Let’s Stop Treating Our Finances Like a Dirty Little Secret
Do you feel like you’re harboring this household secret that you don’t have your finances in order? You figure you’re the only one who has no cash flow and little savings, isn’t on track for retirement, is house-poor and trying to make things look good while struggling to make ends meet. Even though you make a good living, are highly educated and are living well, you feel guilty when you take that trip or when you buy your kid those $100 sneaks they’ll grow out of.
You assume everyone else, with their nice homes and cars, their vacations, toys and haute couture, must be smarter, saving more, organized and financially free. After all, why wouldn’t they be? We all know what we’re supposed to be doing. And of course, everyone else is doing what they’re supposed to be doing. Everyone but you.
But the fact is, you only see one side of the coin. In reality, no matter what income bracket you’re in, many of your peers are likely struggling the same way you are. Just in varying degrees. Some have it together in some areas, but not others. For example, I’ve met many people who’ve managed to save six or seven figures in a retirement fund, but their debt from overspending cancels much of it out.
Thumb through the books (containing more than 30 years of research) by the late Thomas Stanley, author of The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America’s Wealthy, or numerous studies on savings habits. In one study, nearly one-quarter of households making $100,000 to $150,000 a year said they wouldn’t have $2,000 for an emergency if they needed it. Many people are cash-strapped and don’t have their finances together. Stanley found higher income earners are usually worse off because they feel compelled to keep up with peers (not realizing their peers are also in debt).
It’s all part of being an imperfect irrational human, as researchers Dan Ariely (Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions and Daniel Kahneman’s work (Thinking, Fast and Slow) have showed. And that plenty of financial planners know first hand. With the dozens of brain and behavioral biases that widen the knowing-doing gap, old conditioned beliefs and emotions lead us to make poor decisions no matter how smart we are. Even those of us who go to financial planners don’t always stay on track. We are not the rational, data-driven perfect humans that we seem to expect of ourselves and each other.
[Related: Organizing Your Financial “Stuff”]
That said, it’s time to let go of the shame and take action. Part of that means being willing to talk about it. Something we’re hesitant to do. A Fidelity study found that a majority of women believe money is too personal to talk about even with a financial advisor. (Yet, we typically have no problem sharing the most personal medical issues with doctors and friends alike). It seems likely that it’s part of this fear of exposing our imperfections. Like there is shame in not having things perfectly under control as our deep-seated inner story tells us we should.
But money is emotional, not rational. Personal finance is more 'personal' than finance. It’s almost impossible to be a human and manage money perfectly.
That said, here are four simple steps you can take to feel better about and fix your finances.
1. Know and grow this number
Once a month, check and track your net worth. This is the truest gauge of your financial health. Getting financially healthy and growing wealth is not so much about your income level (though more helps, of course) as it is about building your net worth. That is, the sum of your assets minus your debts. As you save and invest and build income-generating assets while paying down debt or maintaining zero debt, your net worth grows.
There are many high-income earners with a low net worth—again, because they feel the need to keep up with peers. The irony is, as Stanley’s research points out, your peers are likely doing the same thing and are in debt as well. If your priority is financial freedom, get tunnel vision about your own personal economy and growing your net worth. Tracking your progress each month focuses your attention on making that number grow.
2. Let go of perfection
Perfectionism is stifling. And when it comes to financial stability, imperfect action is better than perfect inaction. It matters to your quality of life, your physical and mental health and your relationships. Forget doing things perfectly. Just spend more purposefully, sock away as much as you can, and get allergic to debt. Automating your savings can be a great place to start.
3. Look twice at your choices
The work of Ariely and Kahneman tells us we need to interrupt our automatic habitual money choices to decide what’s really important. If your priority is long-term stability and creating the life you want (without money stress), it means getting super-aware of what’s not important. Conscious, purposeful choices lead you on a straighter path to your goals.
4. Read up
Take 10 minutes once a week to educate yourself on money topics, especially those you have questions about. Get financially empowered. There’s information to be found all over the web. But don’t just read and walk away: Put what you learn into practice in a way that works for your life.
When you take charge of your money, your confidence grows. You can bet that even if you find you have catching up to do, you’ll feel more empowered in your work and life.
Robyn Post is a financial coach, journalist and founder of WomenandMoneyMag.com. She’s a former wealth management practice columnist for Reuters, and business owner. Her work has appeared on Time.com, Huffington Post, Philadelphia Magazine, Parade, Details and other regional and national publications, and she’s co-author of the New York Times bestseller, Brothers in Battle, Best of Friends: Two Paratroopers from the Original Band of Brothers Tell Their Story.
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