For millennials, money problems are a major concern.
Not that they’d really know it—millennials generally aren’t very financially literate, according to the 2012 National Financial Capability Study. The survey of more than 5,500 young people revealed that only 24 percent of respondents demonstrated a basic understanding of sound money management practices. And nearly half of those surveyed said that they couldn’t come up with $2,000 in an emergency.
The further you look into the numbers, the worse the picture gets. According to a 2016 GOBankingRates survey, 72 percent of young millennials (18 to 24 years old) and 67 percent of older millennials (25 to 34 years old) have less than $1,000 in their savings accounts. They’re spending more on unnecessary comforts while often ignoring their retirement accounts. So are millennials destined to work until they drop?
I wish I was good at saving money
— @lly (@AllyVitko) June 24, 2018
For many millennials, the financial future seems pretty grim. However, statistics don’t always tell the whole story. We spoke with financial experts to determine whether millennials should be panicking—and whether we’re headed toward some sort of investment apocalypse fueled by ironic beards and avocado toast. Here’s what we learned.
Fewer millennials are saving for the future, and no one’s quite sure why.
First, the bad news: Sixty-six percent of millennials have nothing saved for retirement, per the National Institute on Retirement Security (NIRS), and a shocking 95 percent of millennials aren’t saving enough.
Why are the numbers so poor? That’s anyone’s guess. We reached out to dozens of financial analysts, and while there wasn’t a consensus, some of them had interesting theories.
“We live in a way more prosperous world than we did when [our] parents were growing up,” says Samuel Rad, a certified financial planner at Affluencer Financial and instructor at UCLA. “Post-war generations have always tried to save money as a measure of security due to uncertain times. Today’s millennials find that money comes and goes, and their life is not in danger. Therefore, more millennials feel comfortable living day-to-day instead of saving for tomorrow.”
Rad believes that millennials are pretty comfortable, even when their savings accounts run low. That’s a believable hypothesis, but it’s far from the only possibility.
“As a millennial, I’ve noticed that others in my peer group view retirement in a different way than previous generations,” says real estate agent Evan Roberts. “Growing up, the focus had always been on following your passion rather than [finding a] career that is financially profitable. I believe that millennials are not saving for retirement because they never plan on retiring. Most of them are doing what they love, and they can never see themselves putting their career on the shelf for retirement.”
Of course, retirement isn’t just a luxury; at a certain point, people have to stop working when they’re not physically or mentally capable of doing their jobs. What’s more, some experts believe that millennials should be saving more than their parents—not less.
“Financial experts recommend that millennials set aside 15 percent or more of their salary for retirement, which is a much higher rule of thumb than recommendations for previous generations,” Jennifer Brown, NIRS manager of research, said in a press release. “But we find that millennials’ average retirement savings rate, including employers’ matching contributions, is ten percent of their salary.”
To be fair, it’s not all the millennials’ fault that they’re neglecting their retirement accounts. There are structural forces at work as well, some experts say.
“There are multiple factors at play,” says Alexander Lowry, professor of finance at Gordon College. “A large part is due to poor financial literacy. But the biggest problem is the enormous amount of student debt heaped upon these students.”
“When you graduate college with an astronomical amount of debt—seemingly so large you wonder if you can ever pay it off—it cripples your ability to function as adults have done in the past. As a result, many millennials are moving back in with their parents, trying to save money and somehow get out from the mountain of debt.”
According to Pew Research Center, about 40 percent of adults under age 30 have student loan debt. On average, borrowers have about $17,000 in student debt, but postgraduate degree holders report an average of $45,000 in debt. Unsurprisingly, individuals with loans were more likely to struggle financially than those without loans.
The good news is that if you’re one of the lucky few who managed to put away some savings, you’re likely in good shape.
The aforementioned GOBankingRates survey notes that from 2016 to 2017, the percentage of younger millennials who have $10,000 or more in a savings account has jumped five percentage points. When millennials save, they’re saving a substantial amount of their income.
