MONEY family money

This Company Will Give You $500 If You Have a Baby Today. Wait, What?

141017_FF_BabyMoney
Mike Kemp—Getty Images

It's no joke. As part of its rebranding campaign, investment firm Voya will give money to the newest of new parents.

Lucky for you if you’re in labor right now.

A company called Voya Financial has announced that it will give every baby born today—Monday, Oct. 20, 2014—500 bucks.

The promotion, timed to coincide with National Save for Retirement Week, is part of a marketing campaign to alert the public that the business that once was the U.S. division of ING is now a separate public company with a new name.

Get out the castor oil and order in Indian if you’ve already hit 40 weeks, because the offer is only available to those who exit the womb before midnight tonight—though soon-to-be-sleep-deprived new parents have until December 19 to register a child.

Voya estimates that it may have to kick in as much as $5 million, since there are about 10,000 babies born every day in the U.S.

While the company has promised that families will not have to sit through a marketing pitch to get the money, and that the baby’s information would be kept private, this special delivery still comes with a catch.

The money is automatically invested into Voya’s Global Target Payment Fund, which according to Morningstar has above-average costs and below-average performance.

Regarding the fees, Voya’s Chief Marketing Officer Ann Glover says that the funds Morningstar uses as comparison are not apples to apples. In any case, Glover says families are free to sell out of the fund if they so choose. “Of course, we would hope people would hold on to the investment,” she adds.

But hey, money is money, so if you’re due, you may as well take what you’re due.

And for those mamas and papas whose progenies aren’t quite ready to make their debuts? While you won’t get money from Voya, you may have other opportunities to get big bucks for your little one.

Start by checking in with your employer to see whether the company helps with college savings. A growing number do. Unum, for example, offers its workers with newborns $500 towards a college savings account.(Our Money 101 can help you find the best 529 college savings plan.)

Also, in several communities around the country, charitable or government programs seed savings accounts for kids. For example, residents of northern St. Louis County in Missouri can get $500 through the 24:1 Promise Accounts. Babies born in Connecticut get $100, plus $150 in matching funds by age four, thanks to the CHET Baby Scholars program.

“This is gaining significant momentum nationwide,” says Colleen Quint, who heads one of the nation’s most generous free savings program, the Harold Alfond College Challenge. Started by the founder of Dexter Shoes, the charity gives every resident newborn in Maine a $500 college savings account.

In fact, Mainers can get the most free money for their children according to a survey of such programs by the Corporate for Enterprise Development, which has gathered details on at least 29 free childrens’ savings programs.

Besides the $500 college savings account, a state agency will match 50¢ for every $1 parents contribute each year up to $100 a year and $1,000 over a child’s lifetime. So Mainers can, in theory at least, get up to $1,500 in free college savings money on top of any additional freebies they can get from companies.

That should be more than enough to buy a chemistry textbook in 2032.

MONEY Kids and Money

You Can Teach a Two-Year-Old How to Save

child's hand with ticket stubs
Frederick Bass—Getty Images/fStop

Worried about your children's retirement? With the help of a few carnival tickets, says one financial adviser, you can get them started early on saving.

A new type of retirement worry has recently surfaced among my clients. These investors are concerned not just about their own retirement, but about their children’s and even grandchildren’s retirement as well.

Much of our children’s education is spent preparing them for their careers. But in elementary school through college, there is little discussion about what life is like after your career is over. Little or no time is spent educating children about the importance of saving — much less saving for their golden years.

When it gets down to the nitty-gritty, parents want to know two things: One, at what age should they start teaching their children about saving? And two, what tactics or strategies should they use to help their children understand the importance of saving?

While parenting advice can be a very sensitive subject, discussing these questions has always worked out well for my clients and me. I keep the conversation focused around concerns they have brought up. In a world where student debt is inevitable and other bills such as car loans and mortgage payments add up quickly, parents are concerned for their child’s financial future. We now live in a debt-ridden, instant-gratification society, so how can our children live their lives while still saving for the future?

Here is what I tell my clients:

You can start teaching children the value of saving as early as two years old. At this age, most children don’t necessarily grasp the concept of money, so instead I recommend the use of “tickets” or something similar — maybe a carnival raffle ticket. As a child completes chores or extra tasks, he or she receives a ticket as a reward. The child saves these tickets and can later cash them in at the “family store.” This is where parents can really get creative: The family store consists of prepurchased items like toys or treats, and each item is assigned a ticket value. The child must exchange his or her hard-earned tickets to make a purchase.

I’ve seen first hand, and been told by others, that the tickets end up burning a hole in children’s pockets. They want immediate gratification, so they cash their tickets in for smaller, less expensive prizes. This is where parents can begin to really educate kids. Through positive reinforcement, they can encourage their children to save their tickets in order to purchase the prize they are really hoping for.

