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Retirement Planning > Saving for Retirement

Helping Millennials Plan Ahead

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Unemployment is still high among millennials, but that number is falling, and youth around the country are finding gainful employment in droves. What’s more, many of them have lofty expectations for retirement, in spite of the crisis occurring among their parents’ generation. An ongoing Gallup poll has shown that roughly a quarter of U.S. citizens between 18 and 29 still expect to retire by age 65, fifteen percent between 60 and 64 and 11 percent before 55.

Given the already rising costs of long retirements, millennials will need to start saving as soon as possible to realize these goals. Some younger Boomers are successfully playing catch-up on their retirement accounts, but that may not be possible for younger workers who expect to maintain comfortable lifestyles during decades-long retirements. For advisors, this group’s need to save smart, save early and learn the ins and outs of comprehensive financial planning represents an enormous opportunity.

Educate First

A lack of education is perhaps millennials’ greatest roadblock in planning and investing for retirement. “Very few colleges even provide personal financial programs, and about 65 percent of students report misunderstanding their student loans,” said Laura Forth, managing director of College CFO. In fact, millennials scored an average of just 69 percent on a financial literacy test put out by the Department of the Treasury and Department of Education. A Brookings Institute study even found that 14 percent of debt-holding students didn’t know they had taken on debt, and that 48 percent didn’t know how much they had paid for their first year of college.

For advisors, this knowledge gap is a great opportunity to educate and empower younger clients. “Personal financial literacy is a measure of success, and less financial stress makes you more productive,” Forth said. Teaching millennials the basics of debt, credit and investing will help them to make the right choices for retirement, but it may also improve their long-term earnings potential and ability to save.

Risk and Reward

Conventional wisdom says to take more risk earlier in life and less close to retirement, but that advice doesn’t always resonate with a generation that saw the effects of the 2008 crash firsthand. “We tend to be pretty conservative with millennials because it’s often their first time investing,” said Forth. “Without a lot of cash flow, even a little bit allocated to a 401(k) or IRA doesn’t leave much to play with, and a high risk assessment doesn’t usually sit well with them.” A UBS Investor Watch report found that on average, millennials hold more than half of their assets in cash and less than a third in stocks. Despite being far closer to retirement, their Generation X and Boomer counterparts hold just 23 percent in cash and 46 percent in stocks.

Still, a lack of education may be what’s really holding young investors back. “Millennials are hesitant on investments in general because they don’t understand the basics,” said Mary Beth Storjohann, Workable Wealth founder and CEO. “I don’t think there’s mistrust in terms of losing money, they just second-guess their decisions because they’re not sure what they’re doing. I don’t have a lot of my clients in fixed income.” In response to this uncertainty, Storjohann strives to educate younger clients and still recommend equities over bonds to provide the greatest potential for growth.

As with any other group, the types of investments and amounts saved will vary among millennials based on their risk preferences. While it makes sense for young investors to pursue stocks over fixed income assets, and certainly over cash holdings. saving more is generally better than saving less. “Just getting them into the habit of saving is the most important piece,” said Eric Roberge, founder of Beyond Your Hammock. “If they feel okay being more aggressive, that’s good, but I’m more interested in saving eight percent conservative than three percent aggressive.”

Building A Portfolio

Where exactly should millennials put their money? “On the whole, the investment vehicles they use are going to be pretty similar to the ones Boomers use,” said Alan Ness, CFP with Fieldstone Financial. “The allocation will simply vary based on time horizon and risk preference.” Forth and Roberge both tend to recommend index funds within 401(k)s and in some cases IRAs. “I don’t care how old you are, I think an index fund, broad-based, low cost and great for long-term investing, should be part of your portfolio,” said Roberge.

Depending on amounts and interest rates, however, paying off debt should still be a higher priority for some millennials. “If they’re choosing between investing in their 401(k)s or paying down their credits cards and saving for emergencies, I’ll recommend the latter first,” said Roberge. Matching an employer’s 401(k) contribution is still an obvious move, but beyond that, avoiding high interest loan payments takes precedent. As for student loans, “Don’t worry if the interest rate is low, but if it’s around eight percent, pay it back sooner,” he said,

These options are still available to the myriad millennials who are underemployed, working lower-paying jobs that have little or nothing to do with their college majors. While they don’t have much to save, their current employers may still offer 401(k)s, and almost anyone can open an IRA on their own. “It never hurts to pay yourself first and learn the principles of cash management in the process,” said Ness. Even double-digit monthly contributions will compound over time, and savers will already have good habits in place once they find better jobs.

Finally, while advisors often factor Social Security into the guaranteed income portions of their clients’ portfolios, that’s probably not a good idea for millennials. The Social Security Administration has projected the trust fund to deplete by 2033, and even if Congress takes action to restore liquidity, younger generations won’t likely reap the same benefits as their parents and grandparents. “Err on the conservative side and assume Social Security isn’t going to exist, and you’re going to be liable for 100 percent of your retirement income,” said Ness. “We’d much rather end the day with more money than overstate and end up with less.”

Reaching A New Audience

Even if millennials can’t count on Social Security or pensions – and even though their current attitudes towards the market are grim – the one thing they definitely have on their side is time. “With younger folks, their most valuable asset is their future earnings potential,” said Ness. Combined with the right education and mindset, decades of planning and investment should allow them to avoid another retirement crisis and set themselves up for comfortable lives in old age.

In turn, millennials’ potential for comfortable retirements has opened up a whole new market for advisors willing to educate them. “The way we approach things is a message of financial empowerment,” said Forth. “You can be a millionaire by the time you retire if you follow the right steps.”


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