The so-called Boomerang Generation is criticized for many things: being selfish; cultivating a hardcore internet addiction worthy of intensive 30-day treatment; flopping around aimlessly in the workplace, demanding that others do their work for them. Prime among the many zingers often fired at millennials, however, is the fact that they supposedly just plain suck at financial management.
This is frankly ridiculous.
First of all, it’s impossible to define an entire generation. Saying millennials as a whole are bad at money management is like saying Generation X was a bunch of free-loving, back-to-the-farm losers who never accomplished anything … but the scientists, inventors, artists, educators and wealthy investors of that generation would beg to differ.
So before you succumb to the thinking that your generation is somehow inherently handicapped by a lack of financial sense, stop short. Your beliefs affect your actions, so change your attitude right now: While it’s true that millennials, just like every other group of people ever, can be better and worse at money management, there is no law saying you have to fail in this category. It is possible to manage your money well and succeed financially.
Of course, some good advice never hurt anyone. This primer will walk you through the basic economic difficulties of your generation as well as the solutions to those problems, so that you have the best chance of success now and in the years to come.
Unique Issues Affecting Millennials’ Finances
Before you prop up that iPad and start jotting down notes on how to make it to millionaire status by age 27, it’s important to understand the basic handicaps affecting your generation. Millennials do face different challenges than generations before, and knowing what they are makes it more possible to overcome them.
First and foremost, the game has changed.
A classic example is the shift in views about housing. The two-bedroom, picket-fenced, suburban ranch house used to symbolize financial success, but this symbol has not aged well. For one thing, millennials no longer want little starter houses that have to be changed up in a few years. According to CNBC, they prefer to wait for the kinds of homes they really want to buy, and that takes time (Olick, 2016).
The crux of the issue is how millennials are thinking about homes. Rather than “the next step,” millennials view home ownership as an important decision to be made at the right time. “What the report brings out is the shift in how millennials are thinking about homeownership,” D. Steve Boland, consumer lending executive for Bank of America, told CNBC. “A home is much more of an emotional decision and a life priority decision. Is this a place where I may ultimately want to retire?” (Olick, 2016). These days, many millennials are choosing to rent for years (or decades) rather than plunk down so much cash on an investment that may not work out for them.
Social Security is another prime example. We’ve known for a long time that the current model wasn’t going to work. With the explosion of Baby Boomers drawing on social security, the fact that they are living longer and the declining birth rate of the last several decades, Social Security is predicted to hit some major bumps in the road by 2034, when it will no longer be fully funded. (Huddleston, 2017).
While the prophets of doom who claim it will be “gone” are blowing the case out of proportion, it will drop to ¾ of the original payout for each person turning 65 then. Solutions include cutting the payout, bumping up the age of full retirement, or raising taxes. The takeaway? Millennials can’t bank on Social Security the way they once could. A new plan is needed.
Not everything has gone to pot, though. While “college degrees are now worthless!” is basically a mantra to some, that’s just plain not true. Many professional jobs still require a degree, and the average salary is significantly higher for those who have one. In fact, the higher the degree, the more you make. As always. (Doyle, 2017)
Growing Up Slow in a Fast World
While the world shifts around them, millennials too are shifting. Part of the assertion that they grow up slower is true. According to the Pew Research Center, three in 10 millennials – defined as 24- to 35-year-olds – was living at home with their parents in 2012. (Pew, 2012). They added that “large majorities say they’re satisfied with their living arrangements (78%) and upbeat about their future finances (77%)” and that:
48% of boomerang children report that they have paid rent to their parents and 89% say they have helped with household expenses. As for the effect on family dynamics, about quarter (25%) say the living arrangement has been bad for their relationship with their parents, while a quarter (24%) say it’s been good and nearly half (48%) say it hasn’t made a difference.
That’s not to say millennials are completely happy with this trend, since “Nearly eight-in-ten (78%) of these 25- to 34-year-olds say they don’t currently have enough money to lead the kind of life they want, compared with 55% of their same-aged peers who aren’t living with their parents.” (Pew, 2012).
Some experts claim this is due to inherent immaturity, but others counter this, pointing to the fairly desperate economic situation into which millennials entered as adults, especially after the 2008 kickoff of the Great Recession. While it makes a certain amount of sense that adulthood is delayed as life expectancy increases (Hanowell), it’s mostly due to changing definitions of what it means to “grow up.”
