Millennials Must Understand Both Sides of Balance Sheet

Many Millennial workers show a healthy focus on paying down debt—student debt especially—but their actions reveal little appreciation for opportunities on both sides of the balance sheet. 

Cathy Weatherford is president and CEO of the Insured Retirement Institute (IRI), and she says she is especially qualified to discuss trends taking shape among Millennial investors.

“I have got three Millennial girls at home,” she said during a recent webcast hosted by IRI and the Center for Generational Kinetics (CGK). “So I’m deeply entrenched and personally involved in all these trends we’re talking about today.”

The webcast was called to highlight research results from a joint IRI/CGK survey fielded earlier this year, focusing squarely on Millennials and their developing habits at work and in the investing marketplace. As Weatherford explained, until about five years ago, Baby Boomers “were still the big research focus for us” and for the retirement planning industry in general, but around that time the Millennial generation actually overtook Boomers in terms of sheer size.

Turning the focus to Millennials quickly helped IRI debunk some myths, Weatherford noted, not least among them that Millennials “are not thinking about retirement or about their careers and long-term future,” Weatherford said.

“In a few words they are very closely engaged with the retirement planning effort, especially those who have been in the workforce a few years,” she said. “At the same time, it confirms what many have believed, that Millennials are already falling behind what we expect they’ll need to do to prepare for retirement. Bottom line, Millennials will need to do more than their own parents if they want to have a financially secure retirement.”

Among the large sample of Millennials survey recently by IRI/CGK, more than three in four (77%) are focused “first and foremost on cutting their debt.” This is a healthy stat viewed in isolation, researchers explained, but the problem arises from the fact that a similar number say “cutting debt today” is also their current approach for improving their retirement outlook. 

According to the IRI, Millennials need to ask themselves whether paying down debt at the expense of making investments is the most productive use of the wealth they have been able to generate so far. Often it is not, Weatherford said, because student loans generally have manageable interest rates and sensible time horizons (see “Linking Student Debt and Retirement Savings”). 

NEXT: Millennial strategies taking shape 

Weatherford explains one of the keys to ensuring Millennials will have successful retirements “is getting them educated about both sides of the balance sheet.”

“Millennials, in our data and in other reports, don’t in general have great financial knowledge,” Weatherford said. “What we can say without a doubt is that there’s a big gap between what they need to know and what they do know, and there’s still another gap between what people know and what they do.”

Here’s a good example: When it comes to expenditures in retirement, fully 70% of Millennials think they will spend less than $36,000 per year. This is already 30% less than the current national average, $46,757, for those aged 65 to 74, Weatherford said, and is likely far below what Americans will be spending annually in retirement by 2050 or 2060.

This all makes Millennials a great target market for professional financial advice, she noted. According to IRI, a pretty strong majority (62%) of Millennials would like an adviser to walk them through every step of the retirement planning process, and 87% said it is important that an adviser be willing to meet them in person. About one in five (19%) Millennials said they are likely to use a robo-adviser at some point.

The research also asked Millennials to pick among a list of celebrity advisers. Interestingly, about half of Millennials (48%), would pick Warren Buffett to be their financial adviser, and 32% would choose Oprah Winfrey. By contrast, 77% of Boomers selected Buffett and 15% picked Winfrey.

Weatherford said this shows Millennials want an adviser who can help set life goals and put retirement planning into context—not simply a stock picker who can potentially improve returns.

Concluding the webcast, Weatherford and other experts said automatic enrollment has been a major boon to Millennials’ retirement planning effort, so she urged plan sponsors and advisers to double down on innovative plan design features that leverage inertia.