TIME Money

Why ‘Don’t Worry About Money, Just Travel’ Is the Worst Advice of All Time

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Chelsea Fagan is a writer and founder of The Financial Diet, a (non-boring) blog about personal finance.

It demonstrates only a profound misunderstanding about what 'worrying' actually means

I have an internet acquaintance that I’ve been following on social media for a little over two years now, an all-around nice, smart girl who blogs and does odd jobs and has recently decided to go back get a Master’s. In Europe. For a degree that, by all reasonable accounts, is probably not going to lead to a great job. And she knows this, I think, because she talks about it as “an opportunity to learn and expand her mind,” more than any sort of preparation for a future career. Which is fine, but the truth of the matter is that she is able to enjoy such freedom — to be a wanderer of sorts who enjoys travel, study for the sake of study, and long conversations over good dinners — because she comes from a good bit of wealth and, if not subsidized entirely, never has to worry about her safety net. She won that particular bit of genetic lottery, and it’s useless to begrudge her the freedom that fate bestowed on her.

But it is useful — important, even — to begrudge her the attitude that comes with it, one that is all too prevalent amongst young people who do not have to worry about the foundations of their future financial security: This idea that you must travel, as some sort of moral imperative, without worrying about something as trivial as “money.” The girl in question posts superficially inspiring quotes on her lush photos, about dropping everything and running away, or quitting that job you hate to start a new life somewhere new, or soaking up the beauty of the world while you are young and untethered enough to do so. It’s aspirational porn, which serves the dual purpose of tantalizing the viewer with a life they cannot have, while making them feel like some sort of failure for not being able to have it.

It’s a way for the upper classes to pat themselves on the back for being able to do something that, quite literally, anyone with money can buy. Traveling for the sake of travel is not an achievement, nor is it guaranteed to make anyone a more cultured, nuanced person. (Some of the most dreadful, entitled tourists are the same people who can afford to visit three new countries each year.) But someone who has had the extreme privilege (yes, privilege) of getting out there and traveling extensively while young is not any better, wiser, or more worthy than the person who has stayed home to work multiple jobs to get the hope of one day landing a job that the traveler will assume is a given. It is entirely a game of money and access, and acting as though “worrying about money” on the part of the person with less is some sort of trivial hangup only adds profound insult to injury.

I was able to travel, and even though I paid for my life abroad with my own work, it was still a result of a healthy amount of privilege. I was from a middle-class family who I did not need to support or help financially, I knew that I could always slink back to their couch if things didn’t work out, and I had managed to accrue a bit of savings while living at home for the few months before I left. There are millions of people who have none of these things, and even if they wanted to pay for travel on their own, would simply not be able to because of the responsibility or poverty they lived with. For even my modest ability to see the world, I am eternally grateful.

And what’s more, I understand (perhaps even better after having traveled a good amount) that nothing about your ability or inability to travel means anything about you as a person. Some people are simply saddled with more responsibilities and commitments, and less disposable income, whether from birth or not. And someone needing to stay at a job they may not love because they have a family to take care of, or college to pay for, or basic financial independence to achieve, does not mean that they don’t have the same desire to learn and grow as someone who travels. They simply do not have the same options, and are learning and growing in their own way, in the context of the life they have. They are learning what it means to work hard, to delay gratification, and to better yourself in slow, small ways. This may not be a backpacking trip around Eastern Europe, but it would be hard to argue that it builds any less character.

Encouraging that person to “not worry about money,” or to “drop everything and follow their dreams,” demonstrates only a profound misunderstanding about what “worrying” actually means. What the condescending traveler means by “not worrying” is “not making it a priority, or giving it too much weight in your life,” because on some level they imagine you are choosing an extra dollar over an all-important Experience. But the “worrying” that is actually going on is the knowledge that you have no choice but to make money your priority, because if you don’t earn it — or decide to spend thousands of it on a trip to Southeast Asia to find yourself — you could easily be out on the streets. Implying that this is in any way a one-or-the-other choice for millions of Americans is as naive as it is degrading.

