Generational smackdown! Who is best at retirement saving?

NEW YORK Fri Nov 22, 2013 7:00am EST

NEW YORK Nov 22 (Reuters) - The stereotype of American millennials is not pretty: Hanging out in basements, sponging off mom and dad, not making much money to speak of, and not really sure of what to do with it, when they do get it.

But what if - as evidence suggests - that stereotype were all wrong? What if 20-somethings and 30-somethings are actually off to a pretty good start in retirement planning - and might turn out to be the savviest savers of all?

Consider Kevin Grubb. The 28-year-old career coach from Philadelphia takes his retirement saving as seriously as a heart attack.

"The very first day that I was allowed to contribute at my first job, I did," says Grubb, who at age 24 started chipping in 5 percent to a 403(b) in order to take full advantage of his employer match.

"Ever since then, I have never stopped contributing, not once."

Indeed, according to a study by online brokerage TD Ameritrade, younger Americans are hardly the slackers they are often portrayed to be. The vaunted baby boomers - those born between 1946 and 1964 - started saving for their golden years at age 35. Meanwhile, Generation X (born in the late 1960s and 1970s) started much earlier, at 28.

And Generation Y, born in the 1980s and 1990s, bested both of them. They began at an average age of 24.

"The savings habits of younger investors are actually much better than the perception," says Lule Demmissie, managing director of retirement for TD Ameritrade.

"They have attitudes much like the Depression-era generation: That the worst could happen, that social safety nets might not be there for them, and that they won't have other means to rely on like pensions."

That gloomy outlook may be well-founded, since the job outlook for young grads remains fairly grim. Those between ages 20 and 24 are grappling with an unemployment rate of 12.5 percent as of October, well above the national average of 7.3 percent, as the economy continues its agonizingly slow recovery.

401(k) HABITS

Even so, millennials are managing to put money away. New York City public relations professional Erin Lowry started last year at age 23, beginning her 401(k) by contributing up to the amount of her company match. She has since boosted her deduction to 10 percent of salary, and is thinking about opening up a Roth individual retirement account as well.

"We get a bad rap about a lot of things when it comes to finances, that we are lazy or self-absorbed or not paying attention," she says. "But it makes sense to me to contribute as much as I possibly can right now, before I have a family to raise and other expenses to deal with."

Indeed, a look at the savings habits of different generations hints at positive long-term outcomes for younger Americans. Among those saving for retirement, 59 percent of Generation X do so via regular, automatic 401(k) contributions, according to TD Ameritrade. That is closely followed by Generation Y at 56 percent, which far outpaces baby boomers, who are at 46 percent.

"To simplify it, my parents were great savers, my own generation was not, and my children probably will be," says James Karabas, 51, a financial planner with Waddell and Reed in Schaumburg, Illinois.

"Recent graduates are very aware of the importance of saving, because they have seen what their parents have gone through to try to recover from the economic meltdown of 2007-2009."

Almost 80 percent of Gen Y plan to contribute more to their retirement kitty in the next 12 months, according to a 2013 survey by online brokerage Scottrade. That clobbers every other demographic.

To be sure, younger investors have had some built-in advantages in getting off to a decent start. Generations X and Y have come of age in an era of 401(k)s, which did not even exist in the tax code until 1978. Companies have also been ramping up automatic enrollment in recent years, which has been terrifically successful in boosting employee participation.

And before we condemn boomers for not putting enough aside, remember the particular life challenges they are facing, and which Generations X and Y have yet to encounter.

Often they are supporting their own elderly parents, or helping pay for their offspring's college bills, or even welcoming those "boomerang" kids back home once they graduate. When they put themselves last, that can put a major dent in their own retirement sums.

That being said, who is shaping up as the ultimate retirement-savings champ at the end of the day? America's emerging generations may not be saving enough percentage-wise yet, TD's Demmissie admits. But with such an early start and Depression-era attitudes about the importance of saving, Gen Y might very well come out on top.

"We've seen the housing crash, we've seen the financial crisis, and we don't want to find ourselves in that situation again," says Kevin Grubb. "Retirement saving is a marathon, not a sprint - and I'm training for that marathon."

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