FARGO - Alicia Kellebrew isn’t worried about keeping up appearances.
The 31-year-old financial professional with The Village Family Service Center in Bismarck tells friends when she can’t afford to dine out or go shopping, and her restraint pays off when her savings account grows.
“I have some friends who are OK with that and some who aren’t OK with that. We want to look good to people. We, as a society, have it in our minds that how successful you are is determined by what you have and what you look like,” said Kellebrew, who’s certified by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. “If you’re doing all that just to impress other people, you’re comparing yourself to other people, and you don’t know how much debt they went into to have that. I find myself doing that, too.”
Nearly three-quarters of 25 to 34-year-old women compare their own financial situation to that of friends, according to a recent survey by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and the Ad Council. More than half of women said it was important that they keep up with the clothing, accessories and gadgets their friends own and the restaurants and bars they frequent.
The ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ mindset might be why 40 percent of millennial women rely on money from parents and other family members to make ends meet. They’re also using credit cards to cover necessities like groceries and splurges like trips.
“I’ve seen it in my office - people have a boat, a camper and a vacation home, and they can’t afford their groceries,” Kellebrew said.
One reason some female millennials aren’t financially independent is the lack of discussion about money, Kellebrew said, adding that male millennials are also showing the same financial behavior.
She references a study in which parents responded that they’d rather talk to their kids about sex or drugs than money.
“People look at me strangely when I talk about money,” Kellebrew said. “Those are discussions that need to happen, and people need to remember that it’s not always what you tell your kids, it’s what you model for your kids.”
Chris Mason, an associate professor of finance at Concordia College’s Offutt School of Business in Moorhead, said parents can cause some of the adverse financial behavior if they’re constantly footing the bill for their children. He calls it a “failure to launch.”
“It’s easier as a parent - and I’m a parent of five - to do things for them as opposed to having them do things themselves. Teaching someone how to do something takes a lot more time,” he said.
He suggests teaching kids how to manage a weekly allowance, so later in life they understand how to save money and can determine what’s worth buying.
“It helps them understand that decision-making process before you launch them and makes kids comfortable with putting off desires,” said Mason, who’s also president and chief investment officer of Fontis Investments in Minneapolis.
Once children graduate college, he considers them “launched.” They can’t come back to live at home. Parents who don’t launch their children are doing them a disservice, Mason says.
“As a parent, it’s tough to see them struggle, but I learned more in those times of struggle than when times were really great,” he said.
Kellebrew regularly sees parents who don’t know how to stop providing for their children. She asks them if their child will starve or be homeless if they cut off funding.
“Nine times out of 10, it’s ‘no,’” she said. “Some parents have a really hard time with that. They want to take care of their kids so much that they don’t register the impact that it’s having on them financially.”
Besides parental influence, Mason said millennials often trade saving for instant enjoyment.
“Saving is much more important than making sure you have the Burberry topcoat. That concept of immediate gratification is prevalent in our society,” he said.
Edward Jones financial adviser Sarah Nikle agrees, saying millennials are highly influenced by their peers and the “here and now” rather than the future.
“We see something, and we go out and buy it. There isn’t much saving,” said the 27-year-old. “The biggest mistake people can make is delaying the inevitable. Not getting started on saving or investing or preparing themselves to purchase.”
The comfortableness of credit also feeds the desire to buy rather than save, Nikle said.
“If we’re digging that hole deeper and deeper, interest rates are going to get you further in. It’s almost impossible to get out of,” she says. “It’s a domino effect, and it really starts with putting anything on that credit card and not being able to pay it on a monthly basis.”
Other factors that experts point to for the lack of financial independence among millennials include student loan debt, a weak job market, having too many monthly payments (loans, a car, etc.), and wages that haven’t kept up with the cost of living.
Kellebrew hopes her peers will stop keeping up with each other and start keeping tabs on their spending.
“People have to remember that whenever they’re judging themselves against someone else, they don’t know the whole story,” she said. “We have to be honest with ourselves, and we have to be honest with everybody else about what we can reasonably do. We have to hang in there.”
How to budget and save
Ordering a $4 latte five days a week costs nearly a grand a year. Weekly pizza for a family of five tallies up to nearly $2,000 a year.
When Alicia Kellebrew points out the seemingly insignificant spending to clients, they’re often shocked.
“They’d never thought about it in those terms. There’s maybe a disconnect where they’re not quite aware of what they’re spending,” said the National Foundation for Credit Counseling certified financial professional with The Village Family Service Center in Bismarck. Kellebrew recommends creating a budget to curb unnecessary spending.
Some people might shy away from the b-word, but she said it’s best to get over it and learn how to live within your means.
“You can’t control certain costs, so that makes it all the more important to control what you can,” she said.
Kellebrew, along with Chris Mason, an associate professor of finance at Concordia College’s Offutt School of Business, and Edward Jones financial adviser Sarah Nikle offer up their best tips for making a budget and saving money.
When in doubt, make an appointment with a finance expert.
- First, calculate income and expenses. Then, prioritize expenses.
At the top of the list should be rent, health care, utilities and food, Kellebrew said.
After the expenses needed to live are listed, add debts like car loans, student loans and other monthly expenses.
- Now create a budget.
Decide how much income goes where. The Village Family Service Center’s guidelines state that housing shouldn’t be more than 25 percent to 35 percent of total income and utilities are 6 percent to 10 percent.
Refer to the pie chart for more information about how much money should go toward categories.
If you’re over in a certain area, Kellebrew says to trim a little from many categories rather than eliminating a category.
“If you spend $300 a month on eating out, you can’t just eliminate it. It could backlash and be worse,” she said. “You have to give yourself a little bit of something you enjoy or it won’t work. It has to be realistic.”
“People often think they need to be rich to start investing or to start saving, and that’s really not the case,” Nikle said.
To start saving, first create a goal list – what you want to accomplish financially in a month, a year and the next five years.
“Time is really on your side, and it can do fabulous things for you if you invest young,” she said.
Mason, who’s also president and chief investment officer of Fontis Investments in Minneapolis, urges people to contribute to a 401(k) (a retirement savings plan sponsored by an employer) if it is offered. Investment websites can also be helpful for finance neophytes.
“The most important dollar saved for retirement is when you’re 21. The second-most important dollar saved is when you’re 22. The least important is when you’re 64,” he said.
His point? Start young.
- … and don’t touch it.
The 5 to 10 percent of income set aside for saving shouldn’t be touched, usually.
“Savings isn’t savings to save until you want to spend it,” Mason said. “It’s a nest egg in case something happens. The key is to continue to save money.”
- If you get a raise, don’t raise your standard of living.
Mason’s father taught him to save his raises rather than crank up his standard of living.
- Choose debt wisely.
Don’t have debt for things that don’t increase in value, Mason said.
A home is probably the only thing that’s worth borrowing to purchase, he said.
“Look at long-term impact of spending. If you look at that and see that over the next year, I could save $400 by making my coffee in the morning … it’s balancing that as opposed to I’m going to buy, I need the hat, the coat or whatever, and throw it on the card,” he said.
- Try cash or checks to encourage saving.
“It hurts more to write a check than to swipe a debit card. That makes you stop and think about it,” The Village’s Kellebrew said.
- Choose an accountability partner.
Whether it’s mom, dad or a friend, Mason advocates that people should have an accountability partner.
The person acts as a sounding board when you’re making major purchases, he says. They can help keep people on track with their financial goals.