TIME Money

This Is the Scariest Number Facing the Middle Class

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

The $20,000 retirement plan

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

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

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

MONEY 401(k)s

Why Millennials Are Flocking to 401(k)s in Record Numbers

hand clicking Apple mouse connected to egg with 401k on it
Jason York—Getty Images

First-time 401(k) plan enrollees are soaring as young workers enter the labor force. This is a positive development. But it won't solve our savings crisis by itself.

Young workers have received the message about long-term financial security—and with increasing assistance from employers they are doing something about it, new research shows.

In the first half of 2014, the number of Millennials enrolling for the first time in a 401(k) plan jumped 55%, according to the Bank of America Merrill Lynch 401(k) Wellness Scorecard. This twice-yearly report examines trends among 2.5 million plan participants with $129 billion of assets under the bank’s care.

The brisk initial enrollment pace is due partly to the sheer number of Millennials entering the workforce. They account for about 25% of workers today, a figure that will shoot to 50% by 2020. But it also reflects a broader trend toward 401(k) enrollment. Across all generations, the number enrolling for the first time jumped 37%, Bank of America found.

One key reason for the surge in 401(k) participation is the use of auto-enrollment by employers, as well as other enhancements. The report found that number of 401(k) plans that both automatically enroll new employees and automatically boost payroll contributions each year grew 19% in the 12 months ended June 30. And nearly all employers (94%) that added automatic enrollment in the first half also added automatic contribution increases, up from 50% the first half of last year.

Enrolling in a 401(k) plan may be the single best financial move a young worker can make. At all age levels, those who participate in a plan have far more savings than those who do not. Another important decision is making the most of the plan—by contributing enough to get the full company match and increasing contributions each year.

Other added plan features include better educational materials and mobile technology. In a sign that workers, especially Millennials, crave easy and relevant information that will help them better manage their money, the bank said participants accessing educational materials via mobile devices soared 41% in the first half of the year.

The number of companies offering advice online, via mobile device or in person rose 6% and participants accessing this advice rose 8%. A third of those are Millennials, which suggests a generation that widely distrusts banks may be coming around to the view that they need guidance—and their parents and peers may not be the best sources of financial advice.

Millennials have largely done well in terms at saving and diversifying. They are counting more on personal saving and less on Social Security than any other generation, the report found. They seem to understand that saving early and letting compound growth do the heavy lifting is a key part of the solution. Despite its flaws, 401(k) plans have become the popular choice for this strategy.

Yet this generation is saddled with debt, mostly from student loans and credit cards, and most likely to tap their 401(k) plan savings early. Millennials are also least likely take advantage of Health Savings Accounts, or HSAs, which allow participants to set aside pre-tax dollars for health care costs. Health savings account usage jumped 33% in the first half, Bank of America found. But just 23% of Millennials have one, versus 39% of Gen X and 38% of Boomers.

Still, the trends are encouraging: employers are making saving easier and workers are signing up. That alone won’t solve the nation’s retirement savings crisis. Individuals need to sock away 10% to 15% of every dime they make. But 401(k)s, which typically offer employer matching contributions, can help. So any movement this direction is welcome news.

Related:

How can I make it easier to save?

How do I make money investing?

Why is a 401(k) such a good deal?

MONEY retirement planning

22% of Workers Would Rather Die Early Than Run Out of Money

transparent piggy bank with one silver coin inside
Dimitri Vervitsiotis—Getty Images

Yet many of the same folks are hardly saving anything for retirement, study finds.

A large slice of middle-class Americans have all but given up on the retirement they may once have aspired to, new research shows—and their despair is both heartbreaking and frustrating. Most say saving for retirement is more difficult than they had expected and yet few are making the necessary adjustments.

Some 22% of workers say they would rather die early than run out of money, according to the Wells Fargo Middle Class Retirement survey. Yet 61% say they are not sacrificing a lot to save for their later years. Nearly three quarters acknowledge they should have started saving sooner.

The survey, released during National Retirement Savings Week, looks at the retirement planning of Americans with household incomes between $25,000 and $100,000, who held investable assets of less than $100,000. One third are contributing nothing—zero—to a 401(k) plan or an IRA, and half say they have no confidence that they will have enough to retire. Middle-class Americans have a median retirement balance of just $20,000 and say they expect to need $250,000 in retirement.

