Peter Scheutzow began investing when he was a child. While many young people his age spent their allowances on video games and gadgetry, he put his money in the stock market.
Scheutzow says that he was curious about money matters and had an uncle who is a certified financial planner who encouraged him and showed him the ropes.
"I traded inexpensive stocks on the New York Stock Exchange like Dell, Candies, and RadioShack," he says. "I was fascinated by the thought of earning money without doing much work."
Scheutzow, an engineering student at Clarkson University, started a Scottrade account with several hundred dollars, and he says his parents and uncle prepared him to enter the stock market without high expectations for returns. He had to be willing to risk losing it all, they said, because that's the price of learning.
"I have acquired quite a bit of knowledge about market trends, trading strategies, diversification, and risk management," he says. "I feel pretty confident in my trading effectiveness today."
When it comes to millennials and their understanding of personal finances, financial planning, and investing, though, Scheutzow is the exception. That's worrying, he says; financial education needs to begin much earlier.
Economists are mixed on the future for millennials. Is this younger generation savvy enough when it comes to charting a secure financial future? Will they be able to save and invest enough for their retirement years?
While some reports show that millennials save and invest at about the same pace as their boomer parents and grandparents, others are less optimistic.
"I think few of my peers invest due to two main reasons," Scheutzow says. "The first being money is a taboo topic to discuss, which prevents them from thinking about it early on; the second being that investing is complex and not very glamorous."
Several factors weigh heavily on millennials. Many leave college and enter a crowded workplace where far fewer private-sector employers offer pension plans or even 401(k) retirement saving plans. Others are entering trades or government jobs with fewer strong unions to push for higher pension contributions and other benefits.
Millennials are growing up in a more challenging environment than boomers, says Daniel Tessoni, assistant professor at Rochester Institute of Technology's Saunders College of Business. College loans, for example, are a huge obstacle for many millennials.
"Theirs is a world that is more costly if you will than the boomers', especially when it comes to things like higher education," Tessoni says. "They really have to make important decisions regarding the relationship between what it costs to be educated and what type of career path they're pursuing. Boomers could pursue almost any education and it would be financially beneficial. It's not that way anymore."
A recent Christian Science Monitor article puts retirement prospects for millennials in grim terms. It says that college debt delays retirement planning. A 2014 college graduate owed an average of $33,000 in student loans, according to the Monitor. In 1993, less than 50 percent of college graduates had any debt and those who did had an average debt of $15,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars.
A lack of financial literacy is another serious problem for many millennials, says Carrie Starr, professor of business at Roberts Wesleyan College. Many young people lack even a basic understanding of how a checking account works, she says, because they have grown up using ATM cards.
"I'm a little concerned about the way they're being raised," she says.
Many of Starr's students remark on how lucky she is, she says, because Starr and her husband have successful careers and are financially stable. But luck has nothing to do with it, Starr says. The misperception inspired her to write the book, "Cheap Love: Living and Loving on Less."
"I wanted them to know that we did a lot of things frugally," Starr says. "We saved, and it wasn't easy. I tell them we spent our honeymoon in a borrowed tent. It wasn't until years later on our 10th anniversary that we went on an Alaskan cruise. Financial security doesn't just happen."
Starr says that with government safety net programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid — once considered untouchable for politicians — now under intense scrutiny, millennials have to get financially savvy fast.
Colleges are beginning to recognize this need, she says. Incoming freshman at Roberts, for example, take a seminar on budgeting, Starr says.
"They need to know that it's not up to mom and dad anymore," she says. "It's up to you."
Undergraduate business students are required to take a class in personal economics, Starr says, and they can participate in the student endowment investment club where they become directly responsible for growing the college's endowment.
And Nazareth College has an online personal finance program called SALT, which school officials say is widely used.
But millennials do have some advantages working in their favor, says Grant Dever, a University of Rochester business student who is educating himself on financial planning and investing.
The Internet has changed the financial industry, he says, and anyone who is willing to take the time can learn. He started by reading "I Will Teach You to be Rich," by Ramit Sethi, and he follows websites and blogs such as "The Coffeehouse Investor" and "Mr. Money Mustache."
Dever says that his generation's view of money and investing has changed from prior generations. Even though he is interested in real estate as an investment, he says, he is less interested in being tied to a 30-year home mortgage.
Dever and many of his peers lean more toward wealth-building, he says, instead of traditional forms of retirement planning. Dever views wealth as having the freedom to pursue his passions. Debt of almost any kind is the opposite of freedom, he says, and he doesn't want to have to accept any job just to pay off debt.
The combination of the student debt issue and the recent financial crisis has caused many millennials to be more politically engaged, Dever says. Many of his peers worry, he says, about what government programs will be available for them.
And he says that there's discontent with the current economic system because many people are working but their financial situation doesn't improve.
"We can agree that if you're working hard you should become wealthier, not poorer," Dever says.