MONEY IRAs

Closing the Loophole Behind $10 Million Tax-Free Retirement Accounts

Fewer than 1,100 of 43 million IRA owners have what may be called outsized balances, and the IRS wants to rein them in.

The former presidential hopeful Mitt Romney lit a fuse three years ago when he disclosed his IRA was valued at as much as $102 million. Now the federal government wants to keep the issue from exploding, and is weighing actions that would prevent rich people from accumulating so much in a tax-advantaged account.

Last week, the General Accounting Office recommended that the IRS either restrict the types of investments held in IRAs or set a ceiling for IRA account balances. The idea is to give all taxpayers equal ability to save while making certain the amounts put away tax-advantaged do not go beyond what is generally regarded as sufficient savings to secure a comfortable retirement.

Romney’s campaign disclosure caught almost everyone by surprise. How could one person build such a large IRA balance when yearly allowable contributions — up to $5,500 a year in 2014 and $6,500 if you’re age 50 or older — have always been comparatively low? The answer lies in the types of investments he and privileged others were able to put in their IRA: extremely low-priced and often non-public securities that later soared in value.

One such security might be the shares of a privately owned business. These can reasonably be expected to take flight if the business does well and later goes public. That produces a wealth of tax-advantaged savings to company founders, investment bankers and venture capitalists. But these gains are not generally available to any other investor. Once an asset is inside an IRA there is no limit to how valuable it may become and still remain in the tax-advantaged account.

Restricting eligible IRA holdings to publicly available securities is one way to level the field and rein in the accumulation of tax-advantaged wealth. Another way is to cap IRA balances at, say, $5 million and require IRA holders to take an immediate taxable distribution anytime their combined IRA holdings exceed that threshold.

The GAO found that the federal government stands to forego $17 billion of 2014 tax revenue through the IRA contributions of individuals. That’s not a high price to pay for added retirement security for the masses. The problem is that under current rules only a select few will ever be able to put together multi-million-dollar IRAs. There are 43 million IRA owners in the U.S. with total assets of $5.2 trillion. Fewer than 10,000 have more than $5 million, and the GAO seems to have little quarrel with even this group. They tend to be above-average earners past age 65 who had been contributing to their IRA for many years—pretty much exactly as designed.

But just over 1,100 have account values greater than $10 million and only 300 have account values greater than $25 million, the GAO found. “The accumulation of these large IRA balances by a small number of investors stands in contrast to Congress’s aim to prevent the tax-favored accumulation of balances exceeding what is needed for retirement,” the report states.

Officials are now gathering data on the types of assets held in IRAs, including the so-called “carried interest” stake that private equity managers have in the investment funds they run. These stakes, which give them a percentage of a fund’s gain, are another way that a select few manage to sock away multiple millions of dollars in IRAs. No one doubts the data will illustrate that only a privileged few have access to outsized IRA savings. The Romney campaign showed us that three years ago.

Read next: 3 Ways to Have a Happier, Healthier Retirement

MONEY retirement planning

Retirement Makeover: 30 Years Old, and Already Falling Behind

Chianti Lomax
Julian Dufort

When she turned 30, Chianti Lomax had an epiphany: Her salary and savings weren't enough to buy a home or start a family. MONEY paired her with a financial expert for help with a plan.

Chianti Lomax grew up poor in Greenville, S.C., raised by a single mother who supported her four children by holding several jobs at once. Inspired by her mom, Lomax worked her way through high school and college; today, the Alexandria, Va., resident makes $83,000 plus bonuses as a management consultant.

But turning 30 last December, Lomax had an epi­phany: Her career and her 401(k)—now worth $35,000 —weren’t enough to achieve her long-term goals: raising a family and buying a house in the rural South.

Her biggest problem, she realized, was her spending. So she downsized from the $1,200-a-month one-bedroom apartment she rented to a $950 studio, canceled her cable, got a free gym membership by teaching a Zumba class, and gave up the 2010 Honda she leased in favor of a 2004 Acura she paid for in cash. With those savings, she doubled her 401(k) contribution to 6% to get her full employer match.

And yet, nearly a year later, Lomax has only $400 in the bank, along with $12,000 in student loans. Having gone as far as she can by herself, Lomax wants advice. As she puts it, “How can I find more ways to save and make my money grow?”

