It’s not easy to navigate a post-recession economy, but Millennials are adapting. A recent study from  Northwestern Mutual found that 64 percent of adults aged 18-34 say they’re more inclined to save than spend, and 53 percent have set financial goals (compared with 38 percent of Americans over age 35).

“Millennials entered the workforce or adulthood in the midst of the Great Recession and learned a lot of lessons from their parents and grandparents about finances,” Emily Holbrook, Director of the Young Personal Market at Northwestern Mutual, tells mental_floss. “Many Millennials are feeling the full brunt of retirement planning on their shoulders compared with prior generations who had pensions and strong confidence in Social Security.”

The Great Recession has also shaped the way they view credit and debt. According to a survey, only 33 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 29 have a credit card. Holbrook says this is mostly because they’re afraid of accumulating more debt. It's an understandable concern, considering student loan debt in the U.S. has hit $1.3 trillion.

“The fact that Millennials are using less credit today has both positive and negative implications,” Holbrook says. “The important thing is being thoughtful and strategic of how to use credit as an effective tool and resource to accomplish financial goals.”


A credit history is crucial for mortgages, car loans, apartment applications, and more.

“Not having an established credit history may also impact your job search, apartment lease, or even cell phone contract deals and promotions,” Holbrook says. "Credit scores are made up of a number of factors including payment history, amount owed, length of credit history and types of credit. Each of these variables paints a picture to lenders about the financial responsibility of the borrower.”


“We should all understand the differences between good and bad debt, interest rates, credit scores, and ultimately how to balance paying down debt with saving for the future,” Holbrook explains.

Generally speaking, “good debt” is debt that’s considered an investment that will provide a financial return: taking out a loan to get a degree that will land you a job or taking out a mortgage to buy a house that appreciates, for example. Conversely, "bad debt" is debt incurred over a purchase that decreases in value. Financing a new $1000 television using a credit card with a 10 percent interest rate? That’s a textbook example of bad debt, and it should be avoided whenever possible.

Credit cards can be dangerous—it's just so tempting to buy that new flat screen or book that vacation when you have access to plastic money—but they aren’t inherently bad. As a general rule, you just want to pay their balances in full and on time every month.

“Millennials should look at building a habit of savings from an early age, building a strong credit score with a credit card that is paid off each month and may even give them cash back or rewards points,” Holbrook adds.

She includes some additional rules of thumb for building credit responsibly:

- Regardless of your approved credit limit, keep your balance low.

- When making a major purchase, like a car, avoid applying for credit at multiple dealerships to get the best rate. Having multiple inquiries on your credit report can erode your score quickly. Instead, do your homework in advance and only apply for credit when you’re ready to buy.

- Don’t apply for multiple new accounts in a short amount of time. This could be a red flag and categorize you as a higher risk.

- Keep tabs on your credit score! Use a free credit monitoring service like Credit Karma to regularly check your report and score.


Holbrook says the key to managing that debt is establishing priorities.

“I strongly encourage recent grads to take a full, comprehensive look at their financial goals,” she says. “Some goals will be immediate (like earning an income, paying for housing, getting established in a new city, etc.) and some may be longer term (like saving for a home or retirement, starting a business, etc.).”

In order to tackle that debt and achieve those goals, you need a plan—which, in the world of personal finance, is known as a budget. Holbrook recommends using the rule of 20/60/20 to build a budget: Twenty percent should be put away to save for your future, 60 percent is used to cover your fixed monthly expenses (like rent and utilities), and 20 percent is reserved for discretionary spending.

With a budget in place and a commitment to paying your debt down each month, having—and using—a credit cards just makes good financial sense.