Millennial consumer debt recently hit a new high. According to TransUnion Canada, it reached nearly $516-billion this past August, an increase of 12.3 per cent between 2018 and 2019. The credit agency reports among adults aged 25 to 39 there was a 14 per cent jump in lines of credit and 8.9 per cent fewer mortgages were issued.
This trend worries experts because while low unemployment and interest rates have kept debt loads manageable, a slowdown could put borrowers at risk of delinquency. Is it high-priced avocado toast or are other factors affecting millennials’ ability to save? We spoke to three financial experts who are educating their generation in dollars and sense.
THE LIFE-BALANCE COACH: Jessica Moorhouse
Financial background: Accredited Financial Counsellor Canada
What’s at the crux of the millennial debt problem? “Ugh. It’s not the price of avocado toast. It’s the cost of housing,” says Jessica Moorhouse, host of the Mo’ Money Podcast, YouTube vlogger for financial literacy and founder of Millennial Money Meetup.
“We were given this template for what it means to become a successful adult: Get your degree, get a good career, stick around to get that pension or RRSP-matching program, have a family, have two cars and get that home,” she says. “That’s the white picket fence life we were told to get because it’s what our parents and grandparents did. But we’re not able to get it any more. Everything has changed.”
As a result, millennials are redefining their relationship with money to one that’s more fulfilling. “We understand possessions don’t bring happiness. What does is financial freedom, freedom of choice, experiences and having time with your loved ones,” Moorhouse says.
The key to freedom is financial fluency. “If you just focus on beginner personal finance strategies – budgeting, living below your means, frugality – you will live a frugal life for your whole life,” she says. To continue building wealth, she suggests “earning more than you spend and earning more than your desk job.” Moorhouse is an avid proponent of investing, side hustles and the life-saving power of a healthy ‘F*ck Off Fund’ or a cash cushion that allows you to escape a bad situation, whether that’s a misery-inducing job or a live-in relationship gone sour.
THE MINDFUL MONEY TEACHER: Chantel Chapman
Financial background: Financial literacy consultant, mindful money teacher and former mortgage broker
Consumer debt isn’t just about buying too much cold-pressed juice or SoulCycle spin classes, says Chantel Chapman, a financial coach who focuses on asking why her generation is overspending.
Her ‘aha’ moment came when Chapman heard addiction expert Dr. Gabor Maté define addiction. “He said it’s ‘when we do something over and over again to temporarily reduce pain and increase pleasure in the moment but it has negative consequences,’” she says. “I realized that’s just like overspending and [excessive] credit card use.”
“I noticed that people in financial distress often feel emotions like boredom, fear, loneliness, sadness and inadequacy,” Chapman says. “And one of the ways they’d soothe themselves would be to spend money.”
She adds social media adds fuel to the fire by pressuring users to spend money in pursuit of their #best life. So what’s the solution? Self-reflection and mindfulness, Chapman says. She urges her followers to “go inwards and explore their relationship with money on a deeper level.” Once spenders understand what triggers their urge to splurge, they can take steps toward money habits that will help, instead of hinder, their goals, Chapman says.
THE SAVVY TRAVELLER: Barry Choi
Financial background: Self-taught investor
Why pay someone to manage your investments – and take a big cut via fees and sales charges – when you can DIY? That’s what Barry Choi did nine years ago. “I realized I was better off educating myself in personal finance because no one will care more about my money than me,” he writes in his Money We Have blog. Since then, Choi has built a career around his two favourite topics: money and travel. Specifically, how to save the former, while enjoying the latter. He’s a firm believer both can co-exist.
“It’s not about travelling as cheaply as possible but being smart about your money,” says Choi, who advocates saving ahead to jet without debt. His tip: Feed your vacation fund monthly, then explore and cross borders but once the fund is dry, stop.
Saving is simple on paper, however, it takes discipline in current economic conditions. Millennials face higher housing costs, student loans and living expenses with wages that haven’t increased at the same pace. “Plus, credit cards make it easy to get what you want. I talk to bankruptcy trustees and they explain it’s just so easy to get by on debt for so long, that people don’t realize they have a problem,” Choi says.
Getting out of debt is simple but requires self-discipline. Spend less than you make; pay yourself first (set aside money for your retirement, vacation and long-term savings every time you get paid); and if someone offers you free money, he says take it. In other words, opt into any employer pension or RRSP-matching plans. Once you’re out of the red, consider meeting with a financial advisor to refine your goals. This can provide helpful next steps, even if you plan to eventually manage your own investments, like Choi does.