Back From the Brink: 10 Years On

Distrust, grit, relief, shock. What kids of the Great Recession think about money today

Key Points
  • They may have seen parents have to sell homes, face foreclosure, and struggle financially.
  • What message did millennials take away about personal finance from the crisis?
  • Some see investing as foolhardy risk; others took it as a warning to become self-sufficient.
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Working and retired Americans have searing memories of the financial meltdown.

People may remember 2008 and 2009 as frightening years when it felt like the world was ending. A lot of names were used at the time – "financial crisis," or "meltdown," or "downturn" – but it was, in fact, a recession, aka the Great Recession.

Specific indicators, according to economists, are what qualified the period as an actual recession.

Here's what made it a stomach-churning time.

Jobs started drying up. By the end of the recession, unemployment hit 9.5 percent and peaked at 10 percent in October 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

People lost their homes to foreclosure at a staggering rate. Foreclosures spiked to a rate far larger than in any of the previous three recessions.

Kids may not have had the same burdens as adults, but that doesn't mean they were free from financial fallout. Millennials experienced 2008-09 as vividly as their parents and the adults around them.

The crash had a radical impact on people who are now ages 27 to 35, says Shane Mason, a 31-year-old CPA and CFP in Brooklyn, New York.

Several factors combined to create an economic storm that hit millennials particularly hard: Student loan balances began ballooning, coupled with a terrible job market.

Certified financial planner Sophia Bera, founder of millennial-focused financial advisory firm Gen Y Planning, thinks the economy has made millennials cautious. "We saw our families struggle during the stock market crash of '09, and the tech stock crash," she said.

Millennials, born in the mid 1980s and now in their early 30s, graduated from college into a job market that was shedding thousands of jobs each month.

"This materially impacted the loans they took on and their ability to grow wealth," Mason said. "Salaries grow just like nest eggs." The amount of a salary raise often is directly tied to the starting salary. Starting at a lower rate means you won't get as much growth, and your later incomes will not be as high since you started so much lower, Mason says.

Millennials are now scouting how to set up their families to be more secure. Bera says millennials watch the economy and are ready to react if something negative happens.

They're willing to take on side hustles and scout different options. "There's more desire to be entrepreneurial," Bera said. "We watched our parents have to sell their homes or face foreclosure."

Another insult millennials have to suffer: the hit to their reputation. Millennials are getting shade for being lazy and overly confident.

It's an unfair rap. They may be young, "but the opportunities just weren't the same," said Mason.

Kyle Parrish: 'Nothing would be handed to me'

Kyle Parrish
Source: Kyle Parrish

Kyle Parrish, 32, has vivid memories of 2008, the year he graduated with a finance degree from the University of Arizona.

His grades were good; he was a diligent networker.

"But the jobs I thought were there started to dry up," he said.

Instead of continuing a fruitless search, he and three friends took off backpacking through Asia and India on a small budget.

When Parrish returned, he looked at the people around him and was struck by the difference between those who had planned and those who hadn't. "They were vulnerable," he said. "They were exposed overnight, and I didn't want that."

It was a lightbulb moment. "The world is not going to hand you anything on a platter," he said.

Parrish took a sales job, moved to San Francisco and began saving for retirement. An associate encouraged him to set aside 3 percent or 4 percent, which seemed difficult. He forced himself to do it anyway.

He worked his way up, got a new job and acquired more experience — and began saving 14 percent of his salary, in the low six-figure range at the time.

Parrish trusts the stock market and says he understands that another crash is likely. He will continue to invest, however, and describes himself as "super bullish on putting money to work."

Where people were forced to cut back in the wake of the crash, he would rather be prepared. "For me, managing finances has to be proactive so I can sleep at night," he said.

Cynthia Bell McGillis: 'We made it'

Cynthia Bell McGillis
Source: Cynthia Bell McGillis

"I was pretty shielded from the financial crisis," said Cynthia Bell McGillis, 28, director of project management at a media company in Washington, D.C.

McGillis rode out the recession attending college.

Her parents, on the other hand, took a hit.

McGillis' father works in an industry aligned with construction, and plummeting housing prices affected his income. "It was tough," she said.

One Christmas, she came home and packed up her room. Her next visit home was to a new, smaller rental that her parents had taken.

"I was too oblivious," she said. "I didn't connect the dots."

Determined to be self-sufficient, McGillis set about learning as much as possible about managing her finances.

She invests close to 17 percent of her take-home salary in a 401(k) and separate investment accounts.

Her risk tolerance is high, she says, because she knows she has decades to recover from the market's ups and downs. Compared with her friends, McGillis says, she is an investing stalwart. "I know people who are my age who are like 50/50 stocks and bonds because they are so nervous," she said.

About the crash, she simply says: "We made it," McGillis said. "We're alive, we're healthy.

"It wasn't ideal but it wasn't disastrous."

Kristina King: 'Sell it all'

Kristina King
Source: Kristina King 

When the crash hit, Kristina King, 25, was in high school.

All around her, people had to postpone retiring or attempt to return to work.

Other friends' parents suddenly struggled to help them pay for college.

