Recent College Grads Talk about Money Management

Young people are often portrayed as struggling with debt, with stagnant salaries. NPR's Lisa Chow talks with a few college graduates about how they go about managing their finances.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's graduation season, and we're looking at the finances of young people. Last week, we reported on ways to help teenagers avoid debt. Today: college grads.

Several authors who are as young as the people they write about have portrayed people in their 20s and 30s as facing an impossible financial situation ahead. They're struggling with debt, their salaries are stagnant. At least that's the stereotype.

NPR's Lisa Chow has more.

LISA CHOW reporting:

If the U.S. economy depends on spending, Grace Kim(ph) is a great American.

She's 28, single, and earns $50,000 a year at an architectural firm in New York. She spends all of her salary and then borrows on credit to spend more.

Ms. GRACE KIM (New York): There are so many options. There are so many things to do. There are so many bars - and you do feel a pressure to sort of stay on top of everything. Like, what's the new place to go, where's the new restaurant to eat? And also what to wear, like, the cool clothes, and buy the expensive shoes, or…

CHOW: On this evening, Kim and dozens of other gather in a small apartment in downtown Manhattan to celebrate a birthday. They're crowding doorways, squeezing into kitchen and living room. Apartments like this, about the size of a subway car, sell for more than a million dollars in this city.

Kim talks about trying to take a friend's budgeting advice.

Ms. KIM: And she's like, okay, for the next few months, you're going to spend $100 a week. That was like hell. I mean, my sister and I were making, like, gourmet mac-n-cheese from $.20 cent generic boxes. But you know, after awhile we got really sick of mac-n-cheese.

CHOW: Grace Kim's story is typical of people in their 20s and 30s, but not as much as it used to be. A recent survey published by the Federal Reserve, shows that since the early 90s, more people under 35 own their own homes. More put money into retirement accounts and fewer have credit card debt.

Like James Levie(ph), who hates to waste money.

Mr. JAMES LEVIE (New York): An evening out is easily $100 to $200. You wake up in the morning and you're hung-over and, you know, you've got a big hole in your pocket. That's not a feeling I've ever particularly enjoyed.

CHOW: Levie works at a private equity firm. He's 30, and every year he puts the maximum in his company's retirement plan. He invests whatever is leftover.

In his working life so far, he has saved close to a quarter of a million dollars; more than triple what most 60 year olds have in financial assets. He and his wife, Nami Sowajema(ph), don't always see eye-to-eye.

Mr. LEVIE: So it's not so much the act of spending money that bothers me. It's the act of thoughtlessly spending money that bothers me.

Ms. NAMI SOWAJEMA (James Levie's wife): You also enjoy saving money?

Mr. LEVIE: Right. I do get pleasure...

CHOW: Like, you get really excited when you find, like, a way to save a dollar in doing something.

Ms. SOWAJEMA: That is true. I do.

CHOW: Levie made more than $200,000 last year. When his wife decided to go to graduate school two years ago, he decided to pay her tuition - $80,000 of it - in full, out of his savings. On his salary, it's not surprising that he saves, until you hear how. Take grocery shopping.

Ms. SOWAJEMA: He has the places that he thinks is a better place to buy from. Because I would probably just go to wherever is closest.

CHOW: He won't take cabs.

Mr. LEVIE: I grew up in New York City, so I feel like I know how to get around the city. And to me it's completely natural just to walk when you can.

CHOW: When Levie is not saving money by walking, he's driving out of his way to save.

Mr. LEVIE: I've done all the calculations and I've figured out the routes that bypass the tolls. If they take an extra two minutes and I save $2, I've done the math to figure out whether or not my time is really worth that much.

CHOW: James Levie challenges the perception that young adults are all in debt. Save $2 here, save $2 there. All that money is going towards plans to buy an apartment. Not unlike the one he's visiting tonight.

Lisa Chow, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: Next week you can hear why young adults don't save as much as their parents did.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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