How the Great Recession Changed Generations' Money Views

Senior adult woman talking to her son.

Depression-era kids grew up as penny pinchers and accrued significant savings when retirement rolled around. Their kids however--the baby boomer generation--are finding their nest eggs underfunded. Generation Y struggles with starting careers and paying debt but the extent of how the Great Recession will impact their money habits in the future remains to be seen.

The effects of the 2008 financial crisis that sent Wall Street and the housing market into a tailspin reverberated throughout the country and generations. Almost four years later, the unemployment rate still sits at 8.2% and consumer spending and confidence remains low.

No matter the life stage, the economic downturn impacted how people feel about their own financial future and investments.

“The habits of Gen X and Y are very different than how their parents spent money,” says Pat O'Connell, senior vice president at Ameriprise Financial. “Wind the clock back and think about what’s happened since March 2000. This has left a mark on younger generations and how they manage their money.”

The younger generation wants to save more, but can’t in the current economic climate. According to the AICPA and Ad Counsel, 94% of 25- to 34-year olds want to save for the future, but four in 10 have difficulty putting aside just $25 a week.

“Many baby boomers have more credit card debt than they should going into retirement,” says O’Connell. Today, only 17% of boomers are confident about their financial future as compared to 39% in 2007, according to Ameriprise. They’re not confident they can provide financially for themselves and their families.

“The prolonged recession and high employment has had a negative impact on the baby boomers personal life and their finances,” says certified public accountant Ernest Almonte Almonte.

Most of the silent generation is retired, and the lessons they learned from the Great Depression helped them save for the future. While they have enough money to make it to end of life, they won’t have as much wealth for inheritances because of volatile markets, near-zero interest rates and rising health-care costs, says Almonte. This is significant because all the generations are tied together—parents provide for children, children provide for parents, and inheritances are passed from one generation to another.

“Everyone’s more cautious and focused on being prepared, whether they’re concerned with tuition expenses or health care costs,” says Jack Kolker, financial advisor and executive director at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney.

As consumers struggle to regain their confidence in the economy, experts recommend the following steps to help improve financial confidence.

Communicate. Families are now talking more about politics, family issues, health care, and money, according to Ameriprise, which helps avoid money problems down the road.

Conversations about money are happening more often among the Gen X and Gen Y with only 28% of the silent generation talking about finances.

“One of the biggest things people can do is have a conversation about financial matters,” says O’Connell. Starting the conversation can help ease any anxiety and fears about money. “Once you open up about money, then you can begin to talk about budgets and other money matters.”

Talking finances can help create future goals and chip away debt. “Younger generations need to talk to their parents to understand how much debt, if any, and savings their parents actually have,” says Almonte. “In general, people feel less confident about taking care of others.” This translates into less people being confident about preserving wealth for inheritances and being able to provide a financially secure life for themselves and their families. “The sandwich generation, those with parents and children, are the ones being squeezed.”

Become educated and plan. “When you develop a plan and consistently follow it, the track record of success goes up,” says O’Connell. A plan brings clear direction in a volatile economy.

“Gen X and Gen Y are very impacted by debt,” says Raphael Gilbert, financial solutions advisor for Merrill Edge. “It’s a delicate balance to implement the right decisions.” Some people from this generation have been able to save but experts have seen a reluctance to invest in the equity markets similar to the silent generation.

“There’s more focus on planning, and people are setting aside money for different periods in their life,” says Kolker. “They’ve always set money aside for college but, with high health-care costs and uncertainty with their Social Security payments, they’re saving more.”

Invest for the future. No matter their age, every generation worries about financing retirement. “The huge market declines and volatility that started in 2008 have made people more cautious with their investments,” says Kolker.

How you invest money can affect your purchasing power and lifestyle during retirement. “If you look at where money is flowing in cash and fixed income products, these are short-term stable investments that give less purchasing power to investors,” says O’Connell. Although your money has short-term stability, there’s long-term risk of purchasing power loss because your money is growing slower than inflation.

To help minimize this risk, O’Connell suggests buying investments as you regularly contribute to retirement or other long-term savings accounts (also known as dollar cost averaging), using an asset allocation strategy, and rebalancing portfolios regularly to have an asset allocation appropriate for your risk tolerance.

The market isn’t for everyone and the younger generations have more time to make up any lost funds. If someone doesn’t want to lose money , equities may not be a good option for them and they should expect a low rate of return from conservative investments, like CDs and Treasuries, says Kolker. “If they understand that they need a return but don’t know how to do that, there are products that are actively managed, like mutual funds that hold stocks, bonds, or a mix of both, that they may be better suited for.”