Still, Americans who have an employer-sponsored retirement plan, especially a 401(k), are doing much better than those without one. Those between the ages of 25 to 29 with access to a 401(k) have put away a median of $10,000, compared with no savings at all for those without access to a plan. Those ages 30 to 39 with a 401(k) plan have saved a median of $35,000, versus less than $1,000 for those without. And for those ages 40 to 49 with 401(k)s, the median is $50,000, while those with no plan have just $10,000.

Clearly, despite its many drawbacks, the venerable 401(k) remains our de facto national savings plan, and the best shot that the middle-class has at achieving retirement security. But only half of private-sector workers have access to a 401(k) or other employer-sponsored retirement plan, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Those without access would benefit from a direct-deposit Roth or traditional IRA or some other tax-favored account, but data show that most Americans fail to make new contributions to IRAs, with most of those assets coming from 401(k) rollovers. One exception: a growing number of Millennials are making Roth IRA contributions.

Most people do understand the need to save for retirement, but they don’t view it as an urgent goal requiring spending cutbacks, the survey found. Still, many clearly have room in their budget to boost their savings rates. Asked where they would cut spending if they decided to get serious about saving, 56% said they would give up indulgences like the spa and jewelry; 55% said they’d cut restaurant meals; and 51% even said they would give up a major purchase like a car or a home renovation. But only 38% said they would forgo a vacation. We all need a little R&R, for sure. But a few weeks of fun now in exchange for years of retirement security is a good trade.

Of course, the larger problem is that a sizeable percentage of middle-class Americans are struggling financially and simply don’t enough money to stash away for long-term goals like retirement. As economic data show, many workers haven’t had a real salary increase for 15 years, while the cost of essentials, such as health care and college tuition, continues to soar.

Given these economic headwinds, it’s important to do as much as you can, when you can, to build your retirement nest egg. If you have a 401(k), be sure to contribute at least enough to get the full company match. And if you lack a company retirement plan, opt for an IRA—the maximum contribution is $5,500 a year ($6,500 if you are 50 or older). Yes, freeing up money to put away for retirement is tough, but it will be a bit easier if you can get tax break on your savings.

Related:

How much of my income should I save for retirement?

Why is a 401(k) such a good deal?

Which is better, a traditional or Roth IRA?

TIME Spending & Saving

5 Weird Reasons Your Credit Card May Be Declined

American Express, Discover, MasterCard and Visa credit cards are displayed for a photograph in New York, U.S., on Tuesday, May 18, 2010. Credit-card firms caught off-guard by U.S. Senate passage of curbs on debit fees are facing what one executive sees as a "volcanic" eruption of legislation, including possible limits on interest rates. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Bloomberg/Getty Images

You might never see these major headaches coming your way

When President Obama mentioned that he’d recently had his credit card declined at a New York City restaurant, the news was kind of funny. The leader of the free world getting his card rejected? But all joking aside, it can happen to anybody, for any number of reasons. “I guess I don’t use it enough, so they thought there was some fraud going on,” the President said.

That’s actually a pretty common reason issuers will freeze a card, experts say. Here are some other unexpected reasons your card could be declined. Here are some others they say you should watch out for, so you’re not stuck standing at a payment terminal trying to explain, like Obama, that no, you really do pay your bills on time.

You hit the road. “[If] you make purchases the same day in distant locations — you buy breakfast in Toledo and then you’re shopping in New York that evening — your card issuer may not know you’re traveling and could decline the purchase,” says Gerri Detweiler, director of consumer education for Credit.com.

You’re paying a foreign company. If you’re traveling overseas, especially in a country where card fraud is more prevalent, or if you’re making a payment to a business based overseas, that could get your card flagged, experts say.

Your limit was cut. If you got a limit decrease on a credit card that you forgot about, or if you missed the notification, you could be denied if a purchase would push you over that new limit, says Odysseas Papadimitriou, founder and CEO of Evolution Finance. On a related note, if your card has expired and you’re not using the new one, you could be declined.

Your funds are tied up in a hold. Businesses including gas stations, hotels and rental car companies often put a hold for a certain amount — which can be hundreds of dollars — onto your card when you initiate a purchase, warns Edgar Dworksky, founder of Consumer World. “If you are near your limit before this, these temporary charges could put you at your limit, and subsequent purchases elsewhere will be denied,” he says.

