Millennials and Their Money: Local advisors talk financial factors unique to those under 50

At this point, millennials are the biggest adult generational cohort in the world. And while the baby-boom generation may have been the largest in American history, census data shows that millennials actually surpassed boomers as the largest living generation in the United States sometime in 2019.

As the generational baton gets passed, financial advisors are spending more and more of their time with millennials and other under-50 generations, including both Generation X and Generation Z. And while some pieces of financial strategy and money management advice are eternal – the importance of diversifying your portfolio, for instance, or of having an up-to-date will – other financial factors are largely unique to these younger demographics. Here are five of them.

Historic college debt

According to consumer spending website ValuePenguin, there are 44.7 million student loan borrowers in the U.S. cumulatively shouldering $1.52 trillion in student loan debt. That equates to an average debt per borrower of $32,731, which is not only a historic high but which has also increased massively in the past decade. Since the 2015-2016 academic year alone, average debt among student loan borrowers in the U.S. has climbed 20%.

Hupfer

“Millennials and Gen Z, especially, carry much greater overall debt compared to other generations,” said Teressa Hupfer, a financial advisor with Edward Jones in Traverse City. “They have lower wages compared to their mortgage debt and their other consumer debt, including student loans. And that sort of thing has made them inordinately unbalanced when it comes to their income and expenses.”

College debt is such an albatross for some younger people that it upstages other financial thoughts and considerations. Brian Ursu, president and advisor at Traverse City’s Intentional Wealth Advisors, sees it as one of his top priorities to get younger clients looking at the bigger picture of their financial future.

He even wrote a book on the subject – titled “Now What? A Practical Guide to Figuring Out Your Financial Future” – that looks at paying down debt and planning for life’s milestones, from buying a house to starting a family.

Ursu

“I’ve encountered many millennials that feel like, ‘Well, I can’t start investing until I pay down my debt,’” Ursu said. “So, when we create a strategy on how to accelerate the payments and how to manage debt, we can really tackle that head-on and be really effective.”

Ursu says that it’s just a matter of coordinating and prioritizing the debt … but it’s also not an either/or.

“You don’t have to wait until your debt is paid off to start participating in your 401(k), or to start an investment plan,” he said. “We need to prioritize, do a little bit of both and find the right balance.”

The gig economy

In Hupfer’s view, few things have reshaped the financial equation for younger generations quite like the rise of the gig economy. And while definitions about what exactly constitutes “the gig economy” can skew numbers of how many people fall into that category, there is no question that gig workers make up a significant portion of the U.S. population.

If the gig economy is just online gig sites like Uber, Postmates, Shipt, or DoorDash, the Pew Research Center has reported that some 16% of Americans have made money that way. If the gig economy entails all independent contractors, freelancers, consultants, or self-employed professionals, though, the number is much higher – approximately 55 million, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or 36% of American workers.

“A lot of younger people are involved in the gig economy and that causes some unique challenges,” Hupfer said. “It complicates tax scenarios for them. And they may not have the benefit of an employer-sponsored plan, so they’ve got to lean on themselves to figure out their retirement strategies.”

For those going all-in on the gig economy, Hupfer recommends going through a checklist of challenges upfront, from health insurance to retirement planning to setting aside quarterly tax payments.

On the other hand, if the gig is a “side hustle” (a worker doing in addition to their full-time job), Hupfer encourages using that money to pay down debt, start investing, or buy life insurance.

Cryptocurrency

According to Investopedia, younger generations are statistically “more bullish on cryptocurrencies” than their elders. Thirty-eight percent of millennials have invested in cryptocurrency, compared to 28% of Gen X, 23% of Gen Z, and just 6% of boomers. But while crypto is popular, most financial advisors don’t recommend it – especially in the wake of a May 2022 cryptocurrency crash that, per the New York Times, wiped out $300 billion in a day.

Braund

“(Investing) is about risk versus return, and there is a huge amount of risk with cryptocurrency,” said Erickson Braund, founder and CFO of Black Walnut Wealth Management.