Eventually, saving becomes part of the routine. As children receive tickets, they stash them away for the future with the intentions of buying the doll, bike, video game or whatever their favorite prize may be.

As the child gets older, parents can transition to actual money using quarters or dollars. Now the lesson has become real. Parents can also implement a saving rule, encouraging the child that 50% of the earnings must go straight to the piggy bank. By age five, most children can grasp the concept of money and can begin going to an actual toy store to pick out their prizes. By starting out with tickets, parents are able to educate children about the power of saving at a younger age. By switching over to real money, children can then begin to learn the importance of saving cash for day-to-day items while still setting aside some money for later.

While this tactic may seem like it’s just fun and games, I have received feedback from several clients and family friends that it does in fact instill fiscal responsibility at a young age. Most importantly, I have seen it work first hand. My wife and I used this system with our five-year-old daughter. She was like most children in the beginning and wanted to spend, spend, and spend. Now, it is rare that she even looks at her savings in her piggy bank. She has graduated to real money and seems to really value its worth. She identifies what she wants to buy and sets a goal to set enough money aside for it. Before purchasing, she often spends time pondering if she actually wants to spend her hard earned money, or if she wants to continue saving it. In less than a year, she developed a true grasp on what it means to save and why it is important.

By implementing this strategy, financial milestones like buying their first car, paying for college, or purchasing their first home could potentially be a lot easier for both your clients and their their children. And the kids will learn the value of saving for their retirement, too.

———–

Sean P. Lee, founder and president of SPL Financial, specializes in financial planning and assisting individuals with creating retirement income plans. Lee has helped Salt Lake City residents for the past decade with financial strategies involving investments, taxes, life insurance, estate planning, and more. Lee is an investment advisor representative with Global Financial Private Capital and is also a licensed life and health insurance professional.

MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Help Your Kid Get Started Investing

Investing illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso Jr.

Q: I want to invest $5,000 for my 35-year-old daughter, as I want to get her on the path to financial security. Should the money be placed into a guaranteed interest rate annuity? Or should the money go into a Roth IRA?

A: To make the most of this financial gift, don’t just focus on the best place to invest that $5,000. Rather, look at how this money can help your daughter develop saving and investing habits above and beyond your contribution.

Your first step should be to have a conversation with your daughter to express your intent and determine where this money will have the biggest impact. Planning for retirement should be a top priority. “But you don’t want to put the cart before the horse,” says Scott Whytock, a certified financial planner with August Wealth Management in Portland, Maine.

Before you jump ahead to thinking about long-term savings vehicles for your daughter, first make sure she has her bases covered right now. Does she have an emergency fund, for example? Ideally, she should have up to six months of typical monthly expenses set aside. Without one, says Whytock, she may be forced to pull money out of retirement — a costly choice on many counts — or accrue high-interest debt.

Assuming she has an adequate rainy day fund, the next place to look is an employer-sponsored retirement plan, such as a 401(k) or 403(b). If the plan offers matching benefits, make sure your daughter is taking full advantage of that free money. If her income and expenses are such that she isn’t able to do so, your gift may give her the wiggle room she needs to bump up her contributions.

Does she have student loans or a car loan? “Maybe paying off that car loan would free up some money each month that could be redirected to her retirement contributions through work,” Whytock adds. “She would remove potentially high interest debt, increase her contributions to her 401(k), and lower her tax base all at the same time.”

If your daughter doesn’t have a plan through work or is already taking full advantage of it, then a Roth IRA makes sense. Unlike with traditional IRAs, contributions to a Roth are made after taxes, but your daughter won’t owe taxes when she withdraws the money for retirement down the road. Since she’s on the younger side – and likely to be in a higher tax bracket later – this choice may also offer a small tax advantage over other vehicles.

Why not the annuity?

As you say, the goal is to help your daughter get on the path to financial security. For that reason alone, a simple, low-cost instrument is your best bet. Annuities can play a role in retirement planning, but their complexity, high fees and, typically, high minimums make them less ideal for this situation, says Whytock.

Here’s another idea: Don’t just open the account, pick the investments and make the contribution on your daughter’s behalf. Instead, use this gift as an opportunity to get her involved, from deciding where to open the account to choosing the best investments.

Better yet, take this a step further and set up your own matching plan. You could, for example, initially fund the account with $2,000 and set aside the remainder to match what she saves, dollar for dollar. By helping your daughter jump start her own saving and investing plans, your $5,000 gift will yield returns far beyond anything it would earn if you simply socked it away on her behalf.

Do you have a personal finance question for our experts? Write toAskTheExpert@moneymail.com.

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.

