be weird, for sure. But I’d have a good picture of how much I needed to save, how much I could spend, and whether delaying Social Security makes any sense. I’m not sure we’ll ever really be ready for that. But not being ready won’t stop that day from coming.

Read next: This Problem is Unexpectedly Crushing Many Retirement Dreams

MONEY real estate

This Problem Is Unexpectedly Crushing Many Retirement Dreams

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Peter Goldberg—Getty Images

Housing is most Americans' most important source of retirement security. So a sharp reduction in the rate of ownership, coupled with rising rents, is taking a toll.

The housing bust of 2008 touched every homeowner. The subsequent recovery has been selective, mainly benefiting those with the resources and credit to invest. This has had a more damaging effect on individuals’ retirement security than many might expect.

For a quarter century, home equity has been the largest single source of wealth for all but the richest households nearing retirement age, accounting for 44% of net worth in the 1990s and 35% today, new research shows. The home equity percentage of net worth is greatest among homeowners with the least wealth, reaching 50% for those with median net worth of $42,460, according to a report from The Hamilton Project, a think tank closely affiliated with the Brookings Institution.

By comparison, the share of net worth in retirement accounts is just 33% for all but the wealthiest households, a figure that drops to 21% for low-wealth households. So a housing recovery that leaves out low-income families is especially damaging to the nation’s retirement security as a whole.

There can be little doubt that low-income households largely have missed the housing recovery. Homeownership in the U.S. has been falling for eight years, down to 63.7% in the first quarter from a peak of over 69% in 2004, according to a report from Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. Former homeowners are now renters, frozen out of the market by their own poor credit and stricter lending standards.

Meanwhile, rents are rising, taking an additional toll on many Americans’ ability to save for retirement. On average, the number of new rental households has increased by 770,000 annually since 2004, making 2004 to 2014 the strongest 10-year stretch of rental growth since the late 1980s.

The uneven housing recovery is contributing to an expanding wealth gap, the report suggests. Among households near retirement age, those in the top half of the net worth spectrum had more wealth in 2013, adjusted for inflation, than the top half in 1989. Those in the bottom half had less wealth.

Housing is by no means the only concern registered in the report. Much of what researchers point to is fairly well known: Only half of working Americans expect to have enough money to live comfortably in retirement; longevity is putting a strain on retirement resources; half of American seniors will pay out-of-pocket expenses for long-term services and supports; the percentage of dedicated retirement assets in traditional defined-benefit plans has shrunk from two-thirds in 1978 to one third today.

All of this diminishes retirement security. Individuals must adapt, and with so much riding on our personal ability to manage our own financial affairs it is surprising that the report goes to some lengths to play down the importance of what has blossomed into a broad financial education effort in the U.S.

Financial acumen is generally lacking among Americans and, for that matter, most of the world. Just half of pre-retirees, and far fewer younger folks, can correctly answer three basic questions about inflation, compound growth, and diversification, according one often-cited study. Yet researchers at The Hamilton Project assert that it is an “open question” as to whether public resources should be spent on educational efforts, citing evidence of its effectiveness as “underwhelming.”

I have argued that we cannot afford not to spend money on this effort. Yet I also understand the benefits of promoting things like automatic enrollment into 401(k) plans and automatic escalation of contributions, which The Hamilton Project seems to prefer. The truth is we need to do all of it, and more.

MONEY 401(k)s

The Painless Way New Grads Can Reach Financial Security

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Steve Debenport—Getty Images

You don’t need to be sophisticated. You don’t need to pick stocks. You don’t need to understand diversification or the economy. You just need to do this one simple thing—now.

A newly minted class of college graduates enters the work world this summer in what remains a tough environment for young job seekers. Half of last year’s graduates remain underemployed, according to an Accenture report. Yet hiring is up this year, and as young people land their first real job they might keep in mind a critical advantage they possess: time, which they have more of than virtually everyone else and can use to build financial security.

Saving early is a powerful force. But it loses impact with each year that passes without getting started. You don’t need to be sophisticated. You don’t need to pick stocks. You don’t need to understand diversification or the economy. You just need to begin putting away 10% of everything you make, right away. And 15% would be even better.