While previous generations defined their success by metrics such as getting married, buying homes, having babies and earning degrees, millennials are generally suspicious of these rites of passage and have chosen to hold off until a better time. Many are even more frank: Surveys should millennials don’t even consider themselves adults until the age of 30 … or 40. (Weston, 2017)
Other critics claim that millennials are held back by their technology, which is more of a hindrance than a help to maturity. This assertion, however, has been hotly contested by others, who think smartphones are merely the current addiction rather than the hallmark of an especially broken generation: “Versus previous generations that drank Scotch or smoked pot instead? Life is tough. People cope in unhealthy ways. It’s a problem. It’s always been a problem. Watch Mad Men and tell me that social media isn’t a better way to cope than what Don Draper and his pals used to do.” (Without, 2017)
The bottom line here is that dwelling on whether or not millennials have good reason to be financially spazzy/sound is not helpful. Instead, understanding your situation is what matters. Whether you live at home or not, consider yourself an adult or not, are happy with your financial situation or not, you still have the tools at your disposal to achieve financial security and even wealth.
The Bank of Mom and Dad
No discussion of millennial finance would be complete without acknowledging that this generation, more than any other in American history, feels just fine borrowing from its parents.
“Nearly half of millennials say their parents have covered some expenses since they have been on their own,” said Kelli Grant of CNBC. (Grant, 2016) Pew added that “nearly four-in-ten (38%) say their current financial situation is linked to their parents’ financial situation. Some 18% say it is linked ‘a great deal’ and 19% say it is linked ‘some.’” (Pew, 2012) Those funds go toward clothing, phones, bills, retirement and emergency savings, as well as helping them get their footing so they can go out on their own.
Relying on parents is so common that you can find numerous how-tos online. For instance, Laura Latzko of Our Everyday Life advocates
Seek a loan from your parents only when you have exhausted other resources, such as bank loans or liquid assets. If you try to pay your bills with the money that you do have and still cannot make it, your parents will likely feel that you have attempted to solve your financial problem on your own before coming to them. (Latzko)
But be careful with this approach, as it may be misguided. Indeed, many conservative millennials would disagree with the advice to “Seek a loan from your parents only when you have exhausted other resources, such as bank loans or liquid assets.” If you really must borrow, then it’s probably best to do so before you’ve mortgaged yourself to the hilt with “real” banks. Otherwise, it’s possible you’ve just put your parents on the hook for larger amounts later, when you’re really in trouble.
If you do borrow from the ‘rents, be sure to negotiate terms and timeline. Some experts even advise using a contract or promissory note to encourage accountability and avoid going even deeper into debt. Even if they’re your parents, debt is bad. The best advice of all? To live within your means.
If your reaction to this section is Ew, budgeting, you’re not alone. Budgeting is hard and annoying and kind of a buzzkill, and while you know you should be doing it, you probably aren’t.
Even if you have given budgeting a shot, chances are you’ve grown frustrated by the lack of results. That’s because cutting back on Starbucks (an extremely common piece of advice) and putting a little extra into the bank with each paycheck probably won’t do much to change your general financial situation.
Ramit Sethi put this a bit more bluntly: “It’s not hopeless. But if you follow the old rules, you’re screwed. If you believe you need to (1) cut back on tiny things like coffee to (2) ultimately save up for a house, then (3) buy it and live happily ever after, you are screwed. You’re playing the wrong game and you don’t even realize it.” (Sethi)
Beware, too, the dangers of taking your financial cues from friends, warned the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants (AICPA) in 2013:
The national poll found that three quarters of young adults, or 78 percent, use their friends’ financial habits to determine their own … At the same time, in the past year alone, almost half of those in the age group had to use a credit card to pay for necessities like food or utilities and more than a quarter missed a bill payment or were contacted by a bill collector. (AICPA)
Instead of taking budgeting advice from friends, whims or Twitter soundbites, take a measured approach informed by accountability measures. Being accountable to a specific person to achieve a goal can up your chances of success by a full 95 percent. (Oppong) If you don’t want to commit to a person, you can use popular online money trackers such as Mint.com.