MONEY Millennials

The Conventional Money Wisdom That Millennials Should Ignore

millennials looking at map on road
John Burcham—Getty Images/National Geographic

Maybe a 401(k) loaded with stocks isn't the best savings tool for some young people.

If you are in your 20s or early 30s, and you ask around for retirement advice, you will hear two things:

1. Put as much as you possibly can, as soon as you can, into a 401(k) or Individual Retirement Account.

2. Put nearly all of it into equities.

There’s a lot of common sense to this. Saving early means you can take maximum advantage of the compounding of interest. And your youth makes it easier for you to bear the added risk of equities.

But life is more complicated than these simple intuitions suggest. Here’s a troubling data point: According to a Fidelity survey of 401(k) plan participants, 44% of job changers in their 20s cashed out all or part of their money, despite being hit with taxes and penalties. Switchers in their 30s were only a bit more conservative, with 38% cashing out.

You really don’t want to do this. But let’s get beyond the usual scolding. The reality that so many people are cashing out is also telling us something. Maybe a 401(k) loaded with stocks isn’t the best savings tool for some young people.

The conventional 401(k) advice—which is enshrined in the popular “target-date” mutual funds that put 90% of young savers’ portfolios in stocks—imagines twentysomethings as the ideal buy-and-hold investors, as close as individuals can get to something like the famous, swashbuckling Yale University endowment fund. Young people have very long time horizons and no need to sell holdings for current income, the thinking goes, so why not accept the possibility of some (violently) bad years in order to stretch for higher return? But on a moment’s reflection on what life is actually like in your 20s, you see that many young people are already navigating a fair amount of economic risk.

Take career risk. On the plus side, when you’re young you have more years of earnings ahead of you than behind you, and that’s a valuable asset to have. Then again, you also face a lot of uncertainty about how big those earnings will be. If you are just gaining a foothold in your career, getting laid off or fired from your current job might be a short-term paycheck interruption—or it could be the reversal that sets you on a permanently lower-earning track. You may also be financially vulnerable if you still have high-interest debts to settle, a new mortgage that hasn’t had time to build up equity, or low cash reserves to get your through a bad spell.

This is why Micheal Kitces, a financial planner at Pinnacle Advisory Group in Columbia, Md., tells me he doesn’t encourage people in their 20s to focus on building their investment portfolio. You almost never hear that kind of thing from a planner, so let me clarify that he’s not saying you should spend to your heart’s content. (Kitces is in fact a bit stern on one point: He thinks many young professionals spend too much on housing.) He’s talking about priorities. For one thing, you need to build up that boring cash cushion. Without it, you are more likely to be one of those people who has to cash out the 401(k) after a job change.

Even before that’s done, you’ll still want to aim to put enough in a 401(k) to max out the matching contributions from your employer, if that’s on the table. (Typically, that’s 6% of salary.) So maybe all or most of that goes in stocks? An attention-getting new brief from the investment strategists Research Affiliates argues “no”—that instead of putting new savers into a 90%-equities target date fund, 401(k) plans should get people going with lower-risk “starter portfolios.”

I’m not sold on all of RA’s argument, which drives toward a proposal that 401(k)s should include unusual funds like the ones RA happens to help manage. But CEO Rob Arnott and his coauthor Lilian Wu offer a lot to chew on. They make two big points about young people and risk. One’s just intuitive: If you have little experience as an investor and quickly get your hat handed to you in a bear market, you could be so scarred from the experience that you get out of stocks and never come back. At least until the next bull market makes it irresistible.

The other is that 401(k) plan designers should accept the fact—all the advice and penalties notwithstanding—that many young people do cash them out like rainy-day funds when they lose their jobs. And so the starter funds should have a bigger cushion of lower-risk assets. That’s especially important given that recessions and layoffs often come after big market drops, so the people cashing out may well be selling stocks at exactly the wrong moment, and from severely depleted portfolios.

RA thinks a portfolio for new savers should be made up of just one third “mainstream” stocks, with another third in traditional bonds and the last third in what it calls “diversifying inflation hedges.” That last bit could include inflation protected Treasuries (or TIPS), but also junk bonds, emerging markets investments, real estate, and low-volatility stocks. Whatever the virtues of those investments, it seems to me that a starter portfolio should be easy to explain to a starting investor. “Diversifying inflation hedges” doesn’t sound like that.

But the insight that new investors might not be immediately prepared for full-tilt equity-market risk is valuable. Many 401(k) plans automatically default young savers into stock-heavy target date funds, but they could just as easily start with a more-traditional balanced fund, which holds a steady 60% in stocks and 40% in bonds. Perhaps higher risk strategies should be left as a conscious choice, for people who not only have a lot of time, but also a bit more market knowledge and a stable financial picture outside of their 401(k).

