Financial Literacy

‘I was really down’: Four women talk about the pressure of financial milestones

By: Jessica Mach on April 5, 2019

Graduating from university, landing a job, getting married, buying a house, having kids: this trajectory may have been the path your parents took, but if you’re a millennial, it’s not guaranteed to be yours. Maybe you want it — but the way to achieve it seems less straightforward than it was for previous generations.

The world has changed, and with it, the financial milestones that young people aim to meet. With student debt at record highs, reports that it would take decades for the average wage earner to save enough for a down payment in Canada’s most populous cities, and the availability of stable, full-time work on the decline, how do millennials envision their financial future? How have they recalibrated their financial goals to account for the economic present?

To find out, we talked to four millennial women in their late 20s and mid-30s about their financial goals, how and whether they’ve met them, and how they feel about the future.

The following responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Danielle*, 31

Last year, Danielle was able to save enough money to move into a one-bedroom rental in Toronto. She lived with her parents for the previous year and a half, while working full-time.

Growing up, what were your financial goals?

I didn’t really have a lot of financial milestones because I was always more passionate about the work I wanted to do. I don’t think you’d go into the field of writing if you were really concerned about money. But I do think as I approached 30 and life really kicked in, my goal was to be making $50,000 by the time I was 30, and I have not achieved that. That has been a little more upsetting than I’d originally thought.

How did not meeting your target make you feel? 

I think it’s hard if you see a lot of your friends doing really well financially — you feel like you’re not keeping pace. But when I get down, I try to look at the broader context. I don’t make as much as my friends, but I have no debt. I feel like that’s pretty huge. And due to the fact that I’m cheap as fuck, and I have some inheritance, I’m actually in a pretty good financial situation, savings-wise. It’s not exactly where I’d want to be, but I’m hoping eventually in the next year that my financial goal will be met.

How did you get to $50,000 as a goal? What does that number mean to you?

I thought the number was realistic in terms of what a salary would look like for somebody my age and with my background. I thought making that amount of money would give me enough to pay my own bills, not depend on my parents and put money away for savings — maybe take a trip once a year. I hope by the time I’m 35, I’m making $65,000 or $70,000.

How do you feel about the future?

A few months ago, I was really down. I think it’s in conjunction with a lot of other milestones that you see people kind of hitting at 30, whether that’s being married or owning a house or — what else do people do? Buy dogs?

I went through a really hard time, and I came out the other end, thankfully. I let go of the idea of milestones. All my friends are in completely different places in their lives. This isn’t like the 1970s where everyone got married at the same time, bought a house at the same time, had kids at the same time. We don’t live in that world — it no longer exists.

The only thing that’s stopping me from freaking out is knowing that I’m actually very fortunate because if I was really in dire need, I have family that would support me. I know that I will always have a roof over my head. I will always have food. There will never be a situation where I have to worry about the fundamentals of life. And in a city like Toronto, I feel like even being able to say that is a lot. There are so many people in this city, and just in general, who do not even have their most basic needs met. And trying to get ahead, you need to have those things met.

Lucy*, 35

Lucy recently moved back in with her parents in British Columbia to focus on her student debt. She is currently in school and will be starting an accounting job at a law firm in May.

What financial milestones did you think you’d meet?

I was fine with all financial matters until I left home to go finish my university degree. All of the debt I have now is related to postsecondary school and my one year of graduate studies. When I started school, I just thought it would be easy to pay it off when I was done. Everyone talked about having student loans, like — oh yeah, I’m paying it off. I got a job from school, and now I’m paying it off.

This hasn’t been my case. I haven’t been able to get a job that’s been lucrative enough for me to put a lot towards my student loans. Anytime I do eventually start moving up and making more money, I put more towards my debt. But with how interest works, as soon as you go back to not paying more than you should be, it just cancels out any progress you had made.

It’s terrifying how easy it is to get a student loan. I think about what you have to go through to get a mortgage, or a bank loan. For student loans, you just give the government a little bit of personal information. I remember applying for my first one, and being like, I don’t need a parent to co-sign, or for them to run it through a bank or anything? That is really alarming to me — that there isn’t more oversight. You’re taking out tens of thousands of dollars and you’re going to be charged interest, quite quickly after you’re done school. That’s just problematic.

How do you feel about the future?

Since I’ve moved home, I feel better about it than I ever have. Coming to that decision to be like,  no — I really have to put effort into dealing with this. The only solution I could come up with for eliminating a lot of my bills was moving back in with my parents. Obviously, as a single adult in my mid-30s, that is less than ideal, but I felt it was the option that made the most sense. I’m fortunate that my parents were willing and able to help me in this way.