You’re spending big. “A large purchase like electronics, appliances or an expensive vacation all could trigger a decline if it’s outside your normal spending pattern,” Detweiler says. Likewise, if you’re spending big bucks on luxury goods popular with credit card crooks like jewelry or electronics, your issuer might suspect fraud.

MONEY 529 plans

Why the Best College Savings Plans Are Getting Better

stack of money under 5-2-9 number blocks
Jan Cobb Photography Ltd—Getty Images

Low-cost 529 college savings plans continue to rise to the top in Morningstar's latest ratings.

Competition is creating ever-better investment options for parents who want to save for their kids’ college costs through tax-preferred 529 college savings plans, according to Morningstar’s annual ratings of the 64 largest college savings plans.

In a report released today, the firm gave gold stars to 529 plans featuring funds managed by T. Rowe Price and Vanguard. The Nevada 529 plan, for example, which offers Vanguard’s low-cost index funds, has long been one of Morningstar’s top-rated college savings options. The plan became even more attractive this year when it cut the fees it charges investors from 0.21% of assets to 0.19%, says Morningstar senior analyst Kathryn Spica.

“In general, the industry is improving” its offerings to investors, Spica adds.

You can invest in any state’s 529. In many states, however, you qualify for special tax breaks by investing in your home-state 529 plan. If you don’t, you should shop nationally, paying attention to fees and investment choices.

Morningstar raised Virginia’s inVEST plan, which offers investment options from Vanguard, American Funds and Aberdeen, from bronze to silver ratings, in part because Virginia cut its fees from 0.20% to 0.15% early this year.

Virginia’s CollegeAmerica plan continued as Morningstar’s top-rated option for those who pay a commission to buy a 529 plan through an adviser. American Funds, which manages the plan, announced in June it would waive some fees, such as set-up charges.

But there are exceptions. Morningstar downgraded two plans—South Dakota’s CollegeAccess 529 and Arizona’s Ivy Funds InvestEd 529 Plan—to “negative” because of South Dakota’s high fees and problems with Arizona’s fund managers.

Rhode Island’s two college savings plans moved off the negative list this year after the state started offering a new investment option based on Morningstar’s recommended portfolio of low-cost index funds. Given the potential conflict of interest, Morningstar did not rate the plans in 2014.

Joseph Hurley, founder of Savingforcollege.com, which also rates 529 plans, says he hasn’t analyzed the Morningstar-modeled funds because they are new and don’t have enough of a track record. But, he adds, the Rhode Island direct-sold 529 plan offers several low-cost index fund options.

Here are Morningstar’s top-rated 529 plans for 2014:

State Fund company Investment method Expenses (% of assets) for moderate age-based portfolio (ages 7 to 12) Five-year annualized return for moderate age-based portfolio (ages 7 to 12)
Alaska T. Rowe Price Active 0.88% 11.25%
Maryland T. Rowe Price Active 0.88% 11.42%
Nevada Vanguard Passive 0.19% 8.65%
Utah Vanguard Passive 0.22% 8.01%

Related:

 

 

 

MONEY family money

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

141017_FF_BabyMoney
Mike Kemp—Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MONEY Shopping

Here’s How to Save Hundreds on Groceries

Shopping Carts
Baldomero Fernandez

These 29 surprising and easy moves will help you find the best prices, avoid the sneakiest store tricks, and prevent those costly impulse buys.

Regardless of whether you’re feeding just yourself or a whole family, you probably find that groceries take a big bite out of your paycheck.

Food is the third-largest household expense, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. And for a family of four, the average monthly tab runs between $568 for the super thrifty to $1,293 for those on a more liberal budget, according to the USDA.

MONEY consulted supermarket-savings experts for strategies that would help you trim the fat, without giving up the foods you love. Employing just a few of these 29 tricks—because let’s face it, you hardly have time to cook let alone turn shopping into a project—can take your bills down by 25%.

In other words, you could realize between $1,700 and $3,900 in annual savings.

Now that’s pretty delicious.

Plan Ahead

1. Do an inventory. Take stock of your pantry and freezer once a month to get a sense of what items you need and what you can skip buying, says Annette Economides, co-author of Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half with America’s Cheapest Family. Her husband and co-author Steve adds, “you don’t want to get in a panic when you’re in the grocery store and impulse buy an item at full price only to go home and find you’ve already got it.” Use an app like Out of Milk to help with your inventory.

