When it comes to financial planning, millennials see themselves as different.
They’re burdened with massive student loan debt. They entered the labor market during tough times, and their jobs and salaries still haven’t recovered, according to the Pew Research Center. Many live with their parents, fewer get married compared with past generations, and many delay buying a home and having children.
But while their world is different, the basic rules of financial planning haven’t changed: Don’t spend more than you earn, establish an emergency fund, pay down debt, and save for the future.
The difficulty is figuring out where to start, particularly when there’s not enough money to do everything.
“Millennials are smart and they want to take action, but they don’t know what that action is,” said Nondini Naqui, chief executive of the Society of Grownups, a year-old Brookline company that offers classes, planning services, and discussion groups for millennials and is owned by the Springfield-based insurer MassMutual. “There is an enormous need to open up the conversation around money.”
At the Society of Grownups, financial planning starts with personal values. Using a deck of cards that describes important values, participants are asked to pick their top five or six. Naqui’s top six: leadership, meaningful work, excellence, relationships, ethics, and health. “I refer to them whenever I am making decisions,” she said.
Goals are important, too, said Eric Roberge, a fee-only financial planner in Boston and a founding member of the XY Planning Network, which focuses on the Gen X and Gen Y investors. (Generation X refers to people born from 1965 to 1980. Generation Y, also known as millennials, were born from 1981 to roughly 1996.)
Roberge likes to talk about money as a tool.
“You may want to start a business in five years,” he said. “Or you may want to travel the world.”
To achieve those goals, he said, millennials need to first figure out where they are.
That means taking a good, hard look at cash flow, logging both income and spending that can range from rent and school loan payments to after-work drinks and vacations. Having the numbers makes it possible to see if spending is in line with goals and values. It also helps to identify ways of changing the financial equation to achieve a goal.
“If you want to travel the world, you may be able to do that,” said Roberge. “But that means you shouldn’t be spending lots of money at restaurants in Boston.”
After arming clients with their basic financial information, Roberge likes to give them a one-page sheet identifying key action items. That might include paying off a particular credit card, trimming entertainment expenses, or putting money aside for an emergency fund.
Student loan debt is a major obstacle. While the average student debt for a 2015 college graduate with a bachelor’s degree is just over $35,000, Michael Solari, a fee-only planner in Bedford, N.H. who is also part of the XY Planning Network, said some of his clients with professional degrees owe more than $300,000.
While the goal is to pay off the debt as quickly as possible, there’s no single approach that works best. Repayment options vary, as do opportunities for people working in public service to seek loan forgiveness. Some millennials may be better off opting for an income-based repayment program that offers minimal monthly payments and promises those in public service loan forgiveness after 10 years of on-time payments.
Solari and other planners who specialize in the under-40 market are familiar with these options and may help create a manageable strategy for repayment.
Establishing an emergency fund can be particularly tough for millennials already struggling to pay school loans. But everybody needs to have cash available to cover living expenses in case of job loss or big unexpected expenses like medical bills, said Michelle Morris, a fee-only financial planner in Quincy, who was named a top adviser by MoneyUnder30.com, a financial blog for millennials.
Traditional planning calls for people to have three to six months of living expenses tucked into an emergency fund. But that can be daunting, given millennials’ precarious cash flow. “I recommend establishing an emergency fund that is 10 percent of your annual income,” she said. In addition, she said, people should also make sure to keep some of their retirement plan assets in cash for true emergencies.
Retirement may be a long way off, but retirement savings should definitely be on the millennial radar screen, particularly given uncertainty over Social Security. Many employers match employee 401(k) contributions, typically 50 percent for the first 6 percent of salary contributed.
“They should absolutely be taking advantage of that,” said Solari. He noted that other company benefits — such as flexible spending accounts that allow employees to set aside money, pre-tax, for child care and medical expenses — can also translate into big savings.
Investment is a hot topic among millennials, even though the only money they have to invest may be in their 401(k)s. At the Society of Grownups, one supper club program pairs wines with a discussion of investment basics. The program covers concepts such as the difference between stocks and bonds, the importance of diversification, and the power of investing over time. It’s one of the society’s most popular offerings, according to Jena Palisoul, a financial planner who is director of operations and planning.
Online tools, such as financial calculators and budget trackers, are popular sources of information. They include mint.com, a free site that aggregates financial information that enables people to track everything from investments to credit card bills. Youneedabudget.com, which carries a one-time fee of $60, helps people manage their budget. Creditkarma.com and similar sites allow people to regularly keep track of their credit scores.
Millennials are also taking advantage of technology that allows them to work with advisers remotely. Solari, for example, offers his services via video chats on Skype and Google Hangouts for out-of-town clients and those with busy schedules who can’t get to his office for face-to-face appointments. “We are able to meet online,” he said.