“A lot of us were raised with this mentality of, ‘Find your passion, be happy, the money will follow.’”
“I’m in a good place right now, but it probably won’t last.”
“I’m confident I’m going to die at my desk.”
“By the time he was my age, my dad had five kids and a wife. I can’t even imagine having all of those financial obligations.”
“I currently make $16.50 an hour, which is not enough for me to live on.”
Millennials on their
very real fears
There’s a popular cartoon meme, “Me vs. My Parents,” that compares “my parents at age 29” to a millennial at the same age (“me”). The 29-year-olds of yore are always making adult decisions — buying a house, having a baby, investing in a 401(k) — while the millennial contemplates getting a cat or a plant. The punchline is that the millennial won’t grow up. Or can’t afford to, depending on whom you ask.
Broke millennials have been the subject of hand wringing and the butt of jokes since they first began entering the work force in the mid-aughts. The clichés are getting old, but at this point so are we — I’ll be 38 this year, also known as a “geriatric millennial.”
Americans born between 1981 and 1996, the most educated and most diverse generation in U.S. history, were once considered harbingers of economic progress and promise. But now, even well into their careers, most of them lag behind the financial and familial strides of previous generations.
By the time our parents (baby boomers, typically) were our age, most of them were already raising us. But the majority of millennials aren’t yet married, let alone having children. One reason, of course, is lack of money. They are contending with a student debt crisis and staggering racial wealth inequities. Kneecapped by the Great Recession, the average millennial in 2016 was earning about 20 percent less than baby boomers did at the same stage of life.
That wage gap casts a long shadow over what millennials can save and invest. By 2019, Americans born in the 1980s were 11 percent behind wealth expectations based on previous generations. (And that was good news; the deficit was 34 percent just three years earlier.) Meanwhile, loans rule their lives: The debt-to-income ratio of Americans born in the 1980s is higher than any other birth group, making them especially vulnerable to financial setbacks. Now that most millennials are in their 30s, a point when many of their parents were able to own homes, they’re squeezed between the worst inflation rates of their lifetimes, eye-watering housing prices and the precarious fallout of the pandemic.
I spent the past several months speaking to more than 30 millennials from around the United States about their finances. Their anxieties were palpable, and painfully familiar — many of them felt behind, indebted, unable to live up to the expectations placed upon them. Even those who were doing well were vigilant.
But they’ve adapted, too. They may not have the same access to the benchmarks of adulthood that their parents did, but they also want different things.
Those solid, dependable careers that allowed previous generations to prosper? They aren’t what they used to be. I interviewed multiple teachers, a nurse and a doctor who had all quit their jobs because they were burned out, underpaid or felt unsafe. Many people also mentioned that they place a higher priority on their mental health than their parents did, often out of necessity — financial insecurity is stressful.
I was expecting more of a pity party (millennials are known for their navel gazing, after all). But instead, most people were making do. Perhaps it’s because they knew they weren’t alone. The internet has armed us with (sometimes questionable) knowledge of what we should be doing with our money, if we have it, but it has also broken the taboo of discussing finances.
Multiple people said that their families rarely talked about money when they were growing up; unease simmered under the surface. Now, Facebook groups and social media influencers encourage their followers to share how much debt they’ve paid off and post tips on budgeting methods. These invitations to compare can be discouraging, but they also promote dialogue, community and encouragement — things millennials know well.
Other takeaways that were notable, if not surprising: Most people I interviewed who could buy a home did so with help from their family, usually because they lived with their parents to save up. Those who were single often reported that their debt made dating difficult. And many said they were putting off children for financial reasons, if they hoped to have them at all.
The general mood was one of resilience. The lucky ones knew they were fortunate to have a leg up; the unlucky ones weren’t dwelling on it. When I asked how much money they’d need to be able to do the things they wanted, most people said around $75,000. No one was asking for the moon.
Kacie Willis, 35
Podcast producer and theatrical sound designer
A lot of us were raised with this mentality of, “Find your passion, be happy, the money will follow.” I did the starving artist, flailing-around thing for about seven or eight years after grad school, working freelance in theater and arts administration and getting paid $10 or $15 an hour to work in the box office, stuff like that. Even after I moved out of my parents’ house, I constantly had to borrow from them, and pay late fees.
Finally, in 2019, I got a corporate gig with benefits. Then I got laid off in April 2020 because of the pandemic. I moved back in with my parents again, to save money. And I decided to take that time to make a pilot of a podcast that I had been work-shopping for a little bit. I submitted it to some folks that I knew, and it eventually made its way to Spotify and they bought it. So, almost exactly 10 years after I graduated, I got my “big break.” My career feels like it’s just starting now. Things are finally coming together.
What I made as the executive producer of my show for the first season is comparable to what I was making in my corporate job. And now, for the second season, I’m making more. Just being able to pay my rent and buy groceries without having to work 10 different jobs is miraculous.
Cobbling everything together, I’d say my take-home annual pay is between $60,000 to $75,000. It’s not like I have a yacht now, but I’m able to afford my own apartment. I’m able to live off of my creative work, which I was never able to do before.
