Millennials have little use for professional money advice

How the next gigantic wave of customers spends their money is a hot topic in the financial services world. How the next gigantic wave of customers spends their money is a hot topic in the financial services world.

This is the season of taxes, of NCAA basketball championship office pools and of surveys showing how clueless Americans are about managing their finances.

April is National Financial Literacy month—the U.S. Senate made it official in 2004—and how millennials spend their money is the hot topic in the financial services world. They are, after all, the next gigantic wave of customers. Two surveys released today show that young people often turn to friends and family for money advice, rather than financial advisers. That's a habit financial firms need to change if they want to survive.

Americans between 18 and 34 are a mix of pragmatism and optimism, according to a survey of about 5,500 American adults done by Harris Poll for Northwestern Mutual. (The 158-year-old company just acquired LearnVest, an online financial adviser founded in 2009 that's geared to millennials.) While younger workers figure they’ll lack the corporate pensions and social safety nets their parents may have, the survey shows they’re confident in their ability to improve their financial future. More than 70 percent feel secure or very secure that they'll meet their financial goals.

Being optimistic doesn't mean expecting everything to be great. Seeing their parents lose money right around retirement age made many millennials risk-averse, says Chantel Bonneau, a 26-year-old Northwestern Mutual adviser. "While a lot of baby boomers plan for a best-case situation, millennials tend to plan for a worst-case situation," she says.

More than half of younger workers surveyed said they have financial goals, compared with 38 percent of those over the age of 35. Those goals may not be backed up by concrete plans for achieving them, though. In the "Millennial Money Mindset Report," a 500-person survey by online adviser iQuantifi, an even higher percentage of millennials—72 percent—said they have financial goals. At the same time, only 20 percent said they had a comprehensive plan in place to achieve those goals. Twelve percent said they "have no idea where to start and how to get my finances in order."

Where they do tend to start looking for advice is with their peers or families. The iQuantifi survey shows that younger workers have turned to a family member (71 percent) or friend (45 percent) when looking for financial advice. Just 29 percent sought advice from a professional.

In order to save more, millennials are focused on simply making enough money (cited as their biggest challenge by 57 percent in the iQuantifi survey, followed by staying on budget, at 41 percent). Their savings goals over the next five years reinforce their reputation for wanting a healthy work/life balance: While "increase overall savings in 2015" was the top goal for 76 percent, the next most-cited goal was to save for a vacation, at 68 percent. Saving for a large purchase and a car were next, at 67 and 66 percent, respectively. Saving for retirement squeaked into the top 5 goals, cited by 64 percent.

Expecting 20-somethings to have retirement at the top of their list isn't realistic. But millennials are very clear-eyed about being on their own in planning for retirement. Northwestern Mutual’s survey showed almost three-quarters of millennials expecting to work past 65 because Social Security “won’t take care of their needs;” they also worry about the cost of health care. At the same time, 46 percent expect to work past age 65 by choice. Says Northwestern Mutual's Bonneau: "I don't think many millennials expect a party at age 65, and then to sit back in a rocking chair and collect a pension." 

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