The trouble is, most 401(k) plans don’t know much about an individual saver besides their age. The 401(k) is a blunt, flawed tool, and just putting different kinds of mutual funds inside of it isn’t going to solve all of the difficulties people run into when trying to save for the future. Arnott and Wu’s proposal doesn’t do anything about the fact that using a 401(k) for rainy days means paying steep penalties. And it doesn’t help people build up the cash reserves outside their retirement plans that they’d need to avoid that.

As boomers head into retirement, we’ve all become very aware of the importance of getting people to prepare for life after 65. But millennials also need better ideas to help get them safely (financially speaking) to 35.

TIME Retirement

Millennials Actually Have an Edge on Retirement

The surprising advantage of the younger generation

Every generation likes to think it’s nothing like the one that came before it. As for retirement, millennials might actually be right. Twenty- and 30-year-olds make up the first postwar generation with almost no shot at getting a traditional pension from a private company. Today fewer than 7% of Fortune 500 companies offer such plans to new hires, according to the consulting firm Towers Watson. In 1998, when members of Generation X entered the workforce, 50% of Fortune 500 companies offered such plans.

It’s not all long odds. Here are some things to remember as you prepare for your sunset years.

Relax, you’ve got time. According to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, if you can start setting aside money at age 25, you’ll need to save only about 10% of your annual income to retire at 65. Start at age 35 and your target is a manageable 15%. But wait until age 45 and you’ll be stuck socking away 27% of your annual income.

You can also spend money to improve your chances of a happy retirement. In your 20s it can make sense to forgo some saving to invest in your future earnings potential, says financial planner Michael Kitces of Pinnacle Advisory Group in Columbia, Md. Think education–not only degree programs but also short courses that teach marketable skills. You should also pay off high-interest credit-card debt and build a cash reserve. That can cover emergencies, Kitces says. It can also provide greater flexibility, like the ability to finance a move to another city for a better job.

Even so, if you have a 401(k) plan, try to save enough (typically 6%) to get your maximum employer match. That’s like free money, says Anthony Webb, an economist at the Center for Retirement Research. If you save 6% and your company matches 50¢ on the dollar, you’ll save 9% of your income, nearly what a millennial should be doing.

You have the best tools ever. One advantage today’s savers have over previous generations is that investing can now be simple and cheap. An index fund that holds a representative slice of the U.S. stock market–like the giant Vanguard 500 or newer cut-rate competitors like Schwab Total Stock Market Index–charges investors 0.17% of assets or less per year. Compare that with the 1% or so charged by typical fund managers, who tend to perform worse than index funds after fees. Index funds are now common in 401(k)s. Why stress about a measly 1% charge? William Sharpe, the Nobel Prize–winning economist, recently projected the returns of indexers vs. expensive funds over a lifetime and found that the low-cost funds could deliver over 20% more wealth in retirement.

You can handle some risk. At your age, a big market loss represents a tolerable drop in your true lifetime wealth, says investment adviser William Bernstein. Consider investing much of your 401(k) in a stock fund, which should earn a higher return than bonds or cash over time, though with greater risk.

But be ready for large swings. “A 30-year-old who sees a $19,000 portfolio cut in half is going to feel devastated,” Bernstein says. If you don’t know how much risk you can handle, consider a 60-40 split. Sixty percent can be divided between a U.S. stock-market index fund and, for diversification, a similar fund holding foreign stocks, such as Fidelity Spartan International or Vanguard Total International Stock. The rest can go into a bond fund, like Vanguard Total Bond Market. If your 401(k) doesn’t offer index funds in all three areas, look for options with low costs and a broad mix of assets.

After you set up a simple portfolio, try to leave it alone. You are unlikely to correctly time the twists and turns of the market. And at your age, you have better things to think about.

TIME Retirement

5 Things Every Millennial Should Know About Retirement

Save, get lucky or wait for the robots

In this week’s TIME, I, an employed barely 24-year-old with little to no reason for confidence about my future, stare down my sunset years, exploring the world of retirement today and envisioning what it might look like 40 years from now. But I’m told millennials dig lists. So here’s what I learned.

Read the full story in this week’s magazine.

1. Every little bit of savings counts. It helps to build a nest egg. A 2010 study from the Center for Retirement Research says 53 percent of American households are at risk of losing their standard of living upon retirement; in 1989 only 30 percent of households faced such a predicament. Alexa von Tobel, the CEO of Learnvest, a firm which offers financial-planning services to the masses says you should get insurance and keep your debt down. Max out your 401(k) match, if your employer offers one, in your youth. Start an IRA. Cut out that extra coffee. It’s harder to save for retirement when you’re playing catch-up, and you never know what sort of harm could one day befoul you. She says, “Most of us work with our brains now. But how do you know you’re not going to have a brain injury, or something else happen? We just don’t know…We see all kinds of really great people that just didn’t know that something could happen.”