I think the next step would be to start saving up an emergency fund. I don’t have a car. I don’t buy clothes. I’ve been wearing a lot of the same things since college. I don’t need stuff. That’s not why money is important to me. But I do like the feeling of not having to rely on other people, or rely on chance. Like, maybe if I buy this scratch-off, I’ll have the last $200 to pay my rent this month. That’s a horrible feeling.
Ashton Howell, 35
Works in sales at a luxury car dealership
College was a great experience, good times, but I graduated with $70,000 of student loan debt. I still owe maybe $60,000. I get paid on commission, so my income fluctuates, but I’ve been earning in the six figures for the past three years now. The pandemic didn’t hurt us at all — people are still buying cars. I’m starting to get my financial footing. My goal used to be, “I want to hit $100,000.” Then you hit $100,000 and it feels like the new $40,000.
“Now my credit score is good. We’re here, and we’re not going back.”
I’m learning to buy what I need, not just what I want. The turning point was fighting for my sons in the family court system, and seeing how much money that took. Attorney’s fees, court fees, it’s a lot. That was eye-opening. It made me realize, you need money in this life.
Rob Ward, 30
Actor and producer
My biggest financial worry is health stuff. I had a major surgery last year. Thankfully we have insurance through the state, and it’s affordable — I pay about $380 a month. But looking down the line, it’s nerve-racking. We’ll be able to afford, like, a year in a nursing home, and then we’ll be out of luck, I guess.
I make $150 a day, three days a week. So at the end of the week, I have $450 from that. And I supplement that with theater and television gigs. In total, I probably make about $2,000 a month.
It’s expected, the stereotype of the actor working as a waiter. The bills have to get paid, and if there’s no work around, you have to look outside the industry. My game plan is to just call my temp agency and be like, “Hey, what do you have for me?” That’s what I’ve done before.
If I had more money, I’d probably put it into investments. I have an I.R.A. It’s not a big amount. But I try to put in $300 to $500 a month. I do have a small stock portfolio, but I think it’s a little over $1,000. I even owned a little bit of crypto, but only about $200 worth; I recently divested. And my wife and I have a joint savings account for emergencies, like if the car crapped out. I think there’s about $6,000 in there.
Jalil Kizy, 35
Rochester Hills, Mich.
Watchmaker in Detroit
I didn’t go to actual college, but I went to a technical watchmaking school. I applied three years in a row and finally got in. They took only 12 students a year, and it is paid for once you are accepted. But you have to buy your own tools and equipment, which was close to $10,000 at the time, and pay for your own room and board.
During school, sometimes I only got 10 hours of sleep the whole week, because I was bartending at night and going to class all day. I graduated in 2009, during the recession. I moved back to Michigan and found myself unemployed. I was about 22 at the time.
Most watchmakers earn between $60,000 and $70,000, and I make on the upper end. I’m in the process of trying to start my own business. I’ve spent essentially my life savings — whatever I haven’t spent on my house — on tools and equipment throughout the years. I’ve spent probably $70,000 to $80,000 on it all. I want to consolidate all my tools into one complete studio where I can make my own custom pieces. That’s my dream.
Sometimes I feel like I sacrificed having a family for the growth of my career. By the time he was my age, my dad had five kids and a wife. I can’t even imagine having all of those financial obligations. I constantly feel like I’m behind where I thought I would be. But starting a business, that’s going to put me in a situation where I don’t know if I’ll be financially stable. And if I had a family, how could I put them through that? Still, I want to have a family so bad. It’s definitely a goal.
Robert Brown, 38,
Rebecca Brown, 33
Salt Lake City
Scientist for a research and development lab,
Director of business intelligence for the state of Utah
Robert:We’ve been incredibly fortunate. We both kept our jobs during the pandemic, and we were able to work remotely and save money on housing costs because we lived with my mom for free for over a year.
In 2011 I went to grad school at U.C.L.A. The school had subsidized housing for grad students, and at the time it was something like $1,300 a month. Knowing I had at least five years of grad school, I tried to think of other options. And I thought, “I bet I could live on a sailboat for less than that.”
So I got a loan from my dad, bought a sailboat for $14,000, and then paid about $500 a month to keep it at a marina. That included all the water, electricity and everything. It wasn’t a big luxury boat or anything. It was about 150 square feet, and it didn’t have a bathroom or shower, so for that, you’d have to walk to the top of the dock. But at the time, I was also making $30,000 a year from U.C.L.A., and the area where I lived was really expensive, so it was a pretty good deal.
Then I met Becca, and we dated and got married. We thought about moving into an apartment, but that would have cost us probably at least $1,800 to $2,000 a month. So we decided to keep living on the boat for a while, because it saved us so much money. We track our spending and make spreadsheets and talk a lot about what’s worth spending on and what isn’t.
