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Financial reality bites for Generation X Add to ...

I know several couples who have not yet started saving for retirement. They share much in common. All in their 30s, with children and mortgages, they are just managing their household expenses and their debt loads. Saving for the future is something that they know should do, but try not to think about.

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Many now in their 30s and 40s are facing financial challenges, with the experience of two recessions, relatively high debt loads and fewer company pension plans to rely on in retirement. The majority of us will move from job to job, as career roles at companies that offer defined benefit pension plans quickly disappear.

"Gen Xers seem to have higher mortgages, lower incomes and more debt than their predecessors" says Todd Morin, an Ottawa-based financial planning expert with Investors Group. "This group is also the first to put financial planning on the back burner, finding it difficult to set aside funds."

Mr. Morin believes that the urge to consume material goods and buy expensive homes is hurting this generation as much as the economic circumstances that surrounds them. He sees many Gen X couples who are living beyond their means and have a "buy now, pay later" attitude toward their finances. "They say we'll get to savings later," he says. "But why does someone that only drives in the city need a $50,000 pickup truck?"

A recent Investors Group survey of mortgage-holders revealed a median mortgage for people aged 30-45 of $140,000, 8 per cent higher than the national average and 33 per cent higher than those aged 45-54.

According to a Charles Schwab survey focused on this age segment in the U.S., 25 per cent are living paycheque-to-paycheque, and another 17 per cent fall into the category of buy now, pay later.

"A lot of the people we think have all the money are the ones living paycheque-to-paycheque and have no disability or critical illness insurance," Mr. Morin says. If they suddenly find themselves unable to work, their company insurance program "won't be enough to cover the cost of an expensive lifestyle."

The Charles Schwab study also found that the majority of Gen Xers do not seek out the advice of a financial advisor, thinking they'll spend more money than they make.

These surveys paint a dismal portrait of my age group - one coloured by a fear of facing reality. But how can we avoid the bite of reality that will come when we can no longer maintain our lifestyles?

"It comes down to needs and wants," Mr. Morin says. If you're buying a new fridge, you may want the pricey one that comes in stainless steel and has an ice maker, but you can easily make do with the plain white version.

Mr. Morin's most successful clients live well below their means, with small homes that are fully paid off and cars that are at least ten years old. These clients pay themselves first, putting money aside for their future on a weekly or monthly basis. They know exactly how much they will need to retire comfortably and have consistently worked toward that goal.

He believes that despite the challenges many Canadians in their 30s and 40s are facing, they have all the tools they need to turn their situations around. They can benefit from having more education, a wealth of financial information available, and savings vehicles such as the TFSA. "This generation could still retire comfortably when they are ready as long as they have a sound financial plan in place."

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