Cash Flow Planning: Debt and Generation X

Money doesn't grow on trees | Curtis Financial Planning

Money, unlike apples,
doesn’t grow on trees. Remember hearing that growing up? It’s true.

A recent article in Barrons, “Boomer Consumer” got me thinking; first, about my own clients and their particular situations, and second, about a key point that rang true: “The recession has left the typical 18-to-49 year old far less flush than the average 50 plus consumer.”

My youngest client is 29 years old, the oldest is 70, with the average age 48 years old.

Cash Flow, Budgeting, Retirement
The primary reason my 20 and 30 year old clients hire me is to help them with debt management, cash flow and budgeting. While my boomer clients definitely have felt the pain of dropping portfolio and home values, most invested before the bubble years and hold less overpriced assets.  My boomer clients are concerned about retirement, but the younger generation is challenged with making ends meet every month and is disproportionately saddled with debt.

Gen X and Student Loans
So are my Gen X clients spoiled spendthrifts knowing that they can fall back on Mom and Dad if things get really tough?  Not from what I see. I see student loan debt (so called “good” debt) that won’t be paid off for 20-30 years, incomes that aren’t keeping up with inflation, jobs that are harder to find and keep, and credit card debt not due to excessive living, but to just living. The easy credit years certainly didn’t help this situation. Young people and students with no credit history were able to use credit indiscriminately, and they did.

To take just one piece of this story, let’s consider student loan debt. This is a huge problem and it has unfortunate echoes to another, familiar financial narrative taking place currently. In a special report in Business Week titled “Student Loans: A Bitter Financial Lesson”, journalist Emily Schmitt writes, “Mountains of student loan debt have an unsettling parallel to another one-time boom market: real estate.  Like those who took out big a mortgage to fund their “can’t miss” investments in pricey McMansions – only to find those homes suddenly dropping in value – those of us who took out student loans to pay for pricey degrees, now find our prospects of securing well-paying jobs with comfortable lifestyles, shrinking every day.”

It may seem like a good bet to go into debt to get a good education, but if the decent job with decent pay is not forthcoming, and the price of admission is tens of thousands of dollars in long term debt, then perhaps the initial proposition is flawed. The recession makes these kinds of decisions truly difficult.

Is Generation X Solvent Enough to be Marketed To?
The Barron’s article that inspired this blog post  is not directly about debt, it’s actually about advertising. (Of course, debt and advertising are very close cousins.) The piece – Boomer Consumer – points out that the advertising industry might be making a big mistake by continuing to focus on the youth market instead of the boomer market.  I have to agree, because until the younger generation is less saddled with debt, and able to repair their collective balance sheets, they’re not exactly an ideal target audience for advertisers. The good news here is that some of these Gen X’ers know they need help or they wouldn’t be hiring a financial planner.

So what’s my financial advice to a Gen X’er trying to make good financial decisions?

1.  The number one goal has to be to pay off your debt.

Start with the highest interest debt first – usually credit cards.
Deferring student loan payments seems like a good idea – but interest is not
deferred on private loans. Start paying these loans as soon as possible, even with
minimum payments.

If you have large amounts of student loan and credit card debt and are also
making a 401k or 403B contribution, consider temporarily discontinuing the
retirement contribution  – on the amount that is not being matched only. Always
contribute up to your employer match…it’s like free money.

2.  Consider your living arrangement.
Can you take on a roommate?
Can you live in a less expensive part of town?
Can you move to a city with a lower cost of living?

3. Watch your cash flow and work within a budget.

4. There are programs that can help grads pay student loans. Do some research, not everyone is eligible:
Sponsorchange.org
Americorps
StudentLoanJustice.org

Also read:

Is a College Education Worth The Debt at NPR.org

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