Millennials aren’t as bad with money as everyone thinks

Last summer, I hung out with my brother on his college campus. He and his roommate live very much like typical college students — a fridge full of free food from my brother's catering job, a hodgepodge of hand-me-down furniture, etc. Nothing terribly out of the ordinary with their lifestyle. They're broke, but happy, twenty-somethings.

What I did find interesting was their view of money. They had a surprisingly frugal mind-set and complained about the price hikes of everything from tuition to gas. They weren't spending money on drinks every night; they were staying home and having fun for free or working so they could pay their meager rent but outlandish tuition. In short, my brother and his roommate definitely didn't seem like the spendthrift, entitled and spoiled Millennials that I've been reading about recently.

(Side note: My brother says the word Millennial is annoying. But for the sake of succinctness, I'm going to keep using it in this piece. Sorry, bro.)

2013 was a popular year for the topic of Millennials and money. But up until very recently, all the stuff I was reading was negative. I'm guilty too. In a Get Rich Slowly post, I linked to an article about employment, and it ripped Millennials a new one. While I may have agreed with the sentiment of the article, I do think Gen. Y has unfairly been given a bad rap this year — they inherited a whole mess of money problems, and then they're criticized for not having it together financially.

Here's why I think Millennials might be better with money than others may be ready to admit.

A majority of them saved for college

Earlier this year, I was surprised to come across a Fidelity study that researched the money behavior of recent graduates and found that 85 percent of them contributed at least some of their own personal savings to their college tuition. And what's even more surprising is that, of that percentage, 27 percent contributed more than $10,000. That beats what I saved for college: $0.

Millennials are paying their debts

A study from the Pew Research Center compared the debt of young adults with that of adults over the age of 35. In three years, (2007 to 2010), the median debt among the 35+ crowd dropped by eight percent. The debt drop among Millennials? Twenty-nine percent. Six years ago, young people had nearly as much debt as older generations. More recently, they have about half as much.

But, sure, maybe trends and regulations in the past few years have made it harder on adults over 35, who own homes, for example. Maybe it's gotten harder for older adults to pay off debt. Maybe it's not fair to compare. But here's an interesting stat that's specific to Generation Y. According to PewSocialTrends.org:

“…the share of younger households holding debt of any kind fell to 78%, the lowest level since the government began collecting such data in 1983.”

Experts say the drop has to do with Millennials continuing to postpone debt-inducing milestones, namely home and car ownership. But Pew found that there's also been a significant decline in credit card debt among this generation.

“Younger households have pared their credit card balances. In 2010 only 39% of them carried a balance, down from 48% in 2007 and 50% in 2001. The median outstanding amount owed among younger households with balances has fallen over the decade from $2,500 in 2001 to $2,100 in 2007 and diminishing further to $1,700 in 2010.”

They're sucking it up

We've discussed pursuing our passions a lot here. That's something that graduates seem to struggle with: After college, do you keep looking for the job you went to school for, or do you take whatever job you can get? But despite the stereotype that Millennials are simply lazy and don't want to work, the Pew Research Center found that half of them have taken jobs they don't want so they can pay the bills. Maybe that's low compared with past generations — I couldn't find any comparable data. But I do know that college is a lot more common and accessible these days, and we're encouraged to pick a major so we can find a satisfying occupation. But then, when graduates actually try to hold out for that job, they're lazy. And when this generation decides to postpone things like owning a car, opting to take public transportation instead, their decision is not viewed as a sacrifice; it's considered not growing up.

Further, you've probably come across the statistic that 30 percent of young adults between the ages of 25 and 34 moved back in with their parents to either pay the bills or pay off debt. Generation Y gets ripped for that too, despite the fact that no one between the ages of 25 and 34 wants to live with their parents. And, in fact, about half of the young people that moved back in with their parents say they helped their parents out with rent.

It seems like Millennials are sucking it up more than we think. They're doing things their way, sure. They want better jobs, sure. They might even want to change the traditional boring office structure. But they're still adapting to their financial reality.

Millennials want to be frugal

Millennials like to go out and have fun and spend, but they want to find ways to do it for less. Their desire to be frugal may not be intense, but they're definitely interested in saving money.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal's MarketWatch, Wendy Liebmann, CEO at WSL Strategic Retail revealed a finding on the consumer behavior of Generation Y:

“8 out of 10 of these shoppers say it's important to get the lowest price on most things they buy, which is higher than any other age group.”

