Are You Better Off Than Your Parents?

by Darwin on June 26, 2011

With the economy slowly recovering from a very rough recession and millions of Americans still out of work, if your perception is based on what you read in the mainstream media, it’s tough to think things are actually going well for this generation.  While joblessness is a temporary condition for most, the actual life you’ve lead and standard of living you enjoy is a culmination of your collective years on this earth and what you see into the near future, not just this immediate moment where you may judge that your job stinks or you’re just starting out.  When contemplating how you’re faring in the bigger picture across your entire adult life and into the future, would you consider yourself to be better off or worse off than your parents?

I’m Better Off – And I Never Take it for Granted

I have no complaints about my childhood.  It was great.  I loved my parents, they loved me, I had a lot of great experiences and we had enough to live a “regular” American life.  Aside from my parents being very involved in my academics, sports and musical interests, we did get a nice day trip to the shore here and there and a weekly vacation to a lake.  As far as I could tell, life was great and it was “the way it was supposed to be”.

As I grew up and learned more about what people make, what other people have, and how things were when I was young, it’s evident that for our age, we’re much better off financially than my parents were.  The two bedroom, 1 bath house I grew up in seemed normal to me at the time, but I don’t think it’s a place, that based on today’s norms, where we’d feel “successful” raising our kids now.  I never thought much about the junky vehicles we had, like the old International with rust so bad you could see the road through the floorboard – or hearing my father yelling as he worked on cars and dropped a wrench or hit is head (who actually works on their own cars anymore?  anyone?)  I learned about how my parents didn’t even have the money for my dad to get his hair cut on a routine schedule and I wore hand-me-downs well into Middle School which a classmate rudely pointed out in front of my friends to my horror (I was wearing her older brother’s old clothes).  It’s weird what sticks with you as an adult, and in retrospect, my parents probably saved precious hundreds of dollars in clothes each year by doing so, but man, did that piss me off when my classmate did that.  Sure, we swap baby clothes with friends and family now for the little ones, but I don’t imagine that as the kids are older we’ll need to resort to hand-me-downs from the “well-to-do” out of actual financial necessity.  For my parents at the time, it was something that was necessary.

So, overall, I wouldn’t classify us as having been poor – probably solidly middle class, and I do cherish my childhood.  But from a standard of living standpoint in all aspects – inflation adjusted income, home, cars, vacations, material things, whatever, our family is faring better.  How could I complain about money?  We just put in a pool after all!  I happened to have lucked out I suppose and ended up with a job with low unemployment – which can change in a heartbeat – but it’s been good to me thus far.

Are Things Really That Bad in the US?

If you focus on the titles in the mainstream media, you’d probably think the average 30-40 year old American today is much worse-off than their parents were.  If you exclude any temporary setbacks like one-time job-loss or some paper losses in real estate, I tend to think most Americans in this cohort are actually better off.  See, the 70s were a terrible mix of stagflation and little innovation driving new growth industries.  For the most part, home sizes were smaller, cars were cheaper, there was less materialism and yet, so many Americans in the middle class struggled like my parents did just to put food on the table.  These days, while things might seem more expensive, aren’t we just buying more?  Home sizes are gargantuan and people tend to buy new cars or lease over buying used.  Everyone’s got a cell phone, cable, internet, a new car/lease and other recurring bills that, while I wouldn’t want to live without, these are new expenses that we voluntarily take on that didn’t even exist back then.  It is possible to live without that iPhone plan and use free TV instead of $150 cable bills.  We eat more, we eat worse and find ourselves spending more on medical bills and medication to control our conditions.  Our generation took on a lot more debt than any prior generation, and hence, we spend more of our disposable income servicing that debt (See the only credit cards that make sense).  These are just a few of the things that differentiate the generations, but really, if we wiped out some of these voluntary budget leaks, shouldn’t we overwhelmingly be better off?

