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Money & Millennials

It seems that Millennials are too often criticized before we can even be understood. The breadth of this criticism is most likely the result of the popularity of social media in addition to many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers having prominent roles in traditional media. Nevertheless, technology influences the volume of disdain where previous generations probably didn’t feel the ‘tsk’ on such a massive level. In all fairness, I can understand why Millennials can seem like such a mystery to previous generations. While many of us witnessed the transformation of technology, Gen Xers and beyond know of a time where it wasn’t an absolute necessity for getting things accomplished. I definitely remember using an encyclopedia and looking through card catalogs to write a book report in my Elementary School days, but I never had to write a dissertation using them.

Having such an instant connection to the world affects the mindset of us 19-37 year olds on a deep level. We try to balance out our perception of what the world will be like as these technologies evolve into the future while relying on our Baby Boomer parents and Silent Generation grandparents to guide us. It’s a complicated tightrope to walk, especially when it comes to advice around financial security.

I remember asking my Grandma about how she gained financial security. In short, she basically applied for a job at the hospital as a dietician in the kitchen, got hired with six week’s paid training, saw an application to become a nurses’ aid despite having no experience and no education, got accepted and trained making $7,000 a year (an apartment only costed you $45 a month at the time, affording plenty of disposable income), applied for higher positions throughout her lifetime, had several successes until she became a full blown respiratory nurse – all training included – making a comfortable living and being able to retire happily at the age of 56.

Is it morally incorrect of me to be jealous of my Grandmother? It would be wonderful to live in a time where bread was two cents, inflation low, job security guaranteed, education and experience optional, and no outstanding debts to repay. Absolutely fantastic. I mean, the segregation piece would suck. But I digress.

Many Millennials concern themselves over finances, so when I was assigned an article around money, I thought of it as a good opportunity to ask for advice. I interviewed three people from three distinct generations. I found it interesting to hear the different nuances and assumptions in their responses and learned something new from each of them. I hope this helps any other Millennial out there looking for some advice free from condescension.

Interview with a Silent Generational

Ellen Smith, born 1933

Q1: What’s your relationship with money? How do you see it?

I see it as access for independence. It means that I don’t have to ask anybody for anything. If I had the money, I’d help people and I wouldn’t need to go to anyone for help. Money is a way that I don’t have to borrow anything or ask anything from others. I know it would make me happy!

Q2: How do you prioritize your spending?

I try to get the things that I need for the most part, but sometimes I splurge. If I had more money, I wouldn’t have to worry about it. I could get all the things I need AND all the things I want. My priority is my bills first. My needs and responsibilities. After that, I can splurge.

Q3: If you had a $30,000 defaulted student loan and an income of $10,000 annually with no health insurance, no house and no car, how would you handle that financial situation?

That’s not very much money. I’d get another job. I would have two jobs and I’d try to get something…well the loan, I’d try to talk with them into letting me pay less than recommended, like $20 a month if it’s possible because you can’t file bankruptcy on the loan. That’s a pretty sticky situation. I think I’d try and get another job to help me.

Q4: Living within the parameters listed in the previous question, what do you think your relationship would be with money? What would money mean to you?

Money would mean everything to me because I would be striving for every penny I could get to take care of all of my responsibilities. It would rule me. I would say file bankruptcy and start all over but you can’t do that with a student loan so there’s no way out of that.

Q5: Do you think there is a better system out there in which we can exchange value? If so, how do you think we could transition to that?

If I were younger, I’d try and find some program or something that would help me in the long run to take care of my insurance and stuff. I don’t know anything else than the system. I really don’t know anything that I own that would be valuable to exchange in a barter system. I would try and find something that provides as much insurance as possible that would help me in the long run.

The system I grew up with worked for me. I feel heartbroken that the same opportunities aren’t there for younger generations. It’s tough.

Interview with a Baby Boomer

Antonia Cole, born 1955

Q1: What’s your relationship with money? How do you see it?

Well I know what my relationship should be. Money is actually a servant used wisely to make my walk of life as joyful as ever, but sometimes I let it become the master. And when it becomes the master, it is not used wisely. If I go out five times a week instead of buying groceries, I become a servant. That’s my honest opinion about it.

Q2: How do you prioritize your spending?

I always make sure I have a shelter over my head. Shelter is always first. Shelter, electricity, heat…food is never the priority so I always put comfort and security first. I can eat a dry cracker as long as I have a roof over my head.

Q3: If you had a $30,000 defaulted student loan and an income of $10,000 annually with no health insurance, no house and no car, how would you handle that financial situation?