Marcio Silveira of Pavlov Financial Planning in Arlington, Va., says Lomax is doing many things right, including avoiding credit card debt. Spending, however, remains her weakness. Lomax estimates that she spends $500 a month on extras like weekend meals with friends and $5 nonfat caramel macchiatos, but Silveira, studying her cash flow, says it’s probably more like $700. “That money could be put to far better use,” he says.

The Advice

Track the cash: Silveira says Lomax should log her spending with a free online service like Mint (also available as a smartphone app). That will make her more careful about flashing her debit card, he says, and give her the hard data she needs to create a budget. Lomax should cut her discretionary spending, he thinks, by $500 a month. Can a young, single person really socialize on $50 a week? Silveira says yes, given that Lomax cooks for herself most evenings and is busy with volunteer work. Lomax thinks $75 is more doable. “But I’d like to shoot for $50,” she says. “I like challenging myself.”

Setting More Aside infographic
MONEY

Automate savings: Saving money is easier when it’s not in front of you, says Silveira. He advises Lomax to open a Roth IRA and set up an automatic transfer of $200 a month from her checking account, adding in any year-end bonus to reach the current annual Roth contribution limit of $5,500, and putting all the cash into a low-risk short-term Treasury bond fund.

Initially, says Silveira, the Roth will be an emergency fund. Lomax can withdraw contributions tax-free, but will be less tempted to pull money out for everyday expenses than if the money were in a bank account. Once Lomax has $12,000 in the Roth, she should continue saving in a bank account and gradually reallocate the Roth to a stock- heavy retirement mix. Starting the emergency fund in a Roth, says Silveira, has the bonus of getting Lomax in the habit of saving for retirement outside of her 401(k).

Ramp it up: Lomax should increase her 401(k) contribution to 8% immediately and then again to 10% in January—a $140-a-month increase each time. Doing this in two steps, says Silveira, will make the transition easier. Under Silveira’s plan, Lomax will be setting aside 23% of her salary. She won’t be able to save that much upon starting a family or buying a house, he says, but setting aside so much right now will give her retirement savings many years to compound.

Read next:
12 Ways to Stop Wasting Money and Take Control of Your Stuff
Retirement Makeover: 4 Kids, 2 Jobs, No Time to Plan

MONEY consumer psychology

12 Ways to Stop Wasting Money and Take Control of Your Stuff

Digging in overflowing closet
Steve Cole Images—Getty Images/Vetta

If you're swimming in stuff, not to mention debt, check out this list of a dozen tips to stop the madness and streamline your lifestyle.

In my work as a consumer psychologist and author, I’ve read countless studies about consumer behavior, and I’ve conducted plenty of research on my own, interviewing hundreds of shoppers about how, when, and why they shop. Here’s what I’ve learned about how to avoid piling up too much stuff and how to stop making unnecessary, excessive, and ultimately unsatisfying purchases.

Do an inventory check. Jenna Suhl, who has worked as a wardrobe stylist in San Francisco for more than a decade, told me, “It’s not uncommon for people to buy new things because they have so much they can’t see what they already have.” Suhl recommends weeding out what’s worn, ill-fitting, unmatchable, or a style that no longer suits. That’s not only true for clothing and accessories, but also tools, household products, and knickknacks. Another woman once mentioned to me that she actually bought the exact same serving platter twice, forgetting that she already owned it. “At least I have consistent taste,” she laughed, “but clearly I have too much stuff.”

Buy good quality—and use it. Perhaps counterintuitively, I’ve found that it’s common for people to almost never use the things they love the most—a favorite pair or jeans, a vintage Mustang—and that give them the most pleasure. Why? Often, it’s because they want to protect the item in question, because they like it so much and don’t want it to be ruined. Instead of using their favorites regularly, they buy cheaper things—sometimes knockoff imitations—for “everyday” use. The unfortunate result is less satisfaction, and that lack of satisfaction often leads to more buying in the misguided hope that some new item will make us happier. In a similar vein, many people spend more money on an outfit they wear once for a special occasion than they spend the entire year on clothing they use every week, such as workout wear, jeans, or sneakers. The smarter approach is to put your money where you’ll see it in action and enjoy it the most, thereby reducing purchasing cravings.

