Survey: Today’s 20-somethings Are Broke But Optimistic; How Do You Compare?

Money Under 30 surveyed both our readers and a random sample of adults between the ages of 21 and 29 about their attitudes about money, savings habits and current net worth. How do you compare to the average broke 20-something? Survey: Adults Under 30 Broke But Optimistic

80% of 20-somethings expect to do at least as well financially as their parents — Click to Tweet

The State of 20-somethings’ Finances in the United States

In January 2014, Money Under 30 surveyed 300 random Americans between the ages of 21 and 29 about their money. We also got responses from 1,500 of Money Under 30’s email subscribers.

Here are the results.

Growing student loan debts, a competitive job market and stagnant wages are still making it difficult for 20-somethings to get ahead. Even though one in five 20-somethings live with their parents and only 60 percent are able to save at least 5 percent of their monthly income, 76 percent believe their financial situations will improve in the next five years and 80 percent except to achieve the same or a greater financial success than their parents.

Financial Goals

Respondents said their most important financial goals were repaying debt (26 percent), finding a job in their field (23 percent) and increasing their income (18 percent).

Top financial goals of adults under 30 in the United States, 2014.

43% of 20-somethings earn less than $25,000 — Click to Tweet


A lot of life happens between 19 and 30. We grow up and (hopefully) move out. Maybe we go to school. Then we (again, hopefully) get a job…or two or three or ten.

But years later, few 29- or 30-year olds are in exactly the same place. Some have been working (and saving) for eight years. Others are just getting out of medical school. Some are getting married and starting a family. Others have school-age kids and are working two jobs while trying to finish a bachelor’s degree.

Even so, a majority of 20-somethings don’t earn a whole lot. Over 42 percent earned less than $25,000 and only 3 percent earned more than $100,000.

Median income of adults under 30 in the United States, 2014.

Not surprisingly, Money Under 30 readers earn more than the general population. We can speculate that people who go out of their way to read financial advice may already have more money to invest or are actively working at increasing their income. Of course, we also think our advice is helping them get there!


Nearly half (46 percent) of 20-somethings have student loans with an average balance of $29,337. Slightly fewer have credit card debt (42 percent) or auto loans (30 percent).

Unfortunately, when it comes to debt, Money Under 30 readers aren’t doing any better than the general population, with average debt loads matching almost dollar-for-dollar.

Average debt levels of adults under 30 in the United States, 2014.

Saving and Investing

Only half (49 percent) of 20-somethings contributed to a 401(k) or IRA in the last year.

Although it’s easy to say that young adults don’t understand the importance of saving for retirement (or figure they are young enough to put it off a few more years), 20-somethings’ low rate of retirement savings may have more to do with income than education…among 20-somethings earning $100K or more, 95 percent contributed to a retirement plan.

Many 20-somethings are not just failing to save for retirement; they’re failing to save at all. Two-thirds of 20-somethings save less than 10 percent of their income, and 20 percent aren’t saving anything at all.

Savings rates among 20-somethings in the United States, 2014.

Only 49% of 20-somethings contributed to a 401k or IRA last year — Click to Tweet


Only 38 percent of 20-somethings are working full-time in their field of study or career of choice. About 18 percent work more than one job and 6.8 percent are unemployed.

In the last year, 20 percent of 20-somethings reported earning money through self-employment or by starting a business.

Here’s a look at the various salaries adults under 30 are earning today.

What kinds of jobs do 20-somethings have?


Our first decade as adults remains an exciting time, but one fraught with increasing student loan debts, a competitive job market, and measly starting pay.

Although educational achievement remains a critical indicator of income – both in your 20s and for your lifetime – the price tag for that degree keeps going up. Many college-educated 20-somethings are earning more than those without a degree, but they may not be able to save any more because of big student loan payments.

What do you think? Does anything in this survey surprise you? What do you think today’s 20-somethings can do to more quickly improve their financial situation? Share your opinion in the comments.


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About David Weliver

David Weliver is the founding editor of Money Under 30. He's a cited authority on personal finance and the unique money issues we face during our first two decades as adults. He lives in Maine with his wife and two children.


  1. Genius post!
    It’s a staggering number of people in their 20’s and early 30’s that fall into this category. Even amongst our friends, we always get asked how we invest, how to start saving, and we’re always more than happy to engage in the dialogue.
    The who YOLO generation, frankly, sucks. $25 here, another $50 for happy-hour – it all adds up! And pretty soon, you’re living paycheck-to-paycheck! I’d love to start saying YOSO – You Only Save Once! How about that?!? LoL And you do only save once – when that paycheck is good and allocated, you can just forget it and watch your money grow.
    Great post again!! Sharing this with everyone I know :-)

    • Haha! I agree with you there – YOSO!

      Here’s the thing, everyone’s situation is different, and with the cost of higher education costs and higher rates of underemployed, there’s going to be a problem with the “savings” part.

      My story is a little different. I have credit card debt (had to live off it for a few months while unemployed), I also have over 30k in student loans (got the payment down to $330 per month with an income contingent plan). I bought my car with cash (it’s not new, and you don’t need a new one). I also run a business from home so I have monthly expenses related to that, which I know if part of the business, but it’s still an expense that is needed. I take home enough to pay the bills and pay my taxes….I can go out once in a while, and I golf quite a bit in the summer.

      Every situation is different and people just have to smart if they are taking home just enough to pay the bills.

