NEW YORK (MainStreet) – Millennials know that they need to save for their financial future. They just don't know the best way to save or where that money is coming from.

As a generation, Millennials have faced numerous obstacles between them and their financial well-being early on. Generation Opportunity, a national, nonpartisan youth advocacy organization in Washington, D.C., notes that the while the unemployment rate among 18- to 29-year-olds was 9.1% in February, the effective unemployment rate — which includes those who have given up looking for work — is closer to 14%.

Their average student loan debt hovers around $33,000. According to a survey of 850 Millennials by The Principal financial group, their three largest budget items – mortgage and rent (65%), food (38%) and cars and transportation (30%) – are seen as obstacles to saving for retirement. Roughly 57% reported having emergency savings in place, with a third of all surveyed believing their emergency savings could cover basic expenses for three months. As a result, 63% of those surveyed reported saving before 25, though less than a third of that group are saving at least 10% of their salary.

“It’s clear Millennials are aware of the importance of planning and preparing for retirement. It’s also clear they are struggling to balance that with all the other demands needing their time and money,” says Jerry Patterson, senior vice president of retirement and investor services at The Principal. “Most Millennials we spoke with haven’t done the math to determine what level of savings they should be targeting, but all agreed that they weren’t doing enough.”

Another survey of Millennials by Voya Financial found that 82% believe Social Security will pay them nothing or only a small amount by the time they retire, while 25% are struggling to get by and are unable to make ends meet to pay basic expenses.

“For a lot of Millennials, they kind of feel like they're behind in savings and struggling to get by and make ends meet,” says Joe O’Boyle, a financial adviser and retirement coach with Voya Financial Advisors in Beverly Hills, Calif. “The best advice is to get organized and put together a financial plan.”

But how do you even get started when you aren't exactly on sound financial footing? Both O'Boyle and John Diehl, senior vice president of strategic markets at Hartford Funds, agree that the best first step is to write out a budget and do a quick cash-flow analysis just so you can see how much is coming in and how much is going out. Diehl advises auditing just a week's worth of income and expenses to get a bigger picture.

“Many people tell me that they cannot believe where money 'leaks' out of their daily budgets,” he says. “Coffee shops, fast food, gym memberships you don't use, premium cable you never watch, a cheaper mobile phone option, etc., should be looked at to see if you can make small incremental changes to free up cash flow.”

That seems simple enough, but for a generation that largely hasn't looked at its credit score, even what some financial planners consider the basics can be elusive. O'Boyle says he always starts financial conversations with millennial clients by asking three simple questions.

”The first is 'What is your monthly take-home income,' the second is 'What are your monthly expenses' and the third is 'How much are you saving each month?'” he says. “You might be surprised, but the majority don't have answers to those questions.”

It starts with breaking down fixed costs such as rent, mortgage or car payments. On that point, Diehl advises avoiding recurring expenses such as car payments — especially considering vehicle values depreciate immediately — and credit card balances. From there, it's a hard look at three expenses that can be easily reduced. The first is restaurants and eating out. The second is clothing and accessories.

“The third is one that they almost never plan for, which is travel for weddings and bachelor or bachelorette parties,” O'Boyle says. “We have some clients who go to two, three or four of these events a year, and it can cost a couple thousand dollars once everything is factored in. They never plan for that.”

That final category provides an opportunity to structure savings by helping Millennials save a little bit each month for such unexpected expenses. It gets Millennials into the habit of not only automating their savings plans but, as Diehl puts it, paying themselves first.

“Try to carve off some amount to transfer to your savings even before you begin to pay the monthly bills,” he says. “It's not so much the amount, but the discipline that you develop that matters. Utilize your bank's automated transfer feature if you can to automatically transfer some amount to savings to create a sort of buffer fund for yourself.”

It also illustrates that saving a little now can add up to a lot more later. Even with their finances squeezed and job status uncertain, 55% of Millennials surveyed by Voya say the best retirement savings advice they have received to date is the importance of starting early – even if saving only a small amount.

“The thing with our Millennials is that if we're able to show them that two of the biggest ingredients in building wealth are time and compound interest, we find that's a message that resonates,” O'Boyle says. “They can start saving a little bit now and open a Roth IRA or Roth 401(K) and have it grow tax free, which makes them sit up in their chairs and say 'OK, let's start doing that.'”

Perhaps the most daunting issue Millennials face when trying to save is where to start. It's the biggest reason O'Boyle suggests sitting down with a financial planner to discuss personal financial goals including retirement, an emergency fund, travel or a home down payment. Noting that “Millennials kind of get caught in this place where they're trying to do everything at once,” O'Boyle suggests that seeking help from someone other than mom and dad might provide some perspective.

“For the most part, Millennials really understand why they need to be saving for their retirement and financial future,” O'Boyle says. "They just don't know how to do it in the best way, and they're in a time period where they're inundated with so much information that it's kind of hard to sift through it.

— Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore., for MainStreet

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This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held TK positions in the stocks mentioned.