Yesterday I left my house for the first time in three days, hand sanitizer in my pocket and a bandana wrapped around my mouth and nose. I don’t own a mask. The bandana felt useless, but it’s what I can offer.
This is the new normal in our COVID 19 dominated world. When I got home from grocery shopping, I checked my credit card balance. $332.16. I paid it in full and then wondered “how many people can’t do this right now?” (Turns out, a lot.)
COVID 19 has turned our world upside down and laid bare the realities of money at every level of our society. Rich people have fled for the supposed safety of rural areas, while grocery store clerks and nurses have become ‘essential employees’, our levees against further panic and loss.
I’m 32. A Millennial. A small business owner. This is my second financial crisis in as many decades.
Financial Crisis is My Generation’s Normal
The words ‘Millennial financial crisis’ go together like peanut butter and jelly. Financial crisis are my expectation. It is a part of the weight of being a Millennial. The world is in disarray and our generational expectation is that it will continue to be this way, not get better.
My money and I will bop from one crisis to the next, always trying to stay one step ahead. And after Covid will come climate related financial crises; food production issues, drought driven waves of immigration.
Facing COVID, I feel calm. I feel heavy. I feel everything and nothing, because that’s how I can continue to move forward. This is what being a Millennial feels like; we are screwed but we may as well keep moving forward. We know what happens if we stop trying, but what might happen if I continue to push ahead?
The Financial Facts At Hand
I don’t think I’ve ever operated as an adult without the fear and the expectation of financial crisis. Because while the Great Recession and now the Great Lockdown have been the defining pillars of financial crisis in my life, the ongoing rising cost of living and the student loan debt crisis have been daily constants.
When I was paying off my debt and my income was under $20,000 a year, I was bike accident away from financial disaster.
When I started my business with $3,300, I was one rent increase away from shuttering the company.
I started investing at 27. I’ve never earned six figures. Between the two of us, my partner and I have paid off $90,000 in student loans. I now outearn my partner, who is currently back in grad school for a degree he must have to move up in his industry, where his pay will max out at $70,000.
It feels like the game was rigged from the beginning, and I say that knowing we’re far from the exception. In fact, we’re probably some of the luckier Millennials out there.
Millennials (who, as a reminder, are 24-38 years old, and not 18) have an average net worth of $8,000. Our average annual salary clocks in at $35,592, a cool 20% lower than our parents made at our age.
Why so low? Because the Great Recession ushered in the glory age of gig work, meaning many Millennials work low paid one off jobs, or hourly gigs, that don’t come with benefits like retirement accounts. The chance to earn more are undercut by needing money immediately, to pay for the rising cost of living and our student loans.
When I was earning $20,000 a year, the most important question I had to ask was ‘how do I earn money today, because X bill is due this week?‘ There was little brain space or time to strategize around moving into a different field that paid more, let alone the time to apply, interview and if I actually landed the job, make the move.
The game is rigged. The rules keep changing. And everyone older and richer than me and my fellow Millennials keeps telling me it’s my fault that I am not doing better.
From Financial Crisis Comes Financial Resilience
This state of affairs has lead me to develop a ‘hope for the best, prepare for the worst’ financial attitude.
With the expectation that there will be an ongoing Millennial financial crisis, in some form or another, has me in a ‘fuck it, let’s go big’ mindset all the time.
In February 2020, after three years of saving, I hit a years worth of living expenses in my emergency fund. When people told me that was too much, I would reflect on the years that I had less than $500 in my checking account and feel a wave of financial anxiety.
Each year for the past four years, I have maxed out my IRA by April. Investing has been a huge priority- if it’s where the wealthy people are keeping their money, it’s where I wanted mine. If the market was experiencing record breaking highs in the longest running bull market the US has ever seen, I wanted a piece of that action.
I travel extensively each year, subscribing to a belief I call ‘financially secure YOLO.’ Travel always comes AFTER I max my IRA, but I’m not willing to suspend it for years so I can save a bit more. The planet is on fire- I want to see some of it while I still can.
I live with my boyfriend and a roommate, and for the last three years, have paid less than $600 a month in rent to live in central Austin, one of the fastest growing cities in the country. Keeping living costs low has required a lot of effort, and what seems like endless negotiation. I moved 5 times in 6 years chasing low rent.
The world might be on fire (sometimes literally) but the way I see it, I can either add to the fire or attempt to put out the fire that surrounds me.
I can’t buy a house- but I can throw money into my stock market investments.
I can’t rewrite the tax code to make it more equitable- but I can vote for people who want to do that.
I don’t have a pension- but I can open a solo 401k through my business.
My life has been shaped by a series of money disasters. Millennial financial crisis should be the ongoing tag line of my generation. But being shaped by and being defeated by something are two entirely different things. And I figure, why not go down fighting?