Count your blessings. First and foremost, being grateful—not just for possessions, but also for the people, places and simple pleasures in life—is good for the soul. But an attitude of gratitude is also a proven antidote to impulse purchasing because it creates a sense of abundance within the individual. When you’re feeling full of gratitude, you’re less likely to subconsciously try to fill emotional holes by treating yourself with gifts and accumulating more stuff.

Turn off the temptation. Imagine having a friend who was constantly telling you about seemingly terrific deals (half-off watches!), or that you simply had to try the new pizzeria in town (free dessert!). Hearing about these offers puts you in the position of considering purchases you might not otherwise have noticed. Worse, you’re likely to get worn down over time, so that you end up jumping at some offer partly to reward yourself for all of the times in the past you behaved virtuously and passed on the latest bargain. These are the effects of signing up for email subscriptions from retailers and deal sites. If you’re trying to rein in your spending, simply cancel those subscriptions. Forget the idea that they somehow save you money. You’ll save a lot more by remaining ignorant of all those seemingly amazing bargains.

Play the waiting game. When you’re tempted to buy something on a whim, wait at least 20 minutes. Then, after clearing your head, reconsider how and when you’ll actually use the product. Instead of simply choosing to have it or not have it, think for a moment about what else you might prefer instead—such as the freedom of having less debt or a bigger purchase that requires saving, such as college tuition, a house or retirement. When considering larger purchases of, say, anything more than $100, make the wait period 24 hours. The typical impulse purchase seems a lot less like a “must-have” after sleeping on it.

Learn to share. I’m not talking about the explosion of “sharing economy” businesses that facilitate things like car-sharing and bike-sharing. I’m talking about the old-fashioned DIY method of buying something with a friend or neighbor and owning it jointly. I recently watched two young women negotiate sharing rights for a relatively expensive gold necklace they both wanted and ultimately bought together at Nordstrom. And I interviewed a family that purchased backyard play equipment with their neighbors. That family is also ingenious about repurposing. For example, they decorated homemade birthday cards with buttons taken from worn-out shirts (which were cut up and used as dust rags). I’ll admit these practices can seem time consuming and not commonplace—but they’re inspiring, and perhaps there’s an opportunity to share or repurpose that will eliminate a new purchase in your life.

Buy only what you need, right now. Part of what makes shopping so alluring is the mental vacation that comes with imagining how a product can be used, such as, “I’ll turn heads in this outfit,” or “We’ll have the wildest parties with this cocktail shaker.” But most homes are cluttered with unused merchandise (often with the tags still attached) purchased for, say, an African safari that never materialized or a slimmer figure that has yet to be acquired. Don’t let your imagination divert attention from the cost and practicality of an object, nor from reality. Before making a purchase, ask yourself if you’ll be using the item in the very near future. If the answer is no or not likely, pass.

Focus on the bottom line, not freebies. “Free” is the four-letter word that always seems to work in marketing. But the free gift with purchase, the free bottle of water while you’re shopping, and the free samples can all cost you. For one thing, getting something for free creates a sense of obligation that makes it harder to say “no” to a persuasive salesperson. Shoppers also often use the free gifts included with purchase to rationalize buying something that’s way beyond their budget. I’ve seen otherwise highly intelligent, logical people spend a fortune to get something for free. And the irony is completely lost on them.

Remember that it’s okay to buy nothing. Shopping takes time, and it can feel like time wasted if a purchase isn’t made. Outlet malls, which typically require a significant drive, are particularly dangerous places for people trying to reduce their consumption. It’s not uncommon for people to purchase something they don’t really need rather than to leave empty-handed, with the feeling like the trip was a total waste. The same phenomenon occurs in upscale “destination” boutiques and at e-retail sites that have drawn shoppers in for significant amounts of time. But don’t fall for the notion that you’ve wasted time if you shop and don’t buy. The truth is that buying something you don’t need only makes for more waste.

Do some quick math as a reality check. If you earn an hourly wage, do a little simple division to see how much of your time, effort, and work is eaten up by a potential purchase. The thought that three hours of your work barely covers the cost of some restaurant meal is likely to inspire you to cook more. The same concept works for salaried workers, just first do the math to break down your roughly per-hour take. Alternately, you could compare the cost of a new purchase to the amount in a savings account, or how long it took to save that amount. Calculating that the cost of a new TV would swallow 50% of the savings that took you two years to compile should be enough to give you pause. Likewise, if you’re really trying to get a better sense of how much you’re spending, don’t use credit cards. Spending with cash feels more tangible, more like you’re spending real money that required your real time, sweat, and effort to earn—and that’s the whole point.