2. Choose your career wisely, then get lucky. And have an exit strategy. John Arnold, the energy trader turned philanthropist, managed to leave his job at 38, and with a spot on the Forbes 400 to boot. (He earned $1.5 billion at Centaurus Advisors in 2008; FORTUNE called him then “The Wunderkind Gas Trader.”) He does realize that not everyone could reasonably expect to follow his path. In his career he nonetheless found generally applicable lessons. “I fell into this job out of college, and my plan was to go to business school,” he says. But then he found that natural-gas trading was the perfect career for him. His math and problem-solving skills pushed him to the top of a cutthroat field. And then there was the money. “The one thing that money does—it allows you to follow your heart rather than do a particular job,” he says.

3. We should expect to be healthy long past the age of 65. Social Security sets the full retirement age for our generation at 67 (those born between 1938 and 1959 reach full retirement age somewhere in between 65 and 67). According to Centers for Disease Control data from 2010, though, the average 65 year-old American has 19.1 more years to live. (That’s up more than five years from 1950.) And we can expect 13.9 of those years to be healthy ones. Ursula Staudinger, the director of Columbia’s Butler Aging Center, says that the proportion of healthy years is expected to continue increasing, as the gospel of good health spreads and prescription drugs improve. All of this is to say that many of us will not need to drop out of the work force at 65 or 67 or even in our 70s, unless we want to. Living over the long-term without the structure and engagement of employment has even been shown possibly to diminish cognitive and physical health, Staudinger says. With that in mind, why don’t businesses try sabbaticals that would increase in frequency with age? What about formal hours-tapering programs? What about a government program that would engage us in civic activity when we’re elderly? I fear otherwise we’ll spend all our time on the PlayStation 37.

4. Retirement is a modern invention. The supposedly sacrosanct institution originated in Germany in the 1880s, when Kaiser Wilhelm I posited that the state ought to care for citizens who couldn’t work due to old age or disability. Germany soon established a social insurance system, and 50 years later, the United States had its own. But the conditions facing seniors during the Great Depression—the best statistics available show that about half of seniors lived in poverty, and generally in rural settings—and the conditions facing German workers in the first several decades of industrialization have next to nothing to do with the conditions in which most aspiring retirees toil today. There’s no reason we need to apportion our leisure time this way, except for that it’s tradition.

5. All of our retirement theorizing might be rendered moot by the advent of brain emulations. Robin Hanson, a futurist and economics professor at George Mason University, forecasts that at some point in the next century human-level robots will appear. Researchers, he predicts, will make cell-by-cell copies of the brains of the 100 most productive humans and implant them in robots. Then the emulations could do much of the work once assigned to humans. I can’t wait.

TIME Retirement

The Millennial Retirement Plan

Holly Andres—© 2013 Holly Andres

Staring down his sunset years, a 24-year-old goes in search of a happier, healthier ending for us all

Despite the blessings of youth–I’m 24 years old, with limber joints and without mortgage payments–I am aware that we have something of a retirement crisis on our hands.

You can’t miss it if you watch sports on TV, where financial-services firms pitch themselves to worried middle-aged men. I can’t miss it either when I call home. My parents are in fine shape, thank goodness, but like any other self-respecting late-50-something professionals, they are gaming out survival plans for so many improbable scenarios. And it didn’t take a lot of days on the job for me to notice that my employer was lowering its match on employees’ 401(k)s, leading to grumbling among some of my older co-workers, who saw their defined-benefit pension plans end in 2010.

The boomers, we’re told, might be going bust. But what–if I may be so millennial–about me? Sixty percent of American millennials, the approximately 85 million of us born from 1980 to 1999, expect to retire at age 65 or earlier, according to a recent survey from the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. Yet we came of age in an economic climate worse than any since the Great Depression, impossibly far from the postwar prosperity that greased our grandparents into the workforce. That alone seems to limit the chances of retirement’s having a future at all like its present.

More than that, we fancy ourselves a new breed. We think freely. We never unplug. We invented Pinterest. So even if we did have the financial wherewithal to retire in 40 years, should we want to? Are decades spent away from the office good for our bodies and brains? Does it make us happier to officially transition to a new phase so late in life? Perhaps retirement, this august institution that came of age in the era of World War II, has reached its own retirement date. I decided to find out.

Preparing for Retirement

My first call goes to Alexa Von Tobel, the CEO of LearnVest, a firm that bills itself as a financial planner for average Americans. LearnVest aims to make wealth care, as von Tobel puts it, as accessible as health care, with financial-planning packages priced in the mid-hundreds. Though the business won’t disclose its client numbers, LearnVest has raised more than $70 million in venture funding. Von Tobel has been on the cover of Forbes and on the cover of her own book, Financially Fearless. The one caveat about her retirement expertise? She’s 31. But considering she was twice admitted to Harvard (she earned her B.A. in 2006 and left business school in 2008 to start LearnVest), while I was twice rejected from Harvard, I thought myself in no position to judge.

