So it has come to this.
TD Ameritrade released a survey last week looking into how Americans define financial success. A third of the respondents (39%) said they define it by being debt-free. Another 29% said that financial success is being able to save money and pay for long-term goals like education and retirement.
Now, there are two ways we can view these results. The first way is positively: Maybe, just maybe, we Americans are actually much more fiscally responsible than we thought. Could it be that all this time we weren’t buying homes we couldn’t afford, or taking vacations we shouldn’t take, but really just pinching pennies and spending only on things that are important? To quote Brett Ashley’s famous last line in The Sun Also Rises—“Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
The other way to look at this is cynically. Americans are finally waking up from the Golden Age of Consumerism—Hummers! McMansions! Maxed-out credit cards!—and can’t remember what we did last night. All we know is that we somehow have no more money in our wallets and our heads hurt. We’re hungover and vowing to get some help. Also, we have no more credit available to us so we’re kind of out of options here.
Regardless of how we decide to view these survey results, it’s hard not to be encouraged by the fact that more Americans are placing a greater emphasis on fiscal responsibility. Although it can be a cathartic exercise to vent our frustrations at the government for its own overspending, it’s long past time that many of us look in the mirror and get our houses in order. Some would argue that this is especially true for baby boomers.
Let’s be honest: Fairly or not, boomers have a reputation for being reckless spenders. They have been tagged as the entitled generation that didn’t live through the Great Depression like their parents, so never learned the value of a dollar. The truth is that this bad reputation is not completely unjustified. Securian released a survey last year that looked at the financial values and debt across generations. What it found was that even though the overall debt had not risen since its last survey in 2007, the debt among baby boomers had gone up.
“I think boomers very visibly like to spend money,” says Diane Young, director of retirement and goal planning for TD Ameritrade. “They very much live in the here and now.”
But that might be changing. The survey found that 51% of those 65 or older (which would include the oldest boomers) define financial success as being debt-free. By comparison, only 31% of those ages 18-34 reported the same. Even if it may be a case of the chickens coming home to roost, boomers do appear to change their attitudes toward saving as they age.
“So you’re spending money, busy raising your children and having fun for yourself,” Young says. “Once the children are out of the house there is a renewed focus on paying off the debt and having money for retirement once they get older. Maybe [the boomers] aren’t so crazy after all.”
TD Ameritrade has laid out some tips for investors looking to get back on track with their finances. These include outlining a budget, setting financial goals, starting an automatic investing plan to help you consistently save every month and contributing to employer-sponsored retirement plans.
“The best thing we have all learned generationally through things like employer-sponsored plans is that if you have money taken out of your paycheck before you have the paycheck you don’t miss that,” Young says. “It takes patience, it takes time.”
Young says that the important thing is people have to sit down and take an honest look at their finances. Once you figure out the debt you owe, you should begin paying off the one with the most interest. But the financial planning process includes not just looking at your debt, but also looking at the assets you have accumulated. “This takes a bit of the edge off,” Young says.
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