Their interest in frugality has also increased in recent years more than any other age group, Liebmann said. The study she cites isn't the only to reveal that this age group shops frugally.

Then there's the argument that Millennials are spoiled because they're into brand-name Stuff. But most frugal people will tell you: It's better to invest in quality items that will last than to purchase cheap, replaceable items regularly. Most of the time “quality” equals “brand-name Stuff.” I'm not saying that Millennials are into brand names solely because they're applying that frugal adage. But if they were, it'd probably be obscured by the stereotype that they're spoiled.

Young people struggle with the urge to spend, go out and drink and buy nice things. People of all ages have that same struggle. But Millennials seem to be aware of their financial situation and the general dark cloud that looms over the economy. They seem to be adapting by finding cheaper ways to give in to their cravings.

Duh: Millennials are young

Recently, I came across a study that criticized the Millennial generation for the many ways that their spending habits are influenced by keeping up with their friends. That was really shocking, to learn that young people are susceptible to peer pressure.

Sarcasm aside, I don't think it's just young people who bow to peer pressure. We all have our Joneses, after all.

I feel like the things we criticize Millennials for have less to do with their generation specifically and more to do with, simply, the mindset of youth. They've been called “entitled” and “unrealistic” and “spoiled.” Those are the same scathing words I've heard people in other cultures use when describing Americans. That's the stigma we carry. It's not surprising that young people who live in a culture that honors consumerism and the American Dream want to consume and have dream careers. Generation Y didn't invent entitlement and consumerism. If we're all so much better than this generation, debt wouldn't be such a problem. I'm not saying we're totally to blame and we're terrible people for having a mortgage and other debts to pay. Certainly, when it comes to a country's economic trends, there are larger factors at play. I just find it ironic that we're so quick to belittle an entire generation that, really, is just a younger version of our society as a whole.

We've all been there. The only difference between twenty-somethings of the past and twenty-somethings now is that this group went through the Great Recession. But in many ways, I think that's given them a healthier financial outlook.

Optimism of Youth

One more Pew study. Kim Parker, the associate director at the Pew Research Center, said this about one of their Millennial studies:

“In spite of hardships, they do have a real sense of optimism. They feel they have so much time ahead of them and that things will work out,” she says.

It's idealistic, but that's a pretty good attitude for a group of people that grew up in a recession and won't have Social Security. But again, that's how young people are. They're optimistic. That optimism, mixed with a greater awareness about money issues is, I think, a good recipe for financial savviness. The idealism may wear off. That dark cloud may start looming a little closer to home. But we all grow up and adapt to our experiences and surroundings. I think recent trends show Generation Y is doing just that.

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AMW
AMW
6 years ago

Great observations Kristin! Thank you for standing up for them. I have a millenial daughter in college. She has paid for all of it. She wants nothing to do with debt and is working 40 hours per week in addition to going to school full time. And she has her own apartment. I do not call that lazy or entitled. I have however seen the attitude of some of her friends. There are some that are lazy and entitled. They did not get that way by accident. They have had enabling families…”Don’t get a job, concentrate on your school work”,… Read more »

Kristin Wong
Kristin Wong
6 years ago
Reply to  AMW

Thanks! I like reading stories like your daughter’s. But I do know that the opposite exists, too. I think it’s less about labels and more about being human in general. We learn from our parents, our mistakes and the world around us. And like you said, they’re young people. They have time to learn. Not to take responsibility away from parents, but I do think we’d benefit from more financial literacy in schools–at the very least, to make aware the ideals of thrift and frugality and all that good stuff. I think being raised in a culture that runs on… Read more »

Kayla
Kayla
6 years ago
Reply to  AMW

I have friends like that too that were basically enforced to be entitled. Definitely not the majority though — I for one, among many of my friends, am paying for everything, and have since I was 17. If anything, having that doting need to give your kids everything isn’t necessarily a problem in the millennial generation, but it stemmed from the parent generation! (Not trying to generalize or stereotype for either, but I just thought the enabling was a really good point!) The point being, there are trends you see in age groups, and in generations. Stereotyping those generations though… Read more »