Everyone needs to forge their own path to financial independence and freedom. And perhaps you are lucky enough that your path involves a lot of wandering around, taking your time, and trying a bunch of new things — because you know that security will be waiting for you at the end of the rainbow. That’s fine, and there is no need to feel guilt or shame over your privilege, if only because it’s unproductive and helps no one. But to encourage people to follow your very rare path, because you feel it is the only way to spiritual enlightenment or meaning, makes you an asshole. It makes you the person who posts vapid “inspirational” quotes that only apply to a tiny percent of the population who already has all the basics covered. And God forbid anyone who needs the money actually does follow that terrible advice, they won’t be like you, traipsing around South America and trying degrees for fun. They will, after their travels are over, be much worse off than when they started. And no souvenir keychain is going to make that reality sting any less.

This piece originally appeared on The Financial Diet.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

MONEY Travel

5 Money-Saving Tips for Road Tripping Families

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There's an art to saving money on the road.

With four kids between the ages of 1 and 12, Loralee Leavitt is a cost-savings ninja when she hits the road.

Leavitt, who hails from Kirkland, Washington, estimates that she has gone on more than 30 road trips with her growing family, logging over 60,000 miles, to places like Utah, Colorado, Arizona and California.

From packing their own food, to staying in state parks, to scouring for last-minute hotel deals, the family has made an art of saving money. Their piece de resistance: A trip to Montana’s Glacier National Park that did not cost more than $400 total.

“It is easy to spend more than you expect,” says Leavitt, author of “Road Tripping”. “But if you prepare it right, it can be a lot of fun, and very cheap.”

More Americans are planning road trips around the United States. In fact, 65 percent of those polled report they are more likely to take a road trip this summer than they were last summer, according to a recent survey by booking site Travelocity. And when you single out parents, a whopping 81 percent said they were more likely to hit the road with the kids this year.

Be careful, though. While a domestic road trip might appear like an affordable alternative to traveling abroad, costs can easily spiral out of control.

A recent study by travel site Expedia found that Americans expect to pay an average of $898 per person for a weeklong trip within their own country, hardly chump change.

To keep a lid on summer road-trip costs, we canvassed financial planners for their best tips, culled from personal experience. Here’s what they had to say.

Use Apps to Your Advantage

Not that long ago, travelers squinted at printed maps and missed exits. These days, there is no excuse for not using smartphone apps.

Google Maps, for instance, will get you from Point A to Point B without getting lost and racking up unnecessary mileage. GasBuddy will locate the cheapest local stations where you can fill up the tank. Apps like RoadNinja and Roadtrippers can tell you about local amenities and help plan your route, and HotelTonight or Hotels.com can locate last-minute lodging discounts nearby.

Get Campy

Ditch the hotels, and stay in campgrounds, says financial planner Therese Nicklas of Braintree, Massachusetts.

By camping in state parks with her family of four for around $10 a night, and cooking their own food, Nicklas estimates they save about $150 every single day.

You don’t have to pitch a tent every night. Consider an occasional splurge at a hotel with a pool, hot showers and free breakfasts.

Diehard money-savers might enjoy so-called “dispersed camping” permitted in many national and state forests, where you set up away from designated campgrounds. No amenities, but no fees, either.

Also consider an annual pass from the National Park Service, allowing you access to more than 2,000 sites nationwide for $80.

Hold Money-Saving Competitions

Adviser Niv Persaud of Atlanta has an innovative idea: Make budgeting a game with your kids instead of a chore. “For each dollar they save, on coupons, special deals, or cheap gas, they earn a star,” Persaud says. “The one with the most stars at the end of the trip gets to pick the location for the next family vacation.”

Forget Flights and Car Rentals

Whatever savings you realize by staying domestic could be wiped out by airline bookings and car- or RV-rental fees. So do what David MacLeod did, and schlep to your destination in your own car, even if it’s a long distance away. The planner from Fullerton, California recently took his family all the way from southern California to Montana in their trusty Honda Odyssey, saving $1,000 in the process.

Bring Your Own Food

The silent killer of many family travel budgets: Eating out. Nip that in the bud with a cooler or two stuffed to the brim with snacks and quick meals.

“A simple gallon of milk, box of cereal, yogurts and fresh fruit can provide a great breakfast at 1/4 of the cost of eating out,” says Janice Cackowski, a planner in Independence, Ohio. She also advises eating out only at lunch, when restaurant prices tend to be much lower.

Above all, don’t be scared off by the idea of being in a car for so many hours with your kids. Magic occurs when families actually spend time with each other. “Something wonderful happens: You pay attention to each other,” says Leavitt.

