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Meet the millennials who made all the right money moves in the pandemic economy and are suddenly wealthy

Juliana Kaplan   

Meet the millennials who made all the right money moves in the pandemic economy — and are suddenly wealthy
  • Some millennials are suddenly surging ahead financially.
  • Those with growing fortunes can thank a set of unique economic circumstances in recent years.

James Barnes is surprised to find himself beating the millennial odds.

At age 33, he is firmly in the middle of the generational cohort born 1981 to 1996. By some accounts, they killed off staples like napkins and cereal and spent too much money on avocado toast and fancy coffee. Many started their careers in the aftermath of the Great Recession, have contended with a housing affordability crisis throughout adulthood, and generally seemed to be doomed to economic misery.

Pre-pandemic, Barnes' situation skewed closer to that traditional millennial image. In his early 20s, Barnes and his wife lived with his parents. She went corporate and he worked with a managed service provider for assisted living facilities as they steadily paid down their student loans and saved for their own home.

"Just starting out and graduating college, you're saddled with student debt, you're living in an apartment which you're paying rent for, you're not building any equity, you're generally not making nearly as much money as you thought you'd be making right out of the gate at college," Barnes said. "So looking at even a $150,000 price tag for a house, you're just like, when is that ever going to happen?"

In 2017, it did finally happen for the Barneses. They put a down payment on a house in Lawrenceville, Georgia. Barnes said it was just a regular, normal life: They commuted to Atlanta for work, hung out with friends, worked on home improvements, enjoyed being DINKs, and took care of their pet bearded dragon. They weren't struggling, but they always watched their budget and spent conservatively.

When the pandemic hit, Barnes' wife intensified her very millennial hobby: Perusing real estate and touring open houses. She discovered they were sitting on a gold mine — their house had doubled in value.

It prompted a strategic life move. The couple decided to sell and move back to Barnes' home state of Alabama. When a real estate company offered $300,000, double what the couple had paid, they jumped on it.

"I know this is a very odd scenario for most millennials and really most people, but we sold a house and basically just bought a house outright," he said.

The Barneses are part of a new millennial group that is suddenly doing very well financially — especially if they bought real estate pre-pandemic. In the fourth quarter of 2019, millennials held $3.5 trillion in real estate wealth; as of the fourth quarter of 2023, that's more than doubled.

After an adulthood plagued by economic woes, the pandemic brought on a student-loan payment pause, rising salaries, spiking real estate and stock holdings, and government stimulus. It all helped change the fortunes of some millennials. While all of that is not enough to lift up a whole generation struggling with high living costs, a lucky few managed to capture the golden egg.

Doubling wealth in just a few years

While many millennials are approaching an age that's generally associated with peak earning and homeownership years, they were lagging behind pre-pandemic: As of early 2020, millennials owned 4% of the country's real estate value; at that same age, baby boomers owned 32%.

Now, however, things are looking up. Over half of millennials now own their homes — up from 43% in 2019 — and, as of 2022, millennials' average pre-tax household income was $100,315, up from $79,514 in 2019.

Khary, an elder millennial parent of two who works in technical advising, weathered his generation's classic economic double punch: The Navy veteran said he got laid off in 2008 and, going into the pandemic, had about $40,000 in combined student loan debt between him and his spouse.

"It felt like I lost about four or five years of progress in trying to build up my savings and plan ahead for the future," he said. Khary and other millennials BI spoke to asked to go by first name only over privacy concerns.

When the pandemic hit, Khary suddenly got some relief. Between the student loan pause, stimulus checks, a pay raise, and a robust stock market, he doubled his investment savings and was able to max out his retirement accounts, according to documentation viewed by BI. He's still paying off student loans but said his payments are much easier to make now.

And he's within sight of something coveted by Americans of all generations: a comfortable retirement. He said his early-career layoff lost him a few years of building up his savings and planning ahead.

"The pandemic really just helped to bridge that gap and helped me get back what I had lost," he said.

