Younger Americans’ finances were already trailing behind older generations. Then came inflation
Micah Rousey and Shakia Artson have the same birthday: March 17. The factor that makes the two strangers so similar is also what makes them so different.
Rousey is a Generation Xer; Artson is a millennial. Both either credit, or blame, their financial circumstances predominantly on when they were born.
“I recognize that I have a significant amount of privilege,” Rousey says. “Not that my family was rich or anything. We were middle class. I’m white; I’m a guy. It was easier for me to get a job, but the times were easier, too.”
High prices are disproportionately pinching younger Americans, Bankrate data shows
Rousey and Artson’s experiences are more than just anecdotal. The economy is setting back young peoples’ finances to a greater degree than their older counterparts, Bankrate survey data finds.
Nearly two-thirds of millennials (64 percent for those between the ages of 27 and 42) and more than half of Gen Zers (55 percent, ages 18-26) have delayed a major financial milestone because of the economy, a poll from November found. That compares with 54 percent of Gen X (ages 43-58) and 46 percent of boomers (ages 59-77).
Young Americans are even more likely to feel the pinch of high inflation than older generations. More than 7 in 10 Gen Zers and millennials (at 72 percent and 73 percent, respectively) are saving less due to those price pressures, compared with 66 percent of Gen X and 63 percent of baby boomers, according to a January Bankrate survey.
The wrath of inflation comes at a time when young Americans’ savings already weren’t as established as their older counterparts’ rainy-day funds. Nearly a third (or 30 percent) of Gen Z and 28 percent of millennials have no emergency savings, versus 23 percent of Gen X and 17 percent of boomers, a separate Bankrate poll from June found.
Those figures culminate in an overwhelming majority of Gen Zers and millennials (85 percent and 79 percent, respectively) saying they worry whether they can afford one month’s expenses if they lost a primary source of income, the January survey found. When it comes to older generations, 69 percent of Gen X and 53 percent of baby boomers said the same.
“It’s hard to separate being young from being new to the labor market and therefore not having as much earning power,” says Kathryn Edwards, an adjunct economist at the RAND Corporation. “Your age is very predictive of certain aspects of your economic situation, including your earnings.”
For young Americans, homeownership feels out of reach — and it can cost them
The main milestone young people keep delaying is homeownership. More than 1 in 4 millennials (or 26 percent) said they’ve delayed buying a home, as have 21 percent of Gen Z, versus 15 percent of Gen X and 5 percent of baby boomers, according to Bankrate’s November study. At the time of the study, the average rate on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage soared to a 20-year high, according to Bankrate data.
That sacrifice often comes at a cost. Homeowners have a median net worth of $254,900, more than 40 times the net worth of renters ($6,270), according to the Federal Reserve’s most recent Survey of Consumer Finances from 2019.
But to earn money from a home, you have to be able to afford to buy it. The median price of a U.S. home in 1984 was $79,950 — $228,415.56 in today’s dollars, according to the Labor Department’s consumer price index (CPI) calculator. Adjusted for inflation, home prices have almost doubled since then, hitting $454,525 in 2022, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Median household income adjusted for inflation, meanwhile, has risen 27 percent since then, Census Bureau data shows.
Soaring prices in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated housing affordability, and massive rate hikes from the Fed to help cool those asset prices have so far done little to alleviate the problem. Where mortgage rates stand today, a $240,000 mortgage would cost you $1,542 a month in principal and interest, according to Bankrate’s mortgage calculator. When rates were at their lowest in 2021, that same monthly payment could get you a $369,120 loan — reflecting a 35 percent hit to homebuyer affordability from high rates alone.
Soaring home prices and a competitive housing market left would-be homebuyers with no choice but to rent. At the same time, Americans were emerging from lockdowns, ready to move to new cities. It created a perfect storm. Rent prices jumped 15.5 percent since the pandemic-induced recession began in February 2020, according to inflation data from the Department of Labor.
Homeowners were spared from weathering those rent increases, and Americans who locked in a historically low mortgage rate before prices and rates surged found their timing was even luckier.
Disproportionately, renters tend to be young. About a third of homeowners (or 38.3 percent) are under age 35, according to Census Bureau data.
“It’s different this time around,” says Ted Rossman, Bankrate senior industry analyst, referring to the current inflation burst versus in the 1970s and ‘80s. “Not that older people are immune to this by any means, but it’s become so difficult for young people to enter the housing market, given rapidly rising home prices and mortgage rates.”