Rail
Rail
6 years ago
Reply to  AMW

AMW really hit the nail on the head in regards to teens and responsibilities. In 1940 a 10 yr. old boy was old enough to have a paper route, have a 22 rifle to rabbit or squirrel hunt, help with farm work or in the garden, help in the parents business etc. Girls did the same types of work according to the gender specific work of the times. Teens at that time did heavy manual labor, drove cars and trucks, worked in diners, and other part time jobs and many didn’t even go to high school but went to the… Read more »

Kayla
Kayla
6 years ago
Reply to  Rail

^ I can really see where you’re coming from. For me, my parents basically made me start looking for a job right when I turned 14. (Couldn’t even obtain one till I had just turned 15.) They paid for all my basics, but when I turned old enough to work, they told me I was cut off (with a few exceptions) for cash for movies, entertainment, extra clothes, and most other wants. They’d put a roof over my head and feed me, but anything else I wanted, I had to get a job and pay for myself. Worked wonderfully —… Read more »

Kristin Wong
Kristin Wong
6 years ago
Reply to  Kayla

Haha, Kayla–my mom read your comment and it reminded her of our situation, so I had to reply. Growing up, I had to pay my own way, too (and I’m thankful for that), but by the time my little brother reached his formative years, my parents were doing much better financially, so they were more generous with him. (Plus, I think they like him more. Whatever.) But I still think my brother is great with money, despite having some things handed to him! He works his ass off and doesn’t like to spend. Then again, my mom probably knows more… Read more »

Brian @ Debt Discipline
Brian @ Debt Discipline
6 years ago

I think you have more and more of millennial parents talking and educating them about money and debt. They are far better prepared then generation X was. I know that will be the case with my 3 millennials.

Sean Friend
Sean Friend
6 years ago

You are 100% right. My 47 year old father was not really talked to a ton about money and I learned a lot from talking with him / observing his mistakes.

Its a shame the WWII / Baby Boomer GEN that helped yield so many GEN Xers didn’t share their knowledge. My grandfather (72) retired when he was 57 by being extremely responsible and frugal. Yet he didn’t pound that home with his kids!

Adnan
Adnan
6 years ago

I believe a great deal of this has to be with the financial crisis also. They have seen how their elders have miserably failed them and the family through their reckless attitude with money. They have seen how important may be to live a frugal lifestyle to save in order to have a buffer against income shocks. Millennial are going to be good role models for their children if they continue to take inspiration from what happened with their parents during 2007-2008 slump.

Dee @ Color Me Frugal
Dee @ Color Me Frugal
6 years ago

Great article. I have also noticed that it seems like millennials get an unfairly bad rap. Talk about a difficult time in history to come of age. And furthermore, doesn’t every preceding generation have complaints about the following generation? I think parents and grandparents have probably been saying “Back in my day…” since literally the beginning of time.

Bella
Bella
6 years ago

Was I really the only one who got confused by the mixed terms Millennial and Generation Y? It’s stated in the beginning that she’ll use Millennial for clarity – and then every other time it switches to Gen Y.
Normally – I’m excited to see an article by Kristen – but this was a total miss – maybe it was poor editing. Maybe the editors wanted to make sure that auto filters found references to both, very disappointed to see editors making decisions based more on what searchbots will think than actual human readers.

Kristin Wong
Kristin Wong
6 years ago
Reply to  Bella

Huh? I looked up the definition several times in several places and found the two phrases used interchangeably. In fact, most definitions of the Millennial generation include that they’re “also known as Generation Y.” The Wiki page for “Generation Y” even redirects to the definition for Millennials. I definitely didn’t use the phrase for “searchbots.” I used a different word because I felt I was being redundant. People use synonyms all the time. GRS editors have never once asked me to write according to SEO. I’ve never been asked to tweak a title, change my wording or write about something… Read more »

Matt @yourlivingbody
Matt @yourlivingbody
6 years ago

What about the student loan crisis that others predict is the next bubble to burst? That problem is being put forward as the reason millennials are putting off big ticket item purchases.

