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Millennials are so buried in debt they can't buy into American Dream of owning a home

Susan Tompor

Amanda Hill, 27, deals with big student loan debt by doing everything she can to keep her other bills small. 

"I have cut out all the things that aren't absolutely necessary," Hill said. 

She eats out maybe once a month. She limits her driving to control how much she spends on gas. She lives in an apartment. 

She avoids getting her nails done or shopping. She buys clothes about two times a year.

Hill – who is juggling $90,000 in student loan debt after graduating in 2015 from Hampton University in Virginia – figured she didn't need a car payment on top of her monthly student loan payments. 

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So she bought a 2005 Saturn Ion last year from a woman at her church.

She paid $500 for her car.

"And I was surprised it actually worked," she said. "But I had to learn how to drive a stick shift."

Amanda Hill, 27, poses next to her 2005 Saturn Ion she bought last year in order to avoid car payments. She paid $500 for that car but she's dealing with $90,000 in student loan debt.

Dreaming of buying a new car when you get that first job out of college? Or maybe buying your first house? It used to be a rite of passage. Not so much any more.

"It's not going to be you're 30 and you're married and you're going to have kids," said Hill. 

She has no timetable for when she'd like to buy a house or make other big purchases. She still hopes to go to graduate school but has delayed that until she has a better handle on her college debt for her bachelor of arts degree. 

Right now, she said, it's more about trying to stay afloat.  

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About $1.46 trillion in student loan debt has many millennials, as well as others, hiding their wallets and putting big ticket commitments on the back burner.

Plain and simple, many young consumers just aren't ready to consume. And many sure don't want to shop until they drop like their parents. 

"This is really a pervasive trend and it will not be reversed any time soon," said Richard Curtin, director of the University of Michigan Survey of Consumers. 

Amanda Hill, 27, bought a 2005 Saturn Ion last year in order to avoid car payments. She paid $500 for that car but she's dealing with $90,000 in student loan debt.

In a special report released in late February, the U-M research team noted that consumers younger than 35 aren't terribly optimistic about making big purchases – unlike previous generations. 

In the past decade, younger consumers have viewed buying conditions for homes, cars and other large household items far less favorably, the U-M survey noted. 

The survey, which monitors consumer attitudes and expectations, has been conducted by the U-M Institute for Social Research in Ann Arbor since 1946.

What's going on here? Some of it is, no doubt, all that college debt. But other factors may be coming into play, too. 

One reason many young consumers are holding back their spending is that they're frequently worried about taking on new debt, according to U-M report released Feb. 22. 

College debt holding consumers back

Student loan debt in total is intimidating. 

Outstanding student loan debt stood at $1.46 trillion in the fourth quarter of 2018, according to a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. 

Those ages 18 to 29 had the most college debt – more than $1 trillion. 

"Average student loan debt at graduation is going to continue to increase," said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of research for Savingforcollege.com.

The average debt at graduation is a bit under $30,000 for bachelor's degree recipients, Kantrowitz said. 

Borrowers in bachelor's degree programs are increasingly hitting the borrowing limits for federal student loans, causing them to turn to private student loans and parent programs, such as the federal Parent PLUS loan. 

The aggregate loan limit for Federal Direct Stafford Loans is $31,000 for dependent students and $57,500 for independent students.

Annual limits depend on what year the student is in school, ranging from $5,500 to $7,500 for dependent students and $9,500 to $12,500 for independent students.

Many have much more than the average amount of student loan debt. 

In 2015-16, for example, 10.5 percent of bachelor's degree recipients graduated with $50,000 or more in college debt, Kantrowitz said.

About 0.5 percent graduated with $100,000 or more in student loans. That's counting both federal and private student loans but excluding Federal Parent PLUS Loans. 

Baby boomers are far less likely than millennials to have ever faced such levels of student debt in the first place, in part because college costs were much lower for those who are now ages 55 through 73. 

Even those baby boomers who had college debt, though, expressed much more optimism about taking on additional debt to finance homes, cars and other goods.

Half of baby boomers who have had student loan debt say it has not caused them to delay a major life or financial milestone, according to a recent Bankrate.com survey. But only 27 percent of millennials felt the same way. 

Baby boomers loved to shop

Millennials, not surprisingly, may prove to have different spending habits than their parents. 

"It could be that baby boomers were excessive in their material orientation," Curtin said.

Baby boomers – those born between 1946 and 1964 – dominated consumer spending in the United States. Many defined the word consumer – as they bought cars, took vacations and headed to the malls. Boomers launched their careers during some strong economic expansions in the 1970s and 1980s.

