Never hesitant to rebrand an existing phenomenon, millennials and their Gen Z frenemies are admitting to having “money dysmorphia” — a feeling of insecurity around their financial situation even when the true picture reveals little cause for concern. Some 43% of Gen Z and 41% of millennials say they suffer from a flawed perception of their finances, according to a recent Credit Karma study. While it might sound like just another form of TikTok-induced anxiety, money dysmorphia is a real problem that can cause someone to make poor or ill-informed decisions.
Having a financial perspective rooted in fear rather than fact is nothing new. Those of us with grandparents belonging to the Greatest Generation will recognize the Depression-era scarcity mentality.
A scarcity mentality is a valid way to experience the world. An upbringing in which finances were tight will have a lifelong impact on how one thinks about and interacts with money. The trouble with money dysmorphia is that it can distort the thinking of someone whose lived experience is not one of scarcity but of stability.
This is not to suggest that all Gen Zers and millennials were raised in financially stable homes and have continued to a comfortable, middle-class existence. Both generations have been dealt blows in terms of experiencing “once in a lifetime” or “generation-defining” events at young ages. So perhaps it isn't surprising that more than 40% of both generations report having money dysmorphia and 48% of Gen Z say they feel behind financially and 59% of millennials feel the same.
One major shift for both generations compared with previous ones is the constant access to information, both in the news and on social media. Gen Z especially has never lived in a world devoid of a 24/7 news cycle or social platforms and search engines allowing you to fact-check anything in an instant. The eldest members of Gen Z were only 10 when Apple launched the first iPhone. The oldest millennials were 26 — personally, I’d just graduated high school.
Millennials and Gen Zers keep hearing how tough we have it. How hard and expensive it is to buy a home. How much it costs to raise children and secure child care. How big corporations, once seen as beacons for young, ambitious people, are now slashing jobs. These headlines can easily overshadow the reality that the U.S. economy is pretty healthy, at least for now.
The challenges facing younger adults are real. But they can lead to an unhealthy narrative in someone’s head that says the other shoe could drop at any moment; that another pandemic will arise and force you to live off of savings for months, or that you won’t ever be able to buy a house on top of your student loan payments, never mind being able to have children one day. And not to point fingers too much, but our parents may have helped solidify these fears with the money behaviors they modeled in our youth.
Adding to the anxiety are images on social media featuring people showing off luxury consumer goods, flying first class to expensive destinations and dining in notoriously difficult-to-book restaurants. Younger consumers are inundated with such content. Living in a big city brings displays of wealth into your day-to-day experience. You can see the Birkin bag on the street or note the legit Supreme hoodie or Cartier Love bracelet.
It’s easy to see why 45% of millennials and Gen Z surveyed for the Credit Karma study reported being obsessed with becoming rich. When you start with a pessimistic assessment of your own future, it’s hard to imagine that your finances will improve in the normal course of your life and career.
Yet instead of being in a constant state of unease, millennials and Gen Z could ground themselves by doing the math on what amount of money would make them sleep easier. Fixating on a nebulous goal like “getting rich” isn’t helpful compared with putting numbers on a page and a timeline in place.
Anyone who admits to experiencing dysmorphia is already acknowledging that their perceptions of their own finances aren’t necessarily fact-based. It’s a good first step. But the reality is that this mentality has no simple cure and can last a lifetime. Financial therapy, or hiring a well-vetted financial planner could help. But some people might consider a more radical move and stop paying attention to the social media that sparked their unwarranted anxiety in the first place.
(Erin Lowry is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering personal finance. She is the author of the three-part “Broke Millennial” series.)
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