Rebecca:At first, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about it. I had never lived on a boat before. But I figured we’d try it, and it ended up working out. At the time, I was working for a big multinational corporation. Surprisingly, it was not that hard to get ready for a corporate job on a boat every day. Then Covid happened, and working remotely on the boat was not ideal. I was on calls all day and often at night for a project in Japan. So we decided to go stay at Rob’s mom’s house in Utah, so that we’d have more space. After a few months, we realized that the move was more of a long-term thing. We started looking for a place to buy, and finally found a one-bedroom apartment in the exact location we wanted. We could have afforded more, but we never want to live paycheck to paycheck.
Jordan Shavarebi, 33
Producer and director for a branded content studio
I make in the low-six-figure range per year. Several years ago, once I started making a pretty good salary, I set up my savings account to pull $2,000 from my checking account every month. I didn’t have a plan for what I was saving for. I’ve always had a pretty simple lifestyle. My rent wasn’t too expensive. I wasn’t going on many vacations, or spending money on clothes, or food, or anything like that.
“I’m too nervous about money to get too close to zero.”
Last year, I started looking for a house upstate that I could buy for my mom to live in. She’s had some financial and health issues throughout her life, and I wanted to have her closer to me as she gets older. Obviously, buying a house was expensive, but I felt it could solve a lot of problems all at once.
At the time I bought the house, last December, I had about $60,000 saved in cash. Right now, that’s down to about $28,000 in my savings account. I grew up not remotely wealthy at all, and I saw money as a stressor from a very young age. It did this funny thing to me, where I’m a little scared of money and constantly thinking about it.
I paid off my college debt a couple of years ago, which was great. I feel like I have more than my peers, in a lot of ways. I’ve got it pretty good. I think it’s because I’ve made more money, but also because I have just saved a lot.
Aedan Lake, 26
Manager at a clothing retailer
I make $16.50 an hour, which I think many members of a certain generation would consider to be really good for someone who stands and folds shirts all day. And in some senses it is. I definitely could be doing worse.
At the end of the month, after I’ve paid rent and bought groceries, I have about $200 left to put in the bank. Or even less, now that inflation is so bad. Which is a scary thought. Even in a perfect world, if we didn’t have to go to the doctor or the dentist, the car stayed fine for another year, and we could save all of that money, we’d only end the year with $1,200 extra. And that’s hilarious in the face of the average cost of a house where we live, which is $365,000. I’m supposed to wave my $1,200 at that? That’s crazy.
“On dates I dreaded the conversation about finances, and having to tell somebody like, ‘Yeah, I have $50,000 of student debt and I make $18,000 a year.’”
“How lucky we’ve been financially is not lost on us.”
“If I want to do something that’s outside of our budget, like go on a date with my boyfriend, I’ll do Instacart or Uber on the side.”
Kelly Jackson, 33
Assistant branch manager at a bank
I started off my career as a teacher. People gaslight you in education and say things like, “Well, you didn’t go into this for the money.” And that’s true, but I shouldn’t also be working at a deli 20 hours a week my first year teaching just to pay my bills. I also did tutoring part-time and babysat a couple times a month. That was how I paid for gas and groceries.
“I don’t feel like I’m old enough to have these worries — did previous generations worry about this stuff?”
I lasted six years teaching in Indianapolis. When I wanted to stop, I was afraid that I was going to need to go back to school, which I couldn’t afford. I was not willing to get into more student debt because I was drowning already.
I currently make in the mid-$50,000s. It wouldn’t take a lot more money for us to live comfortably. We’d be able to pay off our credit cards and visit our families. It might even be nice to go on a vacation somewhere. I haven’t been to a beach in nine years. I live near some of the best ski mountains in the world, but I’m afraid to try it because if I get injured, I’m not going to be able to afford medical treatments or time off work.
Natalia Paul, 32
Tampa, Fla., and Sunnyvale, Calif.
Talent development and leadership consultant
I was 20 years old when I enlisted in the military, in 2010. Right after that, during a training exercise, I fell 35 feet off a tower and had to go on bed rest for two years. I went into what they call a medical retirement. I do get disability benefits from the military — technically it’s a pension. I’d prefer not to say how much, but it’s not enough to live off of. So when I got out, I had to move in with my brother in Orlando. It was difficult. I was 23 and felt like I’d lost my sense of independence. I depleted my savings and got into credit card debt, about $70,000 in total. It took me eight years to pay it off.
I got a master’s degree in organizational leadership. I was able to pay tuition with educational benefits from the military. I also got a housing allowance from the military while I was in school, which helped cover my rent. I lived in New Jersey and commuted to work and school on the bus. Altogether, the military covered about half of my expenses, which would range between $1,700 to $2,400 a month.
I feel good about my money now. My business is in the multi-six-figure range, and my family reminds me to celebrate that, and remember where I’ve come from. Sometimes I still picture myself as a 23-year-old with credit card debt.
Courtney Bledsoe, 35
Comedian and substitute teacher
Last year, I was able to do comedy 100 percent, and live off of it, which was amazing. But this year, I had to get a job again. I’m a substitute teacher. After I had such a successful year, to come back and have to work again was killing me. But my bank account had dried up, and I had to figure out rent. My mom was helping me, but I couldn’t put that burden on her just because I wanted to go and tell jokes at night. Now I make $200 a day teaching, which isn’t bad.
