The millennial lifestyle – cord-cutting, wasteful, feckless and more concerned with ordering an Uber than the death of the auto industry – has been the subject of much criticism.
While there is no question that millennial habits are reshaping the global economy, it is also shaping them: finding a job after college is not guaranteed and many struggle to repay student loans.
We wanted to get a closer look at the lifestyles of millennials around North America and find out if they are really as financially flippant as they have been made out. Are they concerned about saving or buying a house? Or would they rather just order Seamless and binge on Netflix? Here, six people from around the US and Canada tell us how they make ends meet.
Nectar Odabashian, 23, $35,000
Receptionist at Fage Yogurt, Gloversville, New York
Nectar moved to Gloversville, New York, with her boyfriend, Rob, after graduating from Rutgers University in 2014. The couple, originally from New Jersey, chose the upstate mountain city because rent was cheap and they wanted to save money to travel.
“People thought I was weird,” she says.
Living away from the city allows Nectar to save, which is a priority for her and Rob. The couple live together and pool their money to cover expenses. Rob, 27, works nights at a convenience store and makes about $800 per month. They share a 1997 Subaru Outback that Nectar says has seen better days.
Living upstate makes her an anomaly among her friends as most of them moved to Jersey City or other urban areas after college. “They live a very nightlife-y lifestyle, having huge blowouts on the weekends, going to shows all the time.”
Nectar describes herself as a “nervous shopper” and constantly questions how each purchase she makes will affect her budget.
“Recently, we were at Walmart and we had some extra money, and we needed a humidifier for our apartment because the air is so dry,” she says. “So Rob said: ‘Why don’t we spend $25 on a humidifier?’ And I was like: ‘Do we really need it?’ I try to be as methodical as possible.”
The couple stretch their income as far as possible. This means packing lunches for work, staying in instead of going out, and sticking to a budget. Extra money goes towards beer for the weekends and stuff for Nectar’s cats. “Our spare room is the cat’s room,” she says. She also spends about $50 a month on e-juice for her vape. She started smoking in 2009 and quit in 2014.
“The big reason we moved up to the mountains was to be able to save up for things,” Nectar says. “We want to travel and buy property and get a tiny home and be able to live off the land. We’re so young, we sort of have the whole future ahead of us, and we’re open to what we want to do at this point.”
Christine Odunlami, 24, $0
Unemployed, Toronto, Canada
Christine is living off her savings account and credit card, having lost her job as an intern for a marketing company in December.
“I’m not really satisfied and it’s because I don’t have a job,” she says. “I hate being in debt, I hate owing money. Once I’m working permanently, I will be better.”
Being unemployed, Christine says it is challenging to live off her meagre savings. Before she lost her job, she was making between $400 and $600 a month and now has access to a line of credit, which is seeing her through until she finds a new job. She is living with her sister as she looks for a job in the US. Her parents cover her rent.
“It’s hard because if my parents didn’t pay my rent, I would be homeless,” she says.
Each day, Christine sets a budget for between $30 and $40 to spend on food, coffee and entertainment. A self-described foodie, she says she loves splurging on takeouts.
“I have no inhibition when it comes to food,” she says. “I will spend as much as I possibly can to have good food.”
For other items, Christine says she relies on a rewards debit card that gives her free movie tickets and discounts at stores, and coupons to help offset the cost of everything she buys. Since tracking her spending, she noticed unexpected costs, such as toiletries and hair appointments.
“Being black, it’s hard to find hairdressers that are cheap,” she says. “I go to one lady a couple of towns over who charges $50 for a wash and a trim.”
Originally from Maryland, Christine attended the University of Toronto. She says living in Canada has opened her eyes to subsidized healthcare. She does not have to spend money on healthcare but does have to pay $240 a month for anti-inflammatory steroids to stave off a hormone allergy.
“I guess the great thing in Canada is there is universal healthcare, so I don’t have to pay for the doctor, but the medication is expensive.”
Brian Staub, 28, $30,000
Sheet metal worker at Ray’s Metal Works, Jacksonville, Florida
As the father to a four-year-old girl, Brian spends $520 of his monthly paycheck on daycare. “It’s a struggle,” he says.
After that, he and his wife, Stephanie, are not left with much. “We have to get groceries and stuff like that, too, and gas to get us through the week,” Brian says. “We pay the daycare, we pay the groceries for the week and hopefully we can cover one of our bills.”
Sometimes, they do not have the extra money. In those moments, Brian and his wife, who waits tables for about four to six hours a week, look for extra shifts. Stephanie brings in about $500 to $600 every two weeks.
“It’s always kind of a gamble. We roll the dice and pay the bill that makes sense at the time,” he says. “It’s always kind of shooting from the hip, as they say, as far as which bill we pay first.”
Brian is the only one of his friends (“all a bunch of heathens”) who has a child, making his lifestyle a little different.
“My spending habits are definitely on the middle-aged side,” he says. Last year, he had to spend about $3,000 for repairs on his truck and says he wishes he could buy a new one. Once he has paid off Stephanie’s jeep he hopes to buy a new truck for himself.
“I don’t even want the vehicle, but Jacksonville is not a city that affords public transportation,” he says.
At the moment he is not concerned about having enough money, but having extra money. He was in the army, posted in Germany, when he got married, and spent most of his savings on bringing his wife to the US in 2011.