MONEY Saving

More Than Half of Americans are Delaying Major Life Events Because of This

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Some say money doesn’t buy happiness, but a lack of money might actually delay it.

A new study shows more than half of Americans have put off major life events like retirement and marriage because of financial worries in the last year. And that number has grown significantly since the recession, according to a poll from the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA).

When asked whether they delayed an important life decision because of money woes, 51% of respondents answered yes, up from only 31% in 2007.

A closer look shows the number of Americans putting off certain life events for financial reasons has more than doubled. For example, 24% put off going back to college last year, up from only 11% before the financial downturn, and 18% put off retirement, compared with only 9% in 2007.

Many also put starting a family on the back burner: 12% put off getting married, compared with 6% in 2007; 13% delayed having kids, up from 5%; and 22% put off buying a home, compared with 14% before the housing bust.

The number one financial worry that held people back from these milestones? A lack of savings, cited by 60% of survey respondents.

“If you don’t have adequate savings in place or you’re having trouble paying your bills, it may make sense to hold off on major life decisions until you’re on more solid financial footing,” explained Ernie Almonte, chairman of the AICPA’s National CPA Financial Literacy Commission.

But there are many ways people can make sure financial worries don’t get in the way of life goals, Almonte added. Among them: sticking to a monthly budget to keep you living within your means, starting an emergency fund to help with unexpected costs, and increasing the amount you save from each paycheck.

 

MONEY real estate

This Problem Is Unexpectedly Crushing Many Retirement Dreams

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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

How to Be in Your Friend’s Wedding and Not Go Broke

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Alamy

Being in a bridal party isn't all fun and games, especially when the tab comes due.

Being in a wedding may be an honor, but it’s expensive. Like, really expensive. Like, “I have to spend hundreds of dollars on clothes and travel then buy you a present to thank you for the opportunity” expensive. According the the most recent American Express Spending and Savings Tracker, the cost of being in a bridal party is now $701, up 13% from 2014.

But an honor is supposed to be priceless — or at least not send you to the poor house. Here are some ways to trim the bridal party sticker shock:

The Attire

Navigating sartorial demands is tricky because you’re limited to the wishes of the bride and groom.

Fellas, there’s not much you can do to reduce the cost of a tuxedo, but some tux shops do offer discounts when everyone rents from the same place. Unless you plan to wear it four or more times in the next few years, you’ll want to rent instead of buy.

Ladies have a little more wiggle room here. Once the bride has settled on a color and style (a process during which you can advocate for the lets-get-different-dresses-that-express-our-personality-and-are-consequently-cheaper approach) you can start scouring the recesses of the internet to find “gently used” dresses. Tradesy has a bridesmaid section, but steadfast options like Ebay can also help you find discounted dresses. Also, a local tailor may be cheaper than a bridal salon for alterations, so shop around before settling on a seamstress. And remember, you’re probably only going to wear the dress once — no need to splurge for a perfect fit, just enough tailoring to help you feel confident.

The Gift(s)

The American Express study also found that the average cost of a wedding gift is $106, plus an additional $77 for the shower gift, $86 for the bachelor/bachelorette party, and $89 for the engagement party.

One way to avoid racking up the gift expenses is by offering to contribute to the wedding in a creative way. Good at graphic design? Ask if they need help designing the invitations. A photographer on the side? Offer to take the engagement photos. When your friend tries to compensate you for your work, tell them it’s your present to them for their special day. Not only will your skills make a touching gift, they will also save the bride and groom money in the long run.

If your creative skills aren’t up to par, you still have options. First, try getting to the registry ASAP, before the cheap options (trivets! wooden spoons!) get scooped up. Pairing them with other low-cost items can help you create a themed gift (i.e. measuring cups + mixing bowel + cookie cutters = starter set for bakers) without selling your soul to pay for the professional stand mixer. If the registry still isn’t an option, you can buy off the list – just make sure you keep the couple’s style and preferences in mind, and always include a gift receipt.

The Logistics

Buddy up. With hotel rooms averaging $141 nationwide, split the cost with a fellow member of the bridal party. And though it’s hard to strategize when to get the cheapest flights, studies suggest booking 50 to 100 days before the event to get the best deal.

