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Dear Millennials, Learn from Boomers' Massive Money Mistakes

Boomers made some whoppers, that's for sure. Let's take a hard look at their mistakes (did you make any of them yourself?) and use them to help the next generation get ahead.

Dear, dear millennials.

We get it. We messed up.

We told you that if you got a college degree, and especially a graduate degree, you’d be set. You’d advance in your career, make a good living and probably do better than we did. That was our hope, anyway — the “American dream.” Now you’re saddled with a ton of student debt, and it’s keeping you from realizing your dream, whether it’s traveling the world, opening your own business or starting your family.

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We bought big houses we could barely afford because we thought it was a sign of success and that real estate was a “safe” investment. But then there was a hiccup in the economy, and it got tough to make the mortgage payments. Some of us even lost those homes. You all watched the great “homegression era” of 2008, so it’s no wonder you’re anxious about the housing market and often prefer to rent.

We lived for today and spent money like crazy. Now the national debt is at $23 trillion and growing, as seen on usdebtclock.org. That is 23 followed by 12 zeros! And though you’ll hear us whining about what that might mean for our Social Security and Medicare benefits, most of us know deep down who’s really likely to pay for it. Sorry again, millennials.

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We’re probably lucky if the worst thing you do when we offer advice is roll your eyes or post an “OK, boomer” meme. Maybe we deserve a little disrespect.

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But once you get past that, maybe listen to what we have to say anyway. Because, believe it or not, we’ve learned a few things about life from our blunders and our bruised egos. And we do have some knowledge to impart that we hope will keep you from making the same mistakes we did, including:

1. Start saving now

A little is a lot when it comes to investing. Even if you can put away just $50 a month, do it – and the sooner you start, the better. For those who say it’s impossible, skip three $4-a-day Starbucks runs each week and that is your $50 contribution. Open a retirement account, be as aggressive as you can stomach with your investment choices, and then let it grow. You have time on your side. If the market dips, or even dives, you’ll have a chance to recover. This is your best opportunity to build your retirement fund. Make it automatic and you won’t miss the money as much as you think. (And you’ll need that money before you know it. Those golden years that seem so far away? They’ll be here in a blink.)

2. Don’t overlook the advantages of a Roth

A Roth retirement account means that you pay the taxes first and then deposit money into a retirement account. Your money grows tax-free and after you turn 59½, distributions from this account are ALL tax-free.

If your workplace offers a Roth 401(k), give that selection some serious thought. The generations before yours were trained to choose tax-deferred accounts (401(k)s, 403(b)s, etc.), and we’re now facing a ticking tax time bomb in retirement. “Given the trajectory of our nation’s debt and the likelihood of higher taxes in the future, it makes a lot of sense for the younger generations to contribute to Roth IRAs,” said David McKnight, author of the book The Power of Zero. If your employer doesn’t offer a Roth 401(k), get the employer match on a traditional 401(k). But look at opening a Roth IRA on your own, as well, to shield some of your money from future taxes.

3. Your retirement account is not an ATM

There will be times when you’ll be tempted to tap your retirement account — for education expenses, a down payment on your first home, to pay off a massive medical debt. The law says you can make withdrawals from a retirement account for these purposes without the typical 10% penalty. And the new SECURE Act also allows those who just had a baby or adopted a child to take out up to $5,000. (Which means a couple can withdraw up to $10,000 penalty-free.)

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Avoid this option if you can. Even if you think you’ll put that money back someday … you won’t! Plus, you’ll lose out on all the growth you would have had if you’d left the money alone. Remember: It’s unlikely you’ll have a company pension, like most of your parents, when you retire. That pension check your parents and grandparents received was a lifetime monthly income that was funded, invested and promised by their employer. (Most of us today won’t have one, but we didn’t know that. You do.) Your retirement savings will be a significant source of income when you’re no longer earning a paycheck.

4. Emergencies do happen – so be ready.

Car repairs. Unexpected medical bills. Job layoffs. You just never know when something could happen to shake up your finances. Stashing six months’ worth of savings in an emergency fund — in cash or some highly liquid asset — should be a priority. This safety net can help keep you from falling behind on your bills or running up credit card debt in times of need. (It is not for shoe purchases, concert tickets or trips.)

5. Plan for tomorrow and live within your means today

Better yet, live below your means. We bought the big houses, the big cars and the second homes, and it cost many of us big time. Make it your mission to want less on every level. Buy a reliable car you love, but also one you can afford. If you’re going to carry a Yeti tumbler everywhere you go, fill it with coffee from home instead of Starbucks. If you must wear designer labels, shop at Marshalls or an outlet mall. Use apps that save you money. And pay cash whenever you can; keep your credit cards for only-when-necessary online shopping.

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OK, millennials, that’s enough for now. But you get where we’re going with this, right? Financial planning is just as important when you’re young as it is when you’re old like us. Don’t wait and try to fix things when you’re 50 or 60 — that can be a much harder road.

Not gonna lie: The generations behind you will still roll their eyes when you offer advice. But you’ll be financially confident, standing on your own and you won’t really care.

The appearances in Kiplinger were obtained through a PR program. The columnist received assistance from a public relations firm in preparing this piece for submission to Kiplinger.com. Kiplinger was not compensated in any way. Investment advisory services offered only by duly registered individuals through AE Wealth Management, LLC (AEWM). AEWM and Vitality Investments are not affiliated companies. Investing involves risk, including the potential loss of principal. 499465

Kim Franke-Folstad contributed to this article.

About the Author

Victoria Larson (Gehrisch), Investment Adviser Representative

CEO, Vitality Investments

Victoria Larson is the CEO of Vitality Investments (www.vitalityinvestments.org), where she focuses on tax-efficient retirement income planning, retirement strategies for small-business owners, wealth management and long-term care planning.

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