Buy for the right reasons. Research shows that we can think we’re hungry when we’re actually thirsty, think we’re tired when in reality we’re bored, and so forth. In other words, we’re pretty good at identifying when we need something, just not so good at identifying precisely what it is we need. The concept translates directly into the world of shopping and buying: People often buy stuff not because they truly need the stuff, but to fill a variety of other psychological needs, including the craving for human contact, relief from boredom, the opportunity to feel totally competent and in control, and the mental stimulation of something unique or beautiful. To buy less, don’t confuse the real reasons you’re shopping; the tips above about practicing gratitude and waiting for a specified time period before making a purchase should help boost awareness of what it is you truly need.

Shop for stuff you need, not sales. Another of the psychological reasons that many people over-shop and buy is to get a burst of feel-good dopamine that accompanies sale shopping. Snagging a coveted item at 30% off can feel like winning a prize. But sales are nothing special: Virtually everything is discounted at some point in today’s retail world, and at least three-quarters of the purchases shoppers tell me they regret making were bought on sale. They often say they the item isn’t quite the right size, color, shape, or style—but what got them hooked was that the price was right. This is silly, of course. If you don’t like the item, there’s no price that makes it a smart buy. I’ve also found that sale-focused shoppers, ironically, tend to spend more total money than others. Remind yourself when shopping that the point is to seek good-quality items you need, not random stuff that is appealing solely because of a seemingly good price.

MORE: How Do I Set a Budget I Can Stick To?

Hey Impulse Spenders, Here’s a Solution to Your Bad Habit

_____________________________________________________

Kit Yarrow, Ph.D., is a consumer psychologist who is obsessed with all things related to how, when and why we shop and buy. She conducts research through her professorship at Golden Gate University and shares her findings in speeches, consulting work, and her books, Decoding the New Consumer Mind and Gen BuY.

MONEY credit cards

This Is Why Prepaid Cards Are Still Risky

swiping card
Erik Isakson—Getty Images

You might not be able to recover your money if your card is lost or stolen. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau wants to change that.

Over the past five years, prepaid cards have become an increasingly popular alternative to debit and credit cards. Last year, 12% of households used the cards, which can be loaded with cash and used like debit cards.

They’re especially popular among millennials, whom surveys have found to be credit card averse and distrustful of financial institutions. More than 25% of people aged 25 to 34 years old used prepaid cards last year, according to a survey from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. And among people without bank accounts—who are typically lower income—27% used them, up from 12% in 2009.

People without bank accounts are also more likely to rely on the cards for critical financial transactions. Almost 80% of unbanked households with prepaid cards used them to make everyday purchases, pay bills, or receive payments. Some even say the main reason they use prepaid cards is to “put money in a safe place” or “save money for the future.”

What these people might not know is they’re taking a risk, since prepaid cards don’t have the same legal protections as other kinds of plastic. Right now, if you lose your prepaid card, or if someone steals your card and uses it, you might not be able to recover all of your money, depending on the terms of your contract.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau wants to change that. On Thursday, the agency proposed new rules that would require prepaid cards to offer the same kind of fraud and lost-card protections that credit cards have, along with other kinds of protections.

“Consumers are increasingly relying on prepaid products to make purchases and access funds, but they are not guaranteed the same protections or disclosures as traditional bank accounts,” CFPB Director Richard Cordray said in a statement. “Our proposal would close the loopholes in this market and ensure prepaid consumers are protected whether they are swiping a card, scanning their smartphone, or sending a payment.”

The biggest deal of the new proposal is that it would limit your liability for fraudulent charges. Under the new rule, if your prepaid card were lost or stolen, the most you would pay for unauthorized charges would be $50, as is the case with credit cards.

The new rules would also require that financial institutions send you statements about your balance, offer you opportunities to resolve errors like double charges, and disclose more information about fees, on a form that looks like this. That’s important because prepaid cards sometimes charge high fees for activation, balance inquiries, and inactivity.

The proposal would also add protections to prepaid cards that allow users to overdraw into a negative balance, such as imposing limits on late fees.