A crypto asset could be worth zero the day it’s bought, Braund says, calling it very volatile and extremely risky, “to the point where I would look at it more like speculation or gambling (than investing).”

Braund looks at long-term investing for his clients, which means looking to reduce risk but still get efficient returns.

“In other words, what’s the least amount of risk you can take to get the best return?” he said. “Crypto is not that.”

Hupfer echoed Braund’s concerns.

“We do get asked about crypto quite a bit, and it is generally by those that are 50 and younger,” she said. “Edward Jones doesn’t deal directly in crypto because it’s not federally regulated, and until the day it is, you won’t see us get involved in that.”

Hupfer says that crypto is so wrought with fraud, so unregulated and unstable, that if investors want to get involved in it, to “just dip your toe in – don’t go crazy.”

Rather, Hupfer suggests putting serious, long-term investment money toward retirement.

“I never recommend that clients look at their retirement funds as dabbling money,” she said. “That’s money that you really want to be your safety net as the years go by after retirement.”

Those interested in something like crypto, or penny stocks, or anything that’s more of a risky business, Hupfer says to do that with a little dabbling money and consider it more like a side hobby – kind of like going to the casino – because “you just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

The social considerations of investing

In the midst of a volatile moment in the stock market, there’s much to consider with any new investment. But Ursu sees one type of investment consideration that is relatively new and that has only become prominent in his work as more millennials have entered his client base.

Specifically, millennials who are thinking critically about what companies they are buying into.

“In large part, millennials believe differently about money than their parents or grandparents did,” Ursu explained. “They believe money has power, and they want to use that power in ways that are going to be productive and good.”

Ursu says that millennials have more social concerns with the way they invest than their parents, and certainly than their grandparents.

“I used to work with their grandparents, and their grandparents would say, ‘I don’t care what my money does, just get me a return,'” he said. “It could go to weapons manufacturing, or tobacco, or cancer-inducing things, and as long as there was a return, the older generations were OK with that.”

Millennials are much more aware of what their resources are doing, and so they don’t want to do anything (with investing) that’s going to violate their own social concerns, Ursu says.

Retirement doubts

One of the common narratives about younger demographics is that between college debt, rising costs of living, longer life expectancies, and question marks about the future of Social Security they won’t be able to retire as early as their parents or grandparents did.

But while there are many different variables that can impact retirement plans and retirement age, Ursu thinks that the “millennials will never be able to retire” narrative is a bit overstated.

“I’m actually really positive about this,” Ursu said of millennial retirement outlook. “Millennials are having smaller families, so they will have more discretionary income.”

Ursu also points to the fact that millennials are making more money than their parents did and could see more wages over the course of their careers.

“Their earning potential and their ability to make really significant contributions toward their financial security and toward retirement is really robust,” he said. “So, if younger people are paying attention to investments, they could actually put themselves in a great position to retire early – earlier than their parents, perhaps.”

In fact, a recent study by Northwestern Mutual shows that – especially in the wake of the pandemic – younger Americans are starting to see early retirement as something attainable. Per the survey, both millennials and Gen Z, on average, are planning to retire before the age of 60. Comparatively, Gen X respondents gave an average expected retirement age of 64.3, while boomers provided an average age of 68.3. Overall, the average goal age for retirement across all demographics was 62.6, down from 63.4 a year ago.

Similarly to Ursu, Braund sees no reason that younger workers can’t retire early, so long as they are being disciplined about spending, proactive about paying down debt, and strategic about saving and investing. Specifically, he points to employer retirement plans as something that not enough younger professionals are taking full advantage of – and that could ultimately mean a big difference for any retirement timeline.

“People newer to employment are often thinking, ‘Ok, I have this job, now I need to pay down all this debt,’” Braund said. “And you do need to pay down that debt. But for some younger people, that’s 100% of their focus.”

With most employers matching retirement contributions, Braund says it’s an opportunity to get free money.

“You have to take advantage of that, and the sooner you do the better,” he said. “Because that money then grows and compounds on itself, and the power of compounding is that the longer you have it invested, the better off you’re going to be.”

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