The Parties

Again, booking early can help transportation costs, but also consider Airbnb for cheaper lodging. For wild nights, consider locations that offer a high concentration of bars and restaurants so you can walk from place to place instead of relying on cabs or renting a limousine. You can also double down on the weekend by hosting both the bachelorette and bridal shower at the same time. It cuts travel costs in half, and one trip means less time off of work.

Bridesmaids are also often tasked with throwing the bridal shower, and food, decorations, alcohol and favors add up fast. One way to curb the cost is to host the event in someone’s home instead of renting out a room in a restaurant. You’ll avoid rental fees and have more flexibility with food and alcohol. It’s also a chance to flex your Pinterest muscles and adopt a DIY approach. Unless you want the shower to be a complete surprise, run generic ideas past the bride. If she’d rather not have the shower at someone’s home, consider parks (have a backup plan for weather), fraternal organizations or community spaces in condo or apartment complexes as well as her favorite restaurants.

And even though the financial tab for the shower often falls on the ladies, you groomsman may not be in the clear for long. Jack and Jill wedding showers are on the rise.

The Alt Option

Remember, if money is tight, being honest with your friend from the very beginning can help avoid a lot of headaches in the future. You can say no to the opportunity, and hopefully your friendship is strong enough that the bride or groom will understand. Start by acknowledging how honored you are to be offered a part in their day, but explain that financial constraints might keep you from performing your duties. You can finish the conversation by offering to help in other ways, like hosting the bridal shower or helping with last minute crafts and decorations. Besides being open with them, you also want to have the conversation as soon as possible to avoid causing last minute stress for the happy couple.

Read next: 8 Cost-Cutting Wedding Hacks

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 Banking

How to Get Bank Alerts on Your Phone

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Peathegee Inc—Getty Images/Blend Images RM

They're the best way to stop fraudsters.

If you haven’t already signed up to get alerts on your mobile phone from your credit card issuer, what are you waiting for?

Mobile alerts can tell you within minutes if your card is used in another country or if your payment is overdue. They can save you the embarrassment of being blocked at the cash register if a transaction seems suspicious by asking you via two-way text if the purchase is legitimate. And as I recently learned firsthand, they can help you catch fraud almost instantly.

I had just started receiving mobile notifications of every transaction on my American Express card when a transaction I didn’t recognize for $748 popped up. I immediately got on the phone. Sure enough, it was fraud. And even though AmEx hadn’t flagged it as a suspicious transaction, I was able to shut it down right away because I saw it.

That’s the beauty of mobile alerts and notifications, said Mark Schwanhausser, director of omnichannel financial services at Javelin Strategy & Research: “It’s a way to involve the customer and deputize them, because they often know better than the banks if something is legitimate or not.”

The alerts can also help you manage your personal finances by alerting you before a payment is due, if your balance goes over a specific amount or if you’re close to your credit limit. About four in every 10 consumers today have received some kind of alert from a financial institution, according to a Javelin report published in April. The company predicts that number will rise to more than half of U.S. consumers by 2019.

However, the report said most banks aren’t doing enough to promote their alerts, that it’s confusing and difficult for customers to enroll, and the alerts are “remarkably difficult” to turn on. “Finding alerts settings is akin to a Where’s Waldo’ search,” the authors wrote.

Since the issuers may not make it easy, here’s what you need to know to sign up:

How do you want to get your alerts?
You can get alerts through email, text message or “push notifications” that pop up in the status bar or notification tray of your cellphone. Email alerts are still the most common, according to Javelin, with 36 percent of consumers receiving them, compared to 22 percent for texts and 14 percent for notifications. Here are the pros and cons of the different types:

  • Email: Every bank surveyed by Javelin offers email alerts, and this type has been around the longest. The problem, of course, is that some folks don’t have email on their phones. Even if you do, you may not check it regularly. “Fraudulent transactions happen fast,” said Julie Conroy, research director at Aite Group. “A thief will do a little testing and then go to town, so it’s important to catch fraud as quickly as possible.”
  • Text message: About 95 percent of banks allow their customers to receive at least some financial alerts via text. Because we’re conditioned to give texts our immediate attention, this type of alert is a good choice for news you consider urgent. “Since you use texts to communicate with people, it might be annoying to get a text for every transaction,” Conroy said. “Also make sure you consider whether you’re going to incur charges for texts.” Some banks offer two-way texts that pop up instantly on your phone if you try to make a transaction that looks suspicious. If you respond that the purchase is legitimate, your card will go through instead of being blocked at the point of sale.
  • Push notification: This is the type of notification that I received from American Express. They pop up on your phone’s lock screen, in the banner at the top of your phone or in your “notification tray” even when you’re not using your card’s mobile app. They are more likely to get your attention than an email, but they’re less obtrusive than a text. Fewer than half of banks offer these, but Javelin predicts they will surpass text notifications as the No. 2 form of alert by 2019. Fueling that prediction: 45 percent of consumers surveyed said they think push notifications from their bank would be valuable, even though only 14 percent receive them.

