They say it’s never too early to talk to your kids about money. But little did Erin Lowry’s dad know that teaching his daughter what net profit means at the age of 7 would define her entrepreneurial ventures.
“I had a little glazed Krispy Kreme donut stand during my mom’s yard sale, which my dad had given me seed money for by buying the donuts,” she says. “After I counted up my haul, he had me pay him back for the initial stake and pay my little sister for being my employee.” This happened in the summer of 1996, but this tough-love attitude about money shaped her career decisions.
Erin Lowry is now a millennial money expert, founder of BrokeMillennial.com and author of Broke Millennial: Stop scraping by and get your financial life together. A go-to guidebook on personal finance with everything from investing to splitting the check, packed with a lot of sarcasm, hilarious stories and actionable advice.
Erin is also a regular contributor to Forbes and U.S. News & World Report and she’s been featured on CBS Sunday Morning, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and Refinery29. We recently checked in with her to learn more about her book and get her take on the biggest financial challenges facing American Millennials today.
Erin, who should be reading Broke Millennial?
Anybody who wants to get their financial life together. Obviously, the word Millennial is in the title but really it is for anyone. I was just focusing on the Millennial generation because I’m one of them. But Gen X, Gen Z and Baby Boomers can certainly read it and learn a lot.
There’s this other misconception about the title. The book is not only for the broke Millennial because a lot of the later content talks about how to level up in your financial life: investing, saving for retirement, hiring a financial planner, buying a house, talking about money with your partner. All of these topics include an expert round-up to help readers improve their financial life.
Why do you love personal finance so much?
That’s a great question. I guess it’s because I truly believe that there are one of two options for people when it comes to money: either you control your money or your money controls you. And far too many people let their money control them and part of that is because they either didn’t have the education to understand how money works.
“There are one of two options for people when it comes to money: either you control your money or your money controls you.” – Erin Lowry
Some people take themselves out of it: they think it’s either because they don’t like math or they’re not good at math or that it’s too complicated so they give up before even trying. I didn’t study a degree in finance, I studied journalism. So my point is: if I could do it you can do it too.
Money never was a taboo for you. But what would you say to someone who didn’t have the money-talking background at home or at school?
That’s the truth for most people, unfortunately. The first part of your relationship to money is figuring out your psychological background. That’s why I wrote a whole chapter in the book about it: how to identify, understand, and overcome your psychological blocks when it comes to money.
I think far too many of us don’t take the time to realize why we relate the way we do to money. A lot of that tend to have to do with our upbringing. And until you’re ready to tackle the why, it’s hard to make a plan for how to get in control. So for anybody who grew up with money being a taboo topic, which I think it’s the majority of people, I’d recommend the first step being to analyze your psychological relationship with money and when you start to recognize where you have your issues you can set up systems to prevent yourself from being your own worst enemy. Sometimes you will fail, and that’s okay, and then you’ll just have to restart and keep going.
On the other side, there are so many ways to learn about money and to get better with money. What works for your best friend, your sister, your brother or your parents, might not be what works for you. So take the time to unearth what it is that works for you. Maybe that’s a podcast, a tv show, a blog, a book… We’re fortunate we have unlimited ways to consume content. Find the one that sticks to you personally and move on from there.
What do you think are the biggest financial challenges facing Millennials today?
There are quite a few, but the biggest one is not taking ownership. There are a lot of people who are deeply in debt and instead of facing the numbers they just think “Bah, what’s a little more…” or they just say “I’ll be paying this ‘til I die so what’s the point of trying to get in control now?” and I totally empathise with seeing that way.
“The biggest financial challenges Millennials face is not taking ownership.” – Erin Lowry
If you graduate at 22 with 60.000 in student loan debt and you’re not earning a big salary it can feel impossible. But not trying is a critical issue.
What’s your current financial goal?
I have two. My medium-term financial goal is to be a millionaire by 35 (right now I’m 28). The other one is to get to travel more, to save more money every year so I can take vacations. I grew up overseas, so I travelled a lot when I was younger. After I graduated from college, the first couple of years I didn’t have the means to do that and it’s something that I really find important. So now another focus of mine is to be able to take at least one international trip (in addition to some domestic trips) every single year because that’s what I value.
