Developing Your Financial Literacy
There’s an ongoing discussion about teaching financial literacy skills to students of all ages — high school, college, adult learners, etc. Two well-known financial writers — Matt Levine and Felix Salmon — both recently weighed in that it’s a waste of time and rife with conflicts when taught by the financial services industry. I agree.
The purest possible mechanism of “financial literacy” is (1) a banker comes to your school, (2) the banker tells you that to have a good life you need to start depositing money in the bank, (3) your teacher nods approvingly, (4) you believe them and deposit money in the bank and (5) the bank steals it. Here is an incredible anecdote that Salmon quotes from Lauren Willis of Loyola Law School:
To teach children about the banking system, a U.S. primary school walked its students to a local bank where each opened a savings account into which each deposited $5. Implicit in this activity is the message that the bank is trustworthy. Another bank then acquired that bank and charged all low balance accountholders a monthly maintenance fee that wiped out the children’s savings. The children may have learned a more important lesson about the financial sector than the school intended.
If most financial literacy classes are ineffective, what is the solution for consumers who aren’t comfortable with their personal finance skills?
Below are my suggestions on how to become financially savvy as you move through life. Some of these lessons you may learn the hard way and others may come naturally but the sooner you learn them, the better off your long-term net worth will be.
1. Be skeptical of the financial services industry.
The anecdote above speaks volumes. The financial services industry is fee-driven — e.g., out-of-network ATMs, monthly maintenance, overdrafts, late payments, mutual fund sales loads and operating expenses, administrative expenses, financial advisor management fees — and it’s a zero sum game. Every dollar of their fee income is a transfer of wealth from you to them.
Understand the fees you pay and minimize them. Easy to say but harder to do as most of the fees are well-hidden. However, if you don’t pay attention, they’ll take a substantial bite out of your lifetime net worth and you may never even know.
Don’t be the reason bankers wear bespoke suits, walk on marble floors, and hang expensive artwork on their walls.
2. Always be saving.
Keep these points in mind:
- Save in the most tax- and cost-efficient manner (see #1) as well as taking full advantage of any employer incentives such as matching contributions. All the acronyms — 401Ks, IRAs, HSAs, ESPPs, and 529s — are good choices.
- Sh*t happens. Have 3 to 6 months of living expenses saved in an emergency fund. Until you reach that level, restrain discretionary spending. Start now if you’re short.
- When you get a windfall — e.g., tax refund, work bonus, birthday gift, inheritance, pandemic stimulus check – save it.
- If you’re tempted to spend money that’s in your checking account, transfer it to a savings account and use mental accounting buckets for your various savings goals (house, vacation, college, wedding, etc.) if that works for you. Make it inconvenient to move the money back.
- Use payroll deductions to automatically save — you won’t see the money and you won’t miss it.
- Lastly, if you qualify, keep shoveling money into a Roth IRA.
3. Long-term planning is an unnatural act.
I’m not a neuroscientist but it’s pretty clear that human brains have not evolved to prioritize long-term planning. We live in the here and now and there are lots of sensible survival reasons to do so.
However, if you want to be prepared for future emergencies, embrace new opportunities and other life circumstances, and achieve a financially successful retirement, you need a long-term focus. If necessary, trick your brain to ensure this gets the required attention (see #2).
4. Manage your spending.
There are several components to this:
- Track and budget your spending — know how much you spend in total each month and if you’re on target.
- Live within your means — all the time, not just when it’s convenient.
- Pay your bills on time and in full.
- Restrain social spending. Peer pressure, FOMO, and YOLO create powerful spending pressures. Keep those wolves at bay or they’ll eat you alive.
- Lastly, don’t let your spending grow proportionally with your income or you’ll never get off the hedonic treadmill. Springsteen sang his version of this:
Poor man wants to be rich
Rich man wants to be king
And a king ain’t satisfied
Until he rules everything.
5. Fear debt.
Debt makes you financially fragile so limit your relationship with it.
- Don’t borrow money for anything other than education, a car, a home, and true emergencies. If you cannot pay in full for furniture, vacations, weddings, engagement rings, honeymoons, gifts, or other purchases, hold off until after you’ve saved the money to purchase them (see #2).
- Credit cards offer better consumer protections compared to debit cards but they’re dangerous if you carry a balance. If that’s you, stick with debit. Tear up your credit cards or put them in a drawer for emergencies. The points aren’t worth it.
- Don’t co-sign for anyone else’s financial obligations unless you have no choice. You’re committing yourself to take full responsibility for the repayment of the debt.
- Don’t over-borrow for your education or your kids’. Student loans are dangerous as you may spend your whole life being shackled by the debt. Your teenage kids won’t understand this commitment so be the guardrails they think they don’t need.
- There’s more to a loan than just the lowest rate. For example, mortgages have fees such as points and closing costs, student loans offer differing re-payment options, car leases have hidden trap doors, and lenders vary in their levels of customer service and flexibility. Fully understand what you’re committing to.
6. Be financially resilient.
We can’t fully control how our life will unfold and don’t know our future career trajectory, income, medical expenses, nor our departure date from this earth. That’s a lot of unpredictability to manage.
To embrace uncertainty, be financially resilient. What’s the best way to do that? Minimize your debts (see #5), maximize your savings (#2), and keep developing professionally so you always have options to earn a living. When the inevitable setbacks happen, be ready to quickly bounce back.
7. There are no free lunches.
High investment returns never come without high risk. That’s as certain as the law of gravity. Steer clear of any investment opportunity that sounds too good to be true. Surely it is.
8. Teach your children well.
Even with your imperfect financial skills, your kids can learn a lot from you so don’t make money a taboo topic in your household. I have more suggestions about children here.
9. Align with your partner.
When you’re in a relationship, these lessons are doubly true. Have some occasional conversations to make sure you’re on the same page. It won’t be the most romantic part of your week but it will pay dividends later.
As you learn these lessons, you can become the Wolf of Wall Street.