Meghan
Meghan
6 years ago

My Millennial colleagues have actually rubbed off on me in a positive way! They’re the first to say that a car shouldn’t be a status symbol, for one. I’ve been undecided between a newer AWD and an older Toyota, and they deserve a lot of credit for me making the more sensible decision. One of them has been featured in several Tiny House stories. They are adopting a neat, and entirely new, lifestyle. These are values-based decisions too – they earn a good income.

Ross Williams
Ross Williams
6 years ago

“It’s idealistic, but that’s a pretty good attitude for a group of people that grew up in a recession and won’t have Social Security.” You mean they haven’t actually bought into the media’s ridiculous fear-mongering? What a surprise from the most media-savy generation in history. The reality is that every generation thinks the “younger generation” is spoiled. We may be right in the sense that each generation is better off than their parents. That is going to be true for this generation of young people as well. They won’t be stopped by old farts lack of confidence in them any… Read more »

Kristin Wong
Kristin Wong
6 years ago
Reply to  Ross Williams

Yeah, the retirement thing may be a bad example (kind of just used it for emphasis), but they DO have a crap ton of student loan debt and unemployment to deal with right now, not 40 years from now. There’s not a shortage of depressing financial issues for this age group to contend with. But yeah, I understand and respect that retirement-aged people are going to have more of their optimism spoiled than people who have more time. When you’re young, you’re more positive because you feel you have so much time to make things right. So I think my… Read more »

Sean Friend
Sean Friend
6 years ago
Reply to  Ross Williams

Sure we have more time/optimism but we are dealing with a bunch of stuff in the now too.

I don’t know but a handful of children who don’t have divorced parents, having had to move numerous times to accommodate parental divorces/job changes, or at least more student debt than most people pay as a down payment for their homes.

lmoot
lmoot
6 years ago

Thank you for this article. As a millenial I noticed a change in my peers around the time of the middle-eastern conflicts, rise of environmental concerns, and with the economic crisis. If history is of any indication, we are a product of our circumstances (for the most part) and humans are hard-wired problem solvers, so it makes sense that many millennials will take on the current problems that face their societies as their own personal problems, and address it as such. I can’t change the economy, but I can attempt to adapt my actions to it in a way that… Read more »

Kelsey
Kelsey
6 years ago

Thanks for standing up for millenials, Kristin! My husband and I managed to rack up some decent student loan debt, but in about 2011 (when I was 23), we realized what we were doing and changed our habits. Since then, we paid for his last year of school in cash, became a 1 car family, moved closer to work, and put over 20% of our income toward paying off our student loans. We hope to be debt free by the end of 2015. Like most millenials, our student loan debt has stopped us from buying a house and having kids:… Read more »

Kristin Wong
Kristin Wong
6 years ago
Reply to  Kelsey

“I’ve started telling my family that if one of them wants to pay off our debt, I’ll not only have a kid but name it after them.” Hahaha! I guess we all try to teach our kids according to what worked for us. My mom wished she would’ve waited–at my age now, my parents struggled a hell of a lot to feed a family. So she always told me to wait to get married and have kids. This was frustrating as hell during my college years, when I was reprimanded for having a boyfriend and not focusing on my studies,… Read more »

Nate @ TheyBuyTime
Nate @ TheyBuyTime
6 years ago

Millennials have the advantage (yes I called it that) of seeing their parents and family members deal with the consequences of borrowing too much money (for everything). That advantage has made them debt averse for the most part (good). However, I do notice a lot of my friends are only now considering investing in the stock market (hording cash). That could be a problem later (inflation). I like that I am hearing Millennials talk about buying a house with cash — for more than a decade everyone was saying that was “stupid”. My wife and I are 28 years old.… Read more »

Stephanie
Stephanie
6 years ago

Thanks for this article! I think it is spot-on, and I get so sick of reading other articles that blame “Millenials” for the problems imposed upon them by their parent generation, the Baby Boomers. As a 29-year-old, I’m one of the older Millenials, but I can tell you that everyone I know is extremely responsible and just trying to stay afloat in an economy where student loans are out of control and jobs are few and far between. Most of the “lazy” and “irresponsible” behavior I see among my peers is due to the mess that our parents created…food for… Read more »

Marsha
Marsha
6 years ago

I have two millennial sons–a college junior and a college freshman. They’re both very frugal and working hard to have good careers in the future. Both worked their butts off in high school to get the absolute highest value scholarships available at a local college, and live at home since it’s cheaper. They’re on target to get STEM degrees with no college debt. I’m a high school mathematics teacher and my current set of teenage students don’t seem any better or worse than the ones I knew 35 years ago. Every person is an individual and should be judged on… Read more »

Alexander Mancini
Alexander Mancini
6 years ago

Great article! I think there’s really two extreme… As I knew some students seeing their school loan as “free money”.