Debt was the main source of distress in my life in Montreal and Toronto. Montreal was the worst — grad school totally ruined me as far as finances. And moving to Toronto, I was in the worst financial position ever. My parents, for my birthday, had given me money to take a little course with the Toronto District School Board about bookkeeping and intro to accounting, and I really liked it. When I moved back here, I had it in my mind that eventually, I could take another bookkeeping course. I feel pretty confident that this will give me more job security than I had in Toronto.

A lot of people I knew in Toronto were thinking about bankruptcy, but I do want to try and pay some of my debt back if I can. Living here, it just doesn’t seem as impossible to do as in Toronto. There’s also less obligation to go out and spend money. I love seeing people, but most of the time there’s a monetary attachment to that. Getting food, or getting a coffee.

I think that a little bit too with dating. Who wants to be that person? That’s going to come up pretty quickly — yeah, I have tens of thousands of dollars in student debt. I’m sure there are lots of other people out there who are like that, and there’s got to be a lot of people who don’t care. But there is also going to be some judgment from others.

It’s amazing how much that weighs on me. I’m sure it weighs on lots of people.

Kitty, 28

Kitty recently bought a pre-construction condo in Surrey, B.C.

What were your financial goals growing up?

I had three goals growing up. One was to not take out a student loan if I didn’t have to. The second was to buy my own place — a detached home — before I turned 30. And the third was to be making a minimum of $60,000 out of college.

Were you able to do these things?

No. Not at all.

Why did you have these specific goals in mind?

Growing up, my family was like, you need to go to school and graduate, and then you should be making this much by the time you’re out of school, and by this age you should have paid for this item. They wanted me to own a detached home before I turned 30, and to make a really good wage like $30 an hour fresh out of university.

Hearing that growing up really put pressure on me.

Why haven’t you met these goals?

I think the cost of living has gone up significantly from the time that my parents were my age. When I was growing up, it was more feasible to own a home even when you were making like what, $40,000 annually? That became impossible.

I think another reason why I haven’t reached those goals, aside from it not being realistic anymore, is that I also owe quite a lot of student debt. I didn’t make the best financial choices when I was younger, so now I have to deal with that before I can focus on owning a detached home.

How do you feel about the future now?

I don’t have the same visions for the future anymore. I don’t think it’s possible for people my generation. I think living in Vancouver in particular — it’s just going to be impossible to do that without our parents’ help. Even owning a condo without the help of my parents — I don’t think it’s possible.

How do you feel about owning a condo? Do you feel like you compromised?

I think I’m feeling indifferent about it. I feel grateful for being able to afford a condo because my parents have helped me financially, but I feel like I’ve compromised my long term goals just to settle for something that’s not what I wanted in the first place. I wanted to own something of higher value. Owning a detached home would be like saying I succeeded, I met my goals — I beat the odds of what’s out there.

Maggie*, 34

Maggie is a Canadian freelance writer in Brooklyn. She recently quit her full-time job at a women’s magazine.

What kind of expectations did you have for your finances?

When I was in college, I switched studies so many times. I wanted to do something that made me happy. I also had parents who were very supportive of that — I never felt the pressure to become a lawyer, or a doctor, or an accountant. I feel like people on those traditional paths do get guided by how much they should make by a certain age.

Once I set my sights on journalism, I had very low expectations. I knew I wasn’t going to be doing journalism for the money, and I never really researched what people made in that field. This is cheesy, but that’s just how important that field means to me — telling stories, and telling the truth.

Did your expectations change as you advanced in your career?

Of course. My first entry-level, actual writing job out of grad school paid so little that I’m embarrassed to even remember it. It was probably between US$30,000 to $40,000 — I could barely pay my rent. Living in New York is probably different from living in other cities, though. More than half my paycheque was going to my rent. I didn’t really see any of that money.

I think that’s a big wake up call for anyone who starts making a salary. They expect to see some of that salary in their bank account, so when only a sixth or even an eighth of their paycheque is left over — it’s such a shocker. Where did all my money go? Wasn’t I supposed to be making $40,000 a year? You forget you have all these other life expenses that you’d never prepared for.

How do you feel about your financial situation right now?

I’m very lucky because I’m married, and a lot of the expenses are shared. To speak in money terms, I feel okay. I recently quit my job to freelance, and also just to take a mental break. If I were single, and doing this on my own in New York, I would be having a very rough time. I would not quit to freelance. I would have to quit to go to another job. I feel very lucky that I have this luxury of a partner making money in the meantime, to buy me some free time.

Everybody is so different. Money is such a taboo subject to talk about with your friends. You can do the most embarrassing things with them, but I think most people are shy to ask their friends how much they make. I think if we freely talked about how much we made, and how we spend our money, we would not have such high and sometimes unrealistic expectations.

* Names have been changed to protect privacy.