That’s a very good question. I would definitely prioritize having room and board. A car isn’t a priority because I can take the bus if I have to. Health insurance is next because the thing about health is that it can take away everything else from you if something happens. It will take away your ability to repay your loan. The student loan is the third thing for me. So I would pay…well, it doesn’t have to be what’s recommended. I would pay what I can afford because every little drop will fall into place eventually. Finally, the car. The car is my last priority and is a luxury, at least when you live in the city. If you’re in a rural area, then it becomes a necessity of course, probably before the student loan. So I need shelter, I need health, and that’s the way I would handle it.

If you have room and board given to you, your priorities will shift. You’ll focus your attention on the other areas of your life. You must organize your life according to your needs and necessity. Remember that building wealth is a slow burn. It won’t happen overnight, so don’t beat yourself up if you need help from others while you build yourself up. Do what you need to do to get to next level. 

Q4: Living within the parameters listed in the previous question, what do you think your relationship would be with money? What would money mean to you?

Money would serve the purpose it was supposed to serve. It’s there to provide necessities first, and luxuries last. That’s the idea of money. Money is made to work for you. Now I don’t always follow this, but you need to make money work for you always. If you notice, that’s how rich people live. If it’s a servant, you gain from it. When you invest it and plan around it, you build more wealth from it.

My house and bills are paid for first, so I know how much money I can have fun with.

Q5: Do you think there is a better system out there in which we can exchange value? If so, how do you think we could transition to that?

I think the barter system is a good system. In conjunction with money, I’d like to see a barter system happen. For example, I could work on your computer and you could cook me dinner in return. Maybe save money for more crucial things. I should be allowed to have an internet system where we have I.O.U.s. And we have a barter bank and you go to the barter bank and get a plumber, and then the plumber would choose what he wants from you in return for his service based on what I.O.U.s you’ve collected in the bank.

Let me explain a bit more if that’s not clear. Let’s say you do my taxes and my payback to you is to cater a party for you, so cooking for 200 people. You put that IOU into a bank. You’re not having a party right now, so that’s why we file it in the bank. But you needed a plumber and he fixes your pipe and says, “Oh I see you have an IOU for catering a party.” You do taxes, so you offer to pay him in tax service. However, since you have that catering IOU, he could say “Well my daughter is getting married. I’d rather have the catering service because I don’t need my taxes done.” So you could pass on the IOU to him.

Then you save up money for bigger items like a house, because there’s no way you can have $200,000 worth of service. Money could buy health insurance for surgery, urgent things like buying a car if it’s a necessity, being able to pay for something your child needs like college, etc. Money would be for better things than simple, everyday needs.

One thing about the barter system: if a person said they would pay you back by cleaning your house, and when the time came they would suddenly give you all kinds of excuses like “Oh I’m tired, I’m busy this week,” etc. That’s why there’s a bartering bank. You could then get payment in money from that person if they don’t honor the barter system because the ticket is there, certifying that transaction.

Interview with a Gen X-er

Antonia Dodge, born 1977

Q1: What’s your relationship with money? How do you see it?

Money is a tool. It’s how we get our Maslow ‘basement’ needs met in the modern world. It’s easy to demonize it as it is to worship it, and I’ve chosen to do neither. Instead, I recognize it as the middle man of value exchange. We’ve abandoned bartering as a sluggish system to something more streamlined, which makes complete sense to me.

My philosophy on money (if it could be called such) is to show up to the world providing value and allow some of that to be returned. If I can help people transform their lives for the better and they invest some of that back to me then I’ll be fine. A mentor of mine recommended the formula “Give people $1000 of value and ask for $100 of it back.” It’s difficult to metricize the value people get out of things like personal development, but I try to keep that formula in mind. Can I give people the equivalent of 10x the value in their lives as I ask back from them? Then I’m on the right track.

Q2: How do you prioritize your spending?

Obviously survival stuff comes first: food, shelter, basic clothing, etc. Once the basics are covered I focus on these things in order:

Joel has a theory about “homesteaders vs life-stylers” when it comes to prioritizing money. Homesteaders invest in establishing roots and nesting whereas life-stylers prefer to spend their money on experiences in life. I’m definitely a life-styler. I prioritize travel and things I’ve never done before. For example, I’d much rather spend money on an hour in a sensory deprivation tank than buy something for my home.

After experiences I prioritize higher quality of the survival stuff – nutrient dense foods, sturdier clothing, etc. Nobody in the house enjoys clothes shopping so we end up wearing stuff that is ‘good enough’ and lasts to prevent having to think about it. I’m starting to want a better place to live in, but it’s only starting to become a priority (I assume it’s because I’m getting old).