The parents of boomers, by contrast, lived through the Great Depression and World War II during a time when money wasn't growing on trees, as many parents of the boomers told their kids, repeatedly. 

So when baby boomers got out on their own, started making good money and had access to credit, they didn't think twice about buying a new car or a home. 

"Baby boomers thought 'We're living the American Dream,' " Curtin said. 

Now, after watching their parents buy all kinds of stuff – and then fret over de-cluttering – millennials might to some degree be saying enough is enough.

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Think about it: Marie Kondo is the new Martha Stewart of the era. Instead of telling us what kind of cookware and bedding to buy, Kondo's Netflix series "Tidying Up" is forcing boomers and others to clean up their act. The message is to control your "joy" by only keeping what gives you "joy" and pitching the rest.

Millennials face their own set of unique spending challenges, too.

Many millennials found themselves burdened by student loans when better paying jobs were harder to find during an economic recovery that had been fairly weak early in the game. Some started careers at a time when it often was tough to negotiate a raise.

Nearly three out of four consumers ages 23 to 38 who had student loan debt delayed at least one major financial milestone as a result of those loans, according to a new Bankrate.com report.

More than one out of four put off buying or leasing a car. If you're paying $300 or $400 a month on student loans, as many are, you think twice about whether you can really afford a car payment. 

Hill pays $200 a month for her student loans but the payment was reduced based on an income-driven repayment plan. She's paying $750 a month in rent; and $180 a month for basic car insurance. 

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She knows she'll have to pay more toward those student loans one day as she makes more money and can afford it. So she doesn't want to take on big bills now. 

"There's a real price for individuals across all age groups and our country as a whole from the mounting burden of student loan debt," said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst for Bankrate.com in Washington.

About 38 percent of young consumers said they're not saving for emergencies; while nearly one-third are putting off buying a home. 

They're also having trouble paying off credit card debt and saving for retirement. Fewer than one in five even claim they're delaying getting married because of their student loans. 

The Great Recession triggers bad memories

Some millennials may be more cautious about buying a home after coming of age during the Great Recession when they watched families in their neighborhood go through the painful loss of their homes. 

"That exacts an enormous cost on people," U-M's Curtin said. "The biggest impact has been on home ownership."

Among those under age 35, home ownership rates hit 36.2 percent in 2018. That's a slight improvement over recent years. Curtin said. 

But the figure remains well below the peak of 43.1 percent recorded by the Census Bureau in 2004 and 2005.

Muted spending by millennials could be limiting the pace of economic growth now. 

As a result, many policies are being discussed in Washington and elsewhere to help borrowers deal with college debt.

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But Kantrowitz cautioned that some major changes may be unlikely. "Student loan debt is unlikely to be forgiven en masse," he said.

"Restoration of bankruptcy discharge is unlikely under split control of Congress," he said, "although a bill to do this was reintroduced in the House by a Republican, which is unusual." 

At some point, Kantrowitz said, Congress might approve excluding employer-paid student loan repayment assistance from one's taxable income. 

Right now, though, the money some employers might give to pay off some student loans is taxed as income. 

Having a college degree remains a ticket to a better paying job for many, and it's the first step toward a solid economic future.

 A clearer understanding of the cost, though, could drive some to re-evaluate where they'd like to go to college, perhaps including community colleges, trade schools and lower-cost in-state colleges into the mix of options. 

Many families, of course, will be using spring break to visit college campuses. 

"We'd urge them to investigate all possible options for financial aid including scholarships to limit their borrowing," Hamrick said. 

How much debt you take on to get a college degree must be carefully considered before signing up for classes. Dropping out of college – after taking on debt – only makes things far worse.

Hill, who grew up in West Hollywood, California, said she's thankful she was able to obtain some scholarships through the United Negro College Fund.

She worked three or four jobs at the same time while in school – including work study programs in the financial aid office, as well as jobs at Panera Bread, a Teavana store and a Francesca's women's clothing store. 

If she offered advice to anyone, she'd recommend seriously considering focusing on a college degree that has a more direct relationship to a good-paying job, such as computer engineering.  

But she acknowledges student loan debt is part of many people's lives. 

Her brother and sister are both dealing with college debt, as are her friends. Some of her friends are managing their student loans by living at home with their parents, she said.

Moving back to California, though, isn't part of her getting-out-of-college-debt strategy.

 "Once you go to college, the last place you want to be is back home."  

Contact Susan Tompor: 313-222-8876 or stompor@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @tompor

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Millennials are so buried in debt they can't buy into American Dream of owning a home