Millennials Aren’t Frugal — They Just Have Less Wealth Than Previous Generations

Millennials’ peculiar spending habits are the subject of constant scrutiny by pundits and the press: Headlines suggest that the generation is killing everything from marriage to malls as their preferences shift away from the traditional milestones their parents celebrated, such as home and vehicle ownership.

A new study published this week by the U.S. Federal Reserve, however, confirms what many young people have likely known all along: if they’re spending less than previous generations, it’s because they have less money to spend.

The report defines millennials as those Americans born between 1981 and 1997, with ages ranging from 21 to 37 in 2018. Compared with Generation X (ages 38 to 53) and baby boomers (54 to 72), millennials “have substantially lower real net worth than earlier cohorts when they were young,” according to the researchers. In 2016, the average millennial household had a real net worth of $92,000 — about 20 percent less than the average baby boomer household in 1989 and close to 40 percent less than the Gen X household in 2001.

Millennials are likely also spending less on certain categories because of the economic conditions they came of age in, the report continues. Not only did the Great Recession mean they graduated into jobs with lower incomes, but it also made them more cautious about borrowing, so many still lack a solid credit history.

Perhaps surprisingly given that student debt has ballooned over the past decade, the researchers found that at the individual level, millennials actually have less debt overall than Generation X. This, the researchers explain, is due to lower homeownership among millennials, and therefore less mortgage debt. (Average student loan debt for millennials in 2017 was still more than twice that of Generation X members in 2004.) At the household level, the two generations are mostly equal, and both are saddled with more debt than baby boomers.

In terms of spending on apparel and accessories in particular, millennials’ share of total consumption has decreased over time due to the ready availability of inexpensive imports, rather than shifting tastes, the report said.

So are the whims of millennials really responsible for the death of industries? Or does the blame instead lie with factors like the economy and technological innovation? The report seems to suggest the latter: “Controlling for age, income and an array of other characteristics that affect consumption, we see that Generation X members and baby boomers actually have a slightly lower taste for consumption than millennials.”

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