I ran through money a lot last year. Two to three comedy shows a day, that’s $75, $100, $25, boom — I can go and eat, I can get my nails done, I can get my hair done, I can buy a flight somewhere. I wasn’t keeping good track of my money, but my year was fabulous.
Chasing the dream has definitely cost me. A lot of people would never do what I’ve done. They’d be like, “I’m going to find a real job with insurance and security.” I’m 35 and I still live with two roommates in Brooklyn. I pay $1,000 a month for a tiny room. I was looking at getting my own place, but it would be like $2,000 a month. Money used to stress me out — can’t eat, can’t sleep, crying all the time. But since the pandemic, I haven’t been stressed about it anymore. The bills will get paid when they’re going to get paid.
Temi Coker, 29
I grew up in Lagos, Nigeria. I moved to the United States in 2004, when I was 11. When I started college, I wanted to study music, but my dad was like, “We didn’t come from Nigeria to America for you to go study music.” So I studied biomedical engineering. Then, a year in, I switched to digital media, and that’s when I got introduced to photography, graphic design, web design and printing.
After I graduated, I moved back in with my parents and I stayed for two and a half years to pay off my student loans. I got a job at my old high school, teaching photography and design. That was my first time having a full-time job with benefits. I was making about $3,100 a month. And out of that, I was putting like $1,500 to $2,000 towards my student loans.
“I see all this money, but I’m constantly stressed. I worry that maybe I just hit a lucky run, and this will all end.”
2020 was when I really saw a shift in how much I was making. It was the first year I made over six figures in design projects. And I felt weird and guilty about it. Like, do I need to give it away? Do I need to tell my parents how much I’m making? In Nigerian culture, you give your parents the first money you ever make. I gave my parents my first paycheck when I was a graphic designer at a church.
I’m actually going to counseling about this. My counselor helped me realize that there’s never going to be a number that will make me feel secure. If I make a million dollars this year, I’m still going to be stressed about next year. What if I break both arms and can’t design anymore? That’s one of my big fears. But my counselor pointed out that my mind-set is still back in 2017, when I didn’t have much.
Grace Richardson, 27
Videographer and photographer
I got married recently. We had an outdoor ceremony with 54 guests. It was very D.I.Y.; it probably cost about $9,000 to $10,000 total. Our families helped us pay for it. My husband and I currently live with my parents. We stay in a little guest suite in their house. My mom is a realtor, and so my parents are like, “Live here as long as it takes for you to find a house and save up for one.” With the housing market and rent out here, we’d be paying $1,500 to $1,600 for a one bedroom. I would rather pay off my debt and live with family than be strapped for cash living paycheck to paycheck.
Maribel Francisco, 29
Finance manager, tax preparer and owner of a money coaching business
My mom came here as an immigrant from Mexico and started off as a seamstress. When someone told her, “You’re always going to be a seamstress, for your whole life,” she decided to go to H&R Block and get trained as an income tax preparer. After a couple of years working for them, she set up her own practice. Once I turned 18, I also became acertified income tax preparer, and I started helping her with the business on weekends. A lot of people in my community have ITINs, which is a tax number you get when you’re not able to get a Social Security number, often because you’re undocumented. And many people with ITINs don’t know that they can still invest their money, or get a credit card, or even claim a 401(k). So I coach people in my community on how to do those things. They are often afraid to ask questions because they’re worried about saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. If you have undocumented family members, you could break your whole family apart.
Historically, there is an expectation for immigrants to send money back home and support their families, and then eventually relocate back to Mexico and have their kids to take care of them. That perpetuates a lot of problems, because we’re so busy trying to take care of the last generation. I can only do that if I know that the next generation is going to take care of me. I’m trying to break that cycle and say, “Listen, if you’re working here, you have access to a 401(k). Let’s get you active in that, so that you’re not relying on your kids someday.”
I save over 50 percent of my corporate paycheck. Even with all that I’ve saved up, I do not feel financially secure. If I had to pay a higher rent than I do now, I would be struggling.
Corinne Daddario, 29
Network engineer at Comcast
I didn’t finish college because of money. My parents couldn’t afford college for themselves, so there was no college fund for me. I ended up getting a small scholarship to do community college, but I couldn’t finish because it was too expensive.
I feel like we were brought up on this idea of, “Follow your dreams. The money will fall into place.” I had this big dream when I first went to school that I was going to be a scientist. And then all the wheels fell off. At one point I was eating value store green beans out of the can. Thankfully, I never took out student loans. I had a full-time job leasing apartments and I fit all my classes into the hours that I wasn’t working. Then I managed a trailer park for two years, which didn’t pay very well either.
Then I got a job at Comcast doing phone support. I’ve been promoted at least five times since then. There’s a lot of money in network engineering. They give us a yearly merit raise if we do well. So I just got that, and in total, I’m making about $90,000. When I hit $85,000, I said, “I can’t believe they gave me that. I never thought I’d make this money in my life.”
“The crazy part is that now I have the funds to get a degree, but it’s not worth it.”