“I’ve had to work some pretty crappy jobs since 2011 before she could get her green card,” he says.
Every six months, Brian, who is originally from Pittsburgh, receives a raise at work, which helps him pay down debts and stay on track to pay bills.
“I have no savings right now, and when I do have something it goes toward paying something I already needed to pay off,” he says. “But where we stand right now, we have everything we need.”
Natalia Martinez, 29, $130,000
General manager, Cambridge Innovation Center, Miami, Florida
For years, Natalia fluctuated in terms of how she spent her money. Some years she focused on saving and paying down her student loans from attending Harvard and Columbia, while in other years she was less thrifty.
“It’s taken most of my 20s to come to a more balanced approach,” she says. “Finding it has come in ebbs and flows.”
Having found the balance between responsibility (such as saving enough to be able to buy property) and having fun, Natalia is comfortable in her spending. Extra income goes towards what she calls “experiential expenses” such as travel and attending operas, concerts and plays. She also belongs to a couple of members’ clubs that require annual fees.
Natalia moved to Miami last year to run the expansion of the Cambridge Innovation Center, a high-profile startup-focused organisation that started out in the Boston area.
“I end up having a lot of work meetings around things that entail food, so eating out doesn’t generally come out of my budget,” she says.
Compared with her friends, Natalia says she has been a bit more experimental in the way she lives and spends money. Born in Havana, Cuba, and raised in Mexico, Natalia travels more frequently than most people she knows. She has moved cities often, having lived in Boston, New York and Miami.
Natalia saves approximately $1,000 per month and says she would like to have the flexibility to buy an apartment one day, though she is not looking at the moment.
“I have some friends who were very responsible and conservative, and they are at this point doing things like buying property and doing these things that we perceive as very settled,” she says. “I am definitely not in a position to do that.”
Aaron Tipping, 23, $33,000
Teacher, Micro, North Carolina
Since graduating from Pennsylvania’s Edinboro University in 2015 and starting to repay his student loans, Aaron has developed a conservative attitude towards how he spends money.
“I’m at this point where I have a good job as a teacher, but when I started paying my loans recently, I realised I needed to be a bit better with my money,” he says.
For Aaron, spending comes down to groceries, gas and the occasional coffee after work. Recent splurges include dinners out with his girlfriend, Lacey, and a dog they adopted. Aaron and Lacey live in an apartment in Micro, North Carolina, about half an hour out of Raleigh, and the couple often go to the city on weekends to go to restaurants and bars.
“When I think about my spending when I was in school, I see how much of a difference there is,” he says.
For now, he is pretty satisfied with his spending, although he would like to spend more on things he wants. “I’m building up savings, pay my bills, pay my rent,” he says.
In college, Aaron used Amazon Prime to shop, something he still does, although on a smaller scale since he has to put more towards student loan repayments.
“I get into this thing where I’ll get on Amazon and they’ll list what you can look at,” he says. “And I’m like: ‘Ooh, two-day shipping! I should just get that.’ I’ll get books and movies digitally. Then I’ll regret it.”
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Aaron worries about how to allocate his money, especially recently, having moved away from his home town in Pennsylvania. “I tend to stress and think of the worst-case scenario – like with the car or my job,” he says. “I tend to worry about it a lot more now.”
He worries in particular about his car, and wishes he could afford a new one. If something were to happen to it, he is concerned he would not be able to afford the repair. “It would be nice to not panic every time the engine makes a sound,” he says.
However, Aaron knows he is not alone. He says many of his friends, especially those who just graduated from college, go through the same thing.
“It’s very common, especially with people around our age,” he says. “It’s weird because I’m teaching at this school and there are teachers who have been there for 15 years with kids and mortgages on their houses, and I can’t even imagine how that is.”
Zack Desmond, 25, $38,000
Programme director, Brave Heart Volunteers, Sitka, Alaska
Sitka, with a population of about 8,000, affords Zack a slightly different lifestyle to millennials who move to cities for work. He does not have internet, Netflix, a car – or a long train commute.
“A lot of people who live here are aiming to live pretty simply,” he says.
What he saves on city living goes towards his passion for travel. Last year, Zack, who is from Seattle and graduated from Boston College, went to New York, Washington DC, Seattle, Boston and Florida. This year, he plans to save money for plane tickets, as he has a few weddings to attend this summer.
“I know I need to get across the country at least twice this summer,” he says. “My friends aren’t mostly from Alaska. So if we want to go home and visit people, you gotta get on a plane. Most people do it once a year, sometimes more. It’s just valuable to get off this island, especially in the winter.”
Alaska is known for its dark, cold winters. Apart from air fares, Zack spends money on the gym and other physical activities to keep in good spirits.
“I just feel like if I didn’t have somewhere to be then I wouldn’t go outside,” he says. He does yoga and is part of an aerial silk dance troupe. “It keeps me strong, and gets me moving, which is great.”
A huge chunk of Zack’s money goes toward student loans. Despite being in debt, he recently gave money to Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ campaign – $11 a month for six months.
Zack, who admires the Vermont senator for “only taking money from humans”, says he gave more than he can afford, adding: “I never thought I would, but there was an exception in this case.”
For this project, each subject was asked to track his or her expenses and share them with the Guardian.