According to Mint, you should be spending only 30 percent of your total income on unnecessary expenses, such as new toys, eating out trips or gym memberships. Another 20 percent should go to savings, while 50 percent of your income – and no more – should go toward essentials such as rent, utilities and groceries. If you find you can’t cover these expenses in 50 percent or less, you need to rethink your lifestyle. (Mint, 2016)
When you set up your budget tracker, whether it’s an app or simply an Excel spreadsheet, make sure to account for student loans, bills, food and personal spending. As far as income, you’ll typically include work, income tax returns and any money you might have from investments or inheritances (if you’re among the lucky few!).
Make sure your budget is mobile. While you can use a note on your phone to track expenses while you’re out, then input them later, you need a better system for vacations, overnights and business trips so you don’t accidentally let something slip. Ideas include bringing your laptop or installing a tracking app right on your phone.
The Importance of Credit
Especially in your twenties, when living the good life seems more important than future financial goals, it can be a tough stretch for some people to care about their credit. But while millennials may not be buying homes right now, they do believe in the value of starting businesses. According to Larry Alton, “Over 62% of millennials have considered starting their own business, with 72% feeling that startups and entrepreneurs are a necessary economic force.” (Alton, 2017) While they start fewer businesses than previous generations, that doesn’t mean they won’t eventually – especially considering the slower maturation process to which millennials freely cop.
Essentially, your credit is a rating that describes how trustworthy you are with loans, and therefore how likely you are to pay them back. According to the Memphis Area Association of Realtors MAAR), credit is based on four factors:
- Capital, or how much cash you currently have available
- Capacity, or your ability to earn new money
- Credit history, or how trustworthy you’ve proven to be in the past
- Collateral, or what you have that can be weighed against the loan (and taken from you if you default) (MAAR, 2010)
Your credit will affect your chances of getting private student loans, business loans and mortgages. Therefore, even if you aren’t interested in these things right now, if you want to keep your options open, you need to safeguard your credit for later.
Note that identity theft is a serious problem these days, and that one thief can ruin your credit for up to a decade. You need to take steps to protect your identity now, including securing your Social Security number, never responding to requests for personal information online or over the phone, reviewing receipts, store personal information in a safe place, and more. (USAGov)
You should also freeze your credit, which means contacting all three credit bureaus separately and requesting the freeze. You can learn more on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) website. (FTC, 2014)
Managing Student Loan Debt
When you’re desperately struggling to afford your finances and pay your dues in the job market – a prospect that often doesn’t pay that much, at least for the first few years – it can feel brutal to owe considerable amounts in student loans as well. Recently, student loans have become so burdensome that some experts question whether the increased paycheck associated with them really balances out the huge debt load with which students come away from school.
Recent studies show that at the time, the class of 2015 graduated with the most student loan debt ever, at an average of $35,051. “That’s about $2,000 more than their peers who graduated in 2014, though the share of students graduating with debt remained roughly the same as last year at about 70%,” explained Jillian Berman. This is due to a combination of “stagnant wages, declining federal and state funding to schools on a per-student basis, and rising tuition,” which forces both parents and students to take out more loans or search for less expensive school options. (Berman, 2015)
Chances are good that you have your own share of student loan debt, whether you’ve just graduated or have been out of school for years. There are plenty of strategies for reducing your debt burden while you’re in school, including:
- Working (obviously)
- Living at home
- Applying for grants and scholarships
- Starting a side hustle while still in school
- Living within your means (again, obviously)
However, it’s less clear what to do once you graduate and find yourself with a huge amount of debt to your name, but a low-paying job that won’t do much against those towering monthly payments.
The secret is income-driven repayment plans. This class of structured loan repayment programs works for all government loans, and includes the following:
- Revised Pay As You Earn Repayment Plan (REPAYE Plan)
- Pay As You Earn Repayment Plan (PAYE Plan)
- Income-Based Repayment Plan (IBR Plan)
- Income-Contingent Repayment Plan (ICR Plan)
While these are all structured differently, and the exact one for you will depend on a lot of financial factors, they all employ the same basic idea: what you pay is based on what you make. Luckily, you can apply for all of them using the same application. (Federal Student Aid) This allows you to take a job that suits your goals rather than having to take whichever one will pay the most money, then pay off debt faster as your income rises.