In King's own family, the crash set off a chain of financial events. Her grandmother had recently died, and King says everything was evaluated prefinancial crisis. "It was worth half that overnight," she said. "We had a long battle settling her estate."

King felt like the rug had been pulled out from under her.

At age 18, King marched into the bank holding the assets.

"I said, 'Sell the stocks. I don't trust stocks. I don't trust the market at all,'" she said.

She says now she resisted her father's warnings and those of the bank representative because of her age.
Then, somehow, the young woman who was so mistrustful of financial services and the stock market ended up working with financial institutions as a public relations manager in Brooklyn.

"I've learned so much," King said. "I've completely changed my stance."

She is an active and aggressive investor — out of her high five-figure salary, King saves 30 percent in several accounts, including her company's 401(k) — and she cites the crash as the reason for her hands-on approach to money. The downturn made her suspicious of financial institutions and asset managers.

Rachael Creager: 'Things could turn around so quickly'

Source: Rachael Creager 

Rachael Creager, 26, saw first-hand the impact of the stock market.

Her college fund lost 15 percent of its value in 2008. "It was bad timing," she said. She graduated college in 2014.

Now married, Creager, a Ph.D. candidate in physics, invests $100 of her $30,000 salary in a Roth IRA each month, and $50 in a money market held jointly with her husband, Tony Thompson.

They care greatly where the money goes, investing in an ETF for carbon-neutral companies or working toward sustainable energy. "We don't want to invest in private prisons," she said.

Also on their no-fly list: pharmaceuticals, because of their part in the opioid crisis, and manufacturers of civilian firearms.

Where they disagree is in U.S. stocks. "He works for a finance firm," she said. "I didn't want to invest in American companies, and he views that as unpatriotic."

Creager's reason? "I don't feel very confident in the U.S. economy over the next five to 10 years." But Creager's husband says consumer confidence will strengthen the economy.

Many of the events Creager remembers taking place after 9/11 — the recession, the housing crisis — make her think of the world as very unstable. "Things could turn around so quickly," she said.

"My worry is that if we invest at the wrong time and in the wrong thing, the little nest we're starting to build could just disappear," Creager said.

Dana Balch: 'I always assumed we'd have money'

Dana Balch, 26, was filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, in her senior year in 2009.

"I had to ask my parents for the first time what their income was," Balch said. She had been considering going out of state. But her family's income was too high to qualify for aid and too low to cover the costs.

And as a Georgia high school graduate, she received a generous scholarship for an in-state university: free tuition, and money for books and other fees. It was an offer too good to turn down.

Balch's family weathered the recession and, luckily, kept their house. She now realizes her parents, who relocated to Georgia just before the crash, had bought more than they could afford. The large house also distorted Balch's view of the family finances. "Every time I asked for something, I got it," she said.

The lesson Balch says she took away from the crash: A house is no guarantee of financial security. "They bought twice as much as they needed," she said, because they assumed a house is always safe. Balch says her parents didn't adjust spending or confide in their kids.

Balch's financial outlook shifted. "I look ahead to major life decisions and think less about a big investment and a big return, and more about what I need and what I can afford," she said.

Like many high school students, she believed her parents could cope with any financial calamity or large expense. "If no one talks to you," she said, it's easy to assume things are OK. "But I always assumed we'd have money."

Emilie Hoogewerff: 'Is it really benefiting me?'

Emilie Hoogewerff
Source: Emilie Hoogewerff

Growing up in Connecticut helped shield Emilie Hoogewerff, 24, from the crash. "I don't think I knew how bad it was," she said.

Hoogewerff describes her hometown as a bubble for "rich, white people who don't have much connection to what's going on in the world."

But Hoogewerff was not rich. At 14, after her parents divorced, she was living with her mother. Money was tight, and they cut back on movies and vacations, among other expenses. And unlike many in Glastonbury, where people cross the globe for vacations, Hoogewerff and her mother had a modest week away in Cape Cod, which she says was really special.

Now a second-grade teacher, Hoogewerff is now finding her financial footing. She participates in an online forum for people in their 20s, and she cautiously invests about $100 each month in an IRA. Eight percent is deducted from her pay for the Teacher Retirement Benefits pension

Her reluctance to invest in the school's 403(b) plan stems from student debt and a relatively modest teacher's salary of $50,000.

And, she says, she didn't fully understand the investment representative's explanation.

"It was shelling out money in good faith," she said. "He'd know what to do with it, but isn't that what caused the crash? Is it really benefiting me?"

Putting money into a system that she sees benefiting some people more than others makes her uncomfortable. She wonders if investing her money in Amazon will support only the company's growth and Jeff Bezos' wealth.

Hoogewerff worked throughout her teens, but the goal was having money to spend. "Now I'm working to save," she said.

She is building up an emergency fund for car repairs. "I can't just go to movies, and shopping, and coffee dates" on a teacher's salary. "This summer has been a wakeup call," she said.

More in Back from the brink: 10 years on:
Post-financial crisis retirees still struggle to find reliable retirement income
Nearly 6 in 10 workers are still recovering after the Great Recession