Business

MICHELLE SINGLETARY | THE COLOR OF MONEY

Millennials get plenty of financial advice — but most of it is wrong

Alison Seiffer for The Boston Globe

WASHINGTON — Older adults love to smugly talk about the “entitled” attitude of millennials.

But today’s young people actually have a lot in common with both the Depression-era generation and baby boomers: Sixty-two percent of millennials identify themselves as savers and 80 percent say they budget their money, according to a TD Ameritrade survey.

Millennials aren’t fans of debt either. Nearly half of them say they feel anxious about being in debt, and three in 10 report being embarrassed, frustrated, or regretful for having borrowed in the first place.

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Unlike past generations, young adults have unprecedented financial pressure. They often start off their adulthood in deep student-loan debt, and they also face relentless influences we older adults didn’t have.

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It used to be that you weren’t bombarded with marketing messages until after you got home and turned on the television. Now the device delivering the enticements to buy, buy, buy is right there — all the time — in your pocket or purse.

Celebrities constantly chronicle their brand-name lives on Instagram, and our friends on Facebook celebrate their fabulous vacations in real time.

We need to give millennials a break. It’s hard for them to resist the FOLO (fear of losing out) when their smartphone notifications are essentially telling them they aren’t living it up enough.

So, within the context of what they are dealing with, here’s where I think some experts go wrong in providing advice to college graduates:

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Typical advice: Start saving for retirement right away.

The reality: Millennials’ money is often too tight, and for the many who have student loans, they may be best served spending the first few years out of college aggressively paying off this debt.

I have one caveat. If their employer offers a retirement match, I tell young adults to at least invest enough to get that free money. But otherwise, concentrate on getting rid of debt first. If they pay off the loans fast enough, they’ll still have a significant running start in saving for retirement.

Typical advice: Only live at home if you have student loans to repay.

The reality: The share of college graduates in their 20s who lived with their parents increased from 19 percent in 2005 to 28 percent in 2016, according to a survey by Zillow, a real estate information website.

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With the high cost of housing in many markets, why in the world are we telling folks they are a financial failure for living with their parents? Whether you have debt or not, taking a few years to save up some money is a financially sound way to launch.

Done correctly, shared housing is the prudent thing to do. Make sure they are saving or paying down the debt. With this accountability, you won’t be robbing them of their journey to independence.

What’s irresponsible is renting when it means you can’t aggressively get rid of student loans or save for emergencies and retirement.

I encourage parents to not just allow their graduates to come back home to live, but to encourage it. If they’re not in debt, they should save most of their paychecks to build a significant savings cushion. Then they can move out.

For graduates with student loans, I advise taking all of their paychecks — minus some money for personal expenses — to aggressively get rid of the debt. Do this for two or even three years and the debt is gone.

Typical advice: If you don’t have one already, get a credit card to learn how to manage money and build up a good credit history.

The reality: I concede that credit matters. But it also can be a dangerous tool for people just starting out. It’s too easy to live above their limited means.

The advice about the need to establish credit gets twisted into the notion that young adults have to constantly use it to get and keep a high credit score.

All they really have to do is buy something for $10 or $20 and pay off the balance in full and on time. Repeat this for about six months and then stop using the card. That’s all it takes to establish that they are responsible borrowers.

Millennials have a lot of financial pressure. And we’ve left quite a fiscal mess for them — a gargantuan federal deficit, a pending Social Security shortfall, and a health care system that makes many people one major illness away from bankruptcy.

When giving graduates advice, let’s cut them some slack and allow them a chance to get their financial footing before kicking them out into the world.

Michelle Singletary can be reached at michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter @SingletaryM.