The CFPB hasn’t implemented the changes yet. The proposed rule will be open for public comment for 90 days before the CFPB decides whether to issue a final rule.

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MONEY retirement planning

This Simple Strategy Can Help You Build a Successful Retirement Plan

Fox and hedgehog
Bob Elsdale—Getty Images

Should you be smart as a fox or wise as a hedgehog in your retirement planning?

No, it’s not a trick question. Nor a trivial one. Indeed, knowing whether you act more like a fox or a hedgehog can help you improve your approach to retirement planning, making for a more enjoyable pre- and post-career life.

The fox vs. hedgehog debate goes back to a statement attributed to the ancient Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Alluding to that line, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote a famous essay in 1953 titled, “The Fox and The Hedgehog.”

The idea behind the fox-hedgehog comparison is that you can divide people into two groups: hedgehogs, who see the world through the prism of a defining principle or idea, and foxes, who focus more on their experiences and the particulars of a given situation. You could say that hedgehogs are more likely to see the big picture, while foxes get into the weeds.

So what does this have to do with retirement planning?

Well, if you’re a fox, you’re always looking for some type of edge or way to exploit circumstances to your advantage. You track the ups and downs of the stock market with an eye toward getting in before a big upswing or out before a crash. You listen to investment pundits, hoping to score tips on stocks or sectors that are supposedly poised to outperform the market. Chances are you’ve been glancing at what the Dow and the S&P 500 have been doing as you’ve been reading this column.

In your continuing efforts to gain an edge, you’re also constantly on the lookout for exciting new investment opportunities—smart beta ETFs, the Bitcoin Trust, whatever—and revolutionary techniques that can enhance your reitrement-planning efforts. You probably believe that finding the best investments is the single most important thing to do to build a sizeable nest egg, when diligent saving actually trumps savvy investing.

If you’re a hedgehog, on the other hand, you’re probably more apt to believe that successful retirement planning comes down to following a few simple principles: saving regularly (preferably by putting your savings on autopilot), making the most of tax-advantaged accounts whenever you can and, to the extent possible these days, not pulling the trigger on retirement until you feel you have a large enough nest egg to give you a good margin of safety on withdrawals (as opposed to relying on some investing black-magic that’s supposed to help you squeeze more out of your assets).

As for new products and cutting-edge strategies, the hedgehog views them with more than a little skepticism and is more likely to see them as a gimmick or distraction than a can’t-miss opportunity. As a hedgehog, you believe it’s unlikely that the Next Big Thing can significantly improve on time-honored strategies like looking for ways to save a bit more, reining in investment costs and building a basic stocks-bonds portfolio that you rebalance periodically. So you’re more likely to pass on the latest fad, knowing that in the financial world, fads come along pretty frequently, and often leave disappointment in their wake.

Full disclosure: I’m primarily in the hedgehog camp. Thirty years of writing about retirement planning and investing has convinced me that true innovation is pretty rare, and that “sophisticated” strategies is often another way of saying “expensive” strategies. I believe that if you get the Big Things right—you save regularly, invest sensibly, set reasonable expectations and monitor your progress—you don’t have to resort to fancy techniques that too often have the potential to blow up on you.

That said, while we may live in a digital world, we humans are not digital. We’re analog. No one is solely a fox or a hedgehog. We may be more one than the other, but we have elements of both. And I think that whether you consider yourself mostly a fox or a hedgehog, you can learn from the other.

If you’re primarily a fox, for example, you might occasionally want to pull back and take a big-picture look at your retirement planning. You want to be sure that have a sound basic strategy in place and that you’re not undermining it by chasing every new product or approach that comes along. To help you improve your focus, you’ll probably want to cultivate some of the hedgehog’s skepticism.

Conversely, if you’re a hedgehog, you want to be careful that you don’t let your wariness about The New New Thing completely shut you off to the possibility of innovative approaches that may improve your planning and your retirement prospects. Truly transformative products, services and strategies may be rare, but they do come along.

ETFs have helped many investors lower investment expenses and their tax bills. New tools that can help you decide when to claim Social Security—which you can find in RDR’s Retirement Toolbox—really do have the potential for dramatically improving many people’s standard of living in retirement. You don’t want your “hedgehoggish” tendency to view the world from 30,000 feet make you overlook something at ground level that that may prove helpful to your planning. To prevent that from happening, try to think like the fox sometimes.

