September 1, 2015 in Debt

Kristen Heinzinger’s future brightened as soon as she moved into her parents’ basement.

A bed near the family laundry machine wasn’t exactly what she’d envisioned a few years after college, especially with her publishing career gaining momentum in Manhattan. But at 26, with $150,000 in student loan debt, this was the only sensible choice, Heinzinger says. By cutting rent out of the equation, her life was finally starting to pencil out.

Millennials are persistently optimistic about the state of their personal finances, especially compared with older age groups.

“I’ll do this as long as I can,” she says one night after an hourlong commute on a commuter train to her parents’ home north of the city. “It’s much easier to save now.”

Millennials like Heinzinger have undoubtedly entered adulthood with sizable financial hurdles. College tuition at public universities has more than doubled over the past 20 years. Americans now owe $1.2 trillion in student loan debt, and more than a quarter of those making payments are at least a month behind. Moreover, many millennials entered the job market just as the economy was melting into recession.

So far, though, they’re proving to be astonishingly resilient. Their generation, which includes those born in the 1980s and 1990s, has become known for putting off some of life’s biggest decisions, especially those with a financial impact. They’ve delayed getting married, buying a home or having children. More than 1 in 3 still live with their parents.

And, in a somewhat vexing twist, millennials are doing it all with a smile — or at least a palpable degree of indifference. According to monthly Bankrate surveys over the past 5 years, millennials are persistently optimistic about the state of their personal finances, especially compared with older age groups. They may owe more money at an earlier stage in their careers than previous generations, and they may be the least experienced workers in a competitive job market, yet millennials don’t seem to be losing much sleep over it.

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The question is: Why not?

It’s nice to think that the nation’s youngest workers are taking their financial hurdles in stride, but it’s worth asking whether they shouldn’t be more concerned. Does a high degree of optimism in the face of economic hardship suggest that they’re taking their challenges seriously?

“People are living longer,” says Jennifer Deal, a researcher at the Center for Creative Leadership in San Diego, who’s co-authored a book “What Millennials Want From Work.” “So the question is, how economically secure are they going to be in retirement?”

Richard Fry, a senior economist at the Pew Research Center, says researchers are just starting to ask these questions about millennials.

“Millennials are young,” Fry says. “Where they’re going to be and what position they’re going to be in when they’re old, nobody knows. It’s a ways off.”

So far, however, America’s youngest workers don’t appear to have made saving money a priority, according to Bankrate’s Financial Security Index.

Is that optimism I see?

Every month, Bankrate surveys Americans about their savings, debt, job security and other financial topics. And every month, millennials consistently express higher levels of financial security than older generations.

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The surveys, which began in December 2010 as part of Bankrate’s Financial Security Index, ask people to compare how they feel now with how they felt a year before. Altogether, a greater proportion of millennials said they feel more secure about their jobs, savings, net worth and overall financial situation. The only subject where millennials are evenly divided is debt. In that case, their responses match every other generational group.

Those results are comparable with separate readings by the University of Michigan. Its Surveys of Consumers ask about the future, gauging what people expect over time with their personal finances, as well as the U.S. economy. In general, millennials have responded with greater optimism than baby boomers did in 1979 and 1980, when they were of a comparable age and at a time when the nation’s unemployment rate was at roughly the same level.

Generation X, which includes everyone born between 1965 and 1980, is the most optimistic of the bunch. And this makes sense: The Internet boom was driving the economy in the late 1990s when many Gen Xers were entering the workforce.

Why so upbeat?

For Heinzinger, the feeling she gets when asked about her finances isn’t exactly happiness. It’s more of a satisfaction about her flexibility in the face of extreme financial distress.

“I can sustain this,” she says. “I’m not living on the streets. That’s about all I can think about right now.”

Heinzinger is hardly a spendthrift. For years, she saved her baby-sitting and gift money, and she’s managed her bank account so that it automatically sends a small portion of her paycheck into savings. Altogether, Heinzinger says she’s put together a tidy little nest egg of about $12,000, not nearly enough for retirement, but an excellent start.

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Still, when she graduated high school, Heinzinger couldn’t pass up an opportunity to attend Boston University, even though her parents warned her about the cost. Students are currently expected to spend nearly $63,000 a year in tuition and other expenses at BU. Even with a partial scholarship, her student loan debt quickly ballooned to an almost unmanageable level.

“My parents sat me down when I was 18 and they said, ‘If you go there, it’s going to be like having a mortgage for the rest of your life.’ And I was like ‘OK!'” she says with a sigh. “I’m chipping away, though I feel like I’m never going to pay it off.”

A lot of her friends are under the same pressure. In fact, student loan debt is so common that it’s created a sense of camaraderie among Heinzinger’s friends. It’s easier to shrug off financial stress when everyone else is dealing with it, too.

“We talk about it,” she says. “By the time we’re in our 40s, someone’s going to have to do something about it. We won’t be buying homes or saving money. We’re all still going to be paying off our debts. Something’s going to have to happen. This is unsustainable.”

A few practical reasons for optimism

While it’s still early yet, economists say millennials have at least a few reasons to be upbeat.

The first, says Richard Curtin, director of the University of Michigan’s Survey Research Center, is that millennials probably are seeing bigger salary increases than older age groups. Many have been in the workforce for only a few years, and it’s easier to earn big raises when you’re starting at entry-level pay.

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The second is that it’s hard not to be upbeat when you’re just starting out. What other choice do young people have but to be optimistic about the future? “What’s their alternative?” Curtin asks. “It’s a different life than their parents knew or grandparents knew, but it’s not a horrible life.”

As they grow older, millennials also can draw on at least 1 characteristic that would certainly be in their favor: their education. College degrees have proven to be an essential component to economic success, a fact that millennials have clearly noticed.

“They’re the best educated generation we’ve ever had,” Fry says. “That’s 1 basic characteristic that will pay dividends for them.”

But it’s not translating to savings just yet

The plan was always to get out of her parents’ house as soon as possible, Heinzinger says. When she moved back this summer, it was already at capacity. Her 24-year-old sister and 22-year-old brother also live at home. Instead of bunking with her sister again, she decided to carve out a living space among the boxes and hand-me-down furniture in the basement.

Heinzinger says she’d love to buy an apartment eventually, and she occasionally scouts neighborhoods in the New York suburbs. “I’d like something with 2 bedrooms. I want to be near the city; that’s where my career is. And I’d love a place with a yard.”

But right now, there isn’t much she can do while being weighted down with a 6-figure student loan debt.

She’s not alone. Student loans are keeping Heinzinger and many other millennials from reaching a number of life’s milestones. According to Bankrate’s Money Pulse survey in August, 30% of people between the ages of 18 and 29 said they’ve put off buying a home because of student loan debt. Many also mentioned delaying car purchases (29%), marriage (19%), and having children (14%).

Nearly 1 in 5 said they’ve delayed saving for retirement because of their college debt, which could be a blow to their finances in later years. Instead, millennials have listed their top financial priority as “just staying current on living expenses,” followed by paying down credit cards or student loans, according to an earlier Bankrate survey. And earlier this year, more than half said they were saving 5% or less of their income.

Heinzinger wishes her loans didn’t dominate her finances. Perhaps someday there will be a loan forgiveness program that would help make that debt go away, she says. Until then, Heinzinger’s thankful she has a family who’s willing to take her in, and that they have a basement where she can create a new home.

“Everything else, well, it’s kind of out of my control,” she says.

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