People like to blame millennials for all kinds of things, but one thing that can't be blamed on Generation Y is the recession. In fact, millennials are making less money and having greater economic difficulties than their baby-boomer parents.
Which is why financial advice for this generation is different than financial advice given to young people of the past. To help millennials figure out their money situation, we spoke on the phone with Sophia Bera, CFP®, of Gen Y Planning, a self-described "not your father's financial planner" who loves karaoke and breakfast tacos.
Here's what Bera told us about how to save, how to spend, and how to survive. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
ATTN: What is some classic financial advice that can no longer really apply to this generation?
Bera: Be loyal to a company for 30 years and they'll take care of you with a pension? (laughs) That's the first thing that comes to mind.
I think another thing is, buying a home is not necessarily "The American Dream" for millennials anymore. Millennials actually see being debt free as being The American Dream for them. There's still a lot of pressure that millennials are getting from families for buying a home, but one of the things I'm noticing is we tend to value mobility a bit more. And since millennials are switching jobs more frequently they're not staying put in that same area as long, and so it may not be advantageous for them to invest a ton of money for a down payment on a home if they're going to move in a few years for a job transfer, or grad school.
ATTN: What do you think are some of the biggest mistakes our generation is making when it comes to finances?
Bera: Paying the minimums on your credit card. So, not taking credit card debt seriously while you're young is a big issue. One of the ways that manifests itself is when people say, "Oh, I'm just going to pay the minimum on my credit cards." And what I tell people is, "It's a lot easier to get out of $2,000 worth of credit card debt in your 20s than it is to get rid of $20,000 worth of credit card debt in your 30s."
And if you don't take care of credit card debt while you're young, it really starts to balloon.
I tell people, "If you're graduating from college and you have a little bit of credit card debt, work your ass off the summer after college. Pay it off." You can pay off a couple thousand of dollars in a summer. We can bust our butts for the short term. Work really hard for three months. If you don't, and you keep spending, it really starts to become a huge problem, and it prevents you from doing the fun things with your money that you want to do, like travel.
Because what's everybody doing 10 years out of college? Getting married, going on vacation, going on honeymoons. Millennials want to travel for their friends' wedding and all of a sudden they're like, "Oh my gosh, I don't know if I can afford to do that, because I don't have any savings, I'm $5,000 in credit card debt, I'm living paycheck to paycheck."
So really building up a solid financial foundation like having money in savings, signing up for your 401k right away, and eliminating any/staying out of credit card debt three things in terms of building basic financial security that they can do so they can start saving for the fun things.
ATTN: Let's talk more about that, about the good things we can do for our financial health. What are some things we can be doing so we don't fall into those mistakes?
Bera: Building a solid financial foundation — which to me consists of building up an emergency savings — saving for retirement, and getting rid of any high-interest credit card debt and staying out of it. And focusing on aggressively paying off student loans, if you have them.
ATTN: Do you think millennials have a different relationship with credit cards than our parents do?
Bera: You have to remember that women weren't even allowed to get their own credit cards until the '70s. This one woman I used to work with remembers getting a charge card from Dayton's, which is a department store in Minnesota. It was a department store card and it was like a big deal because she was a woman. I think she had to get her dad to co-sign it for her. And this is the 1970's, this is not that long ago!
This access to credit is new. I had a great conversation with my mom a while ago and I was like, "Mom, what do you think about these 25-year-olds buying these $30,000 cars right out of college?" And she was like, "I think it's ridiculous. I don't understand why that would be the first thing you spend your money on, and I also don't understand why banks are lending to these people who should be spending their money on other things." She just didn't get it.
So I asked her, "When did you and dad buy your first nice car? And how much was it?" And she was like, "Sophie, we always paid cash for our cars, and they were around $500-$1,000." There was no reason when you were in your 20s that you needed to drive around in a nice car. And she said, "And no one would lend to you even if you wanted one." So they went to the credit union and took out a $5,000 car loan.
That was the '80s. Lending in the '80s was at a super high interest rate. So you literally didn't borrow unless you had to. I think lending has become really easy, interest rates have been really low for a long time, and you're seeing people borrow instead of save for purchases.
ATTN: What's some key advice you would offer milennials going forward? Let's say you're out of college and you have no idea what to do in terms of saving, spending, lending. What would you tell them?
Bera: Keep your living expenses really low. Don't go out and get a really nice apartment because one of the most expensive things we do is we spend too much money on housing and transportation costs. If you can save living with three roommates and paying $500 a month on rent, do it! Or maybe get one roommate and pay $700, you know what I mean? If you can stay living like a broke college kid, you're going to give yourself a chance to really get in a solid financial position so that you have more options and opportunities in the future.
Learn to live below your means. If you control the big things like transportation costs and housing, then there's much more room in your budget for eating out, for social activities, for travel. Those tend to be really important things to millennials. If you're only making $2,000 a month and you're spending $1,200 on rent, you're going to go into credit card debt very quickly if you're not hyper aware of where that other $800 is going.
Keep your rent low when you're first starting out so you have time to see where your money is going and what your other life costs are.
Another thing is eliminating credit card debt or staying out of credit card debt, signing up for your 401k as soon as you get a job, and setting up an automatic contribution to savings every month. Start with $50-$100 a paycheck and start building a savings account, because that's going to prevent you from going into credit card debt in the future — if you have emergency savings. It turns a major emergency into a minor inconvenience. A $1,000 car repair can be devastating to a 20-something, but that's why your savings are there.
Just start saving. Start building those healthy habits. Make them automatic so you don't have to think about them too much. Because if you don't see it, you won't spend it!
Sophia Bera is launching a course on retirement saving for millennials ("What's the difference beteen a 401k and a Roth IRA?") and she's offering a special discount if you sign up on her wait list. You can also sign up for her newsletter, which is free.