Von Tobel invited me this summer to LearnVest’s New York City offices, on two sunny floors a few blocks from Union Square. Even sunnier than the space is von Tobel herself, energetic and quick to launch into a speech confirming the nation’s collective retirement peril. “In my book, Financially Fearless,” she says, “I almost wrote a whole chapter on the history of why I believe we have a huge financial crisis looming.” She fears that the mixture of widespread access to credit and widespread financial illiteracy will doom the nation.

The numbers do cast a distinct pall. A 2010 study from the Center for Retirement Research says 53% of U.S. households are at risk of losing their standard of living when their earners retire; in 1989 only 30% of households faced such a predicament. And that number concerns only people over the age of 30. The long-term financial prospects for millennials are even gloomier: according to the Project on Student Debt, 7 in 10 college graduates from the class of 2012 carried debt, with an average per-debtor load of $29,400. They graduated into an economy seemingly hostile to young workers, with an unemployment rate for job seekers ages 20 to 24 that averaged 12.8% for the year 2013. The unemployment rate for those ages 25 to 54 was less than half that, at 6.3%. And young workers with jobs should not consider themselves especially lucky; studies show that recession-era graduates often deal with depressed wages for the first decade of their careers.

Though millennial workers began saving for retirement earlier–the Transamerica study says 22 is the median age at which my generation’s workers started saving, compared with 27 for Gen X and 35 for baby boomers–they’ve also been under more pressure. According to a recent Wells Fargo study, 47% of millennials spend more than half their monthly income paying off debt; 4 in 10 call themselves “overwhelmed” by debt. They’re saving to dispel future gloom, but they’re already in the thick of it.

Von Tobel says a change in perspective helps. To our sit-down, she brought along Stephany Kirkpatrick, the firm’s resident retirement expert. Kirkpatrick considers saving a matter of behavioral psychology. No one wants to save for retirement, she says, when it looks like a mountain in need of scaling. But when clients see the merits of incremental savings modeled over 30 years, they perk up. Kirkpatrick and von Tobel tell me I ought to sock away a little bit more in a Roth IRA. It could do so much for me, and the numbers do look good.

But, I protest, I’m young and employed. I’m supposed to spend money on frivolous things! Besides, I say, what little employability I have comes from my brain. I’m not going to break down in my mid-60s. Why would I ever need to retire?

Von Tobel looks at me, and her tone turns serious again. “How do you know you’re not going to have a brain injury or something else happen? We just don’t know. We’re in this line of business, so we see all kinds of really great people that just didn’t know that something could happen.” Nice brain ya got there, I silently translate. It would be a real shame if something happened to it.

So I guess I have no choice but to save: Save by investing in the stock market, save by abstaining from indulgence, save by any means necessary. In preparing for retirement, there is no magic, only savings and more savings. I leave my LearnVest consultation planning to act on von Tobel’s simplest tips. I sign up for a high-yield online savings account and a Roth IRA (down a cool 1.85% at press time) and vow to limit my credit-card debt, buy more insurance and plan my monthly budgets. But I also get to asking myself many questions about the savings gospel. The biggest one: What’s in it for us?

The Early Retiree

One muggy Friday morning in houston, I meet a very happy retiree a little more than two years removed from the working world. His name is John Arnold. The father of three is all of 40 years old, and with his boyish, sheepish grin, he looks younger. Per Forbes, he possesses a modest nest egg of $2.9 billion, putting him among the 200 richest Americans.

In May 2012, Arnold did what so many workers dream of one day doing. He had gotten tired of running his hedge fund and he had made enough money at it, so he quit. But in place of a gold watch and a dinner at the Elks Lodge, he earned headlines in the New York Times and Houston Chronicle. In 17 years, Arnold had reached the top of his cutthroat profession, reportedly returning more than 300% on investments in 2006, closing his fund with billions under management after opening it with $8 million and with 60 employees after starting with three.

The first 14 years of work he loved. Arnold, an economics and math major at Vanderbilt, started at Enron in 1995, just a few days after graduation. He says the job–a junior-trader gig that paid $35,000 a year plus a 15K bonus–suited his skills perfectly. His boffo returns in the go-go late ’90s at Enron facilitated a steady rise, and even the company’s bankruptcy and criminal downfall (in which Arnold was not implicated) barely stalled him. Then came the big returns and the big days for Centaurus Advisors, the fund he launched in 2002. The job consumed him, but he liked it. He was working straight from 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., waking many mornings having dreamed about what he traded–natural gas.