2. Plan meals by the ads. “A lot of people make a weekly meal plan and then go look for a deal,” says Steve Economides. “Instead, look first at the deals and plan your meals around what’s on sale. This way, you can get meals for half price.”

3. Use up your pantry. Americans typically toss about 25% of the groceries we buy, according to the National Resources Defense Council. To prevent your food from turning into wasted money, sort through your fridge and pantry about once a week for items that are about to expire and place those in a designated space so that you remember to eat them before they go bad. Plug in what you’ve got at Supercook to find recipes that will help you use up your ingredients.

4. Shop only once a week. “The less you shop, the more you save,” says Annette Economides. Reduce impulse purchases and save gas by planning your shopping list so that you get a week’s worth of groceries in one shot.

5. Look for substitutes. Review your last grocery receipt and circle your most expensive purchases. When you’re next in the store, consider swapping these items for lower-cost alternatives—like ground turkey for ground beef. Subbing out a few items each trip can add up.

Get the Best Price

6. Do some reconnaissance. Pick the 10 or so items you most commonly buy (e.g. milk, cereal, bananas, chicken, detergent) and make a one-time mission to a few stores in your area (supermarket, Walmart, Target, Costco, dollar store) to compare the prices. A spreadsheet like this one from the Balancing Beauty & Bedlam blog can help. Your goal: to find out if you’re actually shopping the store with the lowest overall prices for your needs, says Stephanie Nelson, founder of the CouponMom.com.

7. Know the rock-bottom price. Learn the price range of the items you buy most frequently so that you’ll be able to recognize when they hit their lowest and stock up then, says Nelson. “For my family, one of our biggest grocery expenses is boneless chicken breast,” she says. “In my area, they’ll drop to $2 a pound and peak at $5 a pound over the course of three weeks. By stocking up at the lowest price, I’ve saved nearly $500 a year on just one item.”

8. Be wary of 10 for $10 sales. Or any promotion in which a store is offering several items for one price. Check the price of the item to make sure it is actually discounted, and not just clever signage making you think 89¢ cans being sold 10 for $10 is a steal. Also, if it is actually a discount, keep in mind that you don’t need to buy 10 to get the lower price.

9. Weight it out. Compare items by not just the sticker price but the price per ounce or pound to be sure you’re getting the best deal. Most stores post this number on the label on the shelf. For meats, look at the cost per serving instead so the bones and fat included in the weight of the item don’t mislead you.

10. Download coupons… Couponing doesn’t require circulars and scissors anymore. Visit Coupons.com, SmartSource.com or redplum.com to easily see what coupons are currently available in your area, then either print them out or load them onto a store loyalty card so you don’t even have to remember to bring them with you, says Nelson.

11. …then deploy them wisely. “When we find a coupon, we feel like we must use it right away,” says Nelson. “But wait until the item is at a really good sale price. This way you get savings from both the store discount and the coupon.”

12. Buy for 10 weeks at a time. Sales run through cycles, typically on an eight to12 week rotation, lifestyle and money-saving blogger Leslie Lambert of Lamberts Lately found. So if you know you’ll go through a box of cereal a week, buy 10 when they’re a deal to see you through the weeks when the item will be at full price.

13. Get an IOU. If a sale item is out of stock, ask the store for a rain check. It’s a slip of paper that grants you the sale price once the item’s back in stock regardless of whether the promotion is still running. Or if you don’t want to come back into the store, ask a manager if you can sub a similar item for the one on sale, recommends Annette Economides.

14. Photograph your receipt. You can earn cash-back on your groceries with apps like Ibotta, SavingsStar and Checkout51. These services offer weekly cash-back deals on a range of goods and all you need to do is take a photo of your receipt showing you bought the item to take advantage of the kickback, says Nelson.

Be Smarter in the Store

15. Be loyal. Pick one grocery store and one drugstore you go to frequently. “Sign up for their loyalty programs and get familiar with the promotions they run and what rewards they give out,” says Nelson. Understanding the program will help you concentrate your efforts so that you can get items for free, she notes.

