Thirtysomething and Strapped: What to Do?

A new survey of young workers published by the AFL-CIO suggests many Americans under 35 can’t manage the basic financial building blocks of an adult life. The union calls the last ten years a “lost decade” for these young people during which many fell short on critical responsibilities like getting their own place, finding a stable job with benefits and saving money for emergencies.

About 31% of survey respondents said they made enough money to pay their bills and set some money aside, and seven out of 10 respondents said they did not have enough money saved to cover two months’ worth of living expenses. Parents of these young workers know how far they are from making it on their own; one in three is living at home.

“Along almost every metric, people under 35 are doing much worse than they were 10 years ago,” says Jennifer Jannon, 29, a regional director for Working America, the ALF-CIO’s community organization for non-union workers. “People are literally putting off starting their adult lives because of the conditions they’re facing economically,” Jannon says.

She says the results should not be interpreted as laziness. “Young people are really yearning to move out on their own [and] to start their adult lives,” she says. “[But], they can’t find the type of work that supports an adult life.”

Some take issue with the suggestion that the current job market is more difficult for young workers than for their counterparts over 35. “It’s easier for younger people because they have less experience, and they don’t cost as much,” says Robin Ryan, a career counselor and the author of “60 Seconds And You’re Hired.” “If you’re over 40, a lot of employers see you as expensive,” Ryan says. Employers may also assume younger workers are more tech-savvy and can more quickly adapt to a changing workplace, she says.

Regardless of who’s to blame, the result for young workers will be a substantial loss of potential wealth over their lifetimes. A person who’s able to save $2,000 a year between ages 22 and 30 will retire with more money than a person who saves the same amount over a longer period from ages 30 to 60, says Thomas Holland, a partner at the wealth advisory firm Global Vision Advisors.

It’s crucial that those seven out of 10 young workers who don’t have enough savings to last two months start saving right away. “Though the economy may be poor, what I find is that if you don’t establish savings habits early in your career, it’s not likely that at some golden age you’ll learn to save,” Holland says.

Here are some tips for workers in Generations X and Y who are trying to start saving:

Cut Your Expenses

“’Spend less than you earn’ is the fundamental principle of personal finance,” says J.D. Roth, co-author of the book “10,001 Ways to Live Large on a Small Budget.” “It seems really simple and obvious, but so many people don’t do that,” Roth says.

Evaluate regular expenses like a gym membership, Netflix subscription or unlimited text-messaging plan to see how much you’re really using them. “If you’re not actually using it very much, get rid of it,” says Trent Hamm, 30, author of the book “365 Ways to Live Cheap.”

“People in their 20s tend to do a lot of expensive things with their friends,” Hamm says. Don’t spend without thinking just to keep up with your peers, Hamm says. He suggests finding a hobby that you’re really passionate about. By focusing your mental energy on one thing you love – and seeking out friends who share that interest – you may find yourself not “spending money just for the sake of spending money,” Hamm says.

Set Goals

It’s easier to save if you have a clear idea of what you’re saving for, Holland says. “If you really spend the time to think about why you’re working in the first place, you’re much more likely to save more and be more intentional with where you’re saving,” he says. Choose to build up an emergency fund of six months’ worth of expenses or to put a down payment on a house, and each small amount you put aside will feel more meaningful.

Saving for specific purposes might also help you stay more focused on your personal goals. It’s a mistake to act because of your envy of someone whose car, apartment or shiny gadgets are nicer than yours, Holland says. “Never judge people based on their lifestyle and where they live in terms of their worth because it’s never a correlation. More times than not, they’re worth less than the person living in the smaller house driving the Honda Accord,” he says.

Make It Easy

The easiest way to save for retirement is to take advantage of an employer’s offer to match your contribution to a 401(k) – the money comes out of your paycheck automatically, and you’re getting free money. You can also set up automatic transfers from your checking account to make building an emergency fund just as easy. “It’s a lot easier to save because you don’t have to think about it every time [and] you don’t have the opportunity to talk yourself out of it,” Hamm says.

Workers whose jobs don’t offer a matching contribution to a retirement fund can set up a Roth IRA. “They’re easy as pie to set up; it’s just actually doing it and taking action, that’s always the trick,” says Hamm. Low-income workers may be eligible for a tax credit of up to $2,000 for contributions to a retirement savings account such as a Roth IRA.

Once you’ve established a saving habit, stick with it. One common problem is what Roth refers to as “lifestyle inflation,” the inevitable desire to respond to a raise or a bonus by spending more.  The most successful people I’ve seen with personal finance don’t spend more money as their incomes increase; instead, they bank that money, he says.