By 2009 he began to question his passion as natural gas prices slumped. In 2011 he knew he wanted out. He figured his moneymaking opportunities were gone, his best days behind him. So he closed the fund just shy of its 10th anniversary. He took a summer vacation in Colorado and then got into philanthropy, which is what he spends the bulk of his time on now.

For a self-made man with such a spectacular mike drop to his credit, Arnold has little to share in the way of business maxims. His advice is simple enough: Find a career that suits you well, and try to make a lot of money at it. Then have an exit strategy concerning a passion of yours. His was public policy. “The one thing that money does–it allows you to follow your heart rather than do a particular job,” he says.

And in his retirement, one of Arnold’s primary causes is the reform of defined-benefit public-employee pensions. He wants rules mandating timelier funding for them and thinks it might be wisest for the defined-benefit plan to disappear altogether. (This change has long since been under way in the private sector, where defined-benefit pensions covered 35% of the workforce in 1990 but only 18% of it by 2011.) Since the 2008 financial crisis, six states have introduced plans with a mandatory defined-contribution component.

The story that pension politics and the expected exhaustion of Social Security’s trust fund in 2033 tells is the same one von Tobel told me: we millennials will be on our own in retirement.

Ready-Made Suburbia

Retirement, as an institution, traces its founding to 1889, when Otto von Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor, promised Germans over 70 that the state would provide them with income. It wasn’t until the 1935 signing of the Social Security Act, which endeavored to lift the elderly from poverty, that America’s retirement culture began to take shape. But it took postwar prosperity and the attendant improvement in seniors’ quality of life to vault retirement up to what it is now for the fortunate many, a round-the-clock actualization of a Jimmy Buffett song.

Retirement is, after all, sold to us from both sides: it’s not only the financial-services firms’ looming horror but also the real estate developers’ well-deserved, leisure-filled reward–the shimmering twilight years spent frivolously but guiltlessly before dotage arrives. Retirees defect, free of puritan compunction, from the Northern and Midwestern metropolises that gave them grueling if remunerative careers and head to warm climes with little industry to speak of other than condominium construction and physical therapy.

Maybe this lifestyle ought to come to an end. In search of answers, I give the Pulte Group a call. Pulte, one of America’s largest homebuilders, offers homes for prosperous active adults ages 55 and over, known as the Del Webb line. This is a name with some history. TIME put construction tycoon Del E. Webb on its cover in August 1962, heralding the rise of The retirement city: A new way of life for the old. Three years earlier, Webb had started selling houses at his Sun City development in Arizona, where in 1954 the first age-restricted residential community had cropped up. (Punning developers named it Youngtown.)

Today, even though Webb himself is 40 years deceased, about 50 still-selling 55-and-older communities bear his name. Securing my piece of these developments, or whatever their 2055 equivalent may be, is just what my new friends at LearnVest have me saving for. I had to explore. That’s how I find myself sitting shotgun in a double-length golf cart, touring Sun City Carolina Lakes, a newish development 30 minutes south of Charlotte, N.C. (Base prices start at more than $200,000, out of the range of many seniors and most assuredly out of mine.) Pam, a resident who gives tours, is behind the wheel, with Shannon, a sales VP, in back.

As we roll over the roads, statistics keep coming: 11 lakes on the property (two stocked for fishing–catch and release), eight softball teams (the primary source of business for local orthopedists, one resident jokes), four seasons (more than Florida has!), $50,000 (the state’s discount on the fair market value, for tax purposes, of homes with residents over 65). All of it, especially the last part, seems well suited for convincing stickler-y seniors.

But the social climate, more than the grounds, is what draws seniors to Sun City. In conversations with so many residents, the phrase like-minded people pops up. In exchange for surrendering lifelong friendships, the kind forged by happy accident in heterogeneous communities, seniors often seek out places where the residents act the same as them and do the same things they do. (Imagine picking a college, if college had no classes and lasted 20 years.) So the people here are mostly retired professionals, mostly friendly, mostly from the East Coast, mostly active, mostly with pensions and grandkids, mostly conservative, nearly all white.

At an afternoon cocktail hour at the home of Melissa and Rich, who came here from Columbus, Ohio, the talk is of richer lives and newfound passions. It’s important, Melissa tells me, to feel like you’re doing something meaningful after you’ve moved on from your old job and community and into a place full of people your own age. She used to be a teacher; now she works as a life coach and pursues creative arts. Barb and Joe, another couple, moved there from Erie, Pa. Joe left his government job early; Barb was reluctant to leave hers. But a friend gave her a copy of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, and she soon realized she had to leave town to grow. Joe says they know more people here than they did in Erie, where they lived for 60 years. Barb misses her friends. They keep in touch through Facebook.

