5 Financial Lessons Baby Boomers Can Teach Us

Baby boomers have a different approach to managing money than their children and grandchildren do. A recent Society of Actuaries study looked at how each generation handles finances and plans for retirement, and it revealed several key differences among baby boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials. The good news? There's still plenty of time for the younger generations to learn from their successful elders and then apply these lessons to improve their finances.

Baby boomers were the most likely to feel in control of their finances and optimistic about their futures. They were also the most on track for their retirement goals and the most likely to weather an unexpected expense without taking on more debt. How do they do it? Below, I'll explain five key factors that set baby boomers apart from the other generations and how you can use these same strategies to improve your finances.

1. They plan for the rest of their lives.

Half of millennials and two-fifths of Gen Xers reported that they only plan about two to three months ahead at most, according to the survey. By contrast, only 27% of baby boomers responded this way, and nearly a quarter said they planned with the rest of their lives in mind. This long-term approach makes them more likely to prioritize saving and retirement planning.

If you aren't currently thinking about the long term, it's time to start. Open a retirement account if you don't already have one, and contribute as much as you can. Ideally, you should be setting aside 10% to 15% of each paycheck for retirement savings. If you cannot afford this much, contribute as much as you can and look for ways to reduce your expenses so you can save more in the future.

2. They take advantage of their full employer 401(k) match.

About 85% of baby boomers made an effort to contribute at least enough to get their full employer 401(k) match each year, according to the Society of Actuaries study. This was slightly higher than the percentage of Gen Xers and millennials who receive their full employer match.

Unless you absolutely cannot afford it, you should be contributing at least enough to get your 401(k) match. It's free money, and it can relieve some of the burden of saving for retirement, while setting yourself up to benefit from even better compound interest. If you're unsure of what your employer match is or if you even have one, talk to your employer's HR department. You should also ask about the vesting schedule. If you leave the job before you are fully vested in the 401(k) plan, you could lose some or all of your employer-matched funds.

3. They stay out of debt.

Nearly a third of baby boomers have no debt, according to the research. This makes it easier for them to save for their long-term goals. If you intend to buy a home or get a college degree, you may find it difficult to avoid debt altogether. But you can minimize how much you need to borrow by saving as much as you can and checking with different lenders to find out which offer the best rates.

If you have high-interest debt, like a credit card, you may want to think about transferring your balance to a card with a 0% introductory APR. You can also take out a personal loan to cover the balance. This way, you get a predictable monthly payment and possibly even a lower interest rate.

The most important step is to build your debt repayment strategy into your monthly budget. This is already done for you if you have regular monthly payments, but for revolving debt like credit cards, you may have to set a monthly savings goal to help you pay it off.

4. They have emergency funds.

When asked how they would handle an unexpected $10,000 expense, baby boomers were the most likely to say that they would use existing savings, while younger generations were more likely to say they would charge it to a credit card or take out a loan. But these strategies lead to more debt and can make it even more challenging to save for retirement or your other long-term goals.

Everyone should have an emergency fund to cover three to six months of living expenses. This way, if you lose your job or end up in the hospital, you'll have some money to fall back on and you won't jeopardize your financial security or become destitute. If you don't currently have a stocked emergency fund, begin saving for one now. Add up your monthly expenses and multiply them by three (or six if you want to go the extra mile) and then decide how much you can afford to set aside each month to help you achieve this goal.

5. They ask for help when they need it.

About 25% of baby boomers say they work with a financial advisor, compared with just 19% of Gen Xers and 10% of millennials, according to the study. A good financial advisor is worth having if you're not skilled at managing your money on your own or you lack the time and patience for it. Your advisor can make suggestions based on your unique situation and help you choose investments that are right for your goals and timeline.

But not all advisors are created equal. Choose a fee-only financial advisor. This means that they do not get commissions for recommending certain investment products, which can create a conflict of interest. Schedule a talk with a couple of advisors and get a copy of their fee schedules. Go with the one whom you feel the most comfortable with, and actually reach out whenever you have questions.

No generation is perfect in money management, but baby boomers have done a pretty good job over the years. By following their example, we can do a lot to improve our own financial security and our confidence in our ability to handle life's unexpected turns.

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