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Best Money Tips for Gen Xers in a Shaky Economy

No, we don't have it that easy. Here's some financial advice for people in their 40s and 50s.

six one-hundred dollar bills surrounded by coins
Sarah Tew/CNET

This story is part of So Money (subscribe here), an online community dedicated to financial empowerment and advice, led by CNET Editor at Large and So Money podcast host Farnoosh Torabi.

Wedged in between millennials and baby boomers, Generation X (of which I consider myself a proud member) has been somewhat overlooked when it comes to financial advice. And you probably feel flat-out ignored as a person of color within this demographic. If you were born between the mid-1960s and 1980, you're often assumed to have plenty of savings, a robust retirement plan and no money conundrums or debt. 

Well, not really. We also struggle at critical junctures. 

On the one hand, Gen X has managed to keep its head above financial water more than older and younger generations. Gen Xers were hit particularly hard during the Great Recession, but were the only generation of households to recover wealth they lost between 2007 and 2010, with many fortunate enough to hold on to assets and continue working, according to Pew Research,

Our generation also paid less for college than millennials (born 1981 to 1996) and Generation Z (born 1997 to 2012). In 1995, the average annual cost to attend a four-year institution came out to a little more than $10,000, compared to $28,000 today. And chances are we didn't enter a deep recession upon graduating. 

Still, the journey has been anything but linear or painless for Gen Xers. Though we may not need as much advice on consolidating our student loans, getting married or divorced, raising kids or taking care of aging parents, we could use some tailored financial advice and outside-the-box strategies, especially in today's economy. 

"We are really at the moment in our careers and our lives where everything is happening, whether that is in our jobs, in our relationships … I don't want to be a downer but… it's a lot," said publisher Margit Detweiler. Detweiler is the founder of TueNight.com, a storytelling platform for, as she describes it, "grown ass Gen X women." 

Financial advice for my fellow Gen Xers could span several books, but let's start with these five steps. 

1. Career: Don't give up, even when it's tough

For now, the job market is still considered "hot" with unemployment at 3.6%, close to its pre-pandemic low. But recently, as concerns about a possible recession ramp up, we've seen more job cuts and hiring freezes. So far, the bulk of layoffs are primarily in industries that saw growth at the beginning of COVID-19 shutdowns and are now facing waning consumer demand. 

If you lose your job in your 50s, it may feel impossible to secure employment. But don't give up. Consider extending your job search to other types of businesses. For example, there is a higher rate of job openings right now in hospitality, food service, education, health and wholesale and retail trade, according to a June report by the US Chamber of Commerce

And if you've been climbing in your career for a decade or two but are reaching a plateau, be inspired by the many examples of individuals who made big leaps in their careers or pivoted to entrepreneurship later in life. Julia Child, for example, wrote her first cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, at age 49, following years in the advertising profession. Viola Davis spent decades working as a performer before her career soared in her early 40s, when she starred in the film Doubt and was nominated for an Academy Award for her role.

2. Retirement: Turbocharge your savings

Don't kill the messenger, but some investment firms suggest having roughly three times your annual salary saved in a retirement account by 40. By age 50, that recommended factor jumps to five. This may feel like an outrageous sum to achieve, but it's fair to say that the onus of saving for retirement is squarely on the individual these days. With the extinction of pensions (for the most part) and uncertainty hanging around the fate of Social Security, it's never been more critical to save for our future. 

If you have access to a workplace retirement account like a 401(k) and have reached age 50, know that you can play some catch-up by contributing an extra $6,500 this year. IRA savers ages 50 and older can invest an additional $1,000. 

We are currently in a bear market, or a sustained period of downward price trends in the stock market. If you're approaching retirement -- or in the early stages of retirement -- and your portfolio has taken a severe beating in recent months, it may be worth reviewing your level of exposure to stocks with the help of a financial professional. If recent market volatility is causing you anxiety, it could mean that you have a smaller appetite for risk and need to reassess.

This may also be a good time to rethink your retirement age. If you had to work part-time or full-time throughout your 60s and into your 70s, what would be your ideal role? Some early strategic planning is never a bad thing.

3. Debt: Don't worry about paying off your mortgage

The idea of retiring without a mortgage sounds relieving, but in actuality, it may mean making extra payments every year to get there. Is it worth it? If you have many financial goals competing for your attention right now -- from saving for retirement to putting a child through college or supporting an aging parent -- then don't worry about paying down your mortgage right now.

If you closed on a mortgage prior to 2022, your fixed rate is probably very low, and it's probably not worth accelerating your mortgage payoff, especially with a recession looming. During an economic downturn, it's better to put that money in a savings account for when you'll need more cash on hand, or focus on the financial moves that will produce a higher rate of return such as investing. 

4. Family finances: Crack the money talk with your parents

Though it may be awkward to talk about money with our parents, it can be beneficial for both parties. During tough economic times, parents can be a resource because they've experienced many economic cycles and can offer some perspective.

The other more important details can be... trickier. But it's important to discuss whether your parents have a will or a living trust, and whether they have named a power of attorney (someone who can step in to make financial decisions if they are unable to do so).

Cameron Huddleston, author of Mom and Dad, We Need to Talk, joined me on my podcast and discussed her mother's battle with Alzheimer's. Huddleston wished she'd discussed money with her mom before the diagnosis. "When I saw that she was having trouble with her memory, suddenly, it was no longer a what-if type of conversation. It was, 'Oh, my gosh. This is happening. What are we going to do?' This is why people need to have these conversations sooner rather than later … so that they can be talking about hypothetical situations. Not: 'We're in the thick of it now. It's an emergency. Emotions are running high. How do we deal with this?'"

A wise way to start the conversation, said Huddleston, is to use a personal story of someone you know who went through hard times because they didn't talk about money with a parent. At this stage in life, "You're bound to know someone who has already started dealing with issues."

5. Kids' college: You're not a bad parent if you can't afford it

Really, you're not. If your child is college-bound and you haven't saved for this expense, do what you can. But also remember that there's a great deal students can do on their own to alleviate the cost burden. Sacrificing your own retirement or pulling from emergency savings, while tempting, may come back to haunt you -- and your grown-up child -- if you have a hard time replenishing those funds down the road.

A critical part of college planning is discussing all the affordable pathways with your child -- and there are many, such as merit scholarships and grants, work-study programs, attending a local community college first, working part-time to afford the college credits or considering a career where student loan forgiveness is a potential option. And remember, college may not be the ideal path for everyone. Vocational school, coding bootcamps and apprenticeships are all valid alternatives these days.

Also, consider the following: Open a 529 college savings account where your money can compound and, depending on your state, you can receive a tax break. If your child is still a ways away from college and saving is proving difficult these days, don't sweat it.