Millennials entered the workforce with the highest student debt load of any generation. Yet when it comes to saving, they're more frugal than most. Reuters/Bryan Snyder

Stephen Campagnone’s future awaited him in the meeting room. He’d been a teller at a retail bank in his native Rhode Island for a year, pulling in a weekly paycheck of about $560. The position had followed a string of low-paying odd jobs, including managing a hotel housekeeping office and waiting tables. Now, three years after graduating college midway through a recession, and with more than $60,000 in student debt, Campagnone hoped for his first big-time raise.

He sat across from his managers. “They told me I qualified for a raise for my quote-unquote ‘outstanding work,’” Campagnone recalls.

The offer: a measly $333-a-year more. Campagnone did some quick mental math; it came to about $6 a week. He wandered back to his desk. “I was just staring at my screen blankly. I wanted to rip my computer out of the wall.”

Already struggling to pay rent and bills on top of his hefty student debt, Campagnone needed more to stay afloat. He stuck it out for another year then quit and moved back in with his parents, holding out for a career that could put him ahead.

“I never really felt I was being propelled upwards, just a sense of hopelessness,” says Campagnone, 25, and the first in his family to attend college.

When it comes to earning and saving, it’s a feeling he shares with many of his generation. Millennials, who entered adulthood during the deepest recession in 70 years, defy easy definition. But their relationship with money, broadly speaking, provides insight into a cohort marked by economic calamity. Trading credit card obligations for educational debt -- and youthful profligacy for a surprisingly conservative take on savings -- millennials have charted a unique path in daunting economic times.

“Life in our generation is simply significantly more difficult,” Campagnone says. But he’s hopeful. He recently began a training program to become a financial adviser -- though he hasn’t had a paycheck yet, since he works on commission.

“Once again, it’s a Hail Mary for me,” he says.

A “New Reality”

Each generation attracts criticism from its elders for complaining too much, and Generation Y, as millennials are also called, is no exception. But the 75 million members of the cohort -- whose size overtook that of the baby boomers this year -- might have some justification in feeling shortchanged. As scholars at the Pew Research Center wrote in 2014, millennials are “the first [generation] in the modern era to have higher levels of student loan debt, poverty and unemployment, and lower levels of wealth and personal income than their two immediate predecessor generations.”

The real, inflation-adjusted wages for young college graduates have fallen 2.5 percent since 2000, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Whereas previous generations reached the median wage by 26, the average millennial gets there at age 30.

“They are really the first generation of any size that has had to deal with this new reality,” says Anthony Carnevale, founding director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Many of their difficulties stem from the financial crisis, which erased 11 million jobs and sent unemployment rates soaring to more than 10 percent. An Urban Land Institute survey found that one in 10 millennials saw a foreclosure in their family, a number that stands at 16 percent to 17 percent for Latinos and African-Americans.

But other trends stretch back farther, from median wages that have been stagnating for decades to college costs that have nearly quadrupled in 35 years.

“The millennials are caught in that structural narrative about the American economy that’s still going on,” says Carnevale. Millions of low-level jobs for high school graduates have been sent abroad or innovated away. And mid-level jobs, which accounted for two-thirds of job losses in the recession, have lagged in the recovery.

Moreover, student debt burdens have swelled. Of those who completed college in 2013, 62 percent took out loans, compared to 53 percent in 2004, according to the New America Foundation. Average monthly payments for these students rose a third in that time, affecting everything from when millennials settle down to get married to their ability to buy homes and build savings.

Making Ends Meet

Many millennials grappling with student debt wonder whether college was even worth it. “I absolutely despise paying my students loans,” says Jacob Szypka, 28, a graphic designer and account manager in Toledo, Ohio. He took out $70,000 in loans and now pays $800 a month. “But it’s the pill I have to swallow for making that choice at 18,” he says.

Others share his disappointment. Justin Wooten, 30, graduated high school three months before Hurricane Katrina inundated his hometown, New Orleans. It took another two years to get back on the college track. He graduated from Southern University in Baton Rouge in 2012 with a degree in broadcast journalism.

But getting a job in sportscasting proved difficult. His alma mater wasn’t a big name. And Wooten, who is African-American, worried that his skin color was a barrier to becoming an on-air personality in a field dominated by white faces.

Finding employment outside the studio also proved elusive. Enterprise Rent-a-Car, for instance, told Wooten he lacked the “skill set” to work at the front desk, he says.

Today, Wooten juggles part-time jobs as an assistant football coach and a promotions manager for a radio station. Both pay $9 an hour. His underemployment isn’t unique: Half of the college graduates in America work in jobs that federal statisticians say require less than a four-year degree.

