Bank of America recently released survey results that fly in the face of some of the most prevalent stereotypes about millennials: They’re all suffocating under student and credit card debt, laughing at the suggestion they should put money away for their future. On the contrary, says the study: One in six has at least $100,000 saved.
Bank of America worked with GfK, an online survey platform, to ask people in the U.S. about their relationship to money for the bank’s Better Money Habits Millennial Report. The social science company polled 1,500 people from their user base of 55,000 active participants to get a representative sample of the U.S. population.
Half of those surveyed were millennials, split evenly between older millennials, ages 28-37, and younger millennials, 23-27. That means the survey results are based on the self-reported savings habits of about 375 people from each age group.
One in six millennial participants reported that their total savings — including money in checking and savings accounts, IRAs, 401(k)s, and other retirement or investment accounts — was $100,000 or greater.
Andrew Plepler, global head of environment, social, and governance at Bank of America, says the increase in savings shows that millennials are learning to be financially responsible faster than other generations.
The number of millennials reporting having any savings at all has increased in the five years that Bank of America has conducted the survey. Millennials with $15,000 or more in savings jumped to 47% this year, up from 2015.
“This generation of millennials, particularly younger millennials, seem to be adapting the savings habits a bit more rigorously, with a bit more discipline and a bit more intensity than even the older millennials and boomers,” he said. “We’re seeing their saving habits start earlier.”
While it seems to provide a more encouraging picture of millennials than the scrounging off their parents archetype, there’s a lot to unpack here.
Trust lost during the Great Recession
Millennials were somewhere between middle school and just starting their careers during the economic collapse in 2007. Coming of age during the financial crisis has had some profound impacts on the way they save.
Wealthy millennials are saving their money rather than investing it, according to a report from Bank of America’s retail banking division, Merrill Edge.
Two-thirds of affluent millennials say they plan to rely on their savings accounts when they retire. Meanwhile, seven in 10 Gen-Xers have been relying on 401Ks and the majority of boomers chose to rely on Social Security and pensions.
Millennials hear often that they won’t be able to afford childcare, own a home, or comfortably retire at a reasonable age, so it makes sense that they would aggressively save for the future.
Americans are just beginning to save again
While the report claims the numbers break stereotypes about millennials, Americans of all ages are notoriously bad at saving money.
A GoBankingRates survey, which asked people how much money they had in their savings accounts in August 2017, showed that 57% of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings.
The Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances, which collects information about American family incomes, net worth, debt, credit and other economic outcomes every three years, found that 55% of families were able to put away some savings in 2016 — an improvement from the years following the Great Recession, but still lower than pre-recession levels.
Wages, savings, and retirement plans compared to other generations
The concern moving forward is making sure this financial self-discipline continues in times of economic downturn, Plepler said.
It’s worth pointing out that his take — that the answer to future downturns is increasing financial literacy and budgeting your way out of depressed wages and high costs of living — puts responsibility on millennials to correct for problems caused by previous generations.
In addition to the psychological impact of growing up in a financially unstable time, the economy has been unfavorable to the youngest workers, making it more difficult to save.
Millennial earnings are low compared to median wages — lower than Gen-Xers or Baby Boomers when they were early in their careers. They’re worth half what their parents wages were at the same age.
This generation is taking over the workforce at a time when pensions and other retirement benefits are on the decline and income inequality is at staggering highs. While 27% of older millennials in the Bank of America survey reported saving for their children’s education, most of them are likely still paying off their own student debt.
Evaluating Millennials as one group is ineffective
The amount of money in a millennial’s savings account also varies greatly depending on the way you define the generation.
The GOBankingRates survey, which identified millennials as ages 18-34, found that 67% had less than $1,000 in savings. That’s a much more dismal picture than what Bank of American found: 47% of millennials had at least $15,000 in savings when defined as ages 23 to 37.
Even a 23-year-old and a 37-year-old, the range Bank of America used for millennials, are at very different points in their professional and financial lives. Only 5% of younger millennials, as defined by the bank, have $100,000 or more in savings, compared to 21% of older millennials, Bank of America told Fortune in an interview after the survey was released.
The prevailing retirement savings advice is to have twice your salary saved by age 35. These aren’t irresponsible young people somehow squirreling away $100,000. These are adults with careers and families who weathered a terrible job market and are now making financial security a priority.
Considering the way wages have stagnated, most of them would prefer a raise to a pat on the back. In fact, nearly half of millennials asked for one in the last two years, according to the survey.
For Bank of America, where 30%, or 16 million, of its customers are millennials, offering generation insights and financial planning advice could potentially be a smart move.
Earlier this week, the bank announced new policies that would eliminate no-fee checking accounts — a decision that could penalize low income customers who are struggling to save, especially during times when they have unexpected expenses.
A petition to continue access to free checking accounts at Bank of America had more than 65,000 signatures as of Wednesday.