Somehow, in spite of it all, my parents were able to put me through college, which allowed me to pay them back a portion of it at no interest rather than take on a student loan.  It was never about money growing up; we always had “enough” and I never really thought about why my house was smaller than another kid’s or why we didn’t have a pool or an Atari.  I just wasn’t raised to think like that.  I think the current generation of kids is much more perceptive and status-driven.  My young kids already talk about house size, who has what and what things cost – and my wife and I don’t even talk like that around them!  I don’t know where they get it; I guess some TV and who they hang out with.  But I wonder what life will be like in America for our kids.  I plan on giving our kids the best start possible (within reason) and hope they make it on their own – and end up with even a more prosperous, fulfilling life than the ones we lead now.  Aim high!
What Are Your Thoughts?

Are You Better Off Than Your Parents?

Do You Think Your Children Will be Better Off Than You?

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

101 Centavos June 27, 2011 at 6:42 am

On a personal note, I’d say yes, but if speaking about generations, I’d have to say that in *some* ways, our parents’ generation had it better. Better nutrition and health, less debt-fueled consumption, and more certainty about the future. I don’t know that our parents doubted for a second that Social Security and Medicare wouldn’t be there for them when they retired. Now it’s a open question for debate.


Darwin June 27, 2011 at 8:27 am

Very true about Social Security. I haven’t really planned on SS comprising a substantial portion of my retirement benefits, but for those that do, I suspect our parents’ generation will have fared better under the program. The math just doesn’t support it any other way given US obligations that can’t ever be paid under current promises.


Sass June 27, 2011 at 8:38 am

On a personal level, I’d have to say, “No, I’m not better off than my parents.” They owned their home from the time I was 2, I rent my home. They managed to pay for 3 children to get through college and I will be lucky to pay outright for the first year of my daughter’s college education. We always seemed to have more than enough when I was growing up, and I have a hard time making ends meet. My parents were well set for retirement, whereas, I have only recently started sincerely planning for it — at the age of 41, I’m well behind where I should be. Wow! I sound like such a whiner! I really don’t mean to, but I guess it is what it is. I am working hard at making better financial choices going forward. I can only hope that it isn’t “too little, too late”.


Darwin June 28, 2011 at 7:56 pm

Thanks for your comment; at least at 41 you have plenty of working years ahead of you (OK, maybe not something to celebrate :>), but there’s still time to hit those retirement goals, and these days, people are even able to work well into retirement, especially online!


Max June 27, 2011 at 10:39 am

Currently, no. When my parents were in their late 20’s they were much better off than I am. They both has excellent jobs and were in the process of buying their first home.


Darwin June 28, 2011 at 7:57 pm

Yeah, I guess the thing we don’t have going for us anymore is you can’t assume you stay with the same employer for life. That makes it tough to buy a home young.


Ripter June 27, 2011 at 3:02 pm

Nope. My folks have a great pension. I had a garbage 401k that my past employers always seemed to have limitations and vesting schedules that are not employee friendly. When you work in consulting you tend to change employers every couple of years with changing projects and I never seemed to be fully vested. There’s going to be a lot of folks in my generation (30 somethings) that are going to hit retirement age with a cold hard reality waiting for them.
Also, we now live in a more globalized world that wants to consume the same way the US does and there just isn’t enough to go around. We’ll either have to give some of what we have or get used to going to war to fight for it. Either way, it won’t be pretty….


Darwin June 28, 2011 at 7:58 pm

Yeah, with consulting gigs you often have to go a few extra steps to get the retirement thing covered and match benefits a blue chip full time position might offer…agree, the world is flattening. Scary! But also presents opportunities!


retirebyforty June 27, 2011 at 6:08 pm

I don’t know man. From what you described, life was simpler back then. We live in a 2 bedroom condo now and I think that’s plenty of room for one kid. When I was growing up, I had two brothers and our family lived in 2 bedrooms apartments until my Junior year in high school.
My parents had many low and high points so it’s hard to compare. Our lives are much more stable which is a good thing.


Darwin June 28, 2011 at 7:59 pm

I definitely had stability and that counts for a lot. I’m not sure if I’ll make it with the same employer for life like my dad did…


Krantcents June 27, 2011 at 7:40 pm

My parents were immigrants and worked very hard to be successful. Their success should probably be compared with their contemporaries. I certainly have an easier life and a much better future without many of their struggles. My children are more successful at an earlier age than I was. They were fortunate to have an excellent education without debt.


