Millennials’ financial milestones – bucking the system or cautious?

Millennials never found a sound financial footing, even after the 2008 crisis subsided. And as that generation plays catch-up, financial advisors look for ways to help them make up for lost time.

Many millennials spent the Great Recession in their proverbial – and often literal – parents’ basements, with income, savings, and the chance to build wealth all hard come to by. Even as the 2008 financial crisis ebbed and the economy entered a robust a period of stock market records and employment gains, millennials never quite caught up. Now, radical savings plans and overly aggressive financial goals have come into vogue, and some advisors caution that many millennials might be attempting too much, too fast.

popequote“Millennials have shown promise in that they are saving earlier and more aggressively than some generations,” said Scott L. Pope CFP®, senior investment advisor at Portland-based Sustainable Wealth Management. “However, they also seem to have equally aggressive goals when it comes to financial wellness and may fall short of their expectations if they don’t tackle current debt loads or account for future expenses such as children, purchasing a home, and unforeseen expenses like a health crisis. That’s where the value of a financial advisor can come in to give some guidance and provide realistic strategies for helping millennials reach their long-term goals.”

Unlike many Americans who report holding less than $1,000 in savings – 57 percent according to a 2017 GOBankingRates survey; a further 39 reported they had nothing saved – millennials have shown themselves to be aggressive savers. Many have even adopted the Financial Independence, Retire Early (FIRE) mindset that advocates saving aggressively while restricting spending to bare essentials. “The Wall Street Journal” last year profiled a Seattle lawyer who participated in FIRE and claimed to save 70 percent of her income every month and intended to retire in her 40s. Aggressive saving habits might seem laudable, but some have questioned whether millennials would be better served putting that money into more useful assets.

Millennials, so far, have shown an aversion to purchasing homes. As a generation, millennials buy homes later in life than Generation X or baby boomers, and the 2008 housing market crash might play a role. The 2008 financial crisis was the only recession, for which records are kept, that sent housing prices into a downward spiral, and then kept them down. The economic recovery following the crisis saw housing prices rebound, but more slowly than previous recessions, possibly discouraging millennials from thinking of a home as a safe investment. Millennials’ hesitance to buy homes also extends to other “milestones” such as marriage and car ownership – critics tend to state these delays as if they are a kind of generational character flaw, but millennials did inherit an economy that was inherently less stable than previous generations.

homebuying300x300With home buying on delay, and financially stability harder to come by in general, are the millennials making the right call by aggressively socking away cash?

“Yes, it is wise. Because of the decline in defined benefit pension plans, individuals assume more responsibility for saving for their own retirement, and the sooner they start seriously saving for retirement, the better off they will be in the future,” said Jeanine Herold, CFP®, AIF®, a managing member of Phillips Financial Management, LLC, adding that she does not see an aversion to home buying as a serious generational failing, unlike some other commentators. “Should they be saving this money or taking advantage of their extra income in their 30s to use it for more productive purposes? One of the biggest financial mistakes I see is the redefinition of a ‘starter home.’ Young people today often buy homes that older generations bought after 20 years of working and building equity in true starter homes.”

heroldquoteThose larger, nicer starter homes might feel like a good investment on closing day, but not everyone really does the math before signing.

“The larger mortgage payments, along with a greater percentage of that payment allocated to interest – which does not build equity – coupled with other additional expenses like higher property taxes, higher insurance premiums, association dues, maintenance on a larger, more expensive home, can be financially debilitating to young people,” Herold told “Advisors Magazine” during a recent interview.

Not all advisors believe millennials are the super-savers the financial media labels them to be, however. They counter that the FIRE movement might be a trend, but it has not spread to the generation as a whole and millennials are still oriented toward a make and spend attitude. Salaries slammed by the 2008 recession – many millennials started at lower-than-normal pay-scales during the financial crisis and never recovered – only make matters worse by making it more difficult to afford necessities.

save400x400“I personally do not think millennials are saving more. I think this generation is used to certain things in their lives and while the labor market is strong, it is hard for the next generation to make enough to fulfill their needs,” said Brett Bernstein, CFP®, chief executive officer and co-founder of XML Financial Group, which has offices in Maryland, Virginia, and Colorado. “Saving younger is always wise in my opinion. The power of compounding is insurmountable to their long-term savings success. However, the savings should be for specific things – short-term, first home purchase, cars, preparing for children and college savings, and long term savings for retirement. But one thing that is missed a lot is proper insurance protection, from disability, life and long-term care.”

Salary data backs Bernstein’s claims up. A 2017 analysis of Federal Reserve data published by Young Invincibles, an advocacy group, shows that millennials make significantly less than their baby boomer parents did at the same age. Twenty percent less, in fact, according to the analysis; so, millennials might be saving a greater percentage of the incomes than previous generations, but it appears that there is less to save.

