Millennials are doing far worse financially than generations before them, with student loans, rising rents and higher health care costs pushing the average net worth below $8,000, a new study shows.
The net worth of Americans aged 18 to 35 has dropped 34 percent since 1996, according to research released Thursday by Deloitte, the accounting and professional services giant. This demographic is paying more for education and such basics as food and transportation while incomes have largely flatlined.
"The vast majority of consumers are under tremendous financial pressure," said Kasey Lobaugh, Deloitte's chief retail innovation officer and lead author of the study. "That is particularly true for low-income Americans and millennials."
The growing gap between the nation's wealthiest residents and everybody else, he said, is affecting the way consumers spend.
Education expenses have climbed 65 percent in the past decade. Food costs have jumped 26 percent, health care is up 21 percent, housing jumped 16 percent and transportation rose 11 percent. And there are now expenses that most consumers didn't have to account for 20 years ago, including smartphones and data plans.
Today's 20- and 30-somethings spend about 17 percent of their incomes on education, health care and rent, compared with 12 percent a decade ago, the study found. Discretionary spending, which includes dining out, alcohol and furniture, has remained largely flat, at about 11 percent of total income.
"Only 20 percent of consumers were meaningfully better off in 2017 than they were in 2007, with precious little income left to spend on discretionary retail," the study found.
The findings, researchers say, "debunk many conventional wisdoms about the new-age consumer." Millennials, they contend, are putting off homebuying and marriage not because they want to, but because rising costs are making it difficult for them to afford down payments and weddings.
"The narrative out there is that millennials are ruining everything, from breakfast cereal to weddings, but what matters to consumers today isn't much different than it was 50 years ago," Lobaugh said. "Generally speaking, there have not been dramatic changes in how consumers spend their money."
Overall, U.S. retail spending has grown about 13 percent since 2005, to roughly $3 trillion a year, but researchers say much of that growth is tied to population growth, not consumers spending more.
In the past decade, the nation's highest earners -- households making $100,000 or more -- watched their incomes rise 1,305 percent more than those in households making less than $50,000 a year.
There is one area, though, where consumers are spending less than they once did: Clothing. Shoppers are spending half as much on apparel as they did a decade ago, even as they buy more items, the study found.
Lobaugh said the reasons for that shift are both economic and cultural. Retailers are churning out cheaper clothing and selling it at lower prices as they try to compete with fast-fashion chains like H&M and Zara. At the same time, American are buying more casual and athletic wear, which tends to be cheaper than business suits and formal wear.