The Best Vehicles for Savings
Saving for retirement isn’t a millennial strong suit, no matter which way you slice it. Partly this is just a problem of youth, and partly a result of changing viewpoints on what’s important in life: “A common observation about Millennials is the generation’s penchant for spending on experiences over goods like cars or homes. In fact, a recent Harris Group study found 72% Millennials plan to focus on ‘experiences rather than physical things’ in their future spending.” (Reeves, 2016)
But a propensity to spend isn’t the real problem: “In addition to these typical hurdles,” Jeff Reeves explained, “Millennials also face a mathematical double whammy of lower lifetime earnings and lower investment returns that will make their challenge even more difficult.” This might encourage even more millennials to put the problem off, banking on a long and successful career to build up wealth in nontraditional ways. While this is great, it’s also shortsighted.
Although retirement may be an idea heading towards antiquity, especially as more millennials value financial freedom over the idea of quitting work at a specific age, putting money aside for the future is still critical. No matter how enthusiastic you are about your career, you will eventually get to a point where you can’t guarantee you’ll still be able to work – or that you will want to. Plus, savings are crucial even when you’re younger. Nothing in life is certain.
The most obvious vehicles for retirement are 401(k)s, IRAs and investing on your own. If your employer doesn’t make the choice obvious to you, the best strategy is to talk to a financial planner about which one of these vehicles will fit your lifestyle and financial situation best.
Some millennials prefer to just keep their money in cash. Research shows that while they know this is an inherently risky idea, because it doesn’t account for inflation, they just feel more comfortable with liquid assets. (UBS, 2016) Overall this is an ill-advised strategy, especially since interest rates are low since the economy has rebounded and financial institutions are currently encouraging investment.
Taxes, Taxes, Taxes
Nothing is certain in life as death and taxes, and in a way, taxes are even more certain, because they happen every year. Despite this, many millennials treat taxes with a devil-may-care attitude that won’t serve them well in the long run. Don’t do that.
Instead, make sure you plan correctly for your taxes. If you’re self-employed, then you will need to calculate your estimated taxes to make sure you set aside enough money for when the collector comes around. Otherwise, you’ll come up short, owe the IRS extra and be subject to potentially thousands in interest. Because you don’t have an employer watching out for you to make you do this, it’s extra important you take a look at your earnings every quarter and plan ahead.
When you start a new job, the W-4 is one of the forms you fill out. This determines how much money you will have withheld from your wages to cover federal and state income taxes. You need to make sure to calculate the correct number of exemptions. The higher the number, the less money is withheld, because the more exemptions you have, the less taxes you can expect to pay. This isn’t always the case, though, because there are so many factors that go into your tax return – including types of income other than wage income.
If that seems too complicated to you (and it most likely will, or else you don’t really need to be reading this article on finances at all), get a tax preparer. They aren’t that expensive – only a few hundred a year – especially if your only source of income is a single job. If your tax return is very simple, a place like H&R Block will prove the cheapest and best option. However, if you have any other source of income or complicating factors such as a mortgage, hire a boutique tax preparer who can be with you for many years. That way, they will be familiar with your situation, and can help you make the best decisions over the long haul.
Getting to a Million
While shows such as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire make it sound as though millionaire status is achievable only by a lucky few – and those few need televised support in order to do it – this is erroneous. In fact, superstar financial success Grant of Millennial Money (who goes by first name only) did it in only 5 years, skyrocketing his bank account from a little more than $2 to a million in that time. (Elkins)
His approach was straightforward. First he decided to charge what he’s worth in business, and quickly discovered that people were willing to pay it. He also focused on living simply, saving a full 50 percent of his income every year, then diversified with multiple income streams – his was a side hustle building websites, the proceeds of which he also invested.
Grant also upped his net worth by investing in companies he already knew and trusted, then performing the research on them to assure himself they were worth the risk. Lastly, he tracks his net worth every single day – starting by a check with his morning cup of coffee: “There are few greater motivations than seeing this number rise over time. No matter where you start from. I have been tracking my net worth for the past five years and my first balance was $2.26.” (Elkins)
Using Your Money Well
Of course, while saving and investing money is a wonderful thing to do for your future, sometimes you’re just going to spend it. Hopefully, though, you’ll spend at least some of it on others.
