According to Politico, Millennials are "behind in almost every economic dimension." The amount they've got invested in 401(k) plans is less than both Gen X and Boomers, and it's projected to stay that way.

Millennials also outspend Gen Xers and Boomers. According to Bankrate, they spend more than their older counterparts by ~$2,300 a year. And a lot of that spending is happening on credit cards.

A few years ago, I lived in New York City. I couldn't really afford it. After rent, utility payments, student loan payments, healthcare costs, buying flights to attend friends' weddings, my subway pass, my cell phone bill, and food costs, I didn't have anything left. In fact, I was in the red (and in denial). I never paid rent with credit, but consistently put things like my groceries on credit cards. After three years, I had racked up over $10,000 in credit card debt.

I thought about that debt all the time. It was a constant source of anxiety and shame. Why couldn't I seem to get it together to earn enough to live on? Why wasn't I "making it"? I'd gone to a good school and gotten a great education--what was wrong with me? I remember crying on my bed so loudly about it one night that one of my roommates poked his head in to check on me. 

According to a Harris Poll for the American Institute of CPAs, 68 percent of Millennials report debt as having a "negative impact" on their daily life (vs. 59 percent of GenXers and 48 percent of Boomers). 

It's so stressful, in fact, that a survey of 1,000 Millennials conducted by YPulse showed that Millennials' number one life goal is not to get into a fulfilling relationship, build the career of their dreams, or start a family.

No. Millennials' top life goal is ... to be debt-free.

The word "debt" seems impersonal, but the experience of it is deeply personal. I run a podcast on sex, dating, and relationships and I recently released an episode called, "How Do You Know Whether You're Ready to Be in a Relationship?" A panel of four of us discussed our reasons for feeling like we aren't "ready" to be in a relationship.

One person had just gotten out of a serious relationship and wasn't sure he was ready to get into another one. Another was concerned that her mental health wasn't stable enough to involve someone else in her world.

Mine was that I carried a lot of debt. There was a part of me that didn't feel worthy of getting into a serious relationship not only because I'd be bringing debt into it, but because the stress the debt caused me was so extreme. It has kept me up late at night and woken me up early in the morning. I've obsessively checked my banking info, my credit card balances, and frantically done math in my head that leads nowhere. I've felt low enough to consider suicide. Not seriously, but the thought has been there. Repeatedly.​

How much debt are we actually talking about? 

On average, Millennials have $42,000 in debt (this statistic had me feel less shame about my own number). It's not all student loans, either--a whole lot of it is consumer debt (credit cards).

What is the effect of this debt?

  • 67 percent of Millennials say financial stress compromises their ability to focus and be productive at work (vs. 32 percent of Baby Boomers)
  • Almost a quarter (23 percent) report that financial stress causes them to feel physically ill on a weekly or monthly basis (vs. 12 percent among all age groups)
  • 68 percent report that debt has had a "negative impact" on relationships they have with their significant other, colleagues, and friends

Millennials, more than any other generation so far, report that their debt disrupts their daily life, leading to things like such as "relationship tension, misleading family and friends about their financial situation, worrying at bedtime, and stressing about everyday financial decisions."

What's the point?

The point is that it's time to put an end to the myth that Millennials are lazy, irresponsible idiots who can't buy a home because they eat too much avocado toast. The situation is more serious and complex than that.

In 1940, the average price of a home (adjusted for inflation) was $53,651. In 2020, the average price of a home is expected to be $270,400. 

That means the average cost of a house in the U.S. hasn't doubled, tripled, or even quadrupled. It is 5x as much to purchase a home now (remember--these numbers are adjusted for inflation). This is perhaps why in 1981, the average homebuyer was 25-34 years old. Now the typical homebuyer is 44. 

Now tuition: In 1980, it cost $120 a year to attend Cal State University at Cal Poly (in-state). Adjusted for inflation, that's $372 in today's dollars. But today it's $9,816. So it's 25x as much to attend a state school in California. Private school numbers are even more astronomical.

Now wages: After adjusting for inflation, the Pew Research Center reports that today's average hourly wage has about the same purchasing power it did in 1978--that's over 40 years ago. In other words, when you adjust for inflation people now make a lot less money compared to before, while the cost of living has risen dramatically.

So: It's not just that I feel like it's hard to "make it work" these days. It's that it's actually harder to make it work.

Ironically, all these seemingly depressing numbers make me feel more hopeful. Why? Because they let me know I'm not crazy. Because they normalize the life experience I'm having. Because they let me know that there are other people for whom this is also a reality. 

For the vast majority of Millennials, managing debt is a gut-twisting, shame-invoking, heart-palpitating experience. It can affect your mental health, your physical health, and your sense of self-worth. 

Know that you're not alone

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If you have significant student loan debt, I recently outlined five smart and creative ways to pay it down. 

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Published on: Jan 25, 2020
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.