When do you want to get an alert?
Signing up for at least some mobile alerts should be “a no-brainer choice for the customer,” said Brian Riley, principal executive adviser at CEB TowerGroup. “You don’t necessarily need an alert for every transaction. But everyone should want some type of notification,” he said.

Most issuers allow you to customize the type of notifications you receive and how you get them, so you can make sure you don’t get too many. “Typically there’s a control panel that says, ‘Text me or email me based on these specific conditions,'” Riley said. You can also turn them on or off anytime.

Some alerts are designed to enhance security; others help you stay on top of your personal finances. Here are some options you may see:

Security alerts:

  • Suspicious transaction: When issuers suspect fraud, they automatically try to contact you. But federal law requires them to get permission before they can notify you via text instead of calling you or sending an email.
  • Card-not-present transaction: This notifies you anytime a purchase is made without a swipe, so it’s mostly Internet transactions. “These transactions are much more vulnerable to fraud because all they need is your account number, not your actual card,” Riley said, “so this option should be first on your list.”
  • Gasoline transaction: Gas stations are another hot spot for thieves; you’ll be notified anytime a purchase is made at one.
  • International transaction: Because a lot of fraud originates overseas, this can be a good way to catch fraud if you rarely travel abroad; you can turn it off when you leave the country.
  • Transactions over a preset amount: You can choose to be notified of every transaction over a specific dollar amount. If you choose $0, you’ll be alerted to every transaction; set a higher dollar amount to minimize the number of alerts.

Personal finance alerts:

  • Available credit: Sent when your credit falls below a specified amount you set.
  • Balance: Sent anytime your credit card balance exceeds an amount you set. This can be particularly useful if you have multiple people using your card or if you’re trying to stay within a budget.
  • Low balance: An alert if the balance in an account linked to your debit card falls below a specified amount.
  • Payment due: Notifies you a specified number of days before a payment is due.
  • Missed payment: Sent if no payment was received by the due date.

How to sign up
Banks are cautious about automatic enrollment, Schwanhausser said, because “they don’t want their customers to feel like they’re being spammed or overwhelmed.” Most send automatic security alerts via email (or through a call to your home phone) anytime your personal information or settings are changed or if they notice suspicious activity.

To start getting text messages or push notifications to your cellphone, you have to proactively sign up. Though it can be difficult to enroll, it’s worth doing simply so your bank can reach you quickly on your cell if it detects suspicious activity. “It’s also a lot more convenient for you to hit reply to a text and say, ‘Yes, this was my transaction,’ or ‘No, it wasn’t,’ than to get an email about something and have to take the time to call in,” Conroy noted.

Every card has a slightly different process, but here are the basic steps to start getting text message alerts:

  • Log in to your card’s website.
  • Look for something in the menu that says “manage alerts” or “go to alerts.” If you don’t see the word ‘alerts,’ you may have to click on “Profile” or “Settings.”
  • Look for an option that will allow you to put in your mobile number, change your contact information or add text messages.
  • Because federal law requires you to opt in to receive text, you’ll have to activate the service by entering a code that the bank will send as a text.
  • Most issuers then list the types of alerts you can receive and how you want to receive them (email or text). Make your choices and then hit save.

To start getting push notifications, follow these steps:

  • First, find out if your card issuer offers the service. Javelin’s report in April said the following financial institutions were using push notifications, but more banks are adding them every day: American Express, Bank of America, M&T, BBVA compass, Regions, Chase, USAA, Citibank, Wells Fargo and Fifth Third.
  • Download the institution’s mobile app.
  • In most cases, you can add push notifications through an app menu option that says something like “Manage alerts.” If you don’t see it as an option in the mobile app, you may have to add push notifications through the card’s website. Call the phone number on the back of your card if you’re having trouble.
  • Once enrolled, you may still have to change the settings on your phone to “allow notifications” from your bank’s mobile app. On most phones, you can go to settings and look for “notifications.” Some, including iPhones, let you decide whether to turn on sounds and badges with the notifications.