  2. Thanks for sharing!
    All 20-somethings graduate and are faced with the realization that we are no longer graded with A’s, B’s, etc. I remember when it hit me that I had no idea how to grade myself in the “real world.” Am I saving enough? Do I have too much credit card debt? How much liquidity should there be? It’s not likely you can ask others how much they have or don’t have.
    Lets face it; we all compare ourselves with others even though we each run our own race in life. But I think this post is a fantastic tool for recent graduates to establish that financial benchmark of what is the norm. Some friends have been given more while others have had to fight to stay afloat, but in the end – we all want to live without relying on that very next paycheck and retire comfortably.

    • David Weliver says:

      Appreciate it, Nick.

      I agree it’s good to have benchmarks, especially when we’re starting out. We have to be careful, though…some people get way too caught up in the comparison game. Like I said in the post — we’re all at different places in life and we all make difference choices.

      A few years back I wrote an article about a goal for your 401(k) balance by your 30th birthday party and the comments devolved into a nasty game of “who’s the richest young person here”. That’s certainly not the point. But when you see, for example, that 18% of Money Under 30 readers are saving more than 15% of their income — that might provide some healthy inspiration to stretch your own savings.

    • Barbara says:

      Nick- I agree we need more benchmarks. It’s a scary feeling not knowing how how fiscially healthy you are. Now is the time I could make or break my finances for years to come. One of the downsides of this blog is they constantly have articles about investing, and it makes me wonder if I’m behind schedule because I’m not doing that. But then I look around and I don’t know a single person in their 20’s investing. My point is we have no benchmarks to compare to. Can the next survey be on how much money each life group is spending on things? What does a fiscally responsible late 20’s married couple look like?

  3. Great post and awesome infographic!

    My finances definitely suffered from the YOLO attitude in my early 20s, but fortunately I’ve gotten things under control. Anneli is so right when she says you can only save once! Even though I spent my first few years after college earning a below average salary, I definitely should have done more to save. I’m surprised that only 16% of Money Under 30 readers are saving more than 20%.

  4. I was extremely surprised with the survey. I didn’t how broke people under 30’s are until I read this post. But I totally agree with the survey. This is an eye opener for those people who’s just starting up.

    One of the things I learned is that, when it comes to our financial we should always save and think ahead, meaning think of the future and prepare for it. It’s good to relax and have fun sometimes, but too much of it is really bad.

  5. This does not surprise me as I am one of those 20 somethings. Especially with the 401k there comes a point where you are looking at your pay stub like wow I could of used that extra money. But once I found this blog, I changed my saving habits tremendously. I think it is harder in your 20s because you feel you have all the time in the world. I really appreciate this blog, it’s awesome.

  6. This was great, and I only wish I had seen these numbers in my early 20s. I just wanted to point out that you have Software Engineer salaries listed twice: Once for $110,000 and another for $58,000. Both are feasible mid-career and starting salaries, respectively, depending on the employer’s industry.

  7. Were all “Money Under 30 readers” confirmed as under 30 years of age? I’m curious if the increased stats for readers is an actual pat on the back for the readers, or if there are possibly some older readers being included and inflating numbers.

  8. Tony Cat says:

    If only more people within my generation cared about what they need for “tomorrow” instead of in the moment…I feel like there is this perfect storm of everyone having a sense they are entitled to stuff or becoming a VP when they leave school in combination with the YOLO lifestyle/spending.

    • I agree that young people don’t necessarily put enough thought into the “future savings” subject, however, there is a strong cultural pull for young people like us to blow our money and live in the moment. That combined with the fact that the jobs and money just isn’t there is detrimental not only to the financial well-being of our generation, but to that of the future generations to come. It’s more than just our fault, there are other forces to take into consideration. We are only but products of our environment and culture. Somewhere along the line, education has failed us be it with the cost of tuition or not teaching us how to think about finance in the first place. If we really thought about finance seriously half of us wouldn’t have gone to college from the get go considering how much it costs us in the future.

  9. This was a great post and it was pretty spot on among my 20-something friends. It’s always interesting to hear different views on saving and planning for the future.

  10. I’m not surprised by the survey, but I’m thankful for finding this site and aiming to rectify the mistakes of my early twenties. In my family, we never talked about money. And once I got to college, it was still considered a private subject. All I knew was, pay your bills, tithe, then the rest is for you… That landed me in an ugly place! But over the last year, I have managed to pay off all of my debts and am preparing to buy a home in the fall. I’m still not where I want to be, but I’m working aggressively to get there. I hope people will be inspired to make positive changes, but not get caught up in what other people have! Some of us weren’t getting professional OR family advice when we started earning our first pay checks.

  11. In my 20’s it was all about paying off school related debt, Now the only thing left for me is 1500 of credit card debt. I did that backwards and should have payed off the 19% credit card first but now I have 1500 of debt left and that’s it, I am approaching my zero debt zero asset year and then it will be all up hill for asset accumulation from here

  12. This is a very interesting survey and it hardly says anything surprising about the current dialogue surrounding young people and student debt. I was, however, surprised at the findings that 43% of 20-somethings are making less than $25,000 a year. That is a staggering fact considering that student loan debt averages at $29,000. I think the fact of the matter is that young people are in a state of economic crisis. If we don’t do anything to pull our younger generations out of this paycheck to paycheck cycle the larger economy is going to start to suffer as a whole. I don’t know why our country seems to overlook the glaring truth that young people are the core building block towards the future economy. Why do you keep bottle necking them into paying huge amounts of money for economic stability and education? This is not a working model for our country’s economy. It is not sustainable, period. This economic paradigm we are living in forces young people to put off major purchases such as houses, cars etc. It forces responsible people to put off having children, which means couples are having riskier pregnancies at older ages, which also burdens the healthcare system and economy. There is a huge shift going on with the millennial generation and at this point it seems as if we really bought into the American dream without any solid results to back it up. We really are the YOLO generation who places blind faith in the fact that everything will be alright in the long run.