Financial Lessons We Can All Learn From Generation Y

To hear most financial experts tell it, members of Generation Y are a coddled group of young adults who rely economically on Mom and Dad, routinely rack up big debts and don’t know the value of a dollar.

But are those perceptions really true?

A new study hints at a different portrait of 20- and 30-somethings, suggesting that Gen Yers – also known as Millenials – are far from totally clueless about money.

In fact, young Americans are two to three times more likely than their parents and grandparents to want to do things like save money, better manage their finances and set goals for the future, according to a survey called the Chase-Slate U.S. News Consumer Monitor.

But the issue goes far beyond one individual survey.

Generation Y expert Kimberly Palmer – a Millennial herself – thinks Americans in their 20s and early 30s are getting a bum rap overall.

To counter the prevailing wisdom about Gen Y and to offer insights into their financial choices and economic lives, Palmer wrote a book called Generation Earn: The Young Professional’s Guide to Spending, Investing, and Giving Back.

In researching the book, Palmer, who is 30, says: “I felt really frustrated by how much focus there is on debt in our generation. Every where you’d look, there were articles about student loan debt or how much credit card debt young adults have.

“There’s a sense out there that we’re incompetent with money and that we don’t understand the economy,” Palmer notes, adding that such a notion “unfairly stereotypes our generation and does a disservice to us all.”

I’m the first to admit that I’ve also bought into certain beliefs about some Gen Yers and have warned them (and others) about the pitfalls of have having excessive debt.

But I’m also sensitive enough to Generation Y to understand that the road to financial enlightenment isn’t a one-way street, and that no generation has a monopoly on economic failings or fortunes. So yes, we can help Generation Y, as I’ve written about here at WalletPop. But they can also help us — if only we’d take the time to listen, really listen, to what they have to say.

I had a chance to do just that recently, when I interviewed Palmer at length about her book and about finances from a Gen Y perspective. Here are three lessons I gleaned from her about Generation Y, lessons that can benefit anyone in any generation:

Lesson No. 1: Values Matter — Possibly More than Anything Else

Generation Y isn’t a monolithic group. Its members encompass, roughly, those in their late teens to those in their early 30s. Despite this range, many individuals in Gen Y highly value four important areas: the environment, economic/social justice, education and entrepreneurship. And for people in Generation Y, their values are a key driving force behind nearly everything they do, including their investing choices, how they spend their time and money and even the jobs they choose to accept or reject.

Consequently, some of Gen Y’s choices may baffle Baby Boomers and others who pose questions like: Why take on enormous student loans? The Short Answer: they value education and are willing to go to great lengths to obtain degrees to further their knowledge and careers.

Says Palmer: “It is true that we have more student loan debt and credit card use than previous generations, but we are not defined by our debt.”

“By just focusing on that (debt), it really misses what’s going on with our generation,” she adds. “The reason for the debt is to earn more degrees, which translates into more earning power. We can ultimately use the degrees to be more resourceful in the world.”

Case in point: Some Gen Y members have been known to reject certain job offers, even in times when jobs are tough to come by. Why? The short answer is that many Gen Y members prefer to work for socially or environmentally responsible companies. The upshot is that employers hoping to attract highly educated, environmentally conscious employees are increasingly touting “green” benefits they offer — a trend that benefits all workers and society at large.

And if Corporate America fails to step up, Palmer notes that Gen Y individuals are more than willing to create their own jobs. “I was shocked by how many young people want to start their own organizations from scratch,” Palmer says. “There’s a huge entrepreneurial push in my generation.”

Lesson No. 2: There Is No “New Normal” Regarding Fiscal Conservatism 

Despite what many think, a return to old-school frugality is not the “New Normal” for many in Gen Y. Instead, it’s the only reality that many of them know.

“I really feel like I’ve been shaped by a down economy,” Palmer says. “I graduated college in 2001, the same year of the 9/11 attacks.” Immediately afterward, “my friends were having job offers rescinded,” as companies scaled back hiring. Faced with a tough job market, Palmer found work overseas, in Tokyo, and ultimately went to graduate school.

But that period began the first of a decade-long series of economic shocks and setbacks in the U.S., including the Post-9/11 recession, the dot-com meltdown, the stock market bust and – most recently – the 2007 to 2009 Great Recession.

“It’s all made me ultra conservative and ultra risk averse,” says Palmer, adding that she’s not alone.

Even though “young women get a bad rap for overspending,” Palmer says “I can’t think of a friend who has credit card debt or who is a shopaholic.” On the contrary, “We’re all going through this extreme frugal stage. We’re feeling very crunched by how expensive it is to raise kids, and our incomes have been flat the past few years.

“It’s been really hard to get jobs and earn enough money, but that’s made us all more leery of taking on debt,” Palmer says. For her part, Palmer and her husband last year bought their first home. True to their convictions, they did it the old fashioned way, by scrimping and saving for five years until they had a 20% down payment– just like previous generations did.

Lesson No. 3: Having Kids? Yes; Sacrificing Retirement for Them? No

Many Gen Yers were raised by so-called “helicopter” parents, known for their tendency to hover over their children, and do everything possible to ensure their offspring’s success.

Members of Gen Y often have a different approach. They love their kids just as much as any generation. But the all-consuming and often unwise sacrifices made by Baby Boomers and those in Generation X aren’t likely to be repeated by Gen Yers.

For instance, many Baby Boomers routinely sacrifice saving for retirement in favor of paying for – and even going into debt for – their children’s college tuition and other educational expenses.

That trend may not hold with people in Generation Y as they become parents.

When I asked Palmer, who also has a 1-year-old daughter, whether she has opened a 529 plan to save for her child’s college education, she replied: “Not yet. We made the decision to keep saving for retirement.”

Interestingly, Palmer and her husband’s lack of a 529 plan wasn’t a careless oversight or a case of procrastination. They do plan to open one. But for now, this is the choice they’ve made, and it was a conscious, strategic decision arrived at by two financially responsible individuals.

Among other things, Palmer explained that members of her generation are expected to live longer, take more breaks from the workforce and engage in more philanthropic and volunteer activities, too. All of which affect their finances and their decision-making.

“There’s a big difference in how we need to think about retirement,” than previous generations, Palmer said. “Among the 20-somethings and 30-somethings I talk to, they can hardly think about saving for retirement for themselves. Most are just trying to pay their current bills. So when they do plan for long-term savings, right now it’s about their own retirement.”


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