Introduction: Meet the New Young Professional
As the twenty-first century began, journalists and financial advisers began throwing around a new term to describe the current group of young people: Generation Debt. This term evoked slackers who lacked their grandparents’ sense of financial responsibility—instead of saving for a rainy day, they wasted their money on lattes, iPods, and takeout. These people were made to seem as though they lived off credit cards, student loans, and whatever help their parents could send their way.
This mythical tribe soon had its own spokespeople and leaders. Reporters found scores of young professionals caught up in spiraling credit card debt willing to dish about the forces that had created their mess. In response, popular books advocated eating ramen and reusing popcorn bags to get free refills at the movies.1 Before long, a Village Voice
column and two books, one with a subtitle that called our era a “terrible time to be young,” were named after the alleged phenomenon.2 The financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 generated even more extreme stories of woe: the Minneapolis Star Tribune
profiled a twenty-five-year-old with $94,000 in student loan debt who was resigned, permanently it seemed, to living in her in-laws’ basement.3 NBC’s Today Show
featured a handful of twenty-somethings with various degrees of credit card, student loan, and car loan debt. “I don’t even go get a Starbucks,” bemoaned one. “When I go to the gas station I don’t get a drink. I don’t—nothing. I can’t afford it.”4
Pundits used these kinds of examples in order to justify an increasingly condescending attitude about our financial aptitude. On the Fox Business Network, Beth Kobliner, author of the best-seller Get a Financial Life
, said that even Ivy League college students graduate without understanding how to pay for everyday expenses. She recalled one student who asked her how to take out a loan to rent an apartment, and she had to explain that people use income, not loans, to pay their rent. “Basic, basic concepts they just don’t know about money,” she said.5
The term generation debt
stuck because there is some truth to it. Two out of three college students now take out student loans, compared to less than half in 1993.6 By the time the typical graduate walks across the stage to pick up his diploma, he owes $22,700.7 Average credit card debt among twenty-five- to thirty-four-year-olds has climbed 50 percent since 1989, to over $4,000 per person.8
But most of us are not letting our debts define us. While student loan burdens are heavier than they were in generations past, more of us have college and advanced degrees that give us greater earning power. The number of people enrolled in graduate programs has increased over 70 percent since 1976, making Generations X and Y the most highly educated group of Americans to date.9 Meanwhile, our incomes have largely been underestimated; studies by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis show that, with adjustments for inflation and benefits, the median compensation rate has gone up 28 percent since 1975.10
As for credit cards, only one in three college students carries one at all.11 The average amount owed is just $495. Among twenty-five- to thirty-four-year-olds, more than half pay off their entire balance each month.12 And, when asked how we feel about our economic standing, most of us say we feel pretty good. In a 2009 Pew survey, six in ten respondents under the age of forty said their standard of living is much or somewhat better than that of their parents at the same age, while just 15 percent said it is worse.13 This is true even though many of us experienced two recessions before reaching mid-career, first when the tech bubble burst in 2001 and then when the subprime mortgage crisis led to housing market collapses and bank failures in 2008 and 2009.
However, all these facts and figures don’t quite capture the zeitgeist of our generation. Few would mistake us for self-satisfied Alex P. Keaton types, reaping the bounties of capitalism. The popping of the tech bubble and the subprime mortgage crisis underscored the importance of sacrifice and hard work and made it clear how hard it can be to get ahead. Nor are we purely do-gooders—college kids canvassing for their political idols. We are something in between. We want to own nice homes, feel financially successful, support our families, one day send our kids to college, and change the world at the same time.
Although we may now have some money to invest, our goals involve far more than just becoming rich. The financial crisis of 2008 dovetailed with a growing interest in sustainability, simplicity, and even frugality. Instead of living exclusively for our own pleasures, we have embraced a new level of social consciousness. We care about the environment, our cities, and social justice. Many of us also want kids, and, thanks in part to loud warnings about the decline of fertility with age, we aren’t putting that off forever, either.
As the “Alpha Consumer” blogger and columnist for US News & World Report
, I frequently receive questions from readers about navigating this terrain: What should I be doing with my savings? Where should I invest my money? Can I afford to buy a house, or should I keep renting? Does it make sense to share a mortgage with my boyfriend? Can I afford a baby? How can I support the causes I believe in? As a young professional myself, I have many of the same concerns.