Ultimately, everybody’s goal with money should be spending it on what they value. Everybody’s values are going to be different, but if you can put your money toward what you value consistently (and have all of your basic needs covered: food, shelter, clothing…) then you’re going to feel pretty in control regardless of what your financial situation is.
Do you feel it’s easier to manage our finances these days with the tools that are available to us?
I think we certainly have more access than any generation before (we can dig into our balance, credit cards or bank accounts every day), but just because it’s available doesn’t mean it’s been easier for people because a lot of people still don’t face the numbers. So yes, theoretically it’s certainly easier and more accessible but that doesn’t mean it’s actually being done in practice.
In relation to that, do you think that banks are keeping up with technology? If not, what can banks do?
Some of them are. The younger, newer, Internet-only banks are doing a great job. Some of the older, very well-known and established banks (the traditional names people think of when they think about banks) are not investing as aggressively as they should in UX, UI, friendly websites, easy-to-use apps, making things accessible (so you don’t necessarily have to go to the branches), having customer service more available to people via phone, or chatting online…
“Big banks need to invest more ‘aggressively in Tech.” – Erin Lowry
One of the reasons why they don’t invest in technology as much as they should is because they’re still catering to an older demographic that doesn’t want to see this change as Millennials do. But banks will definitely need to adapt if they still want to target us and redeem the Millennial business.
The same really goes for brokerages and wealth managers as well. The place where I do my investing looks like it was probably built in 1999 and hasn’t really been updated since then. I’m still going to use it because I still like the cost, but at the same time if they want to keep attracting younger people, improving their online experience is a must.
We already know we should be investing more. What’s the number one thing you say to people to inspire them to invest?
A lot of people think that it’s either 1) too expensive or 2) too confusing and complicated. I emphasize and understand why people feel that way, but if you’ve gotten the basics of your financial life under control (no credit card debt, you’re contributing to an employer-match retirement account), if you’ve reached that level and you’re trying to figure out what’s next, investing is the following step. And it shouldn’t feel like gambling.
I would never recommend somebody do stock picking – I will always recommend investing in index funds or ETFs.
The problem when I say terms like ETFs to Millennials is that they won’t necessarily know what I mean. They say “Ok. But what is an index fund? Where do I do the investing into the index funds? How do I pick which one I invest in?” At this point what I suggest is a slow process of educating yourself: reading material, picking up books, listening to podcasts… There are a lot of researches out there that don’t dumb it down, but rather make it simple to understand the importance of investing.
Is there any must-read book about investing that you recommend?
A Random Walk Down Wall Street is a good one if you’re very interested in investing. It’s great to learn the fundamentals. I’d also recommend Investopedia as a very easy-to-understand website, and also anything related to Jack Bogle or Vanguard.
Reading is a powerful way to learn the basics on your own and get started. Once you do so, you’ll realize investing is not as complicated as Wall Street wants you to think it is.
“Investing is not as complicated as Wall Street wants you to think it is.” – Erin Lowry
My advice, however, is to try not to overthink things. Don’t try to beat the market by yourself. You can look at Robo-advisors if you’re interested. But I would just try to use passively managed index funds.
If money isn’t complicated and doesn’t require complex formulas, what qualities should we have to manage their finances like a badass?
First, you need to be interested. You need to take control of your own financial life and eventually, you can have help in that regard. I see a lot of value in hiring a Certified Financial Planner (CFP) when you reach a certain level of wealth or you’re running a company. It makes sense to have expert people advising you.
But if you’re just at the base level, it’s about you committing to take control and being the driving force. Consider having an accountability buddy: a friend, a sibling, a parent who is going through this kind of process with you. Sharing stresses and successes with someone can be more encouraging than you think.
Also, you’re going to have to be persistent in finding what’s better for you in terms of budgeting, investing, getting repayment plans… There are so many ways to do things when it comes to money that you must find which one works for you and stick with it. It is also a process of forgiving yourself when you fail, and then standing up and moving on.
You’re 28 and you’ve already published a book. Any other exciting projects coming soon?
I have actually a couple of other book ideas in mind, so keep an eye out for those! and I’m working on the proposal process right now.
Moreover, I’m looking into speaking a lot more right now: going to colleges, companies and other organizations to talk to their students, co-workers and employees about how to handle their money and get their financial life together.
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