Darwin June 28, 2011 at 8:00 pm

That’s great that you were able to get them through good schools debt-free – they don’t know how lucky they are!


Martin June 28, 2011 at 5:56 pm

I definently know I’m worse off than my parents were at my age (26), but what I’ve learned a lot along the way will allow me to be better off than they are, at their ages (58 and 57).

I bought my house Feb/2008. Great right? I was working on flat rate/peice rate at a luxury car dealer doing alright. Then the credit dried up (no one paid cash for service or repairs). Then fuel was 4/dollars a gallon – fill your car or repair it? Then the car manufacturer cut back warranty payout times. So I took a twenty-percent paycut on the majority of my paycheck. All this considered means you work 10-12 hour days everyday, 6-8 hours each Saturday, and do sidework on Sunday, in your driveway, just to make what you would’ve if you had earned a straight 40 hours in a normal week.

So my credit card balance went from zero at the end of the month to…higher and higher! Just to provide food and gas for my commute hurt a lot. But I did discover M&M’s in a jar of peanut butter, eaten with a spoon can cover your lunch.

But not to fear, contracting in Iraq was a good paycheck, and a good cause. (You’re helping the soldiers, not anyone else – no one cared why we were there, expect those who were back at home). I was beginning to bounce back, just when I laid off 🙁

I picked up a job doing fleet work for 16/hour, but I got plently of O/T to cover my mortgage, and a few things, but my expenses have increased. I’m at the end of my credit rope continuing to provide for my wife and 3 month old. (My wife just went back to work today).

Luckily my company is being bought out – by another fleet company. I will get a 20k/year raise to start, plus any O/T which is available. Basic benefits covered, 7+ percent 401k match, and so much more. Very soon.

Yeah, my parents definently had it easier at my age, but what I’ve learned since 02/2008, most people won’t in a lifetime, which I wouldn’t trade for a windfall, a winning lottery ticket, or a handout. I don’t regret buying my house at all, I still have it 🙂

And once everything is in place, I’ll have it better!


Darwin June 28, 2011 at 8:05 pm

Wow, you’ve got some great perspective; and that recent pay raise must feel great! Usually, you end up getting screwed somehow when your company is bought out!


Miss T @ Prairie Eco-Thrifter June 29, 2011 at 11:18 am

We are so fortunate to live in Canada and the US. We have much better access to things than in other countries and this provides opportunity and money. The western world has not slowed down at all when it comes to advancements and we have reaped the rewards. There are so many more things I have access to compared to what my parents had. Things were a lot harder back in the day although simpler. I think if our parents made what we make now, they would have been rich.

Congrats on the new pay raise. It’s always nice to get a money bonus.


Jeff @ Sustainable life blog June 29, 2011 at 4:06 pm

I’d have to say that in some ways I’m better off, but not in others. My parents bought a home when they were 24, I’m now 26, and have no immediate plans to purchase (though they did get an 18% interest rate and “were lucky to get that”. They also will be able to count a bit on social security, where as i’m viewing my current ss tax as tossing money into the fire. Some ways are better on my end, but not all – I think it’s important to realize that priorities have shifted and oftentimes people define better or worse as what they have/do not have at a certain age. I’m not married, and feel no pressure to do so, nor do I own a house, but I do get pressure about that. I dont want to buy a house right now, I can’t afford it. just because the market is soft and I’d get a good rate isnt reason enough to buy a house – plus, I’d also like to decide if im staying in the city i live in before I go blow a few hundred grand.


FA Guys July 1, 2011 at 12:21 pm

Like many have mentioned previously, it really is a matter of individual situations. I think there is a need for us, just as it was for our parents, to live within their means. My parents were fortunate enough to put four kids through college and I am now finished with school and looking to finally land some employment that uses my expensive education. I almost feel like I’m starting out off track or behind the pace I need to be, but that doesn’t mean I have it worse off then my parents did. To me, its a matter of doing something positive and making forward steps with the cards we’re dealt. What more can we ask for?


Financial Samurai July 3, 2011 at 8:11 pm

My parents are very satisfied with what they have. So, I don’t know if I’m better off or not. I do know they have great pensions which I will never have, and have an awesome home in the tropics!


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