Here’s something that will make you feel old: 10 years have passed since the worst US financial crisis since the Great Depression.
As millennials, we came of age during that unsettling time. We are also the generation with the unenviable record of having the most student loan debt upon graduation. No wonder we regard financial advice from older generations with equal parts skepticism, frustration, and fear.
On the flip side, we have more opportunities to take control of our financial path than the generations before us. We have a better educational foundation, a wider set of potential investments (and more control over them than our pension-beholden grandparents), cheaper financial services, and easier access to credit. And we can do it all right from our phones before we roll out of bed in the morning. Yet our net worth, one of the most commonly cited metrics of financial success, can appear dismally low.
What should we make of this contradiction? Is net worth really a useful metric at this point, and how scared should we be if ours is negative? Most importantly, what should the generation of one-click decisions be doing next?
Let’s tip over the heaviest idol first: Net worth at our age is a false prophet. Before age 35, it’s less determined by us than by our families and the circumstances of our upbringing. The single best predictor of whether we pursue advanced education or live in a good neighborhood is whether our parents did the same.
This is true even at the extremes; in fact, women are better savers than men, and 100 percent of today’s female billionaires under 40 inherited their fortunes. Yes, many of us are frugal, have ascendant careers, or save religiously, but even these admirable millennials have yet to reap the lion’s share of what we’ve sowed. There will be swarms of self-made wealthy millennials. We’re just not there yet.
If not by the number of digits in our net worth, how then should we judge our financial progress? Here are six money milestones you should hit by age 35.
1. You have an emergency fund. By 35, you have a secure emergency fund set in place to protect yourself against the unknown — because let’s be honest, anything can happen at any time, and it’s better to be prepared in the long run.
2. You save regularly. You are financially disciplined to sock away as much as 20 percent of your paycheck toward your short- and long-term financial goals. Instead of making saving an afterthought, you have internalized the habit of saving money first, either to pay down your student loan debt or grow your investable assets. Then, you spend only what you have left.
3. You’ve planned for the future. You have spoken with your parents about their financial future, finding out the plans (if any) they have in place and underscoring whether you personally expect to pay for a piece of their retirement.
4. You have a healthy relationship with credit. You review your report every year, pay off cards in full each month, and use rewards to boost your savings when appropriate, remembering that creditors want to make money off you, not provide you with benefits.
5. You are over the Joneses — seriously. You have quelled jealousy and realize your personal spending decisions shouldn’t be correlated with the spending decisions of your peers. Plus, you can focus more on which material objects and experiences you actually value versus what you think you need.
6. You are comfortable with your finances. You are grateful for your financial opportunities and work to give back to others. You can support your aging parents or a charity either by donating your dollars (possibly getting a tax deduction) or your time — it’s a win-win situation for everyone involved. By age 35, you should be set up for your financial success and excited about whatever the future brings.
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(Photo via Getty)