In a tumultuous time, many adults under 35 have stopped playing it safe. Instead of banking as much of their pay as they used to, they're saving less, spending more and pursuing passion projects or risky careers.
Nimarta Narang, 27, said she was prudent about almost everything until the end of last year, when she had an epiphany: "I don't want to spend my life being so careful and cautious."
For most of the coronavirus pandemic, she couldn't travel to Bangkok to see her family. When she finally made the visit, she was struck by how much she had missed: her mother's 50th birthday, her grandmother's funeral, her sister's engagement, her father's beard going gray.
"Coming back to the U.S., I realized I needed to do things differently," said Narang, a literary editor at Brown Girl Magazine.
One thing she had always wanted to do was to live in New York. She packed up everything in her Los Angeles apartment and made the move in March. She also took a new approach to her finances. Before the pandemic, she said, she was putting about $2,000 into her savings account each month. Now it's half that amount. The rest goes toward a costlier apartment ($600 more in monthly rent), evenings out with friends and small indulgences she would have denied herself before.
"I wanted to use my savings to have a life experience," she said. "Visiting home made me see how much life I had missed."
She's not alone. A recent study by Fidelity Investments found that 45% of people ages 18 to 35 "don't see a point in saving until things return to normal." In that same age group, 55% said they have put retirement planning on hold.
For some like Narang, the isolation of pandemic life triggered the decision to enjoy the moment, financial consequences be damned. For others, the motivation has come from worries over climate change, Russia's invasion of Ukraine, domestic political instability, soaring inflation, through-the-roof housing costs and a topsy-turvy stock market.
Hannah Jones, a stand-up comic in Denver, said she used to save almost all her discretionary income. She was a thrift-shop regular who refused to pay for a Netflix subscription. Now she has become what she calls a "financial nihilist," meaning she puts significantly less into savings.
The shaky state of the world has been on her mind.
"I'm not going to deprive myself some of the comforts of life now for a future that feels like it could be ripped away from me at any moment," she said.
In her stand-up act, Jones, 27, has a reliable joke: "No, I'm not saving for retirement. I'm going to spend my money now, while we still have a supply chain at all." It's a quip that changes with the headlines. On some nights, instead of "supply chain," she simply plugs in the catastrophe du jour.
The anti-frugal mood is pervasive. Hannah Fuller, 25, said she was once enthusiastic about saving for the future. Having taken financial aid while attending a private high school and college, she was assiduous about managing her money, making sure to max out her Roth IRA each year. But now, she said, her mindset has shifted. It started when she was living in Portland, Oregon, where she grew up, during the wildfires of 2020.
"Being surrounded by the smoke, you could just really feel the doom and gloom," said Fuller, who works for the Farmers Market Coalition, a nonprofit in Washington. "It felt like we were living in 'The Martian,' like we were living in an airlock, trying to keep the smoke out of our apartment.
"Going to these places you visited as a child and seeing them burned to the ground, it makes wanting to build new things very hard," she continued.
Now Fuller has broken her habit of ordering the cheapest item on a menu. She booked tickets to a summer music festival in Barcelona, Spain. And given the explosion of the housing market, she has decided that saving to buy a home is not something she is going to worry about right now.
"Houses are just so unaffordable," she said. "I don't even know if that's worth my time and energy at all."
Some experts say the spend-it-now attitude is not particular to the young people of 2022.
"Every generation has had an apocalyptic view of their lives," said Brad Klontz, a financial psychologist in Boulder, Colorado. During the Great Depression, he noted, many people lost their trust in banks. At the height of the Cold War, the fear of nuclear war affected the way many young people planned for the future. And during the 2008 financial crisis, saving for a home felt pointless for many.
"We're not wired to save," Klontz said. "We're wired to consume. If you have an exciting vision of the future, those are the people who aggressively save for retirement. If you have an apocalyptic vision of the future, why would you save for it? Of course you wouldn't."
That dim view of what's to come can be exacerbated by issues like climate change. Danilo Jiménez, who is planning to go to graduate school to study environmental policy in the fall, said he has put saving for retirement on hold in favor of spending that money on weekend trips and moving out of his parents' home to live with roommates in New York City.
"The idea that I'm going to put money away into an account that I can't access until I'm 60 - that's 2056!" said Jiménez, 25, who has worked as a youth soccer coach and carpenter's helper. "A lot of things are going to change by then with respect to climate change."
Rather than put his pay into a traditional savings account, Schuyler Wagner, 25, has been pouring his time and money into an idiosyncratic investment: coral farming. For Wagner, a financial analyst in Tempe, Arizona, aquaculture was a childhood hobby that he gave up in his college years; large tanks don't exactly fit in dorms.
After graduation, he pursued it again. Now he tends Goniopora (also known as flowerpot coral), Euphylia (which can be very expensive, Wagner said) and Acanthophyllia ("a massive single polyp coral that can be as large as a pizza"), among other types of coral. Wagner has seven tanks in his condo, with a total volume of over 450 gallons. He buys and trades the chunks with other hobbyists in Arizona, as well as reef specialty stores and aquatic pet shops.
Wagner said he spends $750 to $1,500 on materials and equipment each month. He hopes that one day his expensive hobby will pay off and he can pursue aquaculture as a full-time job.
"Rather than just trying to save to compete with inflation or buy a house in five years, which doesn't make sense to me right now, I want to pursue this passion," he said. "There's so much uncertainty in the world, and COVID has pushed passions to the forefront."
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