A little part of me definitely has FOMO about not finishing school. I cried hard when my mom gave me the talk: “No, you can’t afford to go to school. We can’t afford it.” I was really salty about it. But looking back, that was the best thing they could have done for me, explaining reality. I had to have the same conversation with my cousin, and I warned her off of school too.
Lauren Smith, 30
Vice president of a consumer packaged goods company
When I graduated from high school, my aunt sat me down and was like, “Your family doesn’t have money. You don’t have any scholarships. Let’s put you in nursing school.” She set up all my classes. I went to community college and got financial aid and paid out of pocket, so I have no student debt. I lived with my parents. My only bill was my car note, and my family helped with that. At the time, I didn’t realize what a big deal it was, but I’m very grateful that I don’t have all of that baggage that everybody else has.
I was a nurse until I got pregnant with my son. At the time, I was working on a dementia unit where the patients were very combative, physically. My aunt had started a hair product company, so I asked her, “Hey, can I come work for you until I have my son?” Long story short, I stayed.
I have no regrets about not going back to nursing. Especially hearing stories now from my former colleagues, about what nurses went through in the pandemic. At this point, my biggest bill is my mortgage. It’s about $5,000 a month. And then I help my family members. I’m stable, but my sister has five children so I do whatever I can for her — send her stuff, send her money.
Micah Peterson, 37
Senior manager of external affairs at the New York City Department of Education
Because of the recession, it took me many years to find my footing in terms of a career. Then, after I moved to New York and finally felt like I’d started to figure things out, a tragedy happened in our family in 2018. My brother was sentenced to prison, and a lot of my finances have gone to helping his case.
Between the cost of his cash bail, paying for a lawyer, and even the cost of trying to communicate with him in prison, it’s been extremely expensive. His cash bail alone was $50,000, and I put $30,000 of that on my credit cards because we were trying to get him out as quickly as possible. Paying for collect calls and videoconferencing with him, we were easily spending $800 a month. And the lawyer for his case was about $60,000, which my mom helped pay for too. Now we’re working with a post-conviction lawyer, trying to get it overturned.
I used to make $88,000 annually, but I just got a new role that will pay $99,000. It’s great to have a regular salary, but I could definitely use a lot more given everything going on. The upside is that I have a good retirement plan, and my health care is cheap. And because I work for the city, I do know that I will receive incremental raises. But there’s also a ceiling — in my job, I’m never going to be making, like, $30,000 or $60,000 more than I do now.
I don’t see myself getting out of debt anytime in the near future. I started working on my credit-card debt in earnest last October, but I still owe about $21,000. I used to dream about getting married, having a wedding, things like that. But who’s going to want to marry someone who’s $30,000 in debt all on credit cards? Even the idea of intertwining my finances with someone else sounds scary to me now.
“In terms of starting a family, we’re not in a rush. We want to be financially stable to be able to provide for future children.”
“If I had to pick a number, I’d love to be making $80,000 to $100,000.”
“I went to community college and got financial aid and paid out of pocket, so I have no student debt. I lived with my parents.”
Daniel Fairclough, 33
Concierge at a residential building
I’ve had my job for four years now. I just got a raise, so I’m making $19.10 an hour. It’s a union job, so I’m supposed to get a raise every year until I reach the cap, which is $32 an hour. I’ll probably be here at least until I finish my bachelor’s degree. Luckily, I haven’t taken out any student loans. I’m doing one class at a time, and I’m just paying out of pocket.
I have credit card debt, but it’s never more than $16,000, which is the total limit between all my credit cards. I usually pay it off by the end of the year, when I get my bonus and tips at Christmas. Last year I made $36,000, which is near the poverty line for Massachusetts. Some weeks it feels like I’m paycheck to paycheck, but I know how to stretch a dollar. Because I live with family, I pay $600 a month for housing, which is a good deal for this area.
If I had more money, I would invest more. I have an I.R.A. that I started in my 20s. I put in $200 a month. Right now there’s about $15,000 in it. And I have a savings account that I just opened. I put in $50 a week and I try not to touch it, but I’m not always successful at doing that.
I think my younger self would be very impressed at how I’m doing today. Five years ago, I was going through some health issues. I was in and out of hospitals for a while. It was pretty bad. Most of my treatment was paid for by the MassHealth Safety Net. That was a weird time, but most of my bills have been covered now, and I’m much better.
Alex Nguyen, 30
Desktop support analyst at a bank
It wasn’t until I got my first job after college that I had a discussion about salary with my mom. I was making about $18 an hour, and it was pretty close to what she was making. That’s when I asked her, “Hey, out of curiosity, how much do you have saved up for retirement?” And she was like, “Oh, I have nothing saved.” She didn’t have a college education — she came over from Vietnam and had to take care of us and my grandmother. We never had to worry about food on the table, but I don’t know if that was because my mom would skip meals sometimes.
That puts a lot of pressure and anxiety on the decisions I make now, because I know I’m not just taking care of myself. I should be allocating money so that my mom gets a chance to retire. There has to be something saved up for her as well. I always feel it’s never enough.
