The refrain that general education never prepared millennials to “adult”—to file taxes, to invest—is as classic an internet cliche as you’ll find these days. “School never taught me about loans, banking, or buying a house, but good thing I know the Pythagorean theorem.”
Ready or not, adulthood has come: Millennials are now between 23-38 years old. In 2020, FirstData.com reports millennials will reach peak earning age, putting this oft-maligned generation squarely in the crosshairs of 1) the need to save money for the future and 2) the lure of spending money now.
This lure has never been stronger. As teens and 20-somethings in the late aughts, millennials came into financial independence as “consumers” rather than “citizens,” a cultural phenomenon written about by Time magazine and others over the years. Dogged by advertising fine-tuned to specific wants, millennials have been given, with increasing ease, personalization, and constancy, the opportunity to buy.
There are plenty of basic money matters many millennials feel ill-prepared to tackle (those damn taxes), but the larger need for financial literacy stems from today’s aggressive commercial reality as well as the growing complexity of financial products. Now is as good a time as any for millennials to bone up on their money skills. April is, of course, tax season, but it’s also Financial Literacy Month.
Lesson 1: Conscientiousness
When researchers talk about the personal traits that impact money smarts, they point to conscientiousness. Conscientiousness is knowing when to tell yourself no—no to laziness, to disorder, to impulsivity. While it seems to boil down to self-control, conscientiousness goes beyond that. It’s self-control in pursuit of a goal.
What’s the goal? The details vary, but most of us aspire to own a home, take nice vacations, put our kids through college, and retire comfortably. Affording those big things takes a trade-off—deciding you can’t afford as many small things along the way. Mindless, daily indulgences are the holes in your financial boat. Conscientiousness is what plugs those holes, allowing you to move more efficiently toward the big stuff, like whittling away at millennials’ collective $1.5 trillion in student loan debt, as recently reported by Forbes.
Lesson 2: Control your cash flow
Millennials spend more money on dining, socializing, apparel, and transportation than the two previous generations, according to a University of Southern California psychology study. A hyper-consumerist reality invites us to spend every dollar made and more, but the most popular financial advice of recent decades seems to advise a simple alternative: Increase the cash that flows into your life. Tamp down on the cash that flows out of your life.
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Robert T. Kiyosaki’s “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” builds on the idea of financial literacy as cultural knowledge. You grow up with it or you don’t. But Kiyosaki’s biological dad wasn’t the rich dad he was talking about—that was the father of his childhood friend. The variance in behaviors toward money he observed between the two men led him to form a theory. Everything you own either puts money in your pocket or takes money out of your pocket. Own things—businesses, properties, investments—that put money in your pocket.
The dictum of famed businessman Warren Buffett is essentially the same, just phrased in reverse: Concern yourself with reducing expenses over garnering income. Pursuing the trappings of wealth (owning things that take money out of your pocket) is the surest way to never realize wealth. Buffett, the third wealthiest person in the world according to the latest Forbes ranking (behind only Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates), lives in the same house he bought in 1958 for $31,500, as Business Insider reported in 2017.
“Your Money Or Your Life” by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez conceptualizes money as what you trade your life energy to acquire. When you spend thoughtlessly, you’re quite literally throwing your life away. More recently, “Fuel” by Alok Deshpande characterizes the margin between what you earn and what you spend as—you guessed it—fuel. You need fuel for all the big stuff, including children, homeownership, and paying off that student loan debt. You conserve fuel by living on less money than you have.
Lesson 3: Consider the future
The roaring 2020s are nigh, but financial thinkers say millennials’ outlook is more similar to those living during the Great Depression. Perhaps this isn’t surprising, considering that the elder half of the cohort entered the workforce just in time for the subprime mortgage crisis and the Wall Street bailout. With a growing gulf between the rich and the middle class, a sluggish economy, and crippling student loan debt, millennials face an uncertain future. The party isn’t over, but the Champagne is going flat and it looks like it may rain in the morning.
Pessimism about the future doesn’t lead directly to #yolo-inspired money decisions; there’s another element at work—the particularly millennial drive for personal monetization. We live in a gig economy in which a person could theoretically always be working—selling skin care products, driving for a rideshare, renting out a spare room, maybe all while holding down a 9-to-5. But without a sense of the future giving money meaning, side hustles just fill the piggy bank marked “disposable income”—spending money in modern parlance. But this term is actually woefully misused.
Disposable income is everything you make minus taxes. Everything you make minus taxes and minus necessities (housing and transportation, health insurance, food) is discretionary income. “Disposable” jives with “consumerism”—both suggest using something up and moving on to the next. “Discretionary” underscores the element of considerate choice. It’s up to you whether you spend or save.
Consumerism as a way of life is unsustainable—studies have found it’s bad for the Earth and it’s a surefire way of enjoying less financial security. A future mindset prompts investing, conserving, saving for retirement. It’s what makes conscientiousness bigger than self-control. It’s what makes living beneath your means not only possible, but enjoyable.