Today’s graduates make almost $10,000 less than their parents, after adjusting for inflation

Personal finance

When Jacynthe Riviere graduated from college with an accounting degree, “there were plenty of jobs,” she said — and “the big firms paid well.”

The year was 1984. Riviere, now 61 and living in Puerto Rico, made roughly $18,000 in her first position as a staff auditor — the equivalent of more than $53,000 today — but her income shortly increased to $24,000, which is a 33% jump.

That year, graduates earned $23,278, on average, or $68,342 in today’s dollars, roughly $7,254 more than 2023 graduates, according to a recent report by Self Financial.

In four decades, graduate salaries have decreased more than 10% after adjusting for inflation, the report found.

Inflation’s recent runup has made it even harder for those just starting out.

In addition to soaring food and housing costs, millennials and Gen Z face other financial challenges their parents did not as young adults. Not only are their wages lower than their parents’ earnings when they were in their 20s and 30s, but they are also carrying larger student loan balances.

Online tools can help

“Your parents might have been making more, but they didn’t have the tools that this generation has,” said John Hope Bryant, chair and CEO of Operation HOPE, a nonprofit dedicated to financial empowerment for underserved communities.

Anyone with a smartphone can now access a wealth of free or low-cost apps for budgeting, saving and investing.

“If you are in this generation, you have tools literally in the palm of your hand that can help you.”

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“For those just starting out, their advantage here is technology,” said Douglas Boneparth, a certified financial planner and president and founder of Bone Fide Wealth, a wealth management firm based in New York.

Of course, “you have to do a little bit of due diligence first,” he added. Vet budgeting and investing apps before you hand over your information by reading reviews and checking their security measures. It also helps to consider how the app’s features help you better learn about and manage your money.

Go back to basics

Regardless of how much money you make at the outset, “in these early years of building good financial habits, it comes down to good behavior,” said Boneparth, who is also a member of CNBC’s Advisor Council.

Start with two basic fundamentals, Boneparth advised: “Know what comes in and what goes out.” Then, “build in a margin of safety with a cash reserve.”

“If you can get these two things under your belt, you are setting yourself up for success in the rest of your financial life.”

Experts say sticking to a budget and having an emergency fund are key to staying afloat during the inevitable economic ups and downs. Most financial pros recommend having at least six months’ worth of expenses set aside, or more if you are the sole breadwinner in your family or in business for yourself.

“There is inherently going to be volatility and how you are going to handle that makes the difference,” Boneparth said.

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