Confirmed: Millennials' Top Financial Concern Is Student-Loan Debt

They’re also still worried about wealth accumulation and saving enough to buy a home.

Andrew Burton / Reuters

Thirty-seven-year-old Kelly Tynan would like to give her younger self two pieces of practical financial advice. First, go to state school; it’s far cheaper than a degree from a private college. Secondly, and relatedly, take on less student debt.

Student-loan bills now consume more than $700 per month of Tynan’s take-home pay, as a special-education teacher and mother of a 2-and-a-half-year-old in the Boston area. If Tynan didn’t have roughly $60,000 in student-loan debt, she could have saved more cash in her 20s, or would now live in a larger home. “I might have been able to take a few trips and have that experience of the world,” she says. “As a parent, that is nearly impossible to do now.”

Rising student debt is a central obstacle on the complex new financial landscape confronting Americans, particularly young people just starting out. In the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll, nearly three-in-10 young people who define themselves as just starting out cited paying off student loans as their biggest financial challenge; that tied with saving up enough money for major expenditures such as buying a home was their top concern. In sharp contrast, only about one-in-nine older poll respondents who define themselves as no longer starting out described student loans as the toughest financial challenge they faced in their own youth. Instead, older respondents pointed to making ends meet, not accumulating debt, and setting aside cash for major purchases as the greatest challenges in their early financial lives. (For an explanation of how the poll defined those who are still “starting out” and those who have advanced past that stage in their life, see here.)

That contrast is yet another indication of how student debt has reshaped the financial experience of young people post-college. Just ask 24-year-old Matthew Rogge of Lincoln, Nebraska, another poll respondent who considers himself lucky to hold down a full-time job after he graduated in May 2014. Rogge’s $40,000 in student debt hangs over him, he says. “It makes it hard to save,” he adds, even with his job as a general manager for a small, local catering company. “Honestly, I would not have even needed to go to school for the job I am in now.”

The increasing weight of student loans was apparent again when the poll asked respondents their view on how young people should use their disposable income. Young people said that the best use of any extra money was to pay off debt like credit cards and student loans (32 percent), followed by building up an emergency fund (21 percent) and saving for a major purchase like a car (15 percent). Older people—when asked what they wish they had done differently in their early financial lives—cited investing in a retirement account (26 percent); saving to buy a home (15 percent); and paying off credit-card debt or student loans (14 percent) as the best use of any extra money. (Older people with student debt answered that question somewhat differently, giving equal weight to saving for retirement and paying off student loans. There was no meaningful difference on that question among younger people with and without student debt.

One striking contrast is that while older people were most likely to cite not saving enough for retirement as their biggest financial regret, only one-in-10 younger respondents identified retirement savings as the best use for any extra cash (fewer than the share who picked any option except saving for their own children’s college education).

Both older and young respondents held similar ideas about the amount of money that a young person would need to feel financially secure. Twenty-three percent of both young and older respondents pinpointed a salary of $50,000 as the sufficient wage for anyone starting out. Nearly two-in-four of the older respondents, and exactly three-in-10 younger ones, said a smaller wage would be enough; another roughly one-fifth of the older group and one-fourth of the younger picked $60,000 or $70,000. A relatively small 13 percent of the older cohort, and 17 percent of the younger cohort, thought a young person would need more than that.

For young and old alike, the poll suggests, debt now looms as a major factor in setting their life course. An identical 38 percent of both young and older respondents said that in making decisions such as when to get married, buy a home, or have children, debt had affected their choices “a great deal.” Roughly another three-in-10 in both groups said debt had colored their decisions at least somewhat.

Forty-six-year-old David Arn of Ripley, Ohio knows the perils of debt firsthand. The married father of four, who works as a manufacturing manager, took on personal and credit-card debt early on in his married life to make ends meet; now, he and his wife are still financially digging themselves out of those decisions.

When he and his wife were just starting out, married and with a child, their wages did not cover their expenses. “We found ourselves with easy and reliable credit, and we ran up cards for the next 20 years,” he says. “Over time, we’ve learned that you can’t rely on credit to cover your financial shortcomings.” More recently, Arn has been on a plan to become debt-free and to try to build up wealth—i.e., save more money. He now has roughly $14,000 in personal loans and credit-card debt, compared to a balance of roughly $20,000 one year ago.

Like many poll respondents, Arn wishes that he had approached debt a bit differently when he started out, and that he’d also had more financial education. “I would have liked to have known how compound interest works, both earning and owing,” he says. “When you owe interest on a credit card, you don’t realize how much you’ll be paying.”

Perhaps proving that you can’t know what you don’t know, younger poll respondents (at 46 percent) were much more likely than their older counterparts (at 28 percent) to say they are following a financial plan at this early stage in their life. Both groups converged, though, in viewing required financial-education classes in high school as the best source of potential financial advice for young people. About half of both younger and older respondents picked that option, followed in each case by free financial courses for adults and hiring a professional financial adviser. And the two groups converged again in agreeing that in seeking financial advice during their starting-out years, they depended primarily on resources very close to home: Just over half of each group said they relied mostly on their parents, with roughly another one-fifth indicating they depended primarily on their own research.