The Sun City residents tell me that they cannot picture my generation wanting to retire there; apparently we don’t care for outdoor recreation. True enough. (Investment idea: Find a fixer-upper sanatorium next to an Apple Store.)

But it’s not just their immersion in screens that may scare millennials away from retirement communities. We’re also averse, I figure, to the homogeneous, ready-made suburbias the master builders have long sold. Instead, despite the prices, my generation has headed for cramped housing in diverse, historic cities. And we have done so largely in search of culture, which is hard to find at Sun City, even with Charlotte just a 30-minute drive away. Other communities have sprung up to corner the culture market–some universities have offered alumni the chance to retire on campus-adjacent developments–but that goes only so far. I can hardly fathom enjoying a life in which I interact only with people my own age, people largely just like me, with all the same cultural points of reference. Besides, I can get that free on Twitter.

Time to Save

I wanted, though, to square my assumptions with at least one senior. So I went to see the U.S.’s ranking consumer-advocate curmudgeon. “A healthy society,” Ralph Nader says, “provides opportunities across the board that send a message to the elderly: ‘We need you, we want you.’ ” Residential communities “put seniors out to pasture.”

Don’t even think about asking him about his own potential retirement date. Nader, 80, is no longer a frequent presidential candidate–his last campaign was in 2008, when he captured more than 700,000 votes–but he says he’s working harder than ever. He reads, writes, talks, advises, demonstrates, cajoles. Whatever it takes. He’s made just a few concessions to time, he says, cutting pastries out of his diet and surrendering his hopes for an uninterrupted night of sleep. Otherwise he’s the same Nader he was when he appeared on Time’s cover in 1969; he is still brimming with the blend of scorn and optimism that made him a civic leader. He still forgoes a computer in favor of his Underwood typewriter.

Nader laments the generational gap brought on by technology and, indeed, the whole retirement industry. “Take China. There’s no retirement. But older people, they’re revered for their wisdom and experience and willingness to help the young. Well, here, if you don’t know how to use an iPad,” he tells me, “you don’t have anything left for people your age.” Seniors feel lonely, burdensome, terrified of even the slightest hint of Alzheimer’s. And marketers, Nader says, prey on that anxiety. Seniors lose, and so does everyone else.

After my afternoon with Nader, I kick some of these matters to academic experts. Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins, predicts that the weakened American family structure will take a particular toll on retirees in the next few decades. Adult children usually serve as seniors’ most important caregivers, but fathers who are absent during their children’s formative years will struggle to enlist them later. (More than 8 million of the 33.2 million U.S. households with children under 18 are headed by unmarried women.) Yet there is some small reason for hope, from an unlikely source. According to Cherlin, the Great Recession has brought some families together, with adult children living with their parents out of necessity. Perhaps this closeness will persist into boom times.

Ursula Staudinger, the director of the Butler Aging Center at Columbia University, says the healthiest seniors are the ones who keep working. While short-term breaks from the structure and demands of a job can improve the mind, medium- and long-term absences often lead to downturns in mental and physical health, research suggests.

The average 65-year-old, ready to collect his first Social Security check, has 20 years to live, most of them rather healthy. And scientists expect the proportion of healthy years to increase. Retirement as we have long known it wastes the healthy minds of good people. A solution, Staudinger says, might be for large American employers to allow their middle-aged workers to take sabbaticals and gradually reduce their hours as they age, as some European firms have done. But we need an attitude change first.

Retirement, I’ve learned, isn’t so much an essential social institution as it is a fun-house mirror for the old generation. In middle age, we’re all more or less the same. Everybody works, and everybody’s unhappy. But when age 65 rolls around, our differences get magnified.

In retirement, those who had good jobs can play tennis all day and work part-time: consulting, advising, expert-witnessing. But those who did manual labor without the protection of a pension plan will have sore backs and need full schedules, hoping for scraps of service labor to be thrown their way.

Trends be damned, millennials should expect fairer and better–not a blessing to drop out of society and ignore its problems. Maybe it would serve us well to give up on our mythologized retirements.

Sure, I’ll save a little more cash just in case, and I’ll tell my friends to do the same. But I’m dreaming of starting a movement. My brain feels better than ever. I can keep it that way into my 80s or 90s, I bet, if I play the right games on my iPhone. With fresh eyes and a sharp mind and a renewed sense of purpose, I look forward to spending 60-some more years as I spent this one, writing for weekly magazines.

MONEY Saving

How Can I Save More?

Financial planning experts share easy ways to trick yourself into setting more money aside for your future.

MONEY advice

Help! My Friends Aren’t Saving For Retirement. What Can I Do?

Here's your chance to give your financial advice in the pages of MONEY magazine.

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