Young, in Debt and (Maybe) Holding Back on Purchases

Millennials' money woes may be a gating factor for spending

May 25, 2018

Retailers still trying to unlock the question of millennial spending patterns, take note: Millennials are sagging under a heavier debt load than Gen Xers faced at this point in their economic lives.

It's the makeup of that debt gap that hints that millennial spending might not be unlocking anytime soon. Gen X had more mortgage debt than millennials, while millennials have more education debt than Gen X.

A research paper published by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis compared the overall finances of millennials in 2016 to Gen Xers in 2001.  It found that millennial households in 2016 had an average net worth of about $90,000 vs. $130,000 for Generation X households in 2001. Millennials, it noted, had fewer assets and more debt.

The combination of education debt and a lower level of investment in real estate could hold back spending on a host of items, from furniture to hardware to garden supplies.

Millennial scrimping can be seen in "The eMarketer Ecommerce Insights Report," conducted by Bizrate Insights in May 2018. Nearly nine in 10 of the 18- to 29-year-olds surveyed said discounts and coupons were important factors in their online purchasing decisions, far more than any other age group.

Millennial spending has not followed the patterns of previous generations, and their preferences have led to debates as to whether, on the whole, millennials tend to be spendthrifts or skinflints, or if their spending priorities are simply more oriented toward experiences vs. physical goods.

The St. Louis Fed paper suggests the differences may have more to do with financial footing. But it was quick to note that this might not be a permanent issue.  It said that while millennial labor force participation in 2016 was lower compared with that of Gen X in 2001, the percentage of individuals ages 25 to 29 with four years of college or more was sharply higher. 

"While millennials hold higher levels of student loans, education is often an investment that improves productivity and future earnings. Given these considerations, the concerns regarding millennials’ spending and saving habits may be at least partially eased," the authors of the paper noted.