Consider a worker who saves $5,000 a year from age 25 to 65 and earns 7% a year. Not allowing for expenses and taxes, this person would have $1.1 million at age 65. Compare that to a worker who starts saving at the same pace at age 35. This worker would amass half that total, just $511,000. And now for the clincher: If the worker that started at age 25 suddenly stopped saving at age 35, but left her savings alone to grow through age 65, she would enjoy a nest egg of $589,000—more than the procrastinator who started at age 35 and saved for 30 more years.

That is the power of compounding, and it is the most important thing about money that a young worker must understand. Those first 10 years of a career fly by quickly and soon you will have lost the precious early years of saving opportunity and squandered your advantage. That’s why, if possible, I advise parents to get their children started even before college.

Once you start working, your employer will almost certainly offer a 401(k) plan. More than 80% of full-time workers have access to one. This is the easiest and most effective way to get started saving immediately. Here are some thoughts on how to proceed:

  • Enroll ASAP Some companies will allow you to enroll on your first day while others require you to be employed for six months or a year. Find out and get started as soon as possible. Most people barely feel the payroll deductions; they quickly get used to making ends meet on what is left.
  • Have you been auto enrolled? Increasingly, employers automatically sign you up for a 401(k) as soon as you are eligible. Some also automatically increase your contributions each year. Do not opt out of these programs. But look at how much of your pay is being deferred and where it is invested. Many plans defer just 3% and put it in a super safe, low-yielding money market fund. You likely are eligible to save much more than that and want to be invested in a fund that holds stocks for long-term growth.
  • Make the most of your match A big advantage of saving in a 401(k) is the company match. Many plans will match your contributions dollar for dollar or 50 cents on the dollar up to 6% of your salary. This is free money. Make sure you are contributing enough to get the full match.
  • Keep it simple Choosing investment options are where a lot of young workers get hung up. But it’s really simple. Forget the noise around large-cap and small-cap stocks, international diversification, and asset allocation. Most plans today offer a target-date fund that is the only investment you’ll ever need in your 401(k) plan. Choose the fund dated the year you will turn 65 or 70. The fund manager will handle everything else, keeping you appropriately invested for your age for the next 40 years. In many plans, such a target-date fund is the default option if you have been automatically enrolled.
  • Take advantage of a Roth Some plans offer a Roth 401(k) in addition to a regular 401(k). Divide your contributions between both. They are treated differently for tax purposes and having both will give you added flexibility in retirement. With a Roth, you make after-tax contributions but pay no tax upon withdrawal. With a regular 401(k), you make pre-tax contributions but pay tax when you take money out. The Roth is most effective if your taxes go up in retirement; the regular 401(k), if your taxes go down. Since it’s hard to know in advance, the smart move is to split your savings between the two.
  • Get help An increasing number of 401(k) plans include unbiased, professional third-party advice. This may be via online tools, printed material, group seminars, or one-on-one sessions. These resources can give you the confidence to make decisions, and according to Charles Schwab young workers that seek guidance tend to have higher savings rates and better ability to stay invested for the long haul in tough times.

Read next: 6 Financial Musts for New College Grads

 

 

MONEY Retirement

What Italy and Germany Show Us About the Future of Social Security

woman holding Italian and German flags
Shutterstock

Families, not government, may be what rescues retirement.

One of the big questions facing retirement planners is how much to count on Social Security in the decades ahead. The number of Americans past age 65 will double by 2050, part of the longevity revolution that threatens to leave Social Security insolvent by 2033.

That doesn’t mean benefits would stop abruptly. Under the current system, enough funding would be in place to continue benefits at 77% of the promised level. Of course, anything is possible if laws change. But cuts probably are coming.

Most Americans get that. Among those that have not yet retired, just 20% believe they will receive full benefits when they retire, according to a Pew Research report. Some 31% expect reduced benefits and 41% expect no benefits at all. Presumably, these findings skew along age lines. Most experts believe benefits adjustments will be phased in. Those currently 55 or older likely will see minimal change to their benefits while those under 30 likely will see big change.