So the next time you’re contemplating your retirement planning, be sure to think like a hedgehog and make sure you’ve got a good overall retirement plan in place. Then make like a fox and see whether there’s anything worthwhile new or interesting that might help you improve your plan, even if incrementally.

Doing this will help you see from both fox’s perspective and the hedgehog’s. And you’ll reap the benefits of thinking, shall we say, like a hedgefox.

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MONEY retirement planning

Americans’ Top 3 Excuses for Not Saving—and Why They Don’t Hold Up

Getting paid in peanuts
Rodolfo Arguedas—iStock

Truth is, most Americans can save more than they are doing right now. Here are three ways to make sure you reach your retirement goals.

Saving money is tough. So it’s no surprise that we come up with all sorts of reasons we just can’t save as much as we should. But are these legitimate excuses, or rationalizations? To see, I checked out the section of BlackRock’s 2014 U.S. Investor Pulse Survey that deals with reasons people find it difficult to save scrutiny.

When BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, polled a representative sample of 4,000 Americans earlier this year as part of its second annual look into financial behavior and retirement readiness, the findings weren’t exactly a revelation. Pre-retirees on average have accumulated a nest egg large enough to generate only about 15% of their desired retirement income, and even affluent pre-retirees (those with investable assets of $250,000 or more) came up short by roughly 50%.

Clearly, people just aren’t saving enough to give themselves a solid shot at a secure retirement.

To get at the question of why, the BlackRock survey queried people about a variety of financial obstacles that can interfere with building a retirement nest egg. Below are the three impediments that were cited most often, ranked by the percentage of respondents who identified each and followed by my advice on how to bolster your saving efforts.

1. “I don’t earn enough.” (47%)

There are some people whose incomes, unfortunately, are so low that every cent goes to living expenses, leaving nothing to save. And it’s also true that earning a higher salary, in theory at least, may be able to give you more wiggle room in your budget, making it easier to save.

But once you’re beyond the “scraping by” stage, the level of your income isn’t the deciding issue when it comes to saving. Witness the fact that 21% of affluent investors queried for the BlackRock survey also claimed that not earning enough made it hard for them to save. So for most of us, saving comes down to a choice: how much of our income we’re willing to set aside for a distant tomorrow vs. how much we prefer to spend on ourselves today. Given that we’re largely hard-wired for immediate gratification, all too often we go with spending over saving.

So how can we tilt the odds more in savings’ favor? One way is actively seek out opportunities to save. But a more effective strategy is to put your savings on autopilot by committing, say, 10% to 15% of your salary to a 401(k) or automatic investing plan. That way, you won’t have to constantly make a conscious decision to save, which, alas, too often ends up being a decision not to save.

2. “The cost of living is too high.” (46%)

The problem with this statement is that implies that the cost of living is a given, a financial fact of life over which we have absolutely no control. But this isn’t quite true.

Granted, we don’t have the power to set the prices for houses, cars, utilities, food and other goods and services. But we do have considerable maneuvering room when it comes how much we spend on many of these things. We can choose to live in a modest house or in a less expensive part of town (or, for that matter, a city with lower living expenses). We can drive an economy car rather than a Statusmobile. And we can certainly cut the percentage of our budget that goes toward food and entertainment by eating out less often or being more creative about how we spend our leisure time.

In fact, if you follow my suggestion above and allocate 10% to 15% of your income to saving right off the top, you’ll effectively force yourself to make these sorts of lifestyle compromises, as one way or another you’ll have to make due with the 85% or 90% of income you have left after your savings have been automatically deducted from your paycheck.

3. “I have unplanned expenses.” (33%)

This isn’t a bogus excuse. But let’s be realistic. We all know that life doesn’t unfold as predictably as a spreadsheet. So unexpected bills always have and always will be a part of financial life. So while we may not know exactly what these expenses will be or when they’ll appear, we know that some outlay we haven’t planned for—home and auto repairs, health-care costs, whatever—will arise at some point in the future.

If anything that fact should give us even more motivation to save. Why? Because creating a financial cushion can help us better absorb the unanticipated expenses we know will pop up sooner or later (usually sooner, it seems) and make it less likely that these unwelcome demands on our budget will wreak financial chaos.

