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This is what’s keeping millennials up at night

  • More than half of young people view their financial situation as their most pressing personal matter.
  • Their number one priority is paying down debt.

Millennials have their worries straight. They just aren't using the best methods to solve them.

Almost two-thirds (65 percent) of people in that age group view their current financial situation as their most pressing personal matter, according to a report by BMO Wealth Management. Personal relationships came in at a close second (64 percent), followed by jobs (56 percent). BMO Wealth Management surveyed 1,000 people ages 18 to 34 online in April.

The number one financial priority is paying down debt (25 percent).

Considering that 40 percent of millennials have student debt, and more than 44 million Americans hold a total of $1.4 trillion in outstanding student loans, they seem to have their priorities straight. Other issues, such as saving for retirement, are on the back burner for now, according to the survey.

Here are some ways millennials could improve their situation:

Consult with a financial advisor

Younger people are wary of the financial services industry in wake of the Great Recession. And the industry itself hasn't done a great job of communicating to consumers what exactly a financial advisor does or is, said Ben Brown, a certified financial planner with Entelechy.

You really have to do your research to find a credible source, because the regulations on who can call themselves a financial advisor are pretty broad, he said.

Many millennials are highly educated and tech-savvy, and rely on their own knowledge or the internet for financial advice, said Kris Yamano, vice president and regional leader of wealth planning with BMO Private Bank.

Only 40 percent cited experts as their most reliable source of information, their top source being the internet (73 percent) followed by friends and family (63 percent), according to the survey.

"They'd sooner trust in their own instinct or do their own research than consult with an expert," Yamano said.

"It's a major conundrum because they want the advice but aren't too sure how much it will cost them and whether they would get any value out of it" -Helen Ngo, CFP at Capital Benchmark Partners

Also, with all that debt hanging over their heads, young adults are conflicted about whether it would be worth their time and money to spend on getting advice, said Helen Ngo, a CFP at Capital Benchmark Partners.

"It's a major conundrum because they want the advice but aren't too sure how much it will cost them and whether they would get any value out of it," Ngo said.

However, they need to look at an advisor not as a cost, but as an investment in their future, said Kyle Moore, CFP of Quarry Hill Advisors.

And the earlier you meet with an advisor, the earlier you can start improving your financial literacy and making plans.

Create a financial plan

When making a plan, there is no immediate gratification. Millennials need to trust that they'll receive the benefits eventually, said Noah Schwartz, a CFP with Blueprint Financial Strategies.

"It's difficult for any changes you make to manifest in your 'now' situation," Schwartz said.

"If I've saved $5,000 and decide I should spend less and save more starting today, I've still only saved $5,000," he said. "If I save an extra $50 a week for four years, I'll have $15,000. Putting those numbers on paper, having a 'tomorrow' perspective, helps."

As long as you present the information properly, there is an immediate gratification benefit of seeing your "tomorrow" numbers rise quickly, he said.

Learn to automate your cash flows, Brown said. Open individual savings accounts for specific goals, such as a house fund or travel fund, and set up monthly transfers into those accounts.

Also, make a simple budget so that any leftover money you make can be used for guilt-free spending, he said.

It may seem overwhelming to step back, survey your situation and then come up with a plan, but, taking a proactive approach to your finances is important.

Change the way you save

Rather than use a regular savings account, young people should consider switching to a 401(k) plan, an individual retirement account or a Roth IRA.

"In contrast to a savings account, qualified retirement plans, like a 401(k) or IRA, offer both immediate and long-term tax benefits," Yamano said. "The accumulation of these tax-savings compounded over the term of many years can be very significant."

Using a Roth IRA, and then switching to a traditional IRA or 401(k) down the road, is an advantageous option for millennials.

Roth IRAs are more flexible and offer unique benefits, as earnings are generally tax-free. Also, after five years of opening the account, you can take out money at any time for any purpose. You also can take out your contributions (not earnings) at any time.

The Roth IRA is also young, as it was created in 1997, so millennials will be the first generation able to take full advantage of it, Brown said.

However, advisors don't fault millennials for using savings accounts, especially if they're planning on making a specific, big investment in the near future — such as buying a house.

Insure yourself

Unforeseen events, such as illness or death, can happen at any time, even for the young and healthy. Young adults should insure themselves to avoid having to pay a huge out-of-pocket expense if an accident were to occur, the BMO report said.

In addition, build up an emergency or rainy-day fund that can be used if an accident does occur. And always have back-up plans.

The big picture

You have to coordinate all of these financial tactics with behavioral tactics as well, Schwartz said. Your mindset must go to "save" from "spend," you must stick to your plans to reach your goals and stay calm when your investments fluctuate.

"Learning to coordinate the two, and maintaining a long-term perspective will allow you to have your cake. And maybe eat it too," Schwartz said.