Why Aren't Millennials Saving Money?

For one thing, the recession made them hate banks.

I remember one thing very clearly about the times I applied for an apartment with my friends, and eventually with my boyfriend—we always submitted our tax returns and bank statements individually to our broker to avoid addressing a sensitive issue: how much was in our bank accounts. Talking about how much savings one has is probably on par with comparing salaries in terms of social faux pas. That said, it might be motivating, if a bit embarrassing, when your peers have a bigger salary or savings account than you do.

But perhaps for Millennials, as compared to previous generations, this conversation is easy, because the common answer to that question is: zilch. Commiserating about how to work and live in an expensive city while traveling and trying to save money is practically a Millennial pastime.

Earlier this week, The Wall Street Journal reported that adults under 35 have a savings rate of -2 percent, according to Moody's Analytics. The report said that in 2009, the savings rate of those under 35 was 5.2 percent.

That Americans don't save enough is certainly true: the U.S. personal savings rate has been plummeting since the early 1980s. For Millennials, their debt makes it even harder to save. A Wells Fargo survey of Millennials reported that 47 percent spend at least half their paychecks relieving various kinds of debt (credit card, mortgage, student loan, etc.). With student loan debt in the U.S. hitting the $1 trillion mark, Pew reports that 37 percent of U.S. households have student debt, with the median debt standing at $13,000.

This is paired with the fact that Millennials are more skeptical than ever of banks—perhaps not surprising for a generation that came of age during the Great Recession and Occupy Wall Street. One study named the financial industry as one least liked by Millennials—with Bank of America and Citigroup being the most hated.

Another study by BNY Mellon and University of Oxford looked at Millennials in 7 countries, and found that their financial literacy is also pretty dismal: Nearly half did not know how pensions worked, and Millennials are twice as likely to turn to their parents for financial advice rather than a bank. Additionally, 59 percent said they have not seen financial products geared towards them.

This mistrust of banks, along with historically low income and investment, is added to the fact that saving money is just really hard—for everyone. It may be that we need to trick ourselves to do it: Harvard economist David Laibson has some suggestions on how to raise the savings rate for those with jobs, namely an opt-out (rather than an opt-in) system that would make it easier for Americans to save. New companies like LearnVest offer financial planning for young professionals. While there's still some debate amongst economists about whether a high savings rate is good for the economy, making saving easier is definitely a step in the right direction for Millennials to become more financially stable and a less cheap generation.