I certainly don’t want to underestimate these and other obstacles most people face when it comes to saving for retirement. They can be daunting, and overcoming them can require real sacrifice.

But unless you’re okay with having your Social Security benefits determining your standard of living or you don’t mind running out of money before you run out of time, it’s important to find a way to rise to the challenge.

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MONEY First-Time Dad

Why You’re Better Off With a Hard-Working Child than a Smart One

Luke Tepper
Luke's drive is more important than his intellect. And look at him drive!

I wanted my son to be born a genius. Turns out I should have been hoping for something else.

My son took his first steps the other day.

Not yet nine months old, Luke stumbled forward two paces as Mrs. Tepper prepared his evening bath. The next day, like a revved up toy racecar, the tyke zoomed five strides after I relocated him from the Jumperoo to the floor.

This achievement is a great source of pride in the Tepper household.

According to Babycenter.com, babies usually begin walking between 9 and 12 months. Luke was only 8 1/2 months—so he’s obviously smarter than the average bear and destined for riches and glory.

Ever since, my wife and I have indulged in a series of daydreams featuring Luke passing milestones well before other tiny mortals. Reading by age 2, dunking a basketball by 10 and garnering a Nobel Prize before he’s legally allowed to consume alcohol.

Of course we know we’re being ridiculous, but that’s part of the fun of parenting an infant—widely projecting all the things that he might accomplish that you never will. In so doing, we imagine a super-smart older version of Luke wowing the world with his intellect.

It turns out, though, we have it all wrong. Intelligence is valuable, obviously, but the more powerful skill parents should be instilling in their children doesn’t have anything to do with brainpower.

If we want him to maximize his earnings—and we do—studies show that we’re much better off emphasizing hard work and gumption.

What the Research Says

The Brookings Institute recently came out with a report that summarizes the research into the debate of character versus intelligence. Therein lay a panoply of statistics that illuminate importance of grit and drive.

For instance, high school grade point average is a better predictor of whether a student will complete college in six years than SAT/ACT scores. Grade point averages are all about grit: You have to come to class every day, turn in your homework, and perform well on tests and papers in order to earn a high grade. A standardized exam, like the SAT, mostly measures your cognitive abilities.

Another study Brookings referenced followed 1,000 children starting at ages 3 to 11 in New Zealand and found that later in life those who possessed more self control “were healthier, richer, less likely to be single parents, and less likely to be convicted of a crime as adults, controlling for childhood social class and IQ.”

I asked Jessica Lahey, a teacher who writes a biweekly parenting column for the New York Times, for her perspective.

She said the research jibes with her experience. “Kids who are raised by parents with good impulse control—the ability to plan for long-term goals and stick to those goals—are more successful than kids raised by parents who model impulsive, disorganized, chaotic thinking and actions,” she says.

And what about smarts?

“A kid who has no ability to delay gratification, has no patience with momentary confusion or frustration, or simply never develops the frontal lobe function he needs in order to organize and plan his behavior is never going to be as successful as one who can,” she says. “I don’t care how brilliant or talented he is.”

Why That Terrifies Me

For a parent, this is a little bit scary.

The idea that my son would be born with a particular IQ took the pressure off of me. However he comes out was how he was meant to come out; I couldn’t really mess him up.

But now, I need to instill a work ethic and character in him that I’m sure I don’t always live up to. My wife and I are only 28 years old and we’ve only just begun our careers; how are we supposed to have the authority to mold Luke into driven student and worker?

These are the things that keep me up at night.

But then I remember how far we’ve come since we found out Mrs. Tepper was pregnant.

We comparison shopped hospitals and doctors, and coordinated with health insurers and human resource departments. We’re following a kind of food progression chart so that he takes in as many different kinds of tastes as possible. We nurse him when he’s sick and hold him when he cries, and we do it every day no matter how little sleep we had the night before.

The act of raising a child (and we’re only in year one) absolutely filled us with fear before we had one. But like a frog in a slowly warming pot of water, we’ve adapted. We’ve found a way to weave Luke into our life.

Teaching him stick-to-itiveness, then, will just be another challenge we’ll (hopefully) slowly overcome with our infinite small decisions.

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

Read next: Injuries. Stress. Divided Attention. Are Coaches Damaging Our Kids?

