Recently, Fidelity released another survey about millennials and money. They found that 47 percent of us are saving for retirement. To me, that stat was really telling about our generation's view of personal finance, and it's not unlike other findings. When TIME wrote about the survey, they reported:
“Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies found that 71% of millennials eligible for a 401(k) plan participate and that 70% of millennials began saving at an average age of 22. By way of comparison, Boomers started saving at an average age of 35.”
It is self-reported data, sure. But it seems hard to deny that there is a heightened, post-recession interest in finance and our economy. We're pushing for every manner of financial education — in schools and on the Internet. Personal finance has become an increasingly popular niche in the blogosphere. Even Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, is involved in the production of movies designed to explain how our economy works. To me, it's harder to believe there wouldn't be some sort of new-found interest in personal finance after the Great Recession.
Another finding from Fidelity's poll people found interesting:
When asked whom they trust most for information on money matters, 33 percent of millennials say they trust their parents, but 1 in 4 (23 percent) say they trust no one.
Considering the economic climate, it's no wonder that millennials are skeptical. At my own blog, Brokepedia.com, one reader brought up a point that I hadn't really considered: Our parents' money advice might not apply because they come from a different time. Obviously, there's some financial advice that is standard. Spend less than you earn, for instance, will always be the formula for financial independence. My parents taught me that at a young age, the advice stuck, and it's working.
However, there's stuff my parents couldn't predict. I wanted to save money by going to a community college, for example. But their idea was for me to go to a “real university” — the more prestigious, the better — so they didn't think my choice was very smart. After witnessing my younger brother's massive tuition, though, I think they changed their minds a bit about saving money on college.
Sure, all of these studies on millennials and how they handle money are generalizations. The huge focus on our behavior borders on obsession if you ask me. Until recently, that focus has been pretty negative. But more studies and surveys are showing that Gen. Y is actually better with money than they're given credit for.
Even if you take the stats with a grain of salt, I think there are a couple of lessons we can learn from the data.
It's okay to be skeptical
For their study, Fidelity asked me if I'd like to produce a man-on-the-street video for them. It involved talking to people my age about money issues. The conversations I had with people closely mirrored Fidelity's findings.
Most of the people I talked to said their parents gave them basic advice and they appreciated it, but there's some stuff they've simply had to learn on their own. Because of the aftermath of the housing crisis and now the student loan crisis, young people seem to be skeptical of what other people tell them to do with their money.
That's not a bad thing.
Separate from the video, I talked to a recent college grad about money. She complained about her massive student debt. What really bugged her about it was that most of it wasn't necessary. Her student loan company approved her for $100,000. She told them she didn't need that much.
“But they told me, ‘No, it's fine. You're approved, it doesn't matter. You can just spend it.' I was 18,” she told me. “Someone gives you $100,000 at 18, all you can think about is all the stuff you can buy. I learned my lesson.”
To me, this is a microcosm of why our generation, as a whole, has learned to be more careful, and yes, maybe even more skeptical, about financial advice.
In the man-on-the-street interviews, I asked the subjects where they got their money advice. Again, the response was mostly, “I learned on my own.” And this is going to make me sound like the worst money snob, but when they told me they were learning “on their own,” I assumed that meant they didn't actually know anything. I was wrong. (Sorry, interviewees.)
We talked about personal finance books I didn't think anyone outside of my money nerd friends would recognize. We talked about investing and homeownership and how your money mind-set changes as you get older.
One 26-year-old, on his way to lunch with a friend, said something that sounded like it came straight from the pages of this blog:
“Now Me wants to have fun, but Future Me wants to have fun, too.”
It seems like Gen. Y is learning through a filter of skepticism — but they are learning. Our economy is changing, we're recovering from our mistakes, and we want to make sure our moves are steady and well-calculated.
Learning to adapt
Millennials have been criticized for postponing families, not buying property, moving back in with our parents and even commuting.
I've done three out of four of those things, and they contributed immensely to my financial security. Moving back in with my mom was the last damn thing I wanted to do at 22. We were going through a rough time. And, of course, I wanted my freedom. But I saw it as an opportunity to get my finances in order, and, thankfully, my mom welcomed me. I didn't think it was selfish, and she didn't think it was selfish. In fact, she suggested it as a smart money move.
The economy sucks. The system sucks. Stuff needs to change. But in the meantime, millennials seem to be adapting and taking control of what they can — and that's a good thing. To me, the way people are challenging traditional measures of success is an indication that we're adapting. Yes, that might mean moving back in with your parents for a while so you can build an emergency fund. It might mean that you decide that renting is okay, because you don't want to be house-poor.
We should try to make the bigger picture better; but in the meantime, it's productive to work toward improving our own personal financial situation.
What do you think about the (generalized) financial habits of Gen. Y? Obviously, there's room for improvement. While we might be surprised at the finding that 47 percent of millennials are saving for retirement, it's also a concern that 53 percent are not saving.
Still, sometimes it seems like the stuff we get criticized for is the stuff we're doing right. The headlines point out our flaws — but, to me, skepticism is healthy. And so is adapting.
I stand by the fact that I think there's a shift toward financial security. It might not be any more attainable than it was (probably even less so). But it seems like more people, young and old, are interested in what it takes to recover from an economic crapstorm. After coming of age in the middle of that crapstorm, is it so hard to believe that millennials might be interested in developing better financial habits than previous generations?
Kristin Wong is a freelance blogger who frequently writes about relationships for MSNâ€™s The Heart Beat blog. After paying off her student loan debt, Kristin decided it was time to pursue her dream and also put her English degree to use. She scrimped, saved and in 2010, left her hometown of Houston, Texas to pursue a writing career in Los Angeles. Since then, she has written for television, web, and occasionally, sketch comedy. When sheâ€™s not attached to her laptop, Kristin enjoys baking, amateur gardening, listening to 60s rock and exploring her city.