Millennials are an oft-maligned generation, sometimes deservedly so, but sometimes unfairly. As a group, we do exhibit some worrisome trends that, for example, show we’re generally more risk-averse and are living a prolonged adolescence delaying the typical markers of adulthood, such as marriage, home purchases, and raising children. Yes, we have trouble adulting. But we’ve also been fed a false narrative.
We’ve been told college is a must if we want to have any hopes of landing a rewarding job that will allow us to buy a dream home and achieve financial stability. We’ve been encouraged — by the government, credit card companies, colleges, and even our parents — to take out massive amounts of debt to pay for an increasingly expensive education and a lifestyle beyond our means. For example, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that the “mean across states of enrollment-weighted state average tuition and fees per school year increased by $3,843, or 81 percent, from 2001 to 2009.”
Debt has become an excuse for delaying major life events. According to an NBC News/GenForward survey, 56 percent of millennials surveyed said they delayed one or more major life events because of credit card and student loan debt. Thirty-four percent held off on buying a home, while 14 percent delayed marriage and 16 percent delayed having children.
Those trends have become the narrative for our entire 80 million-member generation, and perhaps it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: The more it’s repeated that millennials aren’t taking risks, growing up, moving out, starting families, and finding success, the more it seems to come true.
My fellow millennials, you don’t have to buy the narrative. You don’t have to wait until your life is perfectly settled and things are “just right” before you take a leap of faith and enter marriage or take out a mortgage. I speak from experience. When my wife and I married, I was unemployed, she was working a part-time minimum-wage job, and we lived in my mother-in-law’s basement.
Adulting can be tough. It will be tough. I recently turned 30, and aside from it being the perfect age when being carded and not being carded for purchasing alcohol are both compliments, it’s also a good point at which to assess one’s personal life and accomplishments.
At 30, I have been married to my beautiful wife for five-and-a-half years, and we have three kids under the age of five. This in an era of sub-replacement level fertility rates, and marriage rates nearly 30 points lower than that of Baby Boomers in the same age bracket almost 40 years ago. Considering Baby Boomers didn’t exactly represent the pinnacle of family-centered mores, the data show something has changed rapidly about marriage and family life. But it doesn’t stop there.
In the few years of our marriage, my wife and I have purchased a home and paid off two cars. Neither the house nor the cars have been fancy. We bought a house we liked and could afford, but it’s not our dream home. And we were lucky to find good deals on used cars. We have about $20,000 in savings (between retirement accounts and liquid assets), which isn’t a lot, but it’s more than the 61 percent of millennials, who have less than $1,000 in savings.
As you might expect, we do have some debt, including some student loans. But we have essentially zero credit card debt right now, although I did take out a personal loan at one point to refinance some old credit card debt at a lower interest rate. Even so, between the student loans, the personal loan, and a car loan, we only owe a total of about $12,000, not including our mortgage.
We’ve been able to survive thus far on a (mostly) single income — plus a few side hustles — even though I work for a church and my annual salary has never been more than $45,000. As a family, we’ve never made more than $50,000 in a year.
This is not to say it’s been a completely austere existence. My basement fridge is full of beer and we have a well-used Netflix account. In the past few years we’ve been able to take some fun family trips to Kansas City, Denver, and Gulf Shores, as well as a few other places. Work has allowed me to visit New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Chicago.
To cut expenses, the only time we visit a movie theater is for Star Wars or Batman movies (because they’re the only movies worth seeing), and we don’t go out to eat often (unless it’s Chick-Fil-A). But we have splurged from time to time at some of the local must-eat places enough, so we don’t feel we’re missing out too much.
Why am I all sharing this? Because we’re proof it can be done. Fellow millennials, you don’t have to live in your parents’ basement indefinitely. You can buy a house and not regret it. You can get married and have kids. You can still go out and have fun.
According to the American Enterprise Institute, “Ninety-seven percent of Millennials who follow what has been called the ‘success sequence’ — that is, who get at least a high school degree, work, and then marry before having any children, in that order — are not poor by the time they reach their prime young adult years (ages 28-34).”
Living a SITCOM life like mine (single income, three children, oppressive mortgage) isn’t easy in the 21st century. But it can be done. You must be smart financially. You’ll have to shop at Aldi, and you won’t be able to go out every weekend. You’ll need to make sacrifices and be willing to have a little patience. Above all, remember to pray. Pray a lot. Pray for courage and temperance. Pray for meekness and charity. Give back generously to God and trust him. He will see you through.
Some months you will simply run out of money. You’ll find yourself skipping lunch so your kids can eat dinner. Some months you’ll have to shuffle money between your savings account, checking account, credit cards, and maybe take out a personal loan just to afford the electric bill. You’ll have weeks when you pay for gas with the spare change in your console, and you’ll try to drive as little as possible so you can avoid filling up the car until the next payday. Sometimes I officiated some basketball games (one of my side hustles) merely so I could afford to put a little gas in my tank for the week, although I barely had enough gas to get to the gym in the first place.
Yes, my wife and I have had some advantages and blessings along the way. I graduated from a private university with an undergraduate and graduate degree and “only” $20,000 of student loans because I was able to use a combination of a tuition exchange program, grants, and academic and athletic scholarships. My wife’s parents paid off her loans.
We took the insurance payout from a minor car accident and applied it towards a small down payment on our home, which happens to be in one of the most affordable parts of a metro area where the cost of living is already 6 percent below the national average. We’ve always had employer-sponsored health insurance and we haven’t had any major medical expenses beyond the births of our three children.
We also live near family, so free babysitting is almost always available. Thankfully, my wife can work as a substitute teacher when she chooses, and we can get childcare without the added cost. This has been a huge advantage.
Everyone has different life circumstances. Not every millennial can or would want to live exactly as my wife and I have, nor should they. The point is, despite the socio-economic pressures and the overarching narrative, it is possible to do these “normal” adult things in this era. You don’t have to put off important milestones. Don’t let the outside institutions, or your checking account, dictate your life.
The key is to pray, hope, love, and don’t worry. Okay, worry a little bit. But in the end, if you’re committed to making your life work, you’ll make it work. “How much you wanna risk?” ask Coldplay and The Chainsmokers in their recent hit. As for me, I’ll risk a lot if it means raising kids I love more than words can express.
So I encourage you to take the risk of growing up. When your kids are waiting at your door after a day at work, you’ll know it’s worth it, no matter how much is in your bank account.