MONEY Shopping

You’ll Never Guess Which Retailer Has the Cheapest Prices (Hint: It’s Not Walmart)

$1.00 price sticker
Gregor Schuster—Getty Images

A new study reveals that Dollar General is the lowest cost retailer in America.

Often when people think of low prices and retail, the first chain to come in mind is Wal-Mart WAL-MART STORES INC. WMT 0.0353% . Due to the sheer high volume of goods it sells, the megaretailer is a textbook case study for economy of scale. However, sometimes big can be too big and Dollar General DOLLAR GENERAL DG 0.8106% is able to beat Wal-Mart to the low price punch for some very good reasons.

The Kantar Retail Research Team

A study is performed annually by Kantar using a basket of goods across 21 categories in the edible grocery, non-edible grocery, and HBA segments. In order to arrive at the data points for each retailer, the lowest price point for each category was selected no matter what the brand. For example, if a box of Corn Flakes was on the list then the price of the generic brand (if cheaper) was selected over the name brand.

Out of the six retailers analyzed, Target TARGET CORP. TGT 0.0832% came in last while Dollar General finished first. Wal-Mart got second place with 2.5% higher overall prices. The average cost of the basket at Dollar General came out to $26.75. For Wal-Mart, it was $27.41 and for Target it was nowhere close to the other two with a total of $40.61. The $0.66 spread between Dollar General and Wal-Mart is 5.5 times higher than the $0.12 spread a year ago with the same study.

This is despite Wal-Mart’s much more massive size. For example, in the current fiscal year, analysts expect Wal-Mart to post nearly half a trillion dollars in sales compared to just $19 billion for Dollar General or more than 25 times higher. How does David Dollar General manage to beat the Goliath Wal-Mart?

The real low cost leader

Your first suspicion might be that the only reason Dollar General could possibly beat out Wal-Mart on prices is by taking a hit on profits. Wal-Mart has made a consistent 24%-25% gross profit margin for the last three years on the products it sells. Therefore it stands to reason that if somebody only has a 10% markup it could sell at cheaper prices even if it doesn’t get the volume discounts of Wal-Mart.

That’s not the case with Dollar General, however. Not only does it have cheaper prices, but it makes more profit margin on average on each of its products. For the last three years, Dollar General has averaged between 30%-31% in gross profit on its sales, which is higher than Wal-Mart’s.

How could Dollar General have lower costs?

You have to remember — the purchase price of a product from the wholesaler is only part of the ultimate cost to a retailer and the price for the consumer. A typical Wal-Mart Supercenter might have over 140,000 items for sale while a typical Dollar General has between 10,000-12,000 items.

As Megan McArdle of The Daily Beast once tagged the problem,

“A Walmart has 140,000 SKUs, which have to be tediously sorted, replaced on shelves, reordered, delivered, and so forth. People tend to radically underestimate the costs imposed by complexity, because the management problems do not simply add up; they multiply.”

Multiplied management problems equal multiplied costs baked into each average product’s cost and price.

More of less is cheaper

Dollar General, by specializing in far fewer items and brands, has fewer logistical complexities and fewer costs. The secret to low costs is the power of buying in bulk and cheap stocking costs to sell those products. It’s the simple reason a child’s lemonade stand only sells lemonade — to offer a larger variety of drinks would require a lot more effort for less average return on each.

During Dollar General’s last conference call, CEO Richard Dreiling explained it well when he said, “This foundation of limited assortment and distribution efficiencies allows us to successfully compete with much larger retailers and provide our customers with everyday low prices that they can trust.”

Foolish thoughts

Dollar General may still have plenty of potential market share it can take from Wal-Mart. Its biggest disadvantage is lack of consumer knowledge. We’ve been bombarded by the media, and Wal-Mart itself, that if you want cheap prices it’s Wal-Mart or bust and nobody can touch them. As consumers become more and more aware of the Dollar General advantage, don’t be surprised if its sales continue to creep up. It is up to 26 quarters in a row of positive same-store sales growth and may still have a long way to go.

MONEY Love + Money

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

hearts made out of money
iStock

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

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

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

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

The best part: They’re free.

1. For help reaching a goal: SmartyPig

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

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

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

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

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

3. For help tracking your expenses: Level Money

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

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

4. For help eliminating debt: ReadyForZero

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

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

5. For help syncing up generally: Cozi

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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