When I was a kid, I thought to myself, “I can’t wait to grow up!” And now that I’m a grown up, I think to myself “Jeez, I can’t wait to retire.” Retirement is a sure thing for all of us, but the comfort and affordability of that stage of life is a hazy, grey area for most Millennials. Today’s youth are faced with economic challenges and attitudes that are inhibiting a clear and secure path to accumulating enough savings to retire comfortably. Money, and more importantly, money management, is a poorly understood reality of life for most young people.
In order to clear up a few things, we decided to sit down with three different Vancouver professionals to chat about Millennials and finance. Not only did this give us insight into some of the characteristics defining Millennial spending-behaviour, but we picked up some good tips for ourselves too!
DESENSITIZED TO DEBT
Amongst his Vancouver Millennial clientele, financial planner Duane Runzer of the Investors Group sees the average student loan debt load come in between $30,000 to $40,000. Student loan debt is only a part of the picture though. There’s also credit card debt. Katy Mackenzie, Vancouver based mortgage specialist, sees average unsecured consumer debt loads (not including student loan debt) range anywhere from $10,000 on the low end to about $50,000 with her Millennial clientele. “This is a spend, not save group,” says Mackenzie.
Runzer observes that Millennials in today’s Vancouver market not only have easy access to credit, but they have “a higher degree of comfort with credit than someone my age.” (Runzer is a Gen X-er, in case you were wondering.) Perhaps this is due to the large debt loads that young people are burdened with immediately upon graduating. With tuition fees skyrocketing from $1,927 in 1990 to $5,772 in 2013, and the average student walking away from their undergrad with $28,495 in student loans, debt is a necessary evil even before youth get their first job out of school, so much so that Millennials are more desensitized to debt than the generations that came before them.
Besides an apparent densitization and conditioning to debt, what else is compelling Millennials to spend beyond their means? A study done by Citizen PR called the FOMO Report indicates that Millennial spending is largely driven by a phenomenon termed the Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO). 56% of people surveyed between the ages of 18-30 admitted to living beyond their means because they didn’t want to miss out on experiences that their peers were having. These experiences, proliferated through social media, in real time, are key to driving Millennials to spend, and often spend beyond their means. The desire to not miss out is seen primarily in spending on trips (59%), parties (56%) and food (29 per cent). The FOMO trend also seems to extend to the Vancouver Millennials’ view of owning real estate as a desired milestone in their lives. Runzer notes that 60% of his Millennial clientele still aim to own property in Vancouver one day.
Bronwyn Bertles is a Vancouver based realtor who deals primarily with first-time home buyers. “Back in Calgary, about 90% of my clientele were Millennials. It was easier for them to break into the housing market. Per person, incomes ranged from $60,000 to $90,000 per year, and the home prices were just so much more affordable. Now, in Vancouver, about 30% of my clientele are from the Millennial generation who can afford to break into the real estate market on their own. That number jumps up to 60% when you have families pitching in to help their kids with their first home purchase.”
Considering everything I’ve heard so far about Millennials having high debt loads and a propensity to spend rather than save, I’m surprised that buying real estate in Vancouver is still on the table for young people.
FINANCIAL PLANNING AND TOOLS
Real estate (especially in Vancouver) is a considerably larger spend than a trip or an event ticket, but, with the right plan in place it can be a reality. Keyword: plan. Apparently, the ability to plan is something that many Millennials may not have. I find this especially puzzling. I know many Millennials, including myself, who can clearly plan, and plan well. I mean, I can plan my impromptu trip to Las Vegas. I can plan my outfits for Saturday night excursions Downtown. I can even plan to end up dating someone who will fill in my unused RRSP contributions for me (does that count as financial planning?) So why is it so tricky to plan a sound financial path to take us from now to retirement and beyond?
All three of the experts I spoke to made note of the same thing: there either aren’t enough financial educational resources out there, or Millennials aren’t being targeted effectively enough to learn about and utilize these resources. During our chat, Runzer mentioned that his later stage Millennial clients (aged 25-34) were referrals from members of their peer group. So, clearly, knowing someone who knows someone is still a viable solution to getting access to the resources you need to create a plan.
It still seems the path to financial literacy is shrouded in mystery for most. When I was in high school, I remember that we had a course called “Life Skills”. We learned to bake simple shortbread pizza crusts, and sew pencil shaped pillows. Never once have I attempted again to sew a pencil shaped pillow. Wouldn’t it be far more useful to teach high school students about student loans, sources of unsecured revolving debt (aka credit cards), how to build credit responsibly, and that financial advisors are not scary oracles who will judge you for your 3-a-day Starbucks habit and then foretell your financial doom?
While most of our high school educations were lacking in such teachings, today’s “there’s an app for that” ethos prevails in the world of financial planning as well. Apps like Mint, Level, and Bill Guard synch to your bank accounts to make spend tracking easy, yet secure. Though these apps won’t tell you the best way to invest (so that your money works for you), they will give you an easy to read and reliable visual of your purchasing habits, which, with concerted effort, can lead to changes in spending behaviour for the better. For help with making the right kind of investments, nothing beats the face to face power of a meeting with a financial planner or advisor. These are trained, experienced professionals whose job it is to help others reach their financial goals. Still looking for the digital version of the financial planner? Vancouver based Wealthbar is a pioneer in the space, bridging the online and offline needs of the Millennial consumer in financial planning and advisory services.
We Millennials are noted for our optimism and faith in a better tomorrow, but that better tomorrow is not going to create itself. Millennials will not remain in the 18-34 age range forever. Like every generation that came before us, we too will age, grow old, and eventually punch the clock for the last time. Our financial planning, savings and investment strategies today will paint the greater picture of the Canadian economy of the future.
Now, I’m no psychic, but I do know this: I’m going to be paying bridge club membership dues for at least 35 years, and I’m ready. Are you?
Special thanks to each of my interviewees: Katy Mackenzie of TMG (Mortgage Professional), Duane Runzer of Investors Group (Division Director), and Bronwyn Bertles of VANCITYLiving Remax (Realtor), all Vancouver based experts in mortgages, financial planning, and real estate, respectively.