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There’s a lot of pressure for young adults to prosper.
I see this in my own 20-somethings. They all live at home, and, despite it being the smartest move in a high-cost area, they often feel the need to explain their living situation to avoid the twisted lips of condemnation that they should be more financially independent.
This makes me wonder: Are we pushing young adults too hard, fearing they’ll be financial failures if they don’t hit certain money milestones soon enough?
A recent Pew Research Center report generated headlines about how today’s young adults are behind in five frequently cited benchmarks of adulthood.
Pew, after analyzing Census Bureau data, found that 21-year-olds are less likely than their predecessors four decades ago to have a full-time job, be married, be financially independent, live on their own or have a child. Being financially independent was defined as having income or at least 150 percent of the poverty line.
In 2021, about 68 percent of 25-year-olds were living away from their parents’ homes, compared with 84 percent in 1980, according to Pew.
If you want more personal finance advice that’s timeless, order your copy of Michelle Singletary’s Money Milestones.
This brings me to a recent column I wrote on financial tips for graduates. Readers had a lot to say, often disagreeing with my advice, which included paying off student loans before investing for retirement and not rushing to buy a home.
Here are my responses to those who took issue with my guidance.
I said: Don’t listen to the collective “they.” They will tell you renting is a waste of money. It’s not.
Comment: “Buy as soon as you can and rent rooms to friends,” one reader wrote.
Like so much about personal finance, it’s about the individual’s financial standing. The math does not always work in favor of purchasing a home, especially for young adults who haven’t had time to build a sufficient cash cushion to weather economic downturns.
What happens when the friends suddenly move out? Or they get laid off — last hired, first fired. Where’s the money going to come from if there is a major home repair needed?
Five reasons why you shouldn’t buy a house right now
I’ve been at this for a long time. I work directly with a lot of people, which gives me an up-close and personal view of how folks at all income levels and ages handle their money. Advice for one does not always apply to the many. I know better what actually works in practice. Just because it works on paper doesn’t mean it works in real life.
Another person wrote siding with me: “There are so many unknowns early in a career — relocating for a job or graduate school, meeting a significant other [who] works in the other direction. Our financial adviser advised my 20-something son to wait until he knows he’ll be in one place for more like 5-7 years or until he gets married.”
I said: Yes, young adults should invest so that they have a chance of their money beating inflation. But if they are leaving college with debt, tackle that first. They still have time to invest.
Comment: “Putting some money in a retirement account (yes, ‘investing’) as a young person — especially if there is a healthy employer match — is likely to be a very wise financial decision.”
I agree that, in some cases, it makes sense to put in enough money to get an employer’s match. However, for those coming out with significant debt that could take them decades to pay if they stretch the payments out, it’s better to get rid of that liability early before other obligations end up a priority over their student loans.
Here’s what I witness — regularly.
The student loan payment pause will end soon. Here’s what to know.
Many graduates starting out don’t focus on their student loans and put the debt on pause through forbearance. Even after they begin making good money, they keep putting off paying the debt. Then they have kids, buy homes and live like the debt isn’t there, taking vacations and living above their means. Because the interest is being capitalized, the debt keeps growing. Now in their 40s and 50s, they are panicking about paying the debt off before they retire.
By the way, thanks to the Securing a Strong Retirement Act (or Secure 2.0, enacted last year), employers can choose to make contributions to workers’ retirement accounts based on their student loan payments. If this benefit is offered, workers can concentrate on paying off the debt without missing out on matching contributions.
I said: Referring to debt with an adjective is unhelpful. It’s just debt, and it all can be destructive if overused and too oppressive.
Comments: “Bad debt means your net result is negative, like buying a fancy pair of shoes on a credit card and not paying it off. Good debt means your net result is positive, like a degree that gets you a better job that way more than covers the cost of the debt, or a house that appreciates, provides a place to live, and is a better lifestyle.”
Opinion: Student debt has destroyed livelihoods for four generations
There are many students who have debt and no degree. Or others paid a lot for a master’s degree that didn’t increase their income but stuck them with debt they won’t pay off for decades. Remember the Great Recession and the housing crisis?
When giving advice, you have to factor in behavior. I speak against characterizing loans as good or bad in the hope that people who need to pause before taking on any debt will.
I write for the masses. If I said a mortgage is “good” debt, some folks who shouldn’t buy a home will see homeownership only in the positive. They won’t do the math to see that their mortgage won’t leave room to save for retirement or build an emergency fund. Many households don’t have enough saved to cover a $400 financial emergency, according to the Federal Reserve.
The faces of student debt
And have you been following the angst over the Biden administration’s debt forgiveness plan and whether the Supreme Court will allow it to move forward? Millions of student loan borrowers aren’t so happy with their so-called “good” education debt.
I agree with this comment: “I prefer the term ‘necessary debt’ rather than good or bad. What is necessary deserves careful consideration.”
If nothing else, the debate about my advice helped one young adult.
“From my perspective, it’s helpful to hear the wide-ranging perspectives folks have about these hot-button topics,” a 28-year-old D.C. reader said in an email. “I have always thought of personal finance as very cut-and-dry as if there was only one right way to do things. But there is a laundry list of learnings of what’s not the best idea. Finance isn’t always so cut-and-dry.”
If you have a personal finance question for Washington Post columnist Michelle Singletary, please call 1-855-ASK-POST (1-855-275-7678).
Recession-proof your life: The tsunami of economic news is leading consumers, investors and would-be homeowners alike to ask whether a recession is inevitable. Regardless of the answer, there are practical steps you can take to help shield yourself from a worst-case scenario.
Credit card debt: Carrying credit card debt is never good and you should ditch the habit. Here are seven ways to lower your credit card debt in light of the Fed continuing to raise interest rates.
Money moves for life: For a more sweeping overview of Michelle’s timeless money advice, see Michelle Singletary’s Money Milestones. The interactive package offers guidance for every life stage, whether you’re just starting out in your career to living an abundant life in retirement.
Test Yourself: Do you know where you stand financially? Take our quiz and read advice from Michelle.

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