Yet, inflation has impacted more than just housing costs. Prices on everyday essentials such as food, gasoline and utilities have also climbed, in turn also weighing on young Americans’ ability to save for a home. The typical consumer has had to spend $395 more a month to purchase the same goods and services it bought a year ago, according to a January estimate from Moody’s.
Higher education has helped young Americans secure higher-paying jobs — but it’s weighed on their wallets, too
Young Americans’ student loan debt is a major financial barrier. Almost three-quarters of Gen Zers (or 74 percent) and 68 percent of millennials said their student loan debt prompted them to delay a major financial decision, Bankrate data from April shows. Most commonly, that was saving for emergencies, retirement and buying a house or car.
Younger generations pursued higher education to help them find better-paying positions amid changing labor markets and tougher economic times. Research shows the job market held up its end of the bargain. The median lifetime earnings of an American with a bachelor’s degree is $2.8 million, compared with $1.2 million for those without a high school diploma, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
But higher education was a major investment. Since 1984, college tuition and fees are up 700 percent, compared with inflation-adjusted household income’s nearly 27 percent gain, according to historic CPI data and Census Bureau estimates.
Those generations had no choice but to accrue more student loan debt. Borrowers between the ages of 30 and 39 (older millennials) held the largest total balance of any age group, at $515.6 billion, while individuals under 30 trailed behind in second place with a $355.55 billion total balance, according to consumer credit data from the New York Fed.
Taken together, the average wealth of younger Americans born in 1981 or later was 11.2 percent below Gen Xers’ wealth when they were the same age, according to a 2022 St. Louis Fed analysis.
“Any young adult is going to be in a more precious position than older adults,” says Charlotte Principato, managing director of financial services analysis at Morning Consult. “There has been less time to build up a financial cushion, there’s been less time to establish a strong credit score if you needed to take out a loan, less time to build equity if you purchased a home. That’s true anytime, but right now for both Gen Z and millennials, it’s exacerbated by the financial conditions that they have experienced. Everything feels stacked against them.”
Separated by time and distance, Rousey and Artson share differing experiences
Fresh out of community college with a degree that cost about $720 in fees, Rousey was 21 when he found his first self-proclaimed “good” job — a full-time position with benefits at a bank paying $12.50 an hour, nearly three times his state’s minimum wage. The year was 1996. Three years and a raise later, he’d saved up enough to buy his first home for $105,000, a four-bedroom, two-bath house in Stockton, California. His mortgage was $700 a month.
“Tell me that’s a possibility for younger adults today,” he says.
Over the years, Rousey switched careers into software development, got married, earned both a bachelor’s and a master’s in business administration, had two children, moved to two different states and bought two other homes.
Rousey’s life hasn’t been without challenges. He’s spent several periods unemployed, though he could quickly find new employment, he says. His first home also lost over half its value during the Great Recession of 2007-2009.
His income, however, has kept growing through the years. “Other than complaining about it,” he says, he’s made no adjustments to his personal finances since prices recently started surging by the most in a single year since the ‘80s.
“It’s made me feel sorry for younger folks,” he says. “I have kids, and I just really hope that it gets better for them. They’re in a privileged spot too, but I know a lot of struggling millennials and Gen Zers who may have come from privilege, too, but they’re still struggling because it’s not enough.”
Artson was also 21 when she graduated in 2015 with bachelor’s degrees in communications and sociology from a college in Massachusetts. She was the first in her family to receive a degree. Unable to find work in her field, however, she worked on and off jobs through a temp agency for a year while living at home in Brooklyn, New York.
“When you try to do things to better yourself in a place like America, where everything is so expensive, it takes money to make money,” she says.
Passionate about film and television production, Artson decided to uproot to Los Angeles in 2016. She worked two part-time retail jobs and a third on a seasonal basis, all of which paid her about $14.50 an hour. Saddled with $100,000 in student loans and having minimal cash in savings, she settled on renting an apartment for $2,300 a month. She relied on credit cards and her parents for support.
It’s different when you come from a family where this is normal, where nobody expected you not to go to college, versus when you come from a family where you’re the first one to graduate high school. It’s crazy how people will start to look at you and think that you have no issues and you’re a millionaire, when the truth is, you’re struggling. You don’t fit in where you come from, but where you’re going to be, you don’t fit in there either.
— Shakia ArtsonLos Angeles resident
Her finances improved in 2021, when she started working as a billing specialist for a health care technology company. She earns about $60,000 a year now and has health insurance for the second time in her working career. She’s since started a side business, though it’s not yet profitable. She self-published a book of poems in 2021 and formed a nonprofit to help pay it forward the same year.
