How Real Millennials Spend Their Money

Dear Millennial pals, word on the street is that we're a tough demographic to market to. Nobody quite knows what we want, but since we spend a good $600 billion in the United States every year, retailers have a lot to gain if they can figure it out. We spent a lot of time online, but don't necessarily do the majority of our shopping there. Instead, we practice "showrooming" — trying on the item in the store and then racing online to find a better deal. We like a clever commercial and can appreciate the value of a well-placed ad, but we're stick of being blatantly marketed at.

As a Millennial, I have my fair share of shopping demons. Malls overwhelm me, I always spend way too much money on Christmas presents, and I've never had a consistent budget, though I do keep loose track of my finances in my head (which looks something like this: "One million and one, one million and two..."). While it's interesting to see the statistics of my generation's consumerism, I can't help feeling that it's a little one-sided. What about the psychology behind Millennial spending?

Most of us are pretty much grown up by now, with independent incomes, bills to pay, and a ton of debt, so it's safe to say that we've given a fair share of thought to this whole exchanging-money-for-goods thing. Retailers may know where and how we spend our money, but why do we do it that way?

I put my e-reporter hat on and took to the e-streets to hear from real-life Millennials — guys and girls, high schoolers and 30-somethings — to figure out how those born after 1980 really shop. Here's what I learned: We're all pretty much in the same low-budget, slightly guilty boat.

1. Millennials don't have budgets — and we feel guilty about it. As a matter of fact, the only people who had budgets were two of the high school girls I interviewed, and that's partially because their parents encouraged them to do so.

What's a budget? Rose, mid-20s
Sort of... —Margaret, early 30s
It depends what I have in my wallet. —Anna, high school
I do not use a budget, I just keep a mental track of how much I have and what is/isn't a smart thing to buy. Not always the best method. —Sam, college
My budget is divided between money for Christmas, savings money, offering for church, and spending money. —Susie, high school (putting us all to shame)

2. Millennials are impulse buyers of low-cost indulgences, because it makes us feel good, and because we can. None of us are buying yachts in the spur of the moment, but give us a few years.

I'm an impulse shopper when it comes to small purchases (food, t-shirts, hats, etc.) and items that are generally under 10 bucks. I thrift when I feel like it, not when I need something in particular. Thrifting is almost more of a source of entertainment than a way to buy things that matter (how American). —Sam
I'm 100 percent an impulse shopper. I wind up with a lot of really strange clothes that I don't need this way...i.e., I own 4 spandex turtleneck crop tops and no jeans. All of my shoes are disintegrating, but I own harem pants and a metallic silver suit. —Rose
As soon as I have money, I want to spend it on something I've been waiting ages to buy. But I'm not going to buy it right away if it's ridiculously expensive. —Susie

3. Millennials are aware of the difference between fast fashion vs. quality items. We wish we could afford a stripped-down closet of quality staples, but for the most part, we simply can't.

I have been trying to realize the value in full-priced clothes that are semi-well made (read: not items that are $3 on sale and currently trendy). —Heaven, recent college grad
I am hard on myself as a consumer before justifying my purchase. Good food and drink make for a very enjoyable time, as do wearing nice, comfortable clothes and living in a well-furnished apartment, but I believe everyone should live on a tight budget for a time so they can really prioritize their spendings. —Garret, mid-twenties
In the moment, shopping makes me feel like a real lady. Rather than pound a tequila shot or eat an entire pie, I'm treating myself to an Yves Saint Laurent lip stain... how civilized of me! Small luxuries here and there are so necessary, even amongst composting, Schwinn-riding, flannel-wearing hipsters. —Rose

4. Millennials prefer shopping in-store. It may look like we spend all day online, but don't worry, Mom, we still like the tangible.

In-store is more therapeutic for me. Internet shopping brings with it all of the overwhelming mediocrity and ambiguous ickiness of...the internet. —Rose
IN STORE for sure. —Traci, high school
I like to hold the object, or try it on and know that it is right for me before I buy it. —Garret

5. Millennials are extremely susceptible to buyer's remorse. Almost every respondent expressed feelings of guilt and distaste over both their own impulse buys and materialism in general. Though Millennials are often portrayed as shallowly consumeristic (nose in their iPhone, covered in head-to-toe brands), shopping isn't necessarily our drug of choice. It can make us feel pretty dark, actually:

I shop all the time. Like, every weekend at least. I don't always buy stuff, but shopping is my hobby/distraction/therapy. [It makes me feel] happy/anxious/excited? I don't have a healthy relationship to shopping, as you have probably guessed by now. —Margaret
It kind of depresses me. Unless it's thrifting, because then I feel accomplished. But at the mall I feel really overwhelmed and needy and I go home feeling like I didn't look everywhere I could have or don't have enough or I just feel really gross from all the materialism. —Anna
Shopping makes me feel guilty sometimes, especially when I'm buying non-essentials that are relatively expensive (i.e. nicer shoes that I won't wear all the time), but it also is very enjoyable once the money is out of my mind or when I'm using/wearing my purchases for the first time. It's overwhelming sometimes how many options there are, and how little of it I can afford, which can be disheartening. —Sam
I feel guilty even thinking about buying something... so the trick is not to think about it. —Rose
I mean, seriously, it is impossible to find good jeans. WHY DOES EVERYONE WANT HOLES IN THEIR NEW JEANS? —Peter, mid-20s

Millennials might shop a lot, but it turns out they're not terribly happy about it — many of us wish we used a better budget, invested in quality over quantity, and somehow avoided the shallow materialism that we've witnessed firsthand in American society for a couple decades now. If I were a retailer, I'd listen not only to how Millennials consume, but how they wished they consumed. That very well might be the key to unlocking the Millennial equation (or — yikes — the Millennial wallet).

And to my fellow budget-less Millennials, keep ya chin up — we're in this together.