The longevity revolution is a global phenomenon, and government pensions are in trouble around the world. Two of the oldest nations on the planet are Germany and Italy and, demographically speaking, they are now where the U.S. will be in 35 years: a fifth of their population is older than age 65. If you think Americans are glum about prospects for collecting Social Security, these nations offer a glimpse of what’s coming.

In Germany, just 11% think they will receive benefits at current levels, 45% think they will receive benefits at reduced levels and 41% expect to get no benefits at all, Pew found. In Italy, only 7% believe they will get full benefits, 29% expect benefits at reduced levels and 53% think they will get no benefits at all. Interestingly, Germans and Italians are twice as likely as Americans to believe this is primarily a problem for government to solve. In the U.S., there is a strong belief that this is a problem for families and individuals to fix, Pew found.

Just 23% of Italians are putting anything away for retirement, vs. 56% of Americans and, perhaps because austerity is in their DNA, 61% of Germans. The most important statistic, though, may be the percentage of young adults (ages 18-29) that are saving. This is the group most likely to see reduced or no benefits in retirement but which still has 40 years or more to let savings grow. In the U.S., 41% of young adults are saving for retirement. In Germany, the figure is 44%. In Italy, just 13% are saving.

What will fill the gaps? Pew found a strong sense of families as backstops in all three countries. Nearly nine in 10 Italians view financial assistance for an aging parent in need as their responsibility. The figure is 76% in the U.S. and 58% in Germany. This sense runs deepest among young adults, perhaps because their parents are now assisting them through an extended period of dependence known as emerging adulthood.

In all three countries, financial help is more likely to flow down to adult children than up to aging parents: about half or more of adults with grown children have helped them financially in the last 12 months. That many or more have assisted grown children in non-monetary ways as well, helping with errands, housework, home repairs or child care. The vast majority says this assistance is more rewarding than stressful; they value the time together.

So family support looms as a large part of future retirement security for many people in graying nations, and that’s fine for families with the wherewithal. But young adults, especially, don’t have to feel victimized by the decline of government pensions. They have many opportunities for tax-advantaged saving through an IRA or 401(k) plan, and decades to let compound growth solve their problems. Workers past 50 can take advantage of catch-up contributions, and for guaranteed lifetime income use a portion of their savings to buy a fixed annuity. Like it or not, personal savings is the key to retiring comfortably—self security in place of Social Security.

 

 

MONEY real estate

The Surprising Way to Snag a House in a Bidding War

couple taking keys to house
Getty Images

Bidding wars are back. Here's how to win.

Homes are selling faster, and getting more multiple offers and bids above the asking price than just before the financial crises, new research shows. Yet with the typical home still selling for less than it did in 2006, it is difficult to call this a bubble.

Some 28% of homes this year and last year sold within two weeks of being put on the market, up from just 19% pre-recession, according to a survey from Coldwell Banker Real Estate. Meanwhile, 47% of recent home sales saw multiple offers, vs. 42% pre-recession; and 27% got offers above the asking price, vs. 25% preceding the recession.

This data, however, may be somewhat misleading. For starters, the median home nationally sold for $219,400 in April, up 9% from the year earlier and a robust 42% from the market bottom in 2011-2012. But that remains shy of the $230,400 median price reached in July 2006, and after the sharp bounce back price gains now seem to be leveling off, says Budge Huskey, CEO of Coldwell Banker Real Estate.

And most of the heated activity is taking place in desirable neighborhoods, where obstacles to new construction put a premium on existing homes. The bidding wars generally are occurring on move-in-ready homes that are priced to sell. “The vast majority of markets around the country reflect more balanced inventories and rates of appreciation which have decelerated from the pace of the last two years,” Huskey says.

Still, in many ways this is a seller’s market, fueled in part by rising interest rates. Mortgage rates remain low at just above 4% for a 30-year fixed rate. But the trend has been up since January, and many expect rates to continue climbing. That brings in buyers from the sidelines that want to act before the cost of money goes higher.

Even if sellers fail to entice an offer above the asking price, they may take advantage of the conditions and be exceptionally choosey about a buyer. Just 46% of sellers take the first offer they get, down from 59% during the recession, the survey shows. A record 36% of sellers since 2013 say they chose a buyer based on emotion in addition to their ability to pay—up from 19% pre-recession.