She’s supporting herself, living on her own and working on paying off her credit card bill — though inflation has thrown a wrench in those plans. She lives in a studio apartment now that costs about $1,350 a month, already a deal for the area, she says. Her grocery bill has more than doubled to about $125 a month. She often turns to her credit cards when she goes over her monthly budget. She doesn’t see how she can afford to have children, but hopes by 2025, she can own property. Artson this year started working with a financial advisor.
“It’s not about getting people to a place where they’re living like the Kardashians,” she says. “People should still be able to live well and put food on the table, send their kids to a good school if they want to and go on a vacation and unplug from work once in a while. Everybody should have that option and deserves that.”
11 tips for hard-hit millennials and Generation Z on crushing their financial goals, even in a down economy
Whether one generation is worse off than the other is often a moot point, according to RAND’s Edwards. For example, inflation soared much faster and higher in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and policies to control them were much harsher, she says. Not to mention, many boomers and Gen Xers had to delay retirement in the aftermath of the Great Recession when their assets plunged.
Older generations, meanwhile, have more social support to handle economic events like high inflation thanks to Social Security and Medicare, which are adjusted for price pressures. Young Americans, though, are often on their own to weather those price increases.
“It’s helpful to think about vulnerability in our economy as not being fixed over your lifetime,” she says. “It’s going to take a different form every year, every month, every generation, every period, and it’s coming up against things the government already does poorly and well. Are we working to reduce risk exposure, and are we working to increase risk protection? For young people, the answer to both is no.”
Here’s 11 tips for young Americans hoping to still safeguard their financial future and meet their goals, even when it’s tough to fight broader macroeconomic headwinds.
1. Park your cash in a place where you can get the most competitive return
No matter how hard it may be to save, make sure your cash is doing the most work for you by parking it in an account where it’s rewarded.
Interest rates at high-yield savings accounts are nearly 17 times higher than the national average, all while being FDIC-insured. Even if you start with an initial deposit of $1,000 and add $20 to it each month over a year, you’d earn about $44 a year in interest compared to nearly $3 at your traditional brick-and-mortar bank.
Every dollar counts when it comes to saving for a major goal or covering an emergency expense. The simple act of saving — no matter how much it is — can also help you feel less anxious about the future. No matter what, you know you have some funds to turn to if your income takes an unexpected hit.
2. Automate your savings transfers to build the habit of savings
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you’re getting started with building an emergency fund. A good goal can be keeping six to nine months’ worth of expenses in a liquid and accessible account, but don’t let the destination distract you from the journey. Often, the habit of saving is the most important to build.
Rather than concentrating on saving a specific percentage of your income, think about how you’re going to save your first $500, according to Kia McCallister-Young, director of America Saves, a nonprofit working in conjunction with the Consumer Federation of America.
That often comes down to building the habit of paying yourself first, she says. Consider automating transfers to your savings account, whether by setting up a direct deposit from your paycheck or arranging an automatic transfer directly with your financial institution if your income is more sporadic.
3. Wait 24 hours before making a nonessential purchase, and stash the money you would’ve spent in your savings if you decide you don’t want it
Americans trying to free up more cash they can stash away will first want to evaluate their budgets and find easy ways to cut back. But before you scratch the subscription services or the meals out, the first place to start might just be thinking carefully about the items you’re about to buy — and eliminating any impulse purchases.
Financial experts suggest waiting a full 24 hours before buying something you’ve put in your online cart. The longer you think it over, the more likely you will decide you might not want the item after all.
Anytime you decide you don’t want an item, consider putting the money you would’ve spent into your savings account. Had you bought the item, you would’ve spent it anyway. Now, however, the money is out of sight and out of mind — but it’s working for you from the sidelines.
4. Budget saving for entertainment just as much as emergencies and retirement
Millennials and Gen Zers who’ve been shamed with their finances know it’s not the $5 coffee breaking their finances and keeping them from owning a home. It can be isolating to feel like the economy is never working in your favor, so remember, there’s nothing wrong with treating yourself now and then.
Being responsible with your finances doesn’t mean living scarcely or depriving yourself; it’s about making sure your money is working for you and helping you achieve your goals. The money you’re stashing away should go toward helping you fund a vacation or a new outfit down the road just as much as it should be put toward helping you deal with emergency expenses.
“This is about letting your personal values lead you,” McCallister-Young says. “This is all driven by you, instead of someone telling you you’re wrong for your avocado toast and lattes. We all have to slim down spendings in certain areas, but where you want to make those cuts is based on what’s most important to you.”
