Millennials Are Better with Money Than You Think

students_millThe kids are all right.

The rap on today’s young income-earners is that they haven’t bothered to learn about money and spend too much time on social media and smartphones. But two recent studies paint a very different picture. They show a generation that is making use of the broad spectrum of financial products, and aspires to save money, even if they lack the means in today’s challenging economy and the debt brought on by their education.

A Nov. 1 article citing a study from the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants blasted young people for relying on parents for financial support and asking peers for financial advice.

But studies from Aite Group on prepaid card use and Ally Bank on digital banking behavior see a generation that is smart choices in a tough environment. Yes, millennials or “Generation Y” lean on their friends’ wisdom rather than banks, and this should cause little surprise. They grew up in the wake of the credit crisis and faced a slack job market and daunting student loans. Their lives are mobile-centric and they are connected with each other very tightly via texting and social media. Retirement is not only far off for these young people — it may never arrive.

One reaction to these challenges has been widespread adoption of prepaid cards, which generally carry lower fees and don’t allow overdraft.

A new Aite Group study on prepaid card use saw 33% of prepaid cards used by Generation Y, versus 28% by Generation X, 15% by boomers, and 7% by seniors.  The study also points out that prepaid card adoption across income categories is consistent, varying just 4%, indicating that the cards are not simply something for people with less income.

“Aite Group believes that across income levels, Gen Xers and Gen Yers look to prepaid debit cards as a tool to help them manage their complex and changing financial lives,” the study says. Furthermore, prepaid customers make better financial decisions than comparable customers without the cards. The study points out that, “having the card is a sign of greater discipline in saving money. Compared to other consumers, a larger percentage of prepaid cardholders save more today than they did in 2010.”

Ally Bank took a look at digital banking habits and saw similar patterns of financial responsibility among younger customers.  Among millennials, 31%, if given $10,000, would choose to save most of the money. Just 4% would chose to spend most of it. These figures are slightly better than the population at large, where 29% said they would save most of the money, while 6% would spend it.

Younger customers are also, of course, more mobile-centric than older customers. 62% of people aged 18 to 34 perform their banking primarily outside the bank branch, versus 24% of all customers. Further, 23% of millennials use a mobile device as their primary means of banking, up from 15% last year.

Young people may be listening to friends on social media rather than financial experts, but the advice they are getting seems sound. They aspire to limit their debt with prepaid cards and increase their savings. With student loan debt topping $1.2 trillion, it seems they’re making the best decisions they can. The industry has no choice but to closely follow where these customers of tomorrow lead.

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Philip Ryan is Senior Editor of Bank Innovation and Senior Director of INV Fintech. He began covering financial services in 2012 and has more than 15 years' experience in online journalism, which makes him quite old. He can be reached at

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