It isn’t too late for millennials to build wealth. Here’s what to do

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The eldest millennials are now approaching 40 and have experienced a few major setbacks that have kept them from building wealth in their adult lives.

First, they were hit by 2008 recession — at the time, the worst economic downturn the U.S. had seen since the Great Depression — just as they were entering the workforce. Then, just over a decade later, the coronavirus pandemic and new record-breaking recession hit, which left millions unemployed.

The group was also saddled student loan debt, which has grown to $1.7 trillion outstanding in 2021.

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Still, personal finance experts say that it is not too late for the oldest millennials to build wealth and get on track for retirement. It just might take some extra work.

“You can catch up, you can absolutely do it,” said Linda Farinola, a certified financial planner and president of PFG-Financial Planning and Management in Princeton, New Jersey. “But one of the things you have to recognize is that you have to put together some kind of goals or plan and commit yourself to making some choices.”

Accept where you are

Even if you are beginning your wealth building journey later, in your 30s or 40s, or even starting over after a setback, it’s important to understand and accept exactly where you are financially.

“You are not alone and shouldn’t be embarrassed to go get help or ask questions,” said Farinola. “Everyone has had setbacks.”

It also doesn’t help to dwell on what you wish you’d done earlier, according to Marco Rimassa, a CFP and president of CFE Financial in Katy, Texas.

“Let’s focus on the best avenue going forward and maximize the opportunities in front of us rather than what should have happened,” he said.

Take an inventory of your net worth — debt, assets, savings and more — to determine what work needs to be done.

One thing in millennials’ corner is that for many of them, saving for retirement has been automated via employer-sponsored 401(k) plans.

“You have a lot of millennials who have actually saved into their 401(k) plans and they don’t realize it,” said Jacqueline Schadeck, a CFP based in Atlanta. “So that has actually helped a lot of people.”

Revise your idea of retirement

If you started saving later or find that you’re worse off than you thought, you may have to rethink what retirement will be like for you.  

That may mean downsizing your home, moving to a place with a lower cost of living or cutting expenses, he said. It could also mean working longer.

“The easiest way to accommodate a late start is to change the goalposts,” said Rimassa.  

Embrace what can be controlled and then commit to that particular course of action.

Marco Rimassa

president of CFE Financial

Currently, Social Security considers full retirement to be age 67 for those born after 1960, but those who wait until after age 70 to draw on their benefits get a larger monthly amount. Waiting until then to start retirement still gives the oldest millennials three decades to save and plan.

Establishing that goal when you’re still years away can help you achieve it more easily and be excited about it, he said.

Make a plan that works for you

Once you have a retirement goal, establish a plan that works for your budget and timeline.

“Embrace what can be controlled and then commit to that particular course of action,” said Rimassa.

In the years before retirement, maximize your savings in either an employer-sponsored 401(k) account (including any company matches) or another individual retirement account, such as a traditional or Roth IRA.

Those who are behind may want to lean on their 401(k) to help them catch up, said Schadeck. These accounts have higher maximums — those under age 50 can sock away $19,500 in 2021 and those 50 and over can also contribute an additional $6,500. Roth IRAs, on the flip side, have a maximum contribution of $6,000 this year and additional $1,000 for those over 50, as well as certain income limits for who can use them.

To maximize assets in a shorter timeframe, people should also make sure they aren’t invested too conservatively, said Rimassa.

Taking advantage of employer benefits now can also help people save for the future, said Michelle Petrowski, a CFP and CEO of Being in Abundance in Phoenix.

She recommends using health savings accounts, which you contribute to pre-tax and can roll over unused money year to year. Even using flexible spending accounts or plans for dependent care — which generally use pre-tax dollars — can help you find money in your budget to save for retirement, she said.

Wealth transfer

Of course, some millennials have another great advantage on their side — the generational wealth transfer that will see some $68 trillion passed from parents to children.

This could be a massive boon for millennials but should be carefully used to maximize impact.

“The first rule of thumb is not to consider it as disposable income,” said Rimassa.

One thing advisors don’t recommend is attempting any shortcuts to building wealth, such as investing heavily in meme stocks or buying lottery tickets.

“When people have the mentality that the only way they can get there is through some type of miracle, they’re going to throw the ball as far as they can and see what happens,” said Rimassa. “That’s when I think they get into trouble.”

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