“Money is at the forefront of most of the decisions I’ve made.”
I now have an annual salary, and I’m eligible for overtime. I make between $60,000 and $70,000 currently. I have around $10,000 saved up, in case of emergencies, or if something were to happen with my mom and I needed to cover her mortgage payments or medical expenses.
Brandi Morris, 26
Indianapolis and New York
Senior customer success manager at a start-up tech company
I grew up poor, in and out of foster care. I didn’t have the best grades, so I started off college at a private school. I got $18,000 in grants and scholarships. I remember getting the email from the financial aid department, and I was so excited. But the full tuition was still $40,000. I just didn’t understand the weight of that. When I graduated, I owed about $32,000.
My first job out of college, I was making $38,000 as an account manager and I was sharing a house with three other women to keep rent costs down. I couldn’t even afford to put much money toward my student loans then. To be honest, I wasn’t that worried about it. I had friends who were like, “Yeah, I just pay the smallest amount.” I thought it was normal.
I started getting interested in personal finance in 2019. The church that I was going to had a course about it, and so I did it with a couple that I was friends with. Each week we’d watch a video and eat dinner together and hold each other accountable. My goal was to pay off my student debt.
I follow a lot of personal finance people online, and some of them have already hit $500,000 in net worth and they’re the same age as me. Obviously we just started in different places. I try to keep a laser focus on, “This is where I’m at.” Two years ago, I was more than $30,000 in debt. Now I’ve surpassed that number in my net worth. I have about $20,000 invested and $30,000 in cash savings. My current goal is to invest more and start saving for a home.
Adrienne VanZomeren, 37
St. Paul, Minn.
I got married young, when I was 23. And then I got divorced in my early 30s, and it felt like I started moving backward. All my friends were getting engaged, getting dogs and buying homes, just as I was losing those same things. Everything felt like it was going in reverse.
I was making $48,000 in my first post-doc year. And I took on multiple other jobs because I could not live off of that, pay all of my bills, pay off my student loans, and dig myself out of the debt I had accumulated while living in Boston for my pre-doctoral internship and paying for a divorce lawyer. I moved back to the Twin Cities and worked 80 hours a week, not including the time I was working on my dissertation. It was intense. I got pretty disillusioned.
“I definitely feel behind my peers in almost every aspect.”
I was like, “I don’t even know if I want to do any of this.” I got a bunch of side jobs. I got paid $12.50 an hour to sell T-shirts. I also became a consultant for a nonprofit. I taught yoga. I did some psychological testing. I did some editing work. And my gross income was $77,000. Most of the excess went towards paying off debt.
My individual undergraduate student loans totaled $48,116.57. This was on top of the various scholarships and fellowships I received. I also contributed approximately $29,000 to my ex-husband’s student loan payments for eight years while we were married. So in total, I’ve paid roughly $77,116 in undergraduate student loan debt. This does not include the $15,000 in personal loans I took out following my divorce, while I was finishing my residency and postdoctoral training. Paying off this debt has been a huge deal. I still have a couple thousand dollars left.
Katherine Pittman, 25
Commerce editor at a media company
At the beginning of the pandemic, I had a full-time job as an executive assistant and was also freelancing to make rent. My day job paid $40,000, plus overtime. On the side, I was working for a beauty publication that paid $25 an hour, or $150 a story. All in all, I was making about $55,000 a year.But then, at the end of 2020, I was laid off from my full-time job, and I had to scramble to find other ways to make an income. I couldn’t file for unemployment because I was working more than 20 hours per week for my freelance client, so I didn’t qualify.
I wound up racking up about $10,000 on my credit card during that period, which I’ve never done before. There were times when I had $50 in my bank account, and I would charge groceries and toilet paper. I’m still very uncomfortable with this debt.
I got a new full-time job last January that pays $85,000. When I got the offer, I cried. It was such a relief. This is the first job I’ve ever had that allowed me to quit my other side gigs. I haven’t had just one job since I was 17.
Christian Drake, 40
Works retail at an independent store
Before I worked in public education, I worked as a naturalist, teaching kids about science and nature. At one point I was making $365 a week, which I remember because it was the same number of days in the year. So I became a public school teacher, which I thought seemed more stable.
The most I’ve ever made was $44,000 a year, at my last teaching job. That was maybe the first time I hadn’t felt a constant weight on my chest, where I could buy my family decent Christmas presents. The first time my checking account was ever over $3,000 was during that job. If I had to pick a number, I think $60,000 a year sounds like something I could turn into a life, maybe.
I was 10 years old when my father was my age. And I had two siblings, and my parents were able to support us in the ’80s and ’90s without making a lot of money. It doesn’t feel like anything that my parents had is available to me anymore.
I burned out and quit my teaching job right before the pandemic. Now I’m working retail. I currently make $16.50 an hour, which is not enough for me to live on. The only reason I’m able to pay my current bills is because my grandmother died right before the pandemic started, and I’m supplementing my paychecks with the money she left me, which was about $20,000 total. Ironically, this is money she was able to put away as an elementary schoolteacher. She wasn’t rich, but she had enough to leave this amount to me and her eight other grandkids. So basically, I’m living off of a teacher’s wages from the 1960s through the 1980s. I honestly don’t know what I would have done to survive had I not received this money, which I didn’t know was coming.