If nothing else, do this for selfish reasons. Joseph D’Urso reported that, “People who give money to charity tend to be happier and also healthier than others, said Elizabeth Dunn, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia in Canada, where she studies happiness.” This finding isn’t restricted to developed countries, either: “Similar results were reached in Canada and Uganda, two hugely different countries in terms of income and culture, suggesting this may be something intrinsic to humans, she said.” (D’Urso)
When it comes to charity, the millennial generation is a funny one. They’re more charitable than ever before, but they’re busting up the traditional nonprofit landscape by giving socially, giving to smaller groups and pulling money out of the hands of big charities, who are rushing to catch up.
When you choose where to spend your money, you’ll do so in your own way, but funneling your money more directly may bring greater dividends to recipients and make you feel closer to the cause.
Maintaining Your Skepticism
One of the most important aspects of building a financially sound life, pointed out Walter Updegrave, is remaining skeptical of the financial advice you hear. You should also make sure your financial advice is coming from an unbiased place … or as unbiased as possible:
If you’re considering working with an adviser, the key issue is to make sure the advice you get bolsters your bottom line, not just the adviser’s. It’s virtually impossible to eliminate all conflicts of interest between you and an adviser, but you nonetheless should ask the adviser to identify the potential conflicts in your relationship and explain how he will manage them to your advantage. (If the adviser claims there are no conflicts, you need to move on to someone else.) (Updegrave, 2016)
Other experts warn that you should be on your guard when you hear certain investment pitches. Those you should ignore completely, according to Real Deal Retirement, include:
- Self-directed IRAs, rather than more traditional retirement accounts
- “Safe” high yields, even though high yields always come with high risk
- Buy gold, rather than invest in the stock market
- Variable annuities, rather than more stable types of guaranteed income
- Stock dividends, rather than more stable bonds (Real Deal Retirement)
Moreover, be skeptical of the idea that money will buy happiness. Remember Grant, of Millennial Money? According to this millionaire, “Money is not everything, and it’s not worth sacrificing your health, family, friends or other experiences for it.” He added that
I have lost a few friends and strained other relationships because I’ve spent too much time staying late in the office or hustling on the weekends. Even though I truly believe that having money is freedom, money is really just a tool to make experiences in life possible. (Sabatier)
Keep that in mind, and you’ll be happier when you make it big (and even if you don’t). Of course, no single guide to finance can make you an expert, and becoming one will take months and years of dedicated effort. In the meantime, self-education can be a powerful tool.
Books to Read
Most millennials haven’t explored ideas of financial security and wealth in much depth. Although this primer is a great jumping-off point, it is just that. If you want to learn how to manage your own finances, stretch your money, get to a million or even make your own investments, it’s time to bulk up your library. Excellent ideas include:
- The Intelligent Investor: The Definitive Book on Value Investing by Benjamin Graham, Jason Zweig and Warren E. Buffett
- One Up On Wall Street: How To Use What You Already Know To Make Money In The Market by Peter Lynch
- Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
- Unshakeable: Your Financial Freedom Playbook by Tony Robbins, and
- Money Master the Game: 7 Simple Steps to Financial Freedom by Tony Robbins
- No More Mac ‘n’ Cheese! The Real-World Guide to Managing Your Money for 20-Somethings by Lise Andreana
- How to Make Your Money Last: The Indispensable Retirement Guide by Jane Bryant Quinn
- The Automatic Millionaire: A Powerful One-Step Plan to Live and Finish Rich by David Bach
- Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki
- Mindful Money: Simple Practices for Reaching Your Financial Goals and Increasing Your Happiness Dividend by Jonathan K. Deyoe
- I Will Teach You to be Rich by Ramit Sethi
Don’t go out and buy all of these books at the same time, then try to read them before bedtime. That’s a sure recipe for confusion, overwhelm and burnout. Before you know it, you’ll be back to paying $13 for a burger and fries from a food cart and ignoring your finances completely. Instead, you must be intentional about your reading, just as you should be about your spending and saving. Over time, you’ll develop the skills necessary to manage your money well for the rest of your life.
