When you think of the stereotypical millennial, what comes to mind? If you go by the headlines, it’s someone who mooches off his or her parents, kills businesses like Applebee’s and Toys ‘R’ Us, and would rather spend money on Coachella tickets than put it into a savings account.
That image is not accurate. Not entirely, at least. Yes, millennials prioritize experiences over things, and yes, we aren’t interested in eating at chain restaurants. But millennials are saving at the same rates as Gen Xers, according to a Bank of America report. We’re thinking about retirement, and money is very much on our minds — it’s just not in our pockets.
The 2018 study Millennials and Retirement: Already Falling Short is an in-depth look at why millennials are coming up short on their retirement saving, even though they feel that it’s a priority.
Why We Want to Save
Millennials came of age during the Great Recession. We saw our parents, our friends, and the entire country lose money, and we graduated from college and high school into a bleak job landscape.
It was — and is — harder for us to get a job than it was for our parents. And even if you get one, the pay probably isn't great.
Across white- and blue-collar industries, millennials make less today than our parents made for the same work. Here’s a devastating passage from Millennials and Retirement:
“As a direct result of the Great Recession, the millennial generation has earned about 20 percent less in wages, are less likely to own a home, and have accumulated about half of the wealth of their parents at the same stage in their lives.
Wages aren’t going up, but the cost of living is. The difference between what our grandparents paid for food and what we pay is shocking: In 1950, a gallon of milk cost 41 cents; in 2016, it cost $1.66, according to a 2016 study from the Job Application Center.
Low wages and a high cost of living are a deadly combination when it comes to saving. But the problem is even more complex. Retirement savings largely come from employer-sponsored retirement plans like 401(k)s and 403(b)s. And yet55 million Americans don’t have access to this sort of plan. (I’m one of them!)
The Job Application Center study shows that in 2014 only about 55 percent of millennials were eligible for participation in an employer-sponsored retirement plan in comparison to an impressive 77 percent of Gen Xers and 80 percent of baby boomers.
When eligible, millennials jump at the chance to take part in these plans. In fact, 94.2 percent of those who are offered a workplace retirement plan sign on. The problem is that not enough of us have the option to do so to begin with.
Millennials Saving for Retirement: A Tricky Equation
Because millennials are acutely aware of how hard it is to survive tough financial times, we’re a generation that is happy to save. We want to be financially secure and feel confident during economic downturns. But we can’t save big without earning big.
According to Millennials and Retirement, 21 percent of millennials are concerned about retirement security.
Almost half of millennials are concerned about being able to retire when they want to.
And another two-thirds are concerned about outliving their retirement money, since more than half of millennials are expected to live to 89 or older.
We're living longer and earning less; we have less access to retirement plans; and we have a higher cost of living. All of that makes for a difficult financial landscape for millennials.
Retirement Savings Tips: What to Do When Money Is Tight
As a low-income millennial, saving on a tight budget is sort of my specialty. Acknowledging our tough circumstances is the first step to financial success because it shows us that we can’t play by the same old rules. What worked for those who came before us isn’t going to work for us.
I’ve been a very low-income earner, bringing home less than $20,000 a year from 2012 to 2014. Even today, I earn less than $70,000. However, I've been able to jump-start my retirement savings by living a lifestyle that prioritizes saving and minimizes spending.
For example, I’m a huge fan of biking. I routinely spend $20 or less on gas a month because I use my bike for most of my transportation needs. I also don’t buy meat, partly for environmental reasons and partly because it’s more expensive than produce. Plus, I live with roommates; I buy clothes from Goodwill; and I’m a fan of leftovers as opposed to restaurant meals.
Here are two big things I do to work saving for retirement into my budget:
I Prioritize It
I know that I want to save money for retirement each month, so I make it a part of my monthly budget. For me, it's just as much a priority as buying food. By making space for saving in my budget, I know that I have to find ways to hit that goal each month. Plus, having a clear target helps keep me accountable in other areas of spending.
If you can set aside $100 per month, you can easily set up a high-yield savings account with CIT Bank. It has a five-star rating from Bankrate, so you can rest assured that your savings are in good hands. Just make sure to check their website for terms and conditions before applying.
I Know Where It’s Going
The hardest part of doing anything is starting. Since so many millennials don’t have access to a work-sponsored retirement plan, searching for one on our own is an added burden. We have to find out what is available, how to open one, and where to get the money to start one.
I started an individual retirement account (or IRA) for myself in my mid-20s. It took some research and more than one call to Vanguard to get it set up, but now it’s easy to put money into it. The maximum you can contribute to an IRA in 2020 is $6,000 ($7,000 if age 50 or over), so that’s always my baseline annual retirement goal.
Final Retirement Savings Tips for Millennials
Follow these guidelines, but also think about what else you can do to sock away more money for retirement.
A good place to start is with your entertainment, food, and transportation budget categories. Maybe you can cancel Netflix and Hulu and just have Amazon as your streaming service. Or perhaps you can clean out your closet and sell some clothes online. Open yourself up to creative ways to save money and funnel the savings toward retirement.
Just because we millennials are up against a wall doesn’t mean there isn’t any hope. We can save for retirement, starting today.