Like 36 percent of his generational peers who live with parents -- a four-decade high -- Wooten lives with his father. He has yet to make a payment on his $20,000 college debt.

“You expect when you graduate you’re going to get a job right off the bat,” Wooten says. “Maybe I’ll go drive trucks or something. Because after three years, I just feel this isn’t going to happen.”

Economic hardships like Wooten’s have shaped millennials’ relationship with money. Following the financial meltdown of 2008, the generation developed a deep mistrust for Wall Street and its financial products. Just over a quarter of millennials own stocks, and those who do tend to invest conservatively.

In another sign of millennials’ wariness of financial services, only 37 percent of people younger than 30 own credit cards, according to Bankrate.com, compared with 65 percent of older adults.

Amanda Merritt, a collegiate rowing coach in West Virginia, has spent most of her adult life regarding credit cards with suspicion. “I’ve been playing catch-up,” says Merritt, 27, who worked at a grocery store and lived in her great aunt’s basement for years while working her way up the coaching ranks.

For Merritt, getting a credit card was a matter of necessity as she tried to manage a modest salary and a high college loan burden. “I got my first credit card just to make sure I have food and gas.”

Despite economic hurdles, however, millennials are adroit savers. Over half of Generation Y respondents in a recent survey reported socking away more than 5 percent of their earnings a month, a rate that is steadily increasing.

Yet 60 percent of them said they still lack the income to make “good or excellent progress” on their savings, and 73 percent say they’ve put off building up their nest eggs in order to manage student debt.

Wooten is one of those. “I haven't put any money in my saving account in years. Everything I get I spend on food and bills right now,” he says.

“Some days I feel I may be working forever.”

Opportunities And Luck

Though dealt a bad hand economically, Generation Y is shot through with optimism -- in contrast with their predecessors in Generation X, popularly depicted as a generation of cynics and slackers.

Though homeownership rates for people under 35 still stand 9 percent below their 2004 peak, fully 70 percent of millennials plan to own a home by 2020, according to the Urban Land Institute survey. Nine in ten millennials expect to exceed their parents’ wealth.

And some already have, thanks to tremendous new opportunities in the information age.

Annie Ma-Weaver, 28, manages a sales operations team at Google. Born in China, she moved to the states when she was four. Her father ran a small shipping business in New Jersey and early on, money was tight. She recalls schoolyard gibes about her shabby clothes when her family was still struggling to make ends meet.

But her father’s business did well, and Ma-Weaver’s parents were able to send her to Columbia University without student loans. The tradeoff: Ma-Weaver would have to cover all other expenses after her sophomore year. She worked part-time -- while pursuing a double major -- and begged friends to sneak her food from the cafeteria.

Annie Ma-Weaver

“It was actually very helpful,” Ma-Weaver says. “I wasn’t as coddled during that period.”

At Columbia, Ma-Weaver took tentative steps down several career paths: consulting, investment banking and academic research, all “to try everything to see what would work,” she says. She was mulling over a law school acceptance letter when Google made her an offer.

Six years later, she and her husband, who she met at Columbia, share a rented, one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco. They live “frugally,” she says, even as her husband runs his own hedge fund from home. He has some 20 clients, mostly families and friends, in a fund focused on equities.

Ma-Weaver considers their good fortune equal parts chance and ambition. “We’ve seized the opportunities that were presented by lucky moments,” she says.

Leading a Meaningful Life

Most millennials, however, haven't fared as well as Ma-Weaver. Lisa Walden, a generational expert for the boutique consultancy BridgeWorks, cautions against making generalizations about millennials based on popular media depictions of successful twenty- and thirty-somethings. She says “hidden millennials,” the 87 percent who don’t live in or near downtowns, are often overshadowed by so-called media millennials -- “tattooed hipsters that drink IPAs and have a community garden,” Walden jokes.

“That’s only part of the millennial generation,” she continues. The preferences of young arrivistes in hip parts of New York, San Francisco, Austin and Chicago may make headlines, Walden says, but they eclipse a far broader and more diverse generation. Over forty percent of millennials are non-white, more than twice the share of minorities in the baby boom. Still, the history that millennials share cuts through classes and geographies, revealing a generation of people eager, most of all, to lead meaningful lives, despite the obstacles.

Katie Walker, a 22 year-old student at Kansas City Metropolitan Community College, plans to become a public-interest attorney. Knowing full well the weight of student loans required to join the infamously competitive field, Walker considers her career an ethical endeavor as much as an economic one.

“My generation is the one that got punched in the face,” Walker says. But far from being resigned to defeat, she hopes to make a difference. “It feels like we don’t have any other choice.”