When Keith Farner was 14, he made $2,000 at a summer job. Instead of buying the Xbox he'd been wanting, his parents helped him open a Roth IRA. The 30-year-old, who lives in Athens, Ga., now has more than $30,000 saved.
While Farner may have gotten an earlier start on retirement than most, a new study out Monday from Merrill Edge shows that Gen Y, defined by the study as those 18-34, is starting to save for retirement earlier than any other generation. Many are investing by age 22, compared with Baby Boomers who started on average at age 35.
Abe Mulvihill had two retirement accounts by the time he was 21, opened during a summer internship with a mutual fund company that offered him accounts with no fees. Now the 27-year-old also invests in a 401(k) through work and has more than $10,000 saved total.
"If you look at how money can grow and you reinvest all your dividends and that compounds, it makes complete sense," Mulvihill says.
The Merrill Edge study of mass-affluent Millennials—those with $50,000 to $250,000 in assets—shows that on average the age group has $55,000 saved for retirement, which Merrill Edge director Alok Prasad calls "quite impressive."
"They are a lot more disciplined, in terms of thinking ahead and being proactive about saving for the future," he says, a mindset formed after living through two economic downturns—the dot-com bust and Great Recession—watching their parents struggle financially and then struggling, themselves, due to high unemployment and economic uncertainty.
The age group is also wary of the long-term viability of Social Security.
The survey shows that just under half of Millennials indicated plans to rely on public programs for retirement, down from 63 percent of Millennials who said the same in 2011.
"I'm really just banking on there not being any for me when I get older," says Laura Rusbarsky of Social Security. The 23-year-old St. Louis resident opened a Roth IRA when she was 21 and also invests in a 401(k) through her job. She makes about $30,000 a year as a marketing assistant, and says focusing on retirement over other immediate needs, such as student loans, can be frustrating.
But she says, "I'm doing OK right now. So why not prepare for my future and make that more financially sound than worry about now?"
Income has shown to influence 401(k) participation among Millennials, but even lower earners are investing in company plans. A Prudential survey out in December showed that of employees 21-29 who are eligible for company plans, 91 percent will participate if they're making more than $50,000 a year, while 70 percent participate if they're making less than $50,000 a year.
Millennials are "actually more inclined" to invest in retirement plans, says George Castineiras, senior vice president of retirement solutions for Prudential. Through their parents and grandparents, "Millennials are watching what it means and what it looks like to not have enough money for retirement," he says.
Even Millennials who started saving early, though, have had difficulty staying on track. Matt Watson started investing in a 401(k) with a 6 percent company match at a job with an electric company out of college. The 26-year-old cashed out the roughly $5,000 he had accumulated, though, when he found himself out of work last year.
It "wasn't smart, but I was desperate," Watson says. He now invests in a Roth IRA, money market fund, stock account with Fidelity and recently began a new employer-sponsored program through his job as a special-education teacher in Bossier City, La.
"I'd rather sacrifice a little bit now," he says. "Hopefully, I can realistically look at retiring by the time I'm 55."