After higher quality survival stuff I prioritize tools to streamline my life. For example, a vacuum/steam cleaner for the floors in my house was pretty much a no-brainer, as was a cordless drill. I hate working with inferior tools. But I’ll still go on a weekend trip to a place I’ve never been before instead of getting that steam cleaner.

So, in order:

1. Survival supplies
2. Experiences
3. Higher quality survival stuff
4. Tools to streamline life
5. All the other stuff

Q3: If you had a $30,000 defaulted student loan and an income of $10,000 annually with no health insurance, no house and no car, how would you handle that financial situation?

I’d focus completely on money generation. Ignore the loan (what the hell else are you supposed to do?) and focus on the survival of the situation. Good credit makes life a lot easier, but it’s also not an absolute necessity. Focus on money generation through value production. I’d also consider reframing my relationship to money. In those kinds of situations the default is to become resentful, and understandably – it can feel like drowning. But money isn’t the villain. To turn it into the enemy only conflates the situation. If I were struggling with this, I’d learn to see money in a positive way and move toward it. We’ve become like a fish in water, with money being the water. It’s the ocean, the boat and the paddle. The only way to stop drowning in it is to make more.

Q4: Living within the parameters listed in the previous question, what do you think your relationship would be with money? What would money mean to you?

I guess I already answered since I see our relationship with money as a major piece. As I mentioned above, it would be very easy to turn money into the enemy. I see this happening a lot the more post-modern we become. We’re savvy enough to know that money is hollow but we haven’t become sophisticated enough to graduate to whatever is coming next. It’s the old problem of awareness not being enough. In fact, our seeming awareness around money can hamstring us. We generate antagonism without truly understanding it and pat ourselves on the back with the bastardized virtue ‘money is evil’. We’re problem focused, not solution focused. That may make us feel better but it’s pretty useless.

Money is the tool being used for the moment, period. To think we’re somehow better people because we have an attitude against it is false integrity. Use the tool while coming up with a better one. Transition elegantly. Only haze something to the ground if you legitimately can’t think of anything better. I think we’re smart enough to think of something better.

Q5: Do you think there is a better system out there in which we can exchange value? If so, how do you think we could transition to that?

My one hesitance with money is that I fear most people (myself included) have the barest grasp on how it accurately works. We just know we hand over little green (if you’re American) pieces of paper and we get goods and services in return. Robert Anton Wilson called them ‘green biosurvival tickets’. At one point they were certificates which could be presented to banks in return for gold and silver, but we stopped backing our money a long time ago. Since it’s not backed by anything of value, the abstraction of money has to manufacture a concept of it which is why we’re a debt society. If we can convince people they owe something they will continue to work for debt and stop questioning its legitimacy.

That makes money, itself, the ultimate bubble. Which is unsustainable, and should be strongly reevaluated. Hazing the system to the ground isn’t the answer (in my mind) since doing so would literally cost the lives of many people. The awareness I mentioned before can create a tipping point of dissatisfaction with the current monetary system if we recognize the wealthy aren’t the enemy, simply people doing the human thing of protecting their interests and the result of their hard work. The best way to enter a space where money isn’t the main thing that separates us all is to become more sophisticated as people in general and recognize that no one is truly prosperous unless everyone is in abundance. In my opinion, the best system for this is Spiral Dynamics, a.k.a. The Graves model. Get the ‘greedy’ 5’s up to 6, and the 6’s to 7, etc. Some brilliant system thinker will then be given the space to think of an elegant solution.

So I guess my answer is: I don’t know, but I’m hopeful we have the ability to make it happen.

Final Thoughts:

After collecting responses from all three generations, I definitely feel like I have pretty well-rounded advice overall. I’m both lucky and grateful I have family and friends in other generations that don’t look down on those younger than them. It looks like the common thread through each line of advice is “Survival First, Loans Later.” While Emma from the Silent Generation focuses on taking institutional routes (get a second job), the other women took a more open-ended approach. So in summary, change your relationship with money to something more positive and hopeful. You don’t have to do it through traditional avenues as long as you’re working toward getting on your feet. It will take longer for us Millennials to gain the wealth of our predecessors, but that shouldn’t stop us. I think the key to achieving a better relationship with money is to change our worldview, double down on self development, and achieve as much as possible whether through entrepreneurship, holding down a few jobs, or relying on a social network for support (or all three). And most importantly, don’t let the negativity get you down. In a couple of decades, everyone else is going to be looking up to us for advice and asking us how we made it.

And hey, after this election, money might not even matter since we’ll go post-apocalyptic.

Just kidding!

Sort of.

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