Did your parents teach you to be a smart money manager? If so, consider yourself lucky. Most parents will talk to their kids about the birds and the bees but not about budgets and CDs. They must assume we’ll pick it up on our own, which is how most of us learn about personal finance. The Irish writer and poet Oscar Wilde once said, “Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.” Unfortunately this is how many of us learn to be better money managers. We make mistakes like maxing out our credit cards, learn the consequences and become smarter about money.
Keys to making better decisions
If you’d rather not learn how to make good financial decisions by making bad ones and learning from them, there are some keys to making better financial
Be brutally honest with yourself
If you’re not careful you can fool yourself into making some really bad financial decisions. For example, you could decide to borrow from your 401(k) because, heck, you would be paying interest to yourself. Or you might buy furniture you don’t really need because of the lure of zero interest financing. These are the kind of decisions where you could be deceiving yourself into financial problems. Be brutally honest with yourself about all of your decisions and the motivations behind them. Do you really need to borrow from your 401(k) to buy that new car or could you just save money for a year or 18 months and then pay cash? And while 0% interest can be a good deal in some cases you shouldn’t use it as an excuse to buy something you don’t really need. A good rule of thumb is that when in doubt, get a second opinion from a family member or friend that you know is good with his or her money. As George S. Clason once wrote, “It costs nothing to ask wise advice from a good friend.”
Watch out for fees
There are almost always fees attached to things that have to do with finances – credit cards, banking, investments and other financial products. It’s absolutely critical to keep fees low especially when it comes to investing. Making money in the stockmarket is tough enough by itself without paying fees that wipe out your gains.
Use cash not credit
Whatever you do, don’t finance your lifestyle on credit. Credit card debt can just ruin your life. Pay cash for everything from groceries to vacations to cars. If you need to make sacrifices to pay cash, do it. Using credit to buy things is the equivalent of stealing money from yourself in the future. Every cent you borrow must be paid back and often at very high interest rates. As the Persian poet Omar Khayyam wrote, “Take the cash and let the credit go. Nor heed the rumble of a distant drum.”
Save a dime out of every dollar
This is very simple but very powerful. Make a habit beginning right now to save at least 10% of your gross pay. Save 20% or even more if possible. If you don’t doubt what this can mean to your lifer, read the book The Richest Man In Babylon by George S. Clason.
Ours has turned into a “get rich quick” society. But if you really want to build lasting wealth, you need to think long term as you make your financial decisions. This puts everything into perspective from a $4 latte at Starbucks to how much you should invest in your 401(k). As an example of this, if you think long term you would realize that a daily $4 latte eventually adds up to $21,056 over 10 years. And investing $1000 a month beginning at age 25 (instead of age 35) generates $1.7 million more by age 65.
Learn to live with uncertainty
While you may think you should avoid uncertainty like the plague when making financial decisions, the problem is that it costs a lot to avoid it. For example, the insurance industry thrives on uncertainty when it comes to cash value life insurance and annuities. However, some protection against uncertainty is unavoidable such as term life insurance and auto insurance. Be sure to think twice before spending a lot of money in return for guarantees.
For example, this concept can be especially important if you are evaluating an annuity. Annuities can be part of some financial plans but there are always fees associated with these products and they tend to limit the upside. An annuity will generate a constant stream of payments but at a high cost. The key here is to think carefully before spending a lot of money to avoid uncertainty. There are rewards to learning to live with it.
Keep things simple
There is an old rule of thumb that the more complex is a “solution,” the less likely it is to be your best option. For example, in most cases term life insurance is a better investment than complicated permanent life insurance products. And index funds are generally better than more complicated actively managed funds. One simple way to invest is in funds or ETF’s as this is usually better than complicated insurance products that have an investment component. In other words, all things being equal, simple is most often better.
It’s important to harness the power of compounding. Once you understand it, you can better evaluate your financial decisions to make sure they take advantage of it and not ignore it. If you’re not familiar with compounding this is where you earn interest on your investment and then interest on that interest. For example, if you started with $100 and added $100 a month at 2% interest, you would have $1,313.08 at the end of year one and then $2,550.64 at the end of year two and not just $2500.
Always consider the power of compounding whether it comes to paying off debt or how you need to be investing today.
Do the critical things first
Don’t put off the big financial decisions. Begin every day thinking about those things you need to accomplish and get to the important stuff first. Don’t put off actions such as preparing a will, investing for retirement or buying life insurance. When you do the critical things first, everything else will just be much easier.
Take responsibility for your actions
Despite what the politicians might want you to believe, you are not a victim. These people may tell you that the problem is corporate America or that the system is rigged but the result are the same – it makes us feel helpless. This is all nonsense that’s created to score political points rather than moving the country forward. Never play the victim.
Learn to think outside the box
Do you tend to view financial decisions in black and white? For example, do you believe that your emergency fund should always be in cash in a bank or that you should pay off all your non-mortgage debt before investing? These approaches to personal finance often turn out not to be in your best interest. Don’t make a financial decision without weighing the pros and cons and considering all alternate options.
Don’t be greedy
Your friend has a great stock tip that’s absolutely guaranteed to make you money. But you also worry that this might be too good to be true. When this is the case, it usually is. Whenever you’re faced with one of these deals you need to monitor your own emotions. You may be tempted by a get rich quick mentality. But think twice before acting as these deals often do turn out well.