This book explores those questions and gives you tools to help you make the best decisions for your situation. It explains how to improve your bank account as well as how to get closer to reaching your bigger financial ambitions, from living debt free to saving for a child’s future college education. It looks at how to manage money in relationships, both before and during marriage. It asks when it makes sense to accept financial aid from parents, and how to handle requests for assistance from other family members. It will help you decide whether you’re ready to buy a house, have a baby, or take a break from your career. It also explains how to make an impact on the world with your money and resources, whether that means starting a nonprofit or spending and investing in a way that supports your values.
Along the way, we’ll meet twenty-, thirty-, and forty-somethings who have faced those challenges themselves. Before moving in together, Chicago couple Pasha Carroll and Matthew Krise wondered how they should combine, or not combine, their bank accounts. They give partial credit for the success of their relationship to their solution—to keep almost everything separate—although many couples find combining everything equally satisfying. Kate and Thomas Deriso show us why cooking and even growing some of their own food in northern Virginia isn’t a sacrifice but a way to live more richly. Keith and Katy Hewson decided that the best way to start out married life was to live with Katy’s parents in their Houston townhouse. While the older couple covered the mortgage payments, Keith and Katy pulled their weight by handling most of the monthly bills, which meant each couple saved thousands of dollars. Lindsay Hyde, a twenty-eight-year-old from southern Florida, turned her passion for mentoring young girls into a nonprofit that now operates in three cities.
Each of their paths began with questions: How should we manage our money together? Is there a way to afford the lifestyle we want? How can I feel like I’m making an impact without sacrificing my own financial security? My husband and I also grappled with these issues as we prepared for the birth of our first child while I wrote this book. In the process, we weighed the pros and cons of moving into a bigger place, taking out life insurance, and saving for our daughter’s future college education versus putting money away for our own retirements.
Our generation doesn’t need to define itself by debt and financial struggle, but we do face new challenges and trade-offs. I hope this book helps you to navigate them. Part 1 Building Your Life1. The Joy of Spending
We can finally afford some of the luxuries that were out of reach when we were struggling college students and entry-level employees. But, in addition to reaping some of the rewards of our hard work, we also need to prioritize financial security. Because the cost of living has gone up while job security has gone down, getting ahead requires saving a higher percentage of our incomes than any previous generation has before.
In this chapter, you’ll learn how to do the following:
1. Define your financial goals, even the ones that cost as much as a Manhattan townhouse
2. Create a spending plan that makes sense for your lifestyle
3. Win the consumer wars that lead to overspending Disney World or Soy Lattes?
I met Kimberly Wilson, a yoga teacher, author, and entrepreneur, on an early spring day in Washington, DC, at a coffee shop in Dupont Circle to find out how she had turned so many of her goals into reality. I’d been a longtime reader of her blog, “Tranquility du Jour,” which discusses how to apply the lessons of yoga to everyday life. In addition to teaching yoga and designing her own line of ecofriendly clothing, she runs a foundation to help young women and was in the midst of opening a new yoga studio down the street when we spoke.
“I’m a saver,” she told me as we sat down. “But I also think self-care is so important. Massages, candles . . . simple indulgences can be a small amount of money but contribute to overall happiness.” She mostly wears her own designs, supplemented with items from Target and other discount stores; she picked up her dangly earrings for $2.99 at H&M. (Not that she sacrifices fashion—her long black dress and oversized sunglasses looked like something celebrity stylist Rachel Zoe would put together.)
Instead of buying clothes, Kimberly, who’s in her mid-thirties, puts her money toward the big and little things that are important to her. She recently borrowed $500,000, largely through a bank loan, to build the new studio. She’s saving to buy a cabin in West Virginia where she, her boyfriend, and pug dog can escape for weekend getaways. Over the previous three days, she had made career-investment purchases to help inspire her own designs (a $132 Victoria’s Secret dress and a $19 Target dress). She had also bought fire logs for cozy evenings at home as well as soy lattes and cupcakes to inject some treats into her daily routine. Quick Tip: Personal Finance Basics
Give yourself a financial refresher course. Here are some of the top resources for creating a personal tutorial:
: Run by the federal government, this site collects information from multiple federal agencies and walks visitors through banking, home ownership, and retirement planning basics.