5. Find ways to boost your income, whether through a side hustle or job-hopping
Americans who stay put in their positions and don’t switch companies tend to see smaller pay gains than their counterparts who’ve job hopped. That’s especially true during tight labor markets. During July 2022, at the peak of a so-called “Great Resignation” of workers, job-switchers saw an 8.5 percent pay gain, compared to 5.9 percent for those who stayed.
The feat holds true even during recessions, according to data from the Atlanta Fed, though Americans might be more skittish about leaving their position and starting a new one in a tough economy.
Anytime you’re living through a strong labor market, consider using the times to your advantage by switching positions or job hunting. And even if you don’t want to leave your employer, you may have more leverage to ask for a raise in a job-seekers market.
Along the way, see if you have any hobbies that can be easily monetized to help you earn extra cash to put toward your goals. Young Americans are skilled and knowledgeable about technology, and the advent of the internet has created several new side-gig opportunities, whether it’s having your own Etsy page or delivering food for services such as Instacart or Doordash.
6. Avoid lifestyle inflation anytime your income increases
Don’t let lifestyle creep get in the way of your financial planning. Anytime you get a raise, consider pocketing the difference in your savings account, especially if you’re just getting started.
The habit could help keep you from spending even more once you get a raise, and it’s an easy place to start when determining how much within your budget you can afford to put away.
7. Don’t stop saving for retirement to cover your student loan payments
Student loan debt is already inhibiting young Americans from building wealth for themselves in the present. If you choose paying down your student loan debt faster over saving for retirement, you could harm your finances for the future.
“No one wants to be in debt,” says Kelly Lannan, senior vice president of emerging consumers at Fidelity Investments. “But it’s more beneficial to pay the minimum balance on your student debt, take the extra money and invest it.”
Remember every little bit of money you put toward a goal can make a major difference for your personal finances. Consider contributing enough funds into your employer-sponsored retirement plan to take advantage of a match, if your workplace offers one.
“The earlier you start investing, the earlier you start saving, the better you’ll be in the long run and the more time you’ll have to take advantage of compound interest,” Lannan says. “For younger people, time is on their side compared to older people. They can actually weather the ebbs and flows of the stock market.”
8. Work on building your credit and improving your score
Lenders reserve their best deals for the borrowers with the strongest credit profiles, making a high credit score even more impactful for your future wealth-building and borrowing opportunities.
Concentrate on strengthening your credit score by paying all your bills on time and maintaining a credit utilization rate below 30 percent. That can help your credit profile work for you — rather than against you — if you decide to borrow money for a big-ticket purchase, such as for a car or a home.
9. Look for home-buying assistance programs
If you’ve never bought a home, you may be eligible for certain first-time homebuyer assistance programs that can help make the prospect of buying a home seem more realistic. Taking some time to research what you’re eligible for could pay off significantly in the long run.
Some loans allow prospective homebuyers to take out a mortgage without having to cover the standard 20 percent down payment. Conventional mortgages through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac allow eligible borrowers with strong credit scores to contribute a 3 percent minimum downpayment.
The government, meanwhile, offers first-time homebuyer loans through agencies such as the Federal Housing Administration and the Department of Agriculture. If you’re a veteran, you may even be able to take advantage of a loan through the Department of Veterans Affairs that doesn’t require a down payment at all. Even some states offer certain first-time homebuyer assistance programs.
10. Consider moving to a cheaper market
If you live in an expensive area where rent prices are soaring and essentials are costly, you might want to consider taking even more aggressive steps with your finances — such as moving to a cheaper area. For most Americans, however, where they live is a personal decision that has to align with their personal goals and values. Moving can also be a costly process, so make sure the trek could save you money in the long run.
“Moving to a cheaper part of the country is a more dramatic step,” Rossman says. “Young adults have proven to be particularly mobile, and they’re not tied down by traditional burdens. Flexibility can be a real asset, especially when you’re young.”
11. Focus on what you can and cannot control
It can be easy to feel down about your finances in a bad economy. While millennials and Gen Zers can’t change when or where they were born, they can change what they do with their money to ensure it’s helping them achieve their goals. Focusing on what you can do to help change your financial situation can also help you feel more empowered to achieve those goals.
“When you’re hearing you need to save for emergencies, well when has there not been an emergency in the last three years?” McCallister-Young says. “Each generation has its pros and cons, and it’s important to not get caught up in what it was like for someone else and instead focus on what opportunities exist for us and how we can make things happen for ourselves. We can’t have everything on fire. There has to be some type of joy there, too.”