Some financial experts believe that the problem with millennial retirement accounts is overstated since it’s difficult to accurately compare finances across generations.
“Retirement is different for many people than it was only 20 years ago, but keep in mind that most Americans never had a pension,” says Richard D. Quinn, a former retirement planner (who is currently retired—talk about a guy who knows his stuff). “Up until 1974, they didn’t have IRAs, and they didn’t have 401(k) plans until 1978. They were on their own, and they managed to retire.”
“Then again, 50 years ago, people had different expectations related to needs, wants, desires, and perhaps instant gratification,” he adds.
If all this talk about saving has you feeling apprehensive, remember that time is on your side.
“Millennials were born into different circumstances, for sure,” says Jonathan K. DeYoe, author of Mindful Money: Simple Practices for Reaching Your Financial Goals and Increasing Your Happiness Dividend. “But they are equipped to figure it out. I don’t think we have to lay blame on anyone, and I don’t think millennials have to be any more concerned than the generations that have preceded them.”
“If anything, we should all be more concerned about building our savings. They may be in the best position of all simply because they have the most time ahead of them to figure it out.”
Your first step: Take the time to improve your financial literacy. Consider taking a basic course on budgeting, or simply sit down with your bills and develop an honest assessment of your current financial circumstances.
“Any improvement in one’s financial literacy will have a profound impact on their ability to provide for their future,” says Lowry. “Recent trends are making it all the more imperative that people understand basic finances, especially their debt load, because they are being asked to shoulder more of the burden of the financial decisions in their life—all while having to decipher more complex financial products and options.”
Rather than fretting about the size of your savings account or worrying about what you haven’t invested, start developing your retirement plan as soon as possible.
“Ideally, financial planning should be started as soon as you start working in order to take full advantage of the gift of time (and compound interest),” says Drew Parker, a former financial manager and creator of a financial planning tool called the Complete Retirement Planner. “How much money you have, or how much you are able to save, doesn’t matter. It’s about taking control of your destiny. Financial planning is about what you do well before retirement so that you won’t have to worry during retirement.”
They really should’ve had us take an “adulting” class in high school cause now I’m 25 and have no idea what health insurance I should choose or if I’m saving enough for retirement
— Taylor (@taylor_maranda) June 20, 2018
“A really important point about saving and investing that any millennial should consider is the power of the time value of money,” says Steve Flamisch, press officer at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. “Money invested over time will grow at the investment rate percentage. If you are younger, you have a huge time advantage: Your investment has more time to continue to grow. For example, $1,000 invested at 7.5 percent for 10 years will grow to $2,061. Invested for 30 years, it’s worth $8,755. If you are young, start investing sooner rather than later, and take advantage of the longer time horizon.”
One simple piece of practical advice: If your employer offers an investment benefit, use it.
“It’s easy to take advantage of two sources of investment information and opportunities,” Flamisch says. “First, check to see if your employer offers a 401(k) long-term investment plan and/or an Employee Stock Purchase Plan (ESPP). Learn the details of those plans. With a 401(k) plan, many employers offer some percentage of matching funds to match your own investment.”
“There are also certain income tax advantages to the 401(k). With an Employee Stock Purchase Plan, many employers offer a discount on the price of the stock you purchase. The 401(k) match and the ESPP discount are valuable benefits.”
“Second, seek out information on investing from sources external to your employer,” Flamisch adds. “Search online for best investment advisors for millennials, for investing apps, and for additional information. Research and visit some investment advisors. Talk to them. Find out what you can learn from them and what they can offer to you.”
Finally, relax. While millennials might not be investing as much as their parents, they still have plenty of time to make changes. Don’t worry about the statistics; most of our experts say millennials will eventually course correct.
“The fact of the matter is that we are all responsible on an individual basis for the outcomes we have to face in retirement,” DeYoe says. “Social security will be nice to have, but it won’t be enough for any of us. I think millennials are fine. We should trust them. They are plenty smart, and they will figure it out.”