Keep that in mind if you are buying. A downsizing baby boomer may not get the price they had counted on before the recession. But they may want to be sure the house where they raised their kids goes to a family they like. “It’s increasingly common for buyers in competitive situations to provide extensive information on why they would prove the perfect owners and neighbors,” Huskey says.

 

MONEY Kids and Money

The Risky Money Assumption Millennials Should Stop Making Now

man walking tightrope
Kazunori Nagashima—Getty Images

Nearly half of millennials believe family will ride to the rescue if they don't save enough to retire. Here's a better plan.

As if we needed more evidence that millennials have been slow to launch, new research shows that a heart-stopping 43% are counting on financial assistance from loved ones if things go poorly with their retirement savings.

It’s not clear exactly who these loved ones may be—their boomer parents, or perhaps successful friends or even their own children. But counting on others for retirement security is almost always a mistake. No other generation has anywhere near this level of expectation for family aid, according to a Merrill Edge survey of Americans with investable assets of $50,000 to $250,000. Just 9% of those outside the millennial generation are counting on a friends-and-family backstop, the survey found.

Boomers are famously under-saved; many will struggle themselves to keep from becoming a financial burden to others. Yet their millennial offspring, accustomed to unprecedented support from Mom and Dad that spawned a new life phase called emerging adulthood, continue to believe they have a rock-solid back-up strategy. In a MONEY poll this spring, 64% of millennials said before marrying it is important to discuss any potential inheritance with a mate. Only 47% of boomers agree.

Certainly, some millennials will inherit financial security. Wall Street estimates about $30 trillion will flow in their direction the next few decades. But the average millennial will receive almost 10 times less than they expect—and many won’t receive a thing, and So the best retirement backstop is one they build for themselves.

Fortunately, the current crop of retirees has left a blueprint, according to the Merrill Edge report. Both retirees and pre-retirees overwhelmingly describe the ideal retirement as one that is stress free and financially stable. Yet 66% of Americans expect to be stressed about money in retirement because of the way they have saved during their working years. Those who are already retired express less concern; nearly three quarters believe they will have enough money to last through retirement. Only 57% of folks still working feel that way.

Retirees say that contributing to a retirement account (63%) and paying down debt (68%) while working were among the most important parts of their life strategy. Working Americans today are engaged in these activities at a lower level: 57% contribute to a retirement account and 54% are paying down debt, Merrill Edge found. Meanwhile, 42% of today’s retirees also invested outside their retirement accounts, vs. just 24% of workers today.

Another source of stress: Workers today have less confidence in a government solution, probably reflecting their more pessimistic view of Social Security. Only 28% of workers are counting on help from the government when they retire, vs. 41% of retirees who now say they rely on government assistance.

Three quarters of workers say they will rely on their own savings to fill financial gaps in retirement. Yet it is unclear they will have enough to make a big difference. In the survey, about one in three workers say they would be embarrassed if close friends knew the details of their finances. Much of this points to millennials’ overriding belief that Mom and Dad will make it all okay—and that might be the case for some. But to be safe, young workers should start now saving 10% of everything they earn. Four decades of compound growth is the only backstop they’ll ever need.

 

MONEY Kids and Money

Shark Tank for Kids: This Game Delivers the American Dream

A cattleman from Peoria, IL gets a second chance to show the Sharks what he's learned about his gourmet meat business since his Season 4 visit to the Tank.
Kelsey McNeal—ABC

Educators are using reality TV as a model for teaching kids about money. Here's why it works.

As part of his middle school history and civics classes, James Kindle incorporates a segment on money. He calls it Shark Tank after the popular TV show, and while the idea is to introduce personal financial concepts and entrepreneurship what Kindle believes he really teaches is how to achieve the American dream.

Just like the competitors in the TV show, Kindle’s students must come up with a business idea, write a proposal, and pitch the concept to teacher “investors.” He’s a pretty good pitchman himself. Bringing financial education alive through his Shark Tank program at Sullivan Community School in Minneapolis, Minn., earned Kindle first place in the PwC Financial Literacy Innovation Challenge and a $50,000 prize for his school.