Lis
Lis
6 years ago

It’s like that saying, the squeakiest wheel gets the oil, right? Of course there are spoiled Gen-Yers who have had pretty much everything handed to them, but I think defining an entire generation that way is wrong. I graduated from a very good (and very expensive) private college in 2012. I, personally, was like your brother, as were most of my friends. I come from the middle class suburbia with parents that make a good amount of money so that we’ve always been comfortable, but never enough to send me to a school for $50k+ a year without taking some… Read more »

Sarah
Sarah
6 years ago

Thank you for this! It’s frustrating to see so much millennial-bashing in the media. Yes, there are plenty of young people who are lazy, immature, and entitled… but I think a lot of that just comes with being young. As for the financial side of things, I wouldn’t say that millennials are particularly money-savvy. Like most young people, we’re actually pretty ignorant when it comes to finances… at least until our student loans go into repayment. But we’re learning. We’ve seen our parents struggle through the recession and hope not to end up in the same position. We’re struggling to… Read more »

Kirby @ TheSimpleMoneyBlog
Kirby @ TheSimpleMoneyBlog
6 years ago

I think there is a lot to be said about the environment that Millennials have grown up in (especially as fellow Millennials). With the Great Recession, it has reframed the way a lot of us have thought. Just years before, so many Millennials had expectations of going to college, graduating quickly, and getting that job they had dreamed of. In reality, when a lot of people graduated, the jobs weren’t there, yet their student loans still were, so it created a need to learn to be more creative with what little income they had. Plus, the Great Recession has taught… Read more »

kathryn
kathryn
6 years ago

I love reading articles like this! As a member of the Millennials, I feel like the media is always trying to put us all into one tiny, stereotypical box. Sure, I have friends that frivilously spend and rack up charges on their credit cards. I also know plenty of 40-50 year olds who do the same thing. I have friends that have been out of college for 3+ years and haven’t made a single payment on their student loans, even though they qualify for income based repayment. Instead of researching their options though, they just brugh them aside and let… Read more »

Ely
Ely
6 years ago

Pretty much anything an older generation says about a younger one is going to be wrong. Pretty much anything ANYONE says about an entire group of people is going to be wrong. I’m sure there are ‘millenials’ who are spoiled, entitled, spendthrifts; just as there are Xers and boomers and all the rest. There are also plenty who are not like that.

Mel @ brokeGIRLrich
Mel @ brokeGIRLrich
6 years ago

It’s so nice to read a post that doesn’t just peg us as entitled and lazy. Honestly, there are lazy people in every generation, but I know plenty of people who worked their butts off in school, got great grades, worked tons of internships and then still couldn’t find a halfway decent job. One of my best friends worked at the YMCA day care camp with a bunch of high school kids for two years after graduating with honors from college with her elementary education degree before she could find a job. It’s really silly how the entire generation has… Read more »

Sean Friend
Sean Friend
6 years ago

Thank you for this article. I’m 24 years old and graduated with $22,000 in loan debt (after using all available money I had to pay off some of the larger balance of 26,500 right before I graduated). I graduated 2.5 years ago and took all of 14 days off between graduating and working. I can atest that I am in a job that I don’t hate by any stretch of the imagination (except for the 63 year old I manage who resents me a bit for my age) and I worked my way up to management over 2.5 years via… Read more »

Sean Friend
Sean Friend
6 years ago
Reply to  Sean Friend

Also I just had to add that I love your part about your brother finding “free or discounted” stuff to do. That is literally my friends and I. We never pay full retail and usually won’t dine somewhere unless we have a Groupon, Restaurant.com, or Living Social deal. We also still play board games, frisbee golf, basketball, and kickball because they are free to do. When we drink we do so within our budgets or when they have discounted drinks. Screw the idea of keeping up with the Joneses – except the movie that is actually titled “The Joneses” which… Read more »

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