Financial wisdom: Top money moves by generation

Financial wisdom: Top money moves by generation

07.27.2023

Money matters through the ages

Age is just a number – but it matters when trying to understand how Americans approach building wealth and reaching financial freedom. How do they get there? It depends on who you ask, and their current life stage.

Yet, there are a few things most people agree on: regardless of generation, Americans say the most valuable financial lesson learned is how to budget and track expenses (53%), followed by having an emergency fund (52%), avoiding excessive debt (50%) and living below your means (48%).

 

For all generations, the most valuable financial lesson was budgeting and tracking expenses (53%). While baby boomers learned this lesson around age 23, millennials and Gen Z were lucky to know it at just 19 years old. The good news is this age trend continued across lessons and generations, with each generation learning about money matters at an earlier and earlier age.

While certain financial lessons were valued across generations, their significance varied slightly between age groups. Avoiding excessive debt was the most valuable financial lesson among baby boomers, while millennials prioritized budgeting and tracking expenses. Gen X and Gen Z felt having an emergency fund was the most important lesson, and Gen X also valued learning to live below your means.

Interestingly, while avoiding excessive debt was among the three most valuable financial lessons learned by all generations, baby boomers were the only generation to mention paying off debt. This lesson coincides with baby boomers’ greatest financial achievement: eliminating debt. Over one-third (36%) claimed they had reached this goal. In contrast, 38% of Gen X said buying a home was their greatest financial feat, while 33% of millennials and 38% of Gen Z boasted about buying a car.

Zillennials: The finances of two younger generations

Financial success is a unique journey, and no one’s path is quite the same. Yet Gen Z and millennials had a lot of survey responses in common, so we decided to take a close look at these two generations. How do their financial goals and outlook compare?

 

Oh, to be young! Gen Z hoped to achieve financial success by age 43, while millennials aimed to do so by age 54. In this case, financial success means achieving a state where you have enough financial resources to support your desired lifestyle and no longer feel the need to work for only economic reasons.

Gen Z and millennials also differed in their strategies to achieve financial success. Gen Z focused, first and foremost, on current spending habits and prioritized maintaining a budget (55%). With budgets in check, Gen Zers next looked to the future: 46% made investments, and 44% worked to pay off debt.

On the other hand, millennials balanced the management of current spending with their goals for building future wealth: 54% prioritized paying off debt, and 53% maintained a budget. Saving for retirement was the third top strategy for millennials, with 47% paying into retirement.

Building wealth and looking to the future

For some, true financial success goes beyond the basics of budgeting and paying bills. Building a safety net, being debt-free, enjoying the freedom to travel, shop, and live life—maybe even leaving something to pass on to future generations. Let’s see how each generation views wealth building and the tricks they use to build their net worth.

 

There were more similarities in wealth-building views across generations than not. The three younger generations listed the same five key factors in wealth building but ranked them differently. In addition, salary, being debt-free, and living below your means were key factors among all four generations.

Being debt-free was the top factor for baby boomers (70%) and Gen X (70%), while salary was top for millennials (67%) and Gen Z (67%). Job stability was important for 60% of Gen Z but became less important with age, as it was a factor for just 56% of millennials and 44% of Gen X, and it didn’t even make the list for baby boomers.

Surprisingly, baby boomers were the only generation that ranked homeownership (59%) as a top key factor in wealth building. This shift in views on homeownership, permanence, and family was most starkly seen in the youngest generations. Gen Z was 60% less likely than other generations to view homeownership as a primary means to build wealth. Furthermore, Gen Z and millennials were 72% more likely to consider not having children or dependents in order to build wealth.

That said, Gen Z does see benefits of family—the second most popular Gen Z hack for achieving financial success was living with family members rent-free (41%).

Meanwhile, millennials, Gen X, and baby boomers were more self-sufficient and shared the same four top hacks for achieving financial success: Cooking at home, working a side hustle, avoiding fad purchases, and buying used or second-hand were the top hacks of the three older generations.

Inflation-proof finances

With prices of everyday items constantly increasing, your paycheck may not go as far at the grocery store, or when you’re booking that long-awaited soul-searching trip. Let’s look at the strategies different generations use to combat inflation and the financial concerns that keep them up at night.

 

All four generations shared the same top strategy for combating inflation—spending less on nonessentials. And whereas each generation had additional, unique strategies for mitigating inflation costs, there was one common theme throughout: Get a bigger paycheck.

  • 16% of millennials negotiated for a higher salary
  • 29% of Gen Z upskilled to increase their earning potential
  • 27% of Gen X and 19% of baby boomers worked a second job

With these strategies easing their inflation worries, what other financial woes were the generations losing sleep over? Once again, Gen Z was most concerned about current spending, as 40% said they lost sleep over paying for day-to-day expenses. In contrast, millennials, Gen X, and baby boomers were more concerned about their financial future, as around 50% of each generation lost sleep over having enough money to retire.

Gen Z was also concerned about paying for college or paying off student loans, while millennials were worried about buying a home. The older Gen X and baby boomers showed their age, as both generations stressed over increased healthcare expenses.

Financial planning for all stages of life

Each generation handles finances differently, but financial success is a common goal across all of them. Whether you’re worried about paying for college, buying a home, or retiring, successful financial planning is about controlling the controllable (that thrifted sofa and automatic deposit to a retirement account) while preparing for outside market forces, such as inflation.

All four generations would teach you to budget and track spending, pay off debt, live below your means, and strategically save and invest. And no matter where you are in your financial journey, a financial professional can help you map out a plan for achieving your unique financial goals (at any age).

About Empower

Empower is a financial services company on a mission to empower financial freedom for all. We offer investment, wealth management, and retirement solutions for individuals and all sizes of organizations. Connect with us on Empower.com.

Methodology: Empower survey of 1,006 Americans, conducted in July 2023 by Fractl on behalf of Empower. Among them, 49% were men, 50% were women, and 1% identified as non-binary. The generational breakdown was as follows: 12% Generation Z, 51% millennials, 26% Generation X, and 11% baby boomers. All data referenced in this article is from this survey.

Fair use statement: If you’re interested in sharing the generational financial insights in this article, we encourage you to do so for noncommercial purposes only and provide a link back to this page. By sharing this valuable information, you can spread financial knowledge and empower others to make informed decisions about their finances.

Empower Retirement, LLC and its affiliates are not affiliated with Fractl.

Third-party data is obtained from sources believed to be reliable; however, Empower cannot guarantee the accuracy, timeliness, completeness, or fitness of this data for any particular purpose. Third-party links are provided solely as a convenience and do not imply an affiliation, endorsement, responsibility, or approval by Empower of the contents on such third-party websites.

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The Currency editors

Staff contributors

The CurrencyTM, a publication from Empower, covers the latest financial news and views shaping how we live, work, and play. We keep you current on ways to plan, save, and invest for life.

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