“I want to give my students a taste of this dream, while teaching persuasive language, entrepreneurship, and financial literacy skills,” Kindle wrote in a request for funding. In an email, he added “while it might be awhile before my students are meeting with investors and venture capitalists to fund their business ideas, it won’t be long until they are presenting at science and history fairs, competing in speech and debate, or meeting with college admissions officers.” So his program teaches presentation skills, too.

As one of the judges in the PwC Charitable Foundation contest, I can say that what resonates in Kindle’s program is the game-based approach to a difficult subject, along with the infusion of popular culture to make the experience relevant. These were common traits of all top finishers. The results suggest to both parents and educators that they would do well to keep the principles of fun, hands-on, and timely instruction in mind when trying to teach young people about money.

Second place went to a history and civics class at Lawrence County High School in Moulton, Ala., where they play Biggest Loser, also modeled after a popular TV show. Students visit “exercise stations” where they choose a loan or credit card or make some other decision to help them lose “weight” (debt). Who knew reality TV could serve a purpose? Other finalist programs were organized around things like how much various careers pay, and everyday saving and spending decisions.

“Mr. Kindle’s Shark Tank lesson bases financial literacy around core values and behaviors versus facts and figures in order to teach skills like persuasion, negotiation and ownership,” says Shannon Schuyler, PwC corporate responsibility leader. “The idea was contagious, authentic and, most importantly, fun.”

Interestingly, this contest’s winners are taking bows even as educators around the country wrestle with the role of play in learning. With today’s focus on formal education, kids are being asked at earlier and earlier ages to put away the blocks and listen to their teachers lecture. Yet some researchers say this “head start” may backfire. Rebecca Marcon, a psychology professor at the University of North Florida, found that pre-school students allowed to learn through play earned significantly higher grades in the third and fourth grade. With financial education, especially, most experts agree that a game-based approach works best.

One study found that when good instruction is paired with high-quality digital games there is a 12% jump in cognitive learning outcomes. The game-oriented H&R Block Budget Challenge has produced evidence that this type of learning significantly improves financial know-how. Says Kindle: “Using games always increases student engagement. An activity that seems mind-numbingly boring, when slightly twisted into a game, suddenly becomes thrilling.”

Relevance and timeliness are also important. Modeling programs after Shark Tank and Biggest Loser gave students an instant touchstone. At home, parents trying to make a financial point might choose an opportune moment—perhaps when their teen is getting an iPhone upgrade, which means more to them than the incremental cost of your adjustable-rate mortgage as bond yields tick higher.

Understanding personal finance isn’t just a way to make ends meet. As the enterprising middle school teacher from Minneapolis might say, it’s how you achieve the American dream.

Read next: Kids and Money: The Search for What Really Works

MONEY 401(k)s

How the New-Model 401(k) Can Help Boost Your Retirement Savings

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Betsie Van Der Meer—Getty Images

As old-style pensions disappear, today's hands-off 401(k)s are starting to look more like them. And that's working for millennials.

If you want evidence that the 401(k) plan has been a failed experiment, consider how they’re starting to resemble the traditional pensions they’ve largely replaced. Plan by plan, employers are moving away from the do-it-yourself free-for-all of the early 401(k)s toward a focus on secure retirement income, with investment pros back in charge of making that happen.

We haven’t come full circle—and likely never will. The days of employer-funded, defined-benefit plans with guaranteed lifetime income will continue their three-decade fade to black. But the latest 401(k) plan innovations have all been geared at restoring the best of what traditional pensions offered.

Wall Street wizards are hard at work on the lifetime income question. Nearly all workers believe their 401(k) plan should have a guaranteed income option and three-in-four employers believe it is their responsibility to provide one, according to a BlackRock survey. So annuities are creeping into the investment mix, and plan sponsors are exploring ways to help workers seamlessly convert some 401(k) assets to an income stream upon retiring.

Meanwhile, like old-style pensions, today’s 401(k) plans are often a no-decision benefit with age-appropriate asset allocation and professionally managed investment diversification to get you to the promised land of retirement. Gone are confusing sign-up forms and weighty decisions about where to invest and how much to defer. Enrollment is automatic at a new job, where you may also automatically escalate contributions (unless you prefer to handle things yourself and opt out).