Other advisors sharing their views with “Advisors Magazine” echoed Herold’s view that saving aggressively when young can benefit soon-to-be retirees later on in life. Often, would-be clients approach advisors in their 50s hoping to get ready for retirement, only to find that they are coming into the game late and that it is difficult, if not impossible, to make up for that lost time. Aggressive savings routines build strong financial habits for the future, which can benefit older savers as they prepare for retirement.

linger300x400“The best time to save is the early years for several reasons. First, the power of compound savings makes those early years more important than the later years; second, it establishes a discipline that will carry on into later years,” said Eric Linger, RIA, principal at Sherwood Investments in Washington state. “I have had people come to me around age 55 saying they want to retire in a few years, but they haven't saved enough to retire. It is hard to put enough aside and become a saver when you’ve been a spender for the past 30 years.”

But what does the over-saving millennial do when they want to begin accumulating sustainable, growth-focused assets? The millennial generation, like Generation Z after them, has shown itself to be skeptical of authority and expertise. It might be helpful to get a millennial advisor into the firm to give clients someone to relate to, some advisors said. That’s especially true as the advisor workforce gets older, and more wealth managers near retirement.

oldadvisor300x400The average financial advisor is pushing 51 years old, and 43 percent actually are older than 55, according to the research firm Cerulli. One-third of advisors, moreover, fall into the 55 to 64 age range. That means the profession is being squeezed for manpower just as millennials come into their own as savers and investors. Add to that the 2008 financial crisis and high-profile scandals such as the Bernie Madoff affair, both of which may have turned millennials away from a career in financial services, and it can be difficult for a young investor to find the right fit with an advisor.

“With one-third of financial advisors set to retire between now and the next 10 years, and not enough new financial advisors entering the business, the industry is facing a shortage of over 100,000 advisors to tend to the needs of people who really need help with their finances,” said Dan Meehan, senior vice president of business development at Kalos Financial, an investment management firm in Alpharetta, Georgia. “Many universities have become known for their financial planning programs, but we need to do a better job of getting young people interested in our industry.”

Millennial and boomer advisors can complement each other well, and an investment in mentoring an up-and-coming advisor could really benefit financial firms looking to reach new clients, and better serve older ones as well.

“I think experience has its benefits. An advisor who has lived through market downturns like the tech bubble of 2000 to 2002, or the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 has a different set of experiences than an advisor who has only seen an up market with some intermittent volatility like fourth quarter 2018,” Bernstein said. “Millennial advisors clearly have a different skill set, but that doesn’t mean a more seasoned advisor doesn’t have that same skill set. I personally think the next generation advisors would benefit from partnering or being mentored from more seasoned advisors, especially if they are engaging with the baby boomers.”

Advisors who want to court millennial clients need to be upfront and transparent. They also should make clear that they are a fiduciary, and be prepared to explain what, exactly, that means.

berglandquote“A fiduciary is a steward of other people’s money and commits to placing the client’s interest above their own. This is considered the highest standard of care within the profession as the client comes first and not the financial product or service made available by insurance companies or brokers,” said Tiffany Bergland Ballard, CFP®, AIF®, president of Bergland Wealth Management, Inc.

And not every advisor must act as a fiduciary. Certified Financial Planners (CFP®) are held to a fiduciary standard and must comply with numerous disclosure rules to maintain their professional status, at the risk of censure or even losing their right to the designation. Other advisors may be honest and competent, but they are on the honor system, with no overarching professional body to ensure compliance.

“If they aren’t [a CFP®], it doesn’t mean they aren’t a good advisor, but a CFP® is schooled in the holistic financial planning and investment process. If they aren’t a CFP®, ask them about any designations they may hold and have them tell you about their experience as a financial advisor,” said Dan McHugh, CFP®, CPA, an advisor with Advance Capital Management.

“What a client needs to understand is that while an advisor may put their best interests first, a fiduciary is bound by that statement,” Bernstein said. “Whereas a broker or a dual-registered broker or advisor isn’t held by the same standard. That doesn’t mean they aren’t acting as one, but they aren’t held the same standard.”

It also might be useful to use millennials natural skepticism as a tool to make sure they understand the dangers of signing on with the wrong advisor. After all, a non-fiduciary advisor taking charge of a young savers hard-earned money could wreak considerable havoc.


“Time after time criminal advisors promote unrealistic returns, yet still people get caught in their web,” McHugh said. “We take time trying to educate clients and prospects on how we, as well as the industry, operate. Individuals should learn the difference between investments that pay commissions versus advisory fees. They should also know what reasonable fees and returns are.”

“I tell folks anyone can call themselves a financial planner, but not just anyone can call themselves a doctor or a lawyer,” said Nancy J. LaPointe, CFP®, ChFC®, wealth manager with Navigate Financial, based in Washington state. “Financial advice should be defined and the providers held to strong professional standards.”

For the millennial generation, a carefully selected advisor might mean the difference between continuing to lag behind and finally catching up.


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