Many in his generation can relate. Average millennial wealth doubled between 2019 and 2023, according to an analysis from the Center for American Progress. Similarly, the real median net worth for Americans under the age of 35 grew by 143% from 2019 to 2022.

The most striking thing about millennials' sudden surge in wealth: It dwarfs the progress of previous generations that experienced a recession during their young adult years.

For example, Gen Xers' real wealth grew by only 4% in the four years following 2007's Great Recession. Baby boomers' real wealth grew by 46% in the four years after the 1990 recession. Millennials outpaced them all and then some.

One game changer for millennials was the student-loan payment pause and the subsequent relief programs President Joe Biden has been rolling out. Millennials holding debt had, on average, $40,614 as of 2023. The Biden administration has been chipping away at some of America's student debt load, forgiving nearly $160 billion so far through account adjustments, fraud restitution, and clearing a backlog of applications to major debt forgiveness programs like one for people who work in public service.

Amanda, a millennial parent in Texas who works in tech, never made any payments on her loans at all. Since she didn't go straight into college after graduating from high school, she graduated from college during the pandemic pause.

The break alleviated some concerns over her financial prospects after graduation. She said she felt her degree was completely useless. Her school also didn't offer any of the job assistance it had promised. But, it all ended up working out for Amanda; just two weeks after she and her husband bought a house together in 2023, she found out her $80,000 loan balance was forgiven. In total, Amanda and her family have more than doubled their income since the start of the pandemic; she's making just around $100,000 now.

"I came from very poor circumstances and I was determined that my kid would not live the same way I did," she said.

Some anxiety — but more stability

The pandemic didn't turn around every millennial's financial position. The rise in wealth has added fuel to the generation's class divide because it left some behind — after all, many millennials still live paycheck to paycheck.

"A lot of millennials are doing worse than their parents," Rob Gruijters, a university lecturer at the University of Cambridge and the coauthor of a recent paper on the growing millennial wealth gap, told BI.

"The narrative is increasing inequality, and that has losers and winners," he said. "So there's people who are on the top side of the distribution, they benefit from the increase in inequality, and then there's quite a substantial number of people who are losing in that situation."

One way the top end is getting richer while lower-income millennials still struggle is through stock market investments. Stock values have skyrocketed over the last few years, with the S&P 500 soaring after the initial pandemic shock and still hitting record highs; however, the top 10% of Americans own around 93% of stocks.

Still, lower-income Americans were the ones most likely to have benefited from the post-pandemic wage gains pushed by labor shortages in some industries. Research has found that wage growth at the bottom of the income distribution helped counteract the effects of decades of wage inequality and even pared down the college wage premium.

Still, even some millennials who have seen their lots improve fret about the future. They're hyperaware of just how quickly things can take a turn.

"I know that I'm doing a lot better than other people my age, but there's still a lot of anxiety that if there's another pandemic, if anything crazy happens, if we lose our jobs, how do we pay the bills?" Amanda said.

For Caitlin de Oliveira, 34, the pandemic boost hasn't meant anything as radical as doubling her household's income or buying a new home. Instead, stimulus measures — including monthly child tax credit checks in 2021 — meant that her family was able to gain a financial foothold.

Between upping their savings and gains from a robust stock market, their 401(k) has grown to a little under $85,000 — up from around $20,000 in 2019. That's meant she's been able to feel confident that they are on their way to being able to retire in a good spot.

"Just knowing that is so comforting," she said. She said that she doesn't think millennials are as "dumb" financially as people say — "a lot of us are really trying — it's just been hard."

In the past, Khary said, millennials had dealt with crises and just complained. But not this time.

"As millennials, I think we felt ready and it proved that we had been through quite a bit and we kind of learned from it," he said. "It kind of built up a sense of confidence in us that we can actually handle sort of what's coming down the road if there's any more crises."

Are you a millennial whose finances have improved substantially over the last few years? Contact this reporter at

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