Originally created 08/30/98

Investing driven by fear



Slackers. Busters. Generation X.

These are not the people with a house, a business, a money market account and a retirement plan already in place.

Or are they?

Just ask Faulkner and Whitney Warlick. Their house is small but cozy, his business paid for, their money market account slowly growing with each paycheck the 20-something couple brings home.

Ask Andre David, 33, who makes enough money from annuities to put himself through school full-time and support his family.

Ask Ben Rakofski, 23, an Augusta State University student just getting ready to graduate -- who already has a year of savings in his 401K retirement plan.

Long maligned as slackers and dilettantes, Generation X -- the first wave of Baby Boomers' children, now reaching their mid-20s and 30s -- are investing and saving in ever-growing numbers. They play the market, and they play it fast and hard. They're already putting away money for retirement, thanks in no small part to the advent of the 401K savings plan.

Many of them are driven by fear. They've only known a bull market, but they grew up watching corporate downsizing eat away at financial security for their Baby Boomer parents. They've seen the reports that they will be the first generation that will not live better than, or even as well as, their parents. They don't know what to believe about the stories of Social Security running out of money.

"We don't have the safety net our parents and grandparents had. It's just not there," Mr. Rakofski said.

Most of their grandparents worked for the same company for 20 or 30 years and had a pension plan that now delivers a check every month, pointed out Beth Menger, a certified public accountant with Cherry Bekaert & Holland.

"There's not as much of that today as there used to be," she said. "A lot of companies are doing away with pension-type plans and are setting up 401K plans where the employee contributes their own money and the employer matches it."

In addition, Generation X workers are less likely to stay with one company for their entire career, she added. And they've seen downsizing slice through the personnel ranks, which makes them feel less secure about their own jobs.

"The middle class survived on middle-management jobs, and those jobs are not there anymore," Mrs. Warlick said.

She dodged the bullet only last week. One of two occupational therapists at her company, she got word Thursday that she would keep her job, while her colleague would get walking papers -- another victim of personnel cuts.

The worry came at a bad time, when the Warlicks are beginning to plan for children. She is the one who tucks away 15 percent of her paycheck into a 401K retirement plan, and they receive insurance coverage through her job.

"You can't not have insurance," she told her husband during a discussion of their finances. "What if you were in an accident? They could take all our assets to pay for medical bills."

Mr. David found out the cost of medical expenses the hard way when his wife died unexpectedly eight years ago, leaving him a single father with savings that virtually disappeared as the family struggled to pay for medical expenses. Married for only three years, the couple had only touched on the topic of life insurance.

The money that Mr. David could scrape together went into three annuities. The sacrifice then provides him with a fixed income now that has allowed him to go back to school for a master's degree in business. But he wishes he had been an even more aggressive investor.

"I wish I had listened to that advice. But I wasn't that confident. I didn't know the stock market that well," he said. "And I prefer to do it myself rather than put my money in someone else's hands and trust someone else. Mutual funds weren't that popular then, so I didn't get involved in those. But right now, I'm looking at the Roth IRAs."

The Roth Individual Retirement Account gives tax-free investment growth if an account has been open for more than five years. It also allows an investor to withdraw his contributed principal at any time without penalty.

Wallace Dickerson Sr., a financial consultant with American Express Financial Advisors, Inc., recommends them for young investors -- the same people who can get a demonstration on Mr. Dickerson's computer that shows how they can become a millionaire by age 65, using compounding interest.

"Generally speaking, you usually find folks in that age group in `accumulation' mode," Mr. Dickerson said of Generation X. "They're accumulating things, sometimes accumulating children -- and those are extra costs, so they don't do as much investing. But I do occasionally find an individual who is interested in doing some planning. And that's very gratifying for someone in my job, to find someone in their late 20s with the discipline to do that."

When young adults invest, they are more likely to invest aggressively, said Mr. Dickerson, who color-codes his files, labeling young investors red as a warning signal. Traditionally, riskier investments such as technology stocks have interested this age group. With years of investing ahead, they have the time to ride the up-and-down waves of the market.

"If you're in your 20s or 30s, you should be more aggressive," Mr. Dickerson said. "Generally speaking, the people in this age group who do invest do it properly, and they're well diversified."

Many young people still think they can't afford to invest, but mutual funds can require as little as $25 a month or a lump sum of just $250, he said.

"I'm just starting to save, and I want to learn how to do this right," said Tiwana Watson, 22, an Augusta State student with a 6-week-old son.

She's taking a personal finance class with Professor Joseph Green, whose goal is to teach his students enough about stocks, mutual funds and real estate to enable them to make half of their income from their investments, rather than the standard 10 percent.

"Now is the time to really think about our future," Ms. Watson said. "It's important for me to be financially stable for my son. I want to learn how to save and invest. I have to learn because if I don't, no one is going to do it for me."