WASHINGTON Gen Xers get a bad rap. They're often portrayed as slackers and runaway spenders who don't know how to work or save.
Not so, says new research sponsored by Charles Schwab Corp., one of several financial services companies trying to draw a bead on this age 27-to-42 demographic. Today's 30-somethings are hard workers who have more bills than cash. They also have a healthy distrust of the very financial services industry that wants their cash. Perhaps for good reason.
"They aren't being well served," says Jonathan Craig, who's heading up Schwab's effort to capture Gen X clients.
The new 30-somethings do face some challenges that others didn't. They're making less than their parents were at the same age. According to U.S. Census estimates, the median income for men between 25 and 34 in 2005 was $31,161. In 1975, adjusted for inflation, it was $35,296. The comparable data for female workers was $22,815 in 2005 and $16,247 in 1975.
And, they have much bigger bills. It's not just the school loans, it's the generally bigger lifestyle that hurts their bottom line. Think about the computer, cell phone, broadband service and more that are a necessary part of life now.
Gen Xers have some unique strengths, too. They are technologically savvy and unafraid to put their finances online or talk about their financial problems and solutions, says Marc Hedlund of Wesabe (www.wesabe.com), a social networking/financial planning Web site that is attracting users in their 20s and 30s. And they have that vaunted cynicism to keep them from trusting strangers -- or employers -- with their money too easily. Most are wise to not count on retirement benefits that are loosely promised to be there decades into the future.
So, too little money, too many expenses, nobody to trust.
What's a savvy 30-something to do with that scenario? Here are some tips.
-- Watch your fees. Hedlund contends that huge fees are a trap for this generation: Bank overdraft fees, which can pile up on debit card exchanges, as well as credit card late and over-limit fees. "These people blame themselves," assuming they deserve the fees they rack up because they've behaved badly. But those myriad fees have been ratcheting up faster than bad financial behavior has.
Make sure you keep a cushion in your checking account. Make an automatic payment to your credit card every month so you're never late, and complain if the fees seem to pile up too fast. Just by getting control of the fees you pay for financial services, you can put extra spending money in your pocket.
-- Create an electronics/communications budget and stick to it. Consider cable TV, movie rentals, cell phone service, Internet service, extra wireless fees, and downloaded music, movies and television shows all as one category of expense. Assign a reasonable number to it and apportion it according to your priorities.
-- Save for retirement, but don't beat yourself up if you can't do as much as you'd like. You've seen all the sales pitches aimed at how powerful it is to start saving early. All true. But it's especially hard when you're also trying to buy your first house, build your career (and your working wardrobe) and buy shoes for the kids. So make putting a maximum contribution into your 401(k) at the top of the list. Then look at adding a Roth IRA. Once you've had your Roth up and running for five years, you can break the emergency glass and get at some of the money for other non-retirement reasons if you need to.
-- Take advantage of all the attention. Those banks and brokers are just starting to roll out products aimed at your generation, and it's going to get better. Schwab's latest is a free, no-fee checking account paying 4.25 percent interest. That's a nice deal, even if the rate doesn't last. Bank of America has a new no-fee mortgage, and a policy of feeding customer savings accounts with change from their debit card transactions. Both require careful small-print reading to see if they make sense for you, but are worth looking at. Upromise (www.upromise.com) has a constellation of savings deals that can help you build up a college fund for junior painlessly.
-- Learn about financial products that can help with savings, as well as investing. If you're trying to accumulate a downpayment for a new car, you don't want to put all of that money into stocks, but you don't want to leave it all in your checking account either. Learn how to use money market mutual funds, short-term bond funds, certificates of deposit, zero-interest credit card deals, and more.
-- Get more educated. Almost everyone thinks they are bad with money, but they're not any worse than anybody else, observes Hedlund. This generation knows how to access information and use it for their own benefit. Choose a subject: credit cards, mutual funds, retirement savings, college loans or whatever, and start doing your homework -- via educational Internet sites or books, advice from experts and elders, or all of the above. By the time you're 40, you'll know enough to make you, if not rich, than at least put you comfortably ahead of where you are now.