Dan Frankenfeld, 29
Arden Hills, Minn.
Self-employed operations consultant
My parents were kind enough to let me stay with them after I graduated from college, which is not something that I wanted to do. I did not want to be a burden to them. But I was able to save most of my salary and then that became the down payment for buying a house. So when I did move out, I moved into a home of my own.
I was motivated to buy a home because I became very disillusioned with the prospect of renting, and how it can prevent the accumulation of intergenerational wealth. But things were very tight. When I closed on my mortgage, I almost overdrafted my account. I wrote the check for the closing costs and I was like, “It’d be great if this didn’t cash for two days, when the direct deposit comes in from work.”
During that time, I had no internet for several months. I didn’t pay for garbage pickup. Every two weeks I would take a garbage bag into work and add it to the work garbage in the parking lot. Garbage was only $25 a month, but that’s $300 a year that I would rather put towards my mortgage or student loans.
I ate a lot of rice and beans and Jack’s frozen pizza. I still eat a fair amount of Jack’s frozen pizza. It used to be $2.44, but now because of inflation, it’s $3.52. My diet was not great. I managed it, but I don’t want to live like that again.
Daniella Flores, 32
Port Orchard, Wash.
Online business owner
Over the last 11 years, I’ve had full-time jobs in corporate tech. I also ran an online business that offers money, career and side hustle advice and services for creatives and L.G.B.T.Q.+ folks. I just left my tech job to run my business full time. It’s a very scary transitional time in my life. It’s one of the most stressful things I’ve ever done. But working in tech never made me feel fulfilled or happy. The culture especially changed during the pandemic. I cried during work at least once a week.
There were a few benchmarks I wanted to hit before I quit. The first was that I wanted to max out my 401(k) last year, and I wanted to reach a balance of at least $100,000 in my 401(k). We’ve saved up an emergency fund of $40,000. And I have an extra $15,000 saved for my business. It’s mostly for peace of mind.
“I’ve made all these plans so I can quit and work on my business full time, but I still have this doubt in my mind. I’m scared.”
My wife and I moved here from St. Louis, Missouri, at the end of 2020. One reason we moved is that we saw what was happening with L.G.B.T.Q. laws across America. We needed to live in a state that was more affirming to who we are and how we live our lives. And we chose this particular place because of cost of living — it’s less expensive than Tacoma and Seattle. The house was about $280,000, and our down payment was about $15,000.
At my previous day job, with my salary and my bonus, I made $141,000 a year. Last year, my own business brought in $60,000. I hope to bring in $100,000 now that I’m working on it full time, so that I can pay myself $70,000. My wife also makes about $100,000. I wouldn’t be able to consider leaving my job this year if we weren’t a two-income household.
Kayla Smith, 37
Altamonte Springs, Fla.
When I was finishing high school, everybody signed up for college. Student loans were so easy to get, and no one talked about how they were trapping a lot of our generation — the message was that you had to go to college if you wanted to survive. I didn’t finish college, so my student debt wasn’t that high. It was just a few thousand dollars.
I have a heart condition, and I was in and out of surgeries during my 20s. Luckily, most of those surgeries were paid for by my dad’s insurance plan, because I was still young enough to be covered by it. I’d have a six-figure surgery and the patient payment would be zero. But I got one surgery in 2014, when I wasn’t under his plan anymore, and I’m still paying for it. I’ll probably keep chipping away at the payment plan for the rest of my life. I pay a little over $100 a month.
Not finishing college has not impacted my career at all. I’m not knocking college degrees — for some jobs they are necessary — but a lot of people have degrees that they don’t use, and then they just have debt.
“I don’t know if I’m ever going to be a homeowner or have the things that some of my friends or family members have.”
“I went into a tailspin. Like, Do I even want to be a doctor anymore? I’m 35 years old and I don’t even know what I want to do with my life.”
“I’m in a good place right now, but it probably won’t last.”
Samantha Shapiro, 37
Rheumatologist and internist
Rheumatologists are not highly compensated compared with many other physicians. To keep our doors open, many of us are pressured to see more and more patients in less and less time. In March of last year, I found out that a doctor friend of mine was leaving her job because of burnout. When I talked to her about it, it made me see the bigger picture — that I was drowning. So I tried to renegotiate my workload with my boss. Their answer was basically just take it or leave it. Based on that response, I knew I had to leave. It was terrifying.
Luckily, I was in a pretty good financial place. I’m not a big spender. I’ve been saving about 50 percent of my paycheck my whole working life. Part of the reason I could do that is because I was fortunate to begin with. I lost an uncle a couple years ago, suddenly and unexpectedly, who didn’t have kids. He left a substantial amount of money to his nieces and nephews. I used some of that inheritance for the down payment on my house. And unlike a lot of doctors, I didn’t have a big loan burden. I didn’t have to borrow anything for college because I had a scholarship and help from my family. I think my total student debt was just under $50,000. I paid it off in my first year as an attending physician.
