Between student loans, mortgages, and credit cards it’s hard to find people these days that aren’t struggling with debt. Everyone has their own unique story, yet they all seem to have a common thread—it’s difficult to talk about. It is an embarrassing, taboo topic that nobody wants to bring to the table, yet it affects 65% of millennials so significantly to the where they don’t know if or when they’ll ever be able to pay it off.
So, if this is the norm, why is it so difficult to discuss?
Debt is one of those few things that’s easier done than said. And Brooklyn resident, Ryan, knows that especially well. As a college graduate he did all the right things…but at 30 years old finds himself $20,000 in debt. Even with a well-paying job as a salesperson for farmers markets on the East Coast, Ryan still forks out a big chunk of his earnings on debt. About $800 a month from his paycheck is divided between credit cards, car loans, and student debt.
It’s not surprising that large amounts of debt can cause high levels of anxiety and stress. A recent Gallup poll conducted showed that when debt reaches about $25,000, a sense of “existential dread” starts to creep into people’s lives. Something Ryan felt was indicative of his situation. “At first, I saw debt as something that caused me lots of anxiety, and eventually I began to seek therapy.”
Although Ryan pays for his therapy out of pocket, he finds that it has helped him deal with many stressors in his life, including that of debt. He says, “It doesn’t bother me anymore. I feel like acknowledging it and tackling it head-on makes it feel beatable. Like it’s an achievable goal with an endpoint.”
Attending college is one of the most important things someone can do to further their potential in terms of employability and future career prospects. But as the costs of getting a higher education continue to rise, the payoff naturally becomes less and less for the cost of the investment.
However, that doesn’t mean attending college is a bad idea. In fact, studies continue to show that as long as a student does graduate college, they are financially better off in the long run. “Yes there’s debt involved,” says Ryan “but I still think of it as an investment in the future.”
Anna, a 26-year-old event coordinator living in Brooklyn feels the same way. “Going to school was always important, but I was lucky enough to get a scholarship, so I didn’t end up in a lot of debt,” Anna says that she’s seen many people’s lives impacted due to student loans. “I know friends who are in so much debt they don’t think they’ll ever buy a home or afford a car. One has put off marrying his girlfriend and some have even considered the idea of leaving the country.”
Although leaving the country altogether is a very dramatic step, research shows that financial stress continues to affect people for many years, even after the debt has already been paid off. This is something Anna understands very well. Growing up with parents who were in a lot of debt, Anna felt early on the stifling effects of recurring monthly payments and their impact on her family life.
Then there’s Literacy…
What kind of lessons did your parents teach you about money? For Anna, it came from a direct and lived experience with financial insecurity. “My parents were in a lot of debt when they were young, and so they just instilled in me that getting into debt is probably the worst thing that can happen.I get anxiety just thinking about it.”
As for the rest of us, that lesson may have to be learned first-hand. Financial education is hard to come by and is not often taught in schools. When asked if his high school and college education helped prepare him to handle money in the real world, Ryan responded, “Not remotely. It was never really touched on by anyone—- always treated as a sensitive subject to be avoided.”
Anna’s perception of how the topic of debt is handled by the educational system is even more bleak. “Honestly, I think school made it seem like debt wasn’t important,” she said, “like it’s just something out there in the future that you shouldn’t worry about until later.” That is until you find out “later” is just a few short years down the road.
So why don’t parents prepare their college-aged children for the levels of debt they are about to incur? Often parents are unaware of the long-term repercussions of having lots of student loans. Additionally, most parents want what’s best for their kids, even if it is very expensive.
“Although I don’t regret going to college at all,” Ryan says, “the one thing I would do differently is that I’d go to a less expensive college. I think I would have essentially had the same opportunities, but with a lot less debt.” When asked what his parents could have done differently to prepare him financially after school, he responded, “The biggest lesson regarding money would be for them to tell us that the more financial literacy you have, the less emotional stress you’ll have in your life.”
So What’s Next?
Getting your financial life together is not easy, but it’s possible. Millennials, despite their high levels of debt, have still been named the most financially responsible generation. Quite an accomplishment when you consider that the average student loan payment is about $350 a month, while the starting wage after college is just above $35,000 a year.
However, despite the loans, many millennials are finding ways to achieve the goals that they set in mind—goals like home ownership and having families. Although most millennials said that prior debt did affect their choices to purchase a home, many people have managed to find ways to make their dreams a reality. Not only are millennials hitting the milestones other generations managed to hit, they’re currently the largest home buying demographic in the country.
So how are they doing it? The widespread use of the internet and technology has democratized the spread of knowledge and information about finances. People can much more easily find resources to help them figure out their student loans and apps to help them budget efficiently. There are startups (like Morty) that are focused on helping people find new ways to purchase a home or manage their credit cards. They can get together in online communities to share tips, ideas and generally vent. And by talking about debt, it makes it less scary, more manageable and slowly starts to chip away at its taboo status.