From the Experts
“Only one of these do you have most control of — and that is your spending. Most Americans live well above their means. You rush to buy something, but then you pay by credit. Assuming you only pay off the minimum required (if that), you are probably paying about 35% more than the cost of the purchase, assuming a 17% APR type of card. If people saw the price tag of what items cost with poor credit card habits, I think they would walk on by many purchases. You need to save 10-20% of your income now and invest it for the future.”
~ Sharon Bloodworth, President at Whiteoaks Wealth Advisors, Inc. (Forbes Financial Council)
“Why don’t personal finance experts talk about earning more money? Answer: Because they don’t know how. They’re not financial experts, they’re journalists. That’s why they write about cutting back — it’s all they know. They don’t know about Big Wins or how to automate your money. They will never tell you how to afford a $1,000 dream coat or $5,000 dream vacation (even though they take them themselves).”
~ Ramit Sethi (Sethi)
“Start saving for retirement when you land your first job. Getting into the habit of saving now can make you a saver for life. By being disciplined about setting money aside, you can greatly increase the amount you have available in retirement.”
~ Stacy Francis, President and CEO at Francis Financial (Forbes Financial Council)
“US citizens are not intrinsically more intelligent today, nor do they work harder than did Americans in 1930. Rather, they work far more efficiently and thereby produce far more. This all-powerful trend is certain to continue: America’s economic magic remains alive and well.”
~ Warren Buffet (Matyszczyk, 2016)
“I think it’s time we drop the nonsense. While this generation may have its feelings of entitlement, we can find the same instances in nearly every other generation. Is this generation doomed financially? Not any more than the “greatest generation” was after the Great Depression, I would argue. Your financial success as an individual has nothing to do with the generation you are born into.”
~ Casey Weade, President at Howard Bailey Financial (Forbes Financial Council, 2017)
“For 240 years it’s been a terrible mistake to bet against America, and now is no time to start. America’s golden goose of commerce and innovation will continue to lay more and larger eggs. America’s social security promises will be honored and perhaps made more generous. And, yes, America’s kids will live far better than their parents did.”
~ Warren Buffet (Matyszczyk, 2016)
“I’ve never said, ‘If you go to a mall, see a Starbucks and say it’s good coffee, you should call Fidelity brokerage and buy the stock.’ People buy a stock and they know nothing about it. That’s gambling and it’s not good.”
~ Peter Lynch (Gold, 2017)
“The biggest risk is not taking any risk… In a world that is changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.”
~ Mark Zuckerberg (Daum, 2017)
“When we decided not to sell our business people called us a lot of things besides crazy – things like arrogant and entitled. The same words that I’ve heard used to describe our generation time and time again. The Millennial Generation. The ‘Me’ Generation. Well, it’s true. We do have a sense of entitlement, a sense of ownership, because, after all, this is the world we were born into, and we are responsible for it.”
~ Evan Spiegel (Daum, 2017)
“It is important that once you have a steady income you also create a clear savings goal. Once you get paid, pay yourself first! If you do not think you have a enough willpower to transfer the money yourself, set it up automatically. Most jobs offer programs that will allow you to transfer a percentage of your check into a retirement and savings account prior to taxes, which is great to help you save and enjoy what’s left.”
~ Nitiya Walker, Founder of Seeds of Fortune (Forbes)
“Millennials showed especially strong increases in job confidence and income gains, a necessary precursor for increased housing demand from first-time homebuyers.”
~ Doug Duncan, Senior Vice President and Chief Economist, Fannie Mae (Forbes)
“Most people work 9-to-5. I work 95 hours [per week]. If you ever want to be a millionaire, you need to stop doing the 9-to-5 and start doing 95.”
~ Gary Cardone (Martin, 2017)
“Let’s call it what it is. You want to live as well as the 1 to 2 percent in the world. It’s not very complicated. The math is very raw. If you want to have one of the best lives in the world, which is you live on your terms, you have to pay your dues to get there.”
~ Gary Vaynerchuk (Martin, 2017)
[Referencing the 5 free hours a day he believes most people have] “What do you do with those other five hours? You’re watching “House of f—— Cards.” You’re playing Madden. You’re relaxing from the other intense 10.”
~ Gary Vaynerchuk (Martin, 2017)
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