16. Learn the layout. The more aisles you walk down, the more likely you are to add things to your shopping basket that you hadn’t initially intended to buy. Shoppers who decreased the number of aisles they visited checked out with only half their items being unplanned purchases vs. 68% of items for those who visited most or all aisles in a shop, according to a Marketing Science Institute study.

17. Go alone. The larger your shopping party, the more likely you are to make impulse purchases. About 65% of the items in our baskets when we group shop are unplanned, an eight percentage point increase over shopping alone, according to that same Marketing Science Institute study. So leave your spouse and your kids behind.

18. Pack mints. Or eat before you go. A study in the Journal of Consumer Research found that consumers are likely to spend more if their appetites have been stimulated beforehand. That’s probably why baked goods and rotisserie chickens are placed by the entrance of the store. Combat those tempting odors by eating a mint—which satiates hunger and can help overwhelm other scents—or by making sure your belly is full.

19. Bring your own soundtrack. Studies show that stores play music with a slower beat to encourage you to move more slowly through the aisles. That slower pace can lead shoppers to buy 29% more, found Martin Lindstrom, author of Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy. Create your own mix of upbeat songs.

20. Use a Goldilocks cart. Lindstrom told CNBC that doubling the size of a cart makes people buy 40% more. And opting for those handheld baskets can be equally dangerous. A study from the Journal of Marketing Research found that the strain of carrying the basket made us more likely to pick up “vice products” like candy and soda as an unconscious reward for putting up with the hassle. Opt instead for a smaller wheeled cart.

21. Look high and low. Avoid the middle shelves and end caps. Companies pay to place products at your eye level—and your kid’s. Scan the top and bottom shelves instead as most of the time you’ll find the less expensive brands and best deals there.

22. Check yourself out. Impulse purchases dropped by 32% for women and about 17% for men when shoppers used the self-checkout line instead of a staffed checkout, found a study by IHL Consulting Group. The reason: There is less merchandise for you to pick up last minute around self-checkout stands, and the wait time is typically shorter—giving you less time with those tempting items.

Save on Specifics

23. Skip the deli. Whether you’re buying freshly cut meats from behind the deli counter or pre-sliced by the hot dogs, you’re spending more on cold cuts than you need, according to Steve Economides, who instead opts for large chunks of prepackaged meat called chubs. He then asks the deli or the butcher to slice the chubs for him. “At the deli, I can get a pound of ham for $7 to $9,” says Economides. “If I go to the meat counter and have a chub of ham sliced, it costs between $3 and $5 a pound, meaning I can save up to 66%.” You could also cook up larger portions of a meat, say a roast beef, and slice up those extras for sandwiches.

24. Do your own slicing and dicing. Prepackaged and single-serving foods are easy mark-up territory. (Example: Through New York City’s Fresh Direct delivery service, we found a cut and cored pineapple cost $5.99 while an uncut pineapple cost $3.99.) Though it may be more time-consuming, buy the whole chicken, block cheese or pineapple and do the chopping yourself. You can create your own smaller servings—say, for school lunches—by dividing up the food into baggies or Tupperware.

25. Don’t get milk at the supermarket. Moo juice sold at drugstores and convenience stores typically costs 30¢ to 50¢ less per gallon, Teri Gault, founder of TheGroceryGame.com, told Reader’s Digest.

26. Grow your own herbs. Stop buying bundles of herbs—at $2-plus a pop—that you’ll never be able to use up in time and instead plant a couple pots with fresh herbs to keep in your kitchen or porch. For a one-time cost of around $5, you’ll always have fresh herbs ready, and you won’t end up wasting any.

27. Follow the produce cycle. “You can save 30-50% on the price of produce by buying what’s in season,” says Annette Economides. If you do want those berries in the off-season, buy extra when they’re cheap and freeze them so you can enjoy them year round. For a guide to when certain produce is in peak-season, see this chart from the USDA.

28. Check seafood labels. At the counter you’ll find products labeled “previously frozen” in small type. That product is often the same thing you can find in the frozen-food aisle for as much as 40% less. Buy frozen and do the thawing yourself. Your fish will be fresher and you won’t have to use it right away.

29. Get meat in bulk. Washington-based Zaycon Foods offers consumers very competitive rates—e.g. chicken breast for $1.79 a pound—for those willing to buy orders starting at 40 pounds. To get these deals, you’ll have to order online and then pick your food up at a prearranged time from the back of a refrigerated truck waiting in a church or shopping center parking lot. Can’t store 40 pounds of meat? Split it with a friend, and you’ll both save.

