Finding a T-Shirt That Fits
LFG Marketing | October 2019
There’s a T-shirt theme that begins “I Can’t…” followed by an explanation.
I can’t… I have dance.
I can’t… I have a tee time.
I can’t… I’m in law school.
I can’t… I have to walk my unicorn.
If an entrepreneur wanted to sell “I Can’t…” t-shirts to Millennials, these would be best sellers:
I can’t… I have student loans.
I can’t… I have credit card debt.
I can’t… I have to save for retirement.
These statements capture the essence of a generation’s angst regarding their financial lives.
Many Millennials are facing decades of debt service, coupled with frantic warnings that they must also start saving right now or they will never be able to retire. The financial drain of these two imperatives leaves them saying, “I can’t…” – or “We can’t…” – to things that once were assumed to be markers of progress into financial and social maturity.
“I can’t (save for a down payment)… I have student loans.”
Accumulating a down payment for a first home has long been a financial rite of passage, a first step to becoming a financial grown-up. Today, it’s a step fewer young households can manage.
A July 2019 Wall Street Journal article, “Financial Crisis Yields Renters,” relates the plight of 29-year-old Alex Ruiz and his wife Stephanie: “(They) have steady jobs, are setting aside money for retirement and are slowly paying down their student debt. Yet buying a house seems out of reach for at least another decade.”
“Day to day we’re OK generally,” says Mr. Ruiz, a case manager at a government agency. “But the depressing part is when we take a hard look at the possibility of our future.”
The numbers support his bleak assessment.
- Census data indicates that about 15 percent of adults in their 20s and 30s are living with their parents.
- Among adults ages 25 to 34, homeownership has declined by 20% since 2001.
- The median age of a home buyer is 46, the oldest since the National Association of Realtors began keeping records in 1981.
Living with parents or continuing to rent can be a financial dead-end. If the only housing you can afford is your parent’s basement, it geographically limits your career options. And rent increases reduce what can be saved.
“We can’t (have children) …we have to save for retirement.”
Anecdotally, many young adults say their inability to buy a home has also made them rethink having children, another transitional milestone.
Everyone knows children are expensive. And everyone also knows that the value and reward of having children and raising a family cannot be measured exclusively in financial terms. But having a family presents all sorts of economic trade-offs, and opinions about how to allocate limited resources.
In the past, a discussion about financial priorities within a family was often whether it was better to save for retirement or for a child’s education. Today, the issue is more stark: to save for retirement or have children.
While acknowledging it’s an apples-and-oranges scenario, some sectors of the personal finance community clearly favor saving for retirement. And these recommendations are not tongue-in-cheek. Consider these examples:
“The secret to retiring early? Make lots of money and don’t have kids.” – Steve Adcock, thinksaveretire.com, May 13, 2019
“If the first commandment of retirement planning is ‘start early,’ then ‘have as few dependents as possible’ is 1a.”
– Greg McFarlane, March 20, 2019, Investopedia
These writers are not anti-children; they just believe the cost is too steep; you can have children, or you can have a comfortable retirement, but you can’t afford both.
Adcock, a semi-retired blogger in his mid-30s who provides personal finance commentary for several national media outlets is unapologetic about his perspective:
“Those of us who earn high incomes and didn’t have kids can have a significantly higher savings rate than those who have neither, and it’ll be a hell of a lot easier for us to retire early. There are no two ways about it. If we had kids, we’d be working. We didn’t choose kids, and therefore, we’re retired and living our dream life.”
McFarlane, a former mathematician, now author and founder of a personal finance website, is equally pragmatic:
“For every dollar spent on children's education, retirement planning is hurt proportionately. When a couple opts not to multiply, that couple has increased its capacity to expand its retirement fund. One fewer partner at home with the kids means one more partner in the workforce. (T)he road to retirement becomes considerably wider and smoother.”
There’s an ironic twist to this “I can’t have children…I need to save for retirement” mindset: It’s only viable if other people continue to have kids. Taken to its logical conclusion, not having children means the end of the human race. Of course, that’s extreme; some people will always have children; it’s just the “smart” Millennials who won’t, who instead opt for a secure retirement.
But considering that many developed countries already have below-replacement birth rates, endorsing the “I can’t have children…” approach arguably makes retirement more expensive and harder to achieve. A century of increasing lifespans and declining birth rates has resulted in a population that has fewer young people to care for their elders. More retirees competing for the services of fewer caregivers is a classic example of scarcity driving up the cost.
It’s also worth noting that the “good old days” of American retirement (say, the 1960s through 1980s), where many workers had a comfortable and secure retirement funded by Social Security, employer pensions and a modest amount of personal savings, were possible in large part because of growing populations. The high ratio of workers-to-retirees kept Social Security in the black, and a major factor in the growth of the economy was an increasing population – i.e., more workers, more consumers – that made businesses profitable and pensions sustainable.
There’s something better than “I can’t…”
According to the ads and brochures, the financial services industry exists to help individuals maximize their economic potential and achieve a uniquely personal state of financial bliss. But between debts that may take decades to pay off and the exhortation that every available dollar must be allocated to retirement, it’s no wonder that the only bliss many young adults can afford is a specialty coffee and avocado toast – and then they will be criticized for their indulgence. This is a very pessimistic approach. It’s very “I Can’t…”
This over-emphasis of retirement as the primary objective of personal finance, particularly for younger generations, is discouraging and demotivating. The value of money only becomes apparent when it is spent to provide sustenance or pleasure for yourself, those you love, and causes you care about. When the primary message from personal finance “experts” is to put all of your saving/future spending in a place where you aren’t supposed to enjoy it until 60 or 70 (or later), it neglects to plan for all the moments of financial bliss that could occur before retirement.
Will having children or buying a house decrease your retirement plan contributions? Maybe. But it’s also possible that the satisfaction of having those things in your life will make you happier and more productive – before retirement.
It’s a cliché to say that life isn’t a destination to be reached, but a journey to be enjoyed. It’s also true.
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