After my own experience with fraud, I took the time to turn on mobile alerts for all of my active credit cards and bank accounts (it did take some time and a few phone calls). To keep my messages box from filling up, I elected to receive texts only for news I considered urgent: suspicious activity, a low balance or a payment missed. But I’m receiving push notifications on my phone for most other transactions, and so far, I haven’t minded the extra communication. In fact, I take comfort in knowing that if fraud happens, I’ll catch it quickly.

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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 Financial Planning

6 Incredibly Common Financial Mistakes You Really, Really Don’t Want to Make

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Adam Gault—Getty Images/OJO Images RF

Have you made any of these money mistakes?

We all make mistakes, and through them, we learn. But when it comes to finances, it is best not to take the trial-and-error approach. Avoiding some of the following financial mistakes might save you a great deal of money and heartache.

1. Cashing out a retirement account to pay off loans. Substantial income tax penalties can hit you if you tap into retirement accounts before a certain age. Even if there are no penalties, cashing out an entire account at once potentially puts you in a higher tax bracket.

The amounts you withdraw before you reach 59½ are called early or premature distributions. They may be subject to an additional 10% tax. (As always, there are some exceptions to this rule, so consult with a qualified accountant, financial advisor or the Internal Revenue Service.)

The Great Recession forced many people to tap into retirement accounts to pay mounting bills and loans. This was a measure of last resort, but the moral of this story is: If you have to take a distribution, you should at least understand the tax implications up front and mitigate the impact.

2. Missing retirement account rollover dates. You can move your wealth around by receiving a check from a qualified retirement account and deposit that money into another retirement account within 60 calendar days.

If you miss the deadline, the IRS treats the amount as a taxable distribution. Further, your 401(k) plan provider withholds 20% for federal income taxes. You have to add funds from other sources equal to the gross distribution to avoid possible tax penalties.

The lesson here? Rollover your accounts using a trustee-to-trustee transfer whenever possible. Having your custodian send your funds to another directly may be a better way to do a rollover.

3. Failing to update beneficiaries. Forgetting to remove a former spouse’s name as the beneficiary on retirement accounts or insurance policies happens. This could result in failing to provide for your children, a new spouse or other loved ones. Check your beneficiary designations annually and when a major life transition, such as a marriage, divorce or birth, occurs.

4. No will. If you do not have a will, when you die, the laws of intestacy determine who receives your assets. Drafting a will helps you maintain control of these important matters. Speak with an attorney to discuss preparing a will that documents where you want your money to go when you’re gone. Once you draft the will and name the beneficiaries or guardians, review it every few years and when things in your life change.

5. No power of attorney. A power of attorney (or POA) is an important document that allows you to select a point person (often a spouse or trusted family member) to make decisions on your behalf. This person can access your finances and help with bills, medical expenses and sign tax returns.

If you do not have a POA in place, and you become incapacitated, your family has to petition the courts for a conservatorship. This process often takes months, costs thousands of dollars and thus compounds the financial pressure.

The lesson here is to speak with an attorney to help select a POA, and while you’re at it, discuss a health-care proxy, your agent would make medical decisions on your behalf, should you be unable to convey your wishes.

6. Single-life only pension. When you start taking your pension benefits, you can choose to get payments that last for just your life or for the lives of both you and your spouse. This is an irrevocable decision.

The monthly payout is higher with a single-life pension versus joint ones. Many people often take the highest pension option available. They don’t realize that upon death, their spouse may end up relying solely on Social Security.

You might think that you will outlive your spouse, or that he or she does not need the income, but no one can predict the future. Consult with a financial advisor about your pension options and income needs.

Read next: 5 Old-School, Low-Tech Budgeting Strategies That Work

Heidi Clute, CFP, is the majority owner of Clute Wealth Management in South Burlington, VT and Plattsburgh, NY, an independent firm that provides strategic financial and investment planning for individuals and small businesses in the Champlain Valley region of New York and Vermont.

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