The 20-Something Life I'm Supposed to Have vs. the Life I Can Actually Afford


The cost of this year's weekend trip down south, the email informed me, would be "just $300 each plus food." That would include dogs, BBQ, boats and beer, my friend wrote, all to be enjoyed by our group of six at her family's lake house.

"I'm in! Tradition." 

"Obvs I'm in. Can't wait." 

"I really want to try to come this year!"

Replies from my friends were swift and chipper, but I remained silent. While the trip was tempting, after three straight days of beers, tacos and water skiing, I'd have to confront my bank account. I'd have to pay my phone bill. I'd have turn in my rent check.

Such getaways are just one part of the collective portrait of the modern 20-something's life, and it's a portrait we all know well, thanks to social media. But the cultural hallmarks of that fun-filled millennial life — music festivals, shared summer houses, trips to Thailand and Argentina, tapas dinners — that readily flood our Instagram feeds don't match up with the realities of student debt, low starting salaries, years of unemployment and high rent. 

In short, there's a dark underbelly to FOMO that no one talks about: money.

Can't afford not to miss out: It's nothing new to want what we can't have. But what those unreachable experiences might include has never been more in-your-face. As Jenna Wortham outlined in the New York Times in 2011, we are living in an age of passive surveillance, always poking around each other's social feeds to see exactly what we're missing:

"As the alerts came in, my mind began to race. Three friends, I learned, had arrived at a music venue near my apartment. But why? What was happening there? Then I saw pictures of other friends enjoying fancy milkshakes at a trendy restaurant. Suddenly, my simple domestic pleasures paled in comparison with the things I could be doing."

This anxiety, Duke psychology professor Dan Ariely explained to Wortham, makes us constantly question how we've decided to spend our time. But that questioning is even more acute for those who don't have the privilege of deciding. 

Let's take a look at the facts: As of 2014, the median income for 25- to 34-year olds was $30,759, "its lowest in inflation adjusted terms since 1995," Slate's Jordan Weissman reported. A 2014 report from the Young Invincibles found that healthcare is the only major industry paying millennials a notably higher median wage than 10 years ago. Salaries are higher for those with college degrees, but keep in mind: Four in 10 millennials are reportedly overwhelmed by mountains of student debt, thanks to historically high college tuitions, which will take many into their 30s and 40s to pay off. 

What does that mean? If you're a 20-something working in industries like retail, hospitality or business — or one of the 10.5% of millennials who are unemployed — you probably can't foot the bill for the much-Instagrammed 20-something experience. The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival cost $375 for one general admission pass this year, not counting parking, shuttles, airfare or tent camping. The Governors Ball Music Festival? That will run you $260 for the three-day experience even before fees and shipping. A SXSW badge can range anywhere from $525 to $1745. That doesn't include tours of Europe, Vegas weekends, bachelor or bachelorette trips and cocktail tastings — all experiences we're supposed to check off our lists between 20 and 30.

Who's footing the bill? Social media not only fuels our FOMO but also sets the standards we subsequently strive to meet. Missing out on my friends' annual Texas trip wouldn't have been so rough if I didn't have to follow every step of the adventure via their social feeds. Nothing prompts the mental question, "Where are they getting this money?" quite like scrolling through a social feed. 

As 25-year-old Andrew previously told Mic, Instagram-stalking stirs up feelings of "resentment fueled by both unobtainability and class, like, 'Who is paying for you to go on vacation every three weeks?'" 

It's not a rhetorical question. A recent survey from Pew Research Center found that teens from well-off homes tend to use Instagram and Snapchat, while poorer kids stick to Facebook (which makes sense, given the former platforms' visual emphasis). And plenty of parents are pitching in behind the scenes. A 2011 Vibrant Nation survey found 59% of Boomer-age mothers are paying their millennial kid's cell phone bill, 38% are paying for children to travel and 36% are chipping in for clothes. Netflix and iTunes accounts also tend to be included in millennials' indefinite parental package, as the Wall Street Journal reported.

And those Coachella tickets? Some parents aren't only buying them — they're devoting hours upon hours hunting them down for their kids. Living a fabulous life worthy of that Valencia filter is easier when you've got a little help.

Filtering out the fantasy: Not every 20-something is being funded by their parents, of course; there is a millennial "one percent" cohort, and others scrimp and save for that one big event a year. But it's worth putting a critical eye to all the photos and online chatter.

Because as salary and debt stats suggest, more of us might be the "broke friend" than we realize. Even if we are lucky enough to be steadily employed, few of us can pay for every possible music festival, restaurant, bar night and bachelorette party. Social media showcases the best of the best, the most fabulous of the fabulous weekends you'll ever have. That's why it makes us so jealous, but also why we shouldn't let it bring us down.

I've been the friend who quietly grimaces while my best friend orders wine "for the table." I've had to graciously wave off the offer to just "do a little shopping" for the afternoon. So many of us have. But the 20-something experience is much more than keeping up with a lifestyle. Fun on a budget is still fun. 

It doesn't need to happen in a tent in the middle of the desert, complete with a hashtag and a filter, to be the time of my life.