By and large, the U.S. economy is humming. America has added jobs for the last 100 consecutive months, and the unemployment rate has reached its lowest point since the 1960s. Median wages, meanwhile, have risen steadily since the Great Recession.
However, many Americans are still struggling to stay afloat. This is especially true for millennials, who face a variety of unique obstacles to wealth accumulation. One is student loan debt: Americans owe more than $1.5 trillion in such debt, spread out among over 45 million borrowers. The average student loan balance is $34,000—quite the hole to dig yourself out of.
Another is the rising cost of rent: Between the ages of 22 and 30, the median total amount millennials spend on rent hovers around $93,000—nearly $22,000 more (in inflation-adjusted numbers) than Baby Boomers spent when they were in that age range. On average, millennials set aside 45 percent of their monthly income for rent payments during that first decade of employment, leading to lower rates of saving and home ownership.
That all being said, there are plenty of ways for cash-strapped millennials to accumulate wealth. Here are just three of them:
Find a job—any job
As President Reagan famously put it, “The best social program is a job.” It is impossible to save money if you don’t have one.
Unfortunately, 43 percent of recent graduates are underemployed in their first job out of college. Of those, two-thirds are still underemployed after five years, and over half remain so after a decade. And, of course, underemployment is correlated with suboptimal pay. More than 40 percent of older millennials claim to have lost sleep over money issues, while 39 percent of younger millennials say the same.
In terms of financial health, there is nothing more important for a millennial than to find a good-paying job—and use it as a springboard for upward mobility. Ideally, that job allows you to apply your college education. It may even leave you fulfilled. But, if it doesn’t, simply having a job—any job—teaches you both hard and soft skills, while making you more employable in the long run.
Once you get a foot in the door, ask yourself two questions: How can I make the most of this position while I’m here? Then, how can I leverage this position into an even better one?
Don’t look at a job in a vacuum. Look at it as a stepping stone.
Re-think your “necessities”
When your income stream is secured, then it’s time to save and invest. Saving is as much about cutting spending as it is boosting income. But it can only be done effectively with the proper dose of fiscal responsibility.
That discipline is too often lost among millennials, who are more likely to splurge on high-end products and experiences than older generations. Whereas Baby Boomers considered one or two beers “a night out,” millennials may opt for upscale clubs and pricey cocktails.
Ask yourself: Do you really need to buy a $15 Moscow Mule? Do you really need that $5 pumpkin spice latte—every single morning? Do you really need an Uber, when your destination is a 10-minute walk away?
Probably not. Saving comes easier when we reserve luxuries for special occasions and stick to the bare necessities
Think of it this way: Spending $5 on a pumpkin spice latte every day, five days a week, comes out to roughly $100 a month. If you just make coffee at home or cut out caffeine altogether (yes, it’s possible), then you’re talking hundreds of dollars in savings over the course of a year.
That money can be transferred to student loan payments or used to invest in equities and ETFs. It adds up!
Invest, invest, invest
Speaking of investment, it is the key to long-term wealth accumulation. A $1,000 investment in Apple 10 years ago, for example, would be worth more than $7,000 today. A $1,000 investment in Amazon would be worth over $19,000. Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) make it easier than ever to invest passively and diversify assets across industries, while still yielding sizable returns.
Yet less than half of millennials are putting their money into the stock market. Indeed, much of America’s income gap can be traced to varying rates of investment: Barely one-third of families in the bottom 50 percent own stocks, while more than 94 percent of the top income group does.
Granted, it’s easier to invest when you have the proper resources. But you don’t need to be a billionaire hedge fund manager to see your money grow. Over the last century, the stock market’s average return has been just about 10 percent annually. That 10 percent return can be yours if you put your mind into it and budget accordingly.
Remember the pumpkin spice latte? That extra $100 a month is $1,200 a year. Over a decade, a 10 percent return on $1,200 doubles your wealth (e.g. $2,400). After 30 years, you’re left with just under $5,000—on a single $1,200 investment. Now, apply that logic on a broader scale.
Fiscal responsibility one day means financial health the next.
Catalyst articles by Luka Ladan