More than anything, the break-neck growth of target-date funds has brought about the change. Some $500 billion is invested in these funds, up from $71 billion a decade ago. Much of that money has poured in through 401(k) accounts, especially among our newest workers—millennials. They want to invest and generally know they don’t know how to go about it. Simplicity on this front appeals to them. Partly because of this appeal, 40% of millennials are saving a higher percentage of their income this year than they did last year—the highest rate of improvement of any generation, according to a T. Rowe Price study.

With a single target-date fund a saver can get an appropriate portfolio for their age, and it will adjust as they near retirement and may keep adjusting through retirement. About 70% of 401(k) plans offer target-date funds and 75% of plan participants invest in them, according to T. Rowe Price. The vast majority of investors in target-date funds have all their retirement assets in just one fund.

“This is a good thing,” says Jerome Clark, who oversees target funds for T. Rowe Price. Keeping it simple is what attracts workers and leads them to defer more pay. “Don’t worry about the other stuff,” Clark says. “We’ve got that. All you need do is focus on your savings rate.”

Even as 401(k) plans add features like auto enrollment and annuities to better replace traditional pensions, target-date funds are morphing too and speeding the makeover of the 401(k). These funds began life as simple balanced funds with a basic mix of stocks, bonds and cash. Since then, they have widened their mix to include alternative assets like gold and commodities.

The next wave of target-date funds will incorporate a small dose of illiquid assets like private equity, hedge funds, and currencies, Clark says. They will further diversify with complicated long-short strategies and merger arbitrage—thus looking even more like the portfolios that stand behind traditional pensions.

This is not to say that target-date funds are perfect. These funds invest robotically, based on your age not market conditions, so your fund might move money at an inopportune moment. Target-date funds may backfire on millennials, who have taken to them in the highest numbers. Because of their age, millennials have the greatest exposure to stocks in their target-date funds and yet this generation is most likely to tap their retirement savings in an emergency. What if that happens when stock prices are down? Among still more concerns, one size does not fit all when it comes to investing. You may still be working at age 65 while others are not. That calls for two different portfolios.

But the overriding issue is that Americans just don’t save enough and a reasonably inexpensive and relatively safe investment product that boosts savings must be seen as a positive. With far less income, millennials are stashing away about the same percentage of their earnings as Gen X and boomers, according to T. Rowe Price. That’s at least partly thanks to new-look 401(k)s and the target-date funds they offer.

Read next: 3 Ways to Build a $1 Million Nest Egg Despite Lower Investment Returns

MONEY Personal Finance

Oh No! Needing a Fridge, Rubio Raids Retirement Account

Larry Marano/Getty Images

Dipping into retirement savings to fund an everyday expense is a common but costly error.

If Florida Sen. Marco Rubio intends to lead by example, he’s off to a rocky start. The Republican presidential hopeful raided his retirement account last September, in part to buy a new refrigerator and air conditioner, according to a recent financial disclosure and comments on Fox News Sunday.

In liquidating his $68,000 American Bar Association retirement account, Rubio showed he’s no Mitt Romney, whose IRA valued at as much a $102 million set tongues wagging coast to coast during the last presidential cycle. Rubio clearly has more modest means, which is why—like most households—if he doesn’t already have an emergency fund equal to six months of fixed living expenses he should set one up right away.

He told Fox host Chris Wallace: “It was just one specific account that we wanted to have access to cash in the coming year, both because I’m running for president, but, also, you know, my refrigerator broke down. That was $3,000. I had to replace the air conditioning unit in our home.”

Millions of Americans treat their retirement savings the same way Rubio did in this instance, raiding a 401(k) or IRA when things get tight. Sometimes you have no other option. But most of the time this is a mistake. Cash-outs, early withdrawals, and plan loans that never get repaid reduce retirement wealth by an average of 25%, reports the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. Money leaking out of retirement accounts in this manner totals as much as $70 billion a year, equal to nearly a quarter of annual contributions, according to a HelloWallet survey.

Rubio’s brush with financial stress from two failed appliances probably won’t set him too far back. He has federal and state retirement accounts and other savings. And let’s face it: The whole episode has an appealing and potentially vote-getting Everyman quality to it. Still, it is not a personal financial strategy you want to emulate.

 

 

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