: Through stories, tips, and online tools, this website teaches people how to save more money.
: This site, run by the National Endowment for Financial Education, provides detailed information on insurance, paying for college, buying a home, and dozens of other scenarios.
Kimberly’s choices might look lopsided to someone else (half a million dollars for her business and $3 for earrings?), but they reflect her priorities. Identifying those priorities isn’t always easy, especially when they stray from the popular goals of buying a house or starting a baby fund. To help determine their priorities, Kimberly often urges people to ask themselves what they would do if they weren’t limited by time or money.
You can also start with the idea of receiving $1,000. When I asked my Alpha Consumer blog readers what they would do with such a windfall, their answers included the following:
• Take the kids to Disney World
• Donate to charity
• Invest in the stock market
• Put it into a high-yield savings account for a future down payment
• Pay off bills and loans
• Buy a bike
• Build a greenhouse
• Buy a new laptop
• Buy luxury groceries like almond butter and high-quality tea
• Go on a Caribbean escape, leaving the serious books and to-do list at home
• Help enable wife to work part-time while she pursues hobby of textile design and husband to stay in the low-paying job that he loves
In addition to the sometime-before-I-die goals, shorter-term ones might include paying off high-interest student loan debt, increasing savings, or staying at a five-star hotel.Quick Tip: Budgeting by the Year
Research suggests that creating an annual budget instead of a monthly one works best, largely because we feel less confident in our annual estimates, so tend to add more cushioning for unexpected expenses. In one study, college students underestimated their monthly expenses by 40 percent while overestimating their annual expenses by 3 percent.1
In order to achieve those goals, you will need to build a spending plan that makes them possible. For most people, about two-thirds of their spending goes toward the essentials: food, housing, and transportation.2 It’s best for those staples to use up no more than half of a person’s take-home pay, but it can be hard to find any money left over after paying for that increasingly pricey trifecta.
That means the average young professional, a thirty-year-old business consultant in Austin, Texas—let’s call him Kenneth—with a salary of, say, $80,000 a year, will take home, after paying taxes and adding to his retirement account, about $48,000. To spend only half of that on housing, food, and transportation, he’d need to spend roughly $15,000 on rent (unless he’s built up savings, there’s no room for a mortgage), $6,000 on food (about $115 a week, including at-home meals as well as lunches and dinners out), and $3,000 on transportation (almost $12 a day, which includes any car-related expenses, such as purchasing one). For Kenneth, following those guidelines isn’t easy, especially since he likes to go out to bars with his friends on the weekends and take his girlfriend, Danielle, to nice restaurants. But he makes it happen; his apartment is near a bus stop that allows for an easy commute to work and he eats simple meals at home during the week (he’s usually too busy to go out anyway), so he can save his cash for weekend splurges.
After those basics, the next most pressing demand on young professionals’ salaries is debt payments. Most of us have monthly student loan bills to pay. Kenneth graduated with $30,000 in debt, a modest sum compared to some of his peers. He pays around $200 a month toward it. Quick Tip: Track That Money
Spending plans for after-tax income should include these six components:
1. The basics: food, housing, and transportation
2. Debt payments
4. Professional expenses
5. Household expenses
The third priority is savings. Ideally, we should save about one-quarter of our pre-tax salaries (this includes retirement contributions).This is an ambitious goal, and close to impossible for those of us still shelling out two-thirds or more of our salaries for basic living costs. It might take several years of saving 5 to 10 percent before we reach this level, and there are likely to be periods—shortly after having children, for example—when savings drop significantly. To put it in perspective, the average American household saves less than 5 percent of its income.3 But the goal should be to bank one out of every four dollars we bring home, in order to create an emergency cushion of at least three months’ worth of living expenses as well as to save money for those big goals.
Excerpted from Generation Earn by Kimberly Palmer. Copyright © 2010 by Kimberly Palmer. Excerpted by permission of Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.