I am essentially a gig worker now, doing telemedicine and some other jobs. Which is scary, especially since I always thought I’d have a salaried job for the rest of my life. I’m doing fine from a financial perspective, but still there is this piece of me that worries I’m not making what I was making before. Still, I’m really happy. I’m working about 15 hours a week and making probably 75 percent of my former salary, which is pretty insane, considering I used to work 100-hour weeks.
Judy Esber, 37
Going to college, I had a lot of financial aid because we were so poor growing up. And I got some scholarships too. But I still graduated with about $20,000 in student loans. Right out of college, I got a great job as a union organizer making about $40,000 a year. Looking back, that’s not very much. But it was more than I’d ever known, and I was like, “I’m rich!” I didn’t know anything about money then, and it got me in trouble.
“Before I knew it, I had $11,000 in credit card debt. I had to borrow some money from my mom, and she made less money than me. It took me about two years to pay it off.”
My husband is a really frugal person, and he has influenced me a lot. Right after I met him, in 2016, I did a no-spend year. I allowed myself to eat out, but otherwise I didn’t buy anything. I even cut my own hair. That’s when I paid off the last of my student loans and the last of my car loan. By the end of that year I had $20,000 saved. It was a big eye-opener. Now I run my own money-coaching business and I make about $1,000 a month walking dogs on the side. The biggest thing I’ve learned is that I can still live a beautiful, wonderful life with less money.
Adam Henze, 39,
Siren Hand, 35
Poet and research associate at Indiana University,
Poet, student and disabled veteran
Adam:I just got a job with benefits and a salary, which I know I’m very lucky to have. I make $52,000 a year. But the challenge is that there isn’t much security. I’m able to survive with my current income, but once I have to start paying my student loan bills again, then I’m going to be on the hook for $1,500 to $2,000 a month — which is basically my take-home pay.
We also make money by antiquing, mainly flipping typewriters and other vintage writing tools. We just bought a British Oliver typewriter for $40, and once we fix it up, it’s probably worth $400. The only reason we had money to buy presents for Christmas is because we were flipping Smith-Coronas and Underwoods. I may have a Ph.D., but right now junking seems to be the most reliable way to accrue wealth.
Siren:I was in the military for nine and a half years. I was a geospatial imagery intelligence analyst, and then I was a drill sergeant for two and a half years, before I had hip surgery. I got out in 2019. I’m on 100 percent complete and permanent disability. That includes full medical coverage.
One of the reasons I chose to live in Indiana is that it has a low cost of living, but also great V.A. facilities. I get two payments from the V.A. every month. One of them is my medical disability from the military, which is about $3,000. And because the G.I. Bill covers housing costs for full-time students, I get about $1,500 for that, because I’m studying sociology and creative writing at I.U.P.U.I. [Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis]. We put that money towards our mortgage.
One of our big expenses is our car, which we share. Our gas bill is high, and also, Indianapolis has a big pothole problem. So our car insurance is over $100 a month. Basically, we’re dealing with a whole bunch of $100 paper cuts here and there, and that’s a struggle. We have a tree in the back that we can’t really afford to chop down, but it’s dead and it’s falling apart. It’ll cost a couple thousand dollars to remove, and we just don’t have that right now. At this point, we’re not in a financial place to have kids. If we do have a kid, I want to bring them into a situation that’s more stable.
Spencer Diehl, 30
Social worker at nonprofit medical center
I went to college in Boston, which was a reach to pay for. When I graduated, I owed about $30,000 in student loans. I spent my 20s working in yoga studios, breweries and farms. That was satisfying in a lot of ways, but I wanted to have more of an impact. I was also living paycheck to paycheck. So I went to grad school for social work and got my master’s degree.
I make more money than I used to — I think $45,000 a year was the most I ever made before grad school. And my current salary is $63,000. I’m hoping to be making $75,000 or $80,000 in the next two to three years.
If I was to look at going to grad school again, I don’t know if I would do it. I wish that I had more that I could do with my hands and make a living wage. But growing up, that wasn’t even portrayed to me as an option. Or it was communicated to me as work that’s not admirable. And that’s totally not true.
“If I could redo things, I think I would’ve gone to trade school. I probably would’ve become an electrician, or learned a usable skill where you’re always going to have work.”
Financially, we’re doing pretty good right now. We just bought a house. That’s not something we could have done in Massachusetts, but was attainable in Tennessee. We bought it for $335,000, which was crazy to us — Monopoly money. It felt very dreamlike. We were like, wow, this has been a major goal that we’ve talked about in our marriage for a while. But also, what did we get ourselves into?
Produced by Tanner Curtis, Gabriel Gianordoli and Shannon Lin.
An earlier version of this interactive misspelled the surname of a New York City Department of Education official. He is Micah Peterson, not Petersen. The surname of a clinical psychologist was also misspelled. She is Adrienne VanZomeren, not Vonzomeren.