Read next: Amazon Will Start Delivering Fresh Groceries in New York Today

MONEY Kids and Money

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is what I tell my clients:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TIME Saving & Spending

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

Money in jeans pocket
Image Source—Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MONEY early retirement

The Most Important Move to Make If You Want to Retire Early

Small birdhouse
Michael Blann—Getty Images

Housing is the most dangerous expense for those seeking financial freedom. Here's what you can do to control those costs.

Looking to achieve financial independence and retire sooner? A top priority should be to control expenses—especially your major living expenses like housing, food, transportation, health care, and recreation. We’ll focus on the rest of these spending categories in future columns, but for now let’s take a look at housing—the single largest expense for many, and one that can all too easily sabotage your journey to financial freedom.

Housing-related decisions will impact your financial independence by years, if not decades. Homes are a downright dangerous expense variable, because price tags are high, leverage (borrowing) is usually required, and various financial “experts” with their own agendas are usually involved. And houses expose our vanities, tempting us to spend for the approval of others, instead of in our own best interests. Losses of tens of thousands of dollars are routine in real estate, and can completely derail your savings plan.

Even when you don’t suffer an outright loss, changing homes is expensive. I moved around in my 20’s, had few possessions, and rented, so the cost of relocating was minimal. Then I married, we bought our first house, and had a child. Our next move was punishing: We were forced to sell our house at a steep loss, and, because of all our new stuff, we had to hire professional movers for the first time. When we finally bought a house again, we stayed put for nearly 17 years. In retrospect, that long time in one place was an enormous help in growing our assets and retiring early.

How much does it cost to change homes? By the time you add up the costs of selling, relocating, buying again, and settling in, you can easily spend $20,000, or more. According to Zillow, closing costs to a home buyer run from 2% to 5% of the purchase price. The seller doesn’t have mortgage-related costs but is likely paying a realtor commission as high as 6% or 7%. Then there are moving costs, and the inevitable shakedown costs with any new home: painting, carpets and curtains, repairs, supplies and furnishings, and basic improvements to suit your lifestyle.

In short, changing homes is frightfully expensive, and will probably eat up most of the average family’s potential savings for several years running.

Of course there are scenarios like career moves, where you don’t have the luxury of staying in place. But anytime the choice to move is yours, stop and consider the expenses. The worst possible choice would be an optional move into a larger house that you don’t really need. You are taking on a big one-time expense, plus a bigger ongoing mortgage and maintenance obligation. If more space is truly necessary, consider instead modifying your current home: When our son reached the later teen years, we renovated a larger downstairs room so he could have more space.

Once you’re in your home, be smart about home improvement projects, especially those you can’t do cheaply yourself. Trying to create the “perfect” home is an uphill battle, at best. Borrowing to improve your home is an especially bad idea, in my opinion. You can spend vast sums of money without measurably improving your quality of life. And old assumptions about getting that money back when you sell are outdated. For 2014, Remodeling Magazine reports that the average cost-value ratio for 35 representative home improvement projects stood at just about 66%. In other words, you don’t make money when you sell: rather, you only get about two-thirds of your money back! Financially speaking, that’s a lousy investment.

Lastly, while there are situations where it makes sense, on paper, to hold a mortgage, for those truly dedicated to financial independence, the disadvantages of debt often outweigh the benefits. In general, pay off your mortgage as soon as possible. Using extra income to pay down a mortgage loan can be a solid investment in today’s low-return environment. We paid off our mortgage years before retiring, and the peace of mind was invaluable. Now, in retirement, we rent instead of own. It’s a flexible, economical, and low-hassle lifestyle.

In short, maintaining a home will be one of your largest life expenses. Pay careful attention to your housing decisions if you’re serious about financial freedom!

Darrow Kirkpatrick is a software engineer and author who lived frugally, invested successfully, and retired in 2011 at age 50. He writes regularly about saving, investing and retiring on his blog CanIRetireYet.com. This column appears monthly.

More from Darrow Kirkpatrick:

The Single Most Important Thing You Can Do to Achieve Financial Success

The One Retirement Question You Must Get Right

How to Figure Out Your Real Cost of Living in Retirement

Read next: 3 Little Mistakes That Can Sink Your Retirement

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