I have a business degree from Harvard and a fantastic career and I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t know how to manage my own finances.
I’m a professor at a state university and I feel terrible that this is an area I know nothing about.
I’ve got two degrees including a law degree and finances allude me, I’ve always struggled with it, and I just don’t have the time to learn.
I have a doctorate degree, for crying out loud, it frustrates me that I still can’t run my finances well and I don’t even know where to start.
These are common scenarios clients and prospects share with me.
You’re Not Alone
Sound familiar? You’re not alone. It’s not your fault that you don’t know as much as you’d like about finances. Only 6 states require students to take a standalone personal finance course before graduating high school. Another 15 states offer required study in personal finances that is integrated within other coursework/subjects. In total, less than half of states mandate any kind of financial literacy requirement.
You can also seek lots of letters behind your name, even taking coursework called “finance” and still be somewhat illiterate in matters of personal finances. Business degrees, accounting degrees and even a major in finance or economics will only expose you, at most, to the stock market and analysis of company financials. This is very different from personal financial knowledge which will help you choose a student loan repayment program, buy your first home, analyze the pros and cons of moving across the country to change jobs, plan a family budget, or figure out how to finance fertility treatments.
It doesn’t matter your degree(s), your background, your professional experience, unless you specifically sought out coursework, books, or other readings about personal finance, or happened to have parents that were good at it and instilled this knowledge in you, you are probably woefully unprepared.
Feeling underprepared to “adult” in this way comes with not only frustration, but often shame. Some people respond by avoiding the subject altogether. Some may find the information boring and shut down when they try to make progress. Others might seek to fill their knowledge gaps where they can, but struggle because it’s such a large body of knowledge, and get frustrated because there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Still others might offload the job to a spouse or partner as part of their division of labor in the household.
Give Yourself a Break
You can slowly turn this around though. Your partner should not be your financial plan. You can, and should build these skills on your own.
It often helps to break up the seemingly gigantic task of “learning personal finance” into much smaller bite size approaches.
Get out a notebook and make a list. What are the top 10 things you’d like to learn? Don’t make this about what you SHOULD learn — what are you interested in learning?
Perhaps you start by setting aside 20 minutes once per week to do some research about the topic most interesting to you. Consider it a break from your day job and your home routine. Consider it an investment in reducing future anxiety.
Does early retirement peak your interest? Read some stories about people who have done that. Does paying down debt sound interesting? Start by reading some news articles or interviews from people who have done that? Does investing sound interesting? Start by reading more about that.
Following your interest will likely lead to an interest in other topics and ideas. Resist the urge to pile on work or make a list of 10 books to buy that will only sit on the shelf. Keep breaking up the work and research into small bite-sized learning sessions. As you continue to learn, perhaps increase the time allotment to two 20 minute sessions per week.
Another way to get started with your personal finance journey is getting organized. Make a list of all the accounts you have, loans and credit cards you have, property you own, insurance policies you have, last year’s tax return, and estate planning documents you have. Pull a statement or policy summary for each item. Create a spreadsheet if that makes sense for you. Is there a term or a number you don’t understand on your statement or document? Make that an item to research in one of your 20 minute sessions.
Once you have all that pulled together in one place, it’s a huge win! You can easily see where you might be missing something and you can easily figure out where you might need to expand your knowledge. And it will likely lead to further questions you can research online or through a book or by asking an expert.
Take a moment to add up everything you own (cash, savings, investments, real estate, etc.) and subtract everything you owe (loans, credit cards, mortgages, etc.). The result of this calculation is your net worth. Each year, you should see growth in your net worth.
Ask for Help
Just like you don’t have to do this all at once, you don’t have to learn it all alone. You can ask for help from a multitude of sources.
Here are some ideas for making progress:
Commit to taking a course about personal finance. Coursera offers an array of personal finance courses. So does Udemy. Many people find that the structure and framework of having someone else teach them something in course form works really well.
April is financial literacy month. Organizations around the country host live, recorded, or downloadable information about managing personal finances teaching you everything from credit scores, to budgeting, and investing. One organization that tracks these events is called Money Smart Week. Spring is a good time to tackle this because we’re all in the mood to spring clean — let learning and cleaning up your finances be a part of your spring cleaning exercises.
Check your nearest university extensions program. Many offer money talks, personal finance 101, investing 101, or other types of personal finance education courses for free or very low cost. Here is one offered in Northern Virginia. And another offered at the UCSD extension program.
Get an Advisor
No matter how much knowledge you have, adding a financial coach or fee-only advisor to your team can be a great way to supercharge your progress. It’s hard to ask for and accept help sometimes when we are fierce, independent and successful on our own. It’s also hard when a lot of information out there tries to convince and encourage you that do-it-yourself is the best way.
If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – African Proverb
However, you don’t know what you don’t know. Hiring someone doesn’t mean you’ve given up control or responsibility. Even once you know the basics, it can be extremely powerful to have someone who knows you and your situation to be a sounding board when you make decisions. We all have advisors in our life, people we trust that we bounce ideas off of before making a decision. Hiring a financial advisor to play this role for you as it relates to finances can help take the stress off of relying on personal relationships to play this role for you.Feel like you need more support? I’m launching a course in fall 2021 to help you build financial resiliency. Click here to be the first in line.
There is huge value in having a thinking partner who can help you in moments that make a huge difference in potential outcomes. For instance: when you negotiate a salary or decide to make a big change in life or deciding the right time to start systematically investing outside retirement. Also, with finances sometimes there is not a right or wrong answer or way to handle the situation – having an advisor can help you make the best choice for you in those situations.
When you have someone in your corner, you can continue to specialize in your day job and to be successful in your life and career. You can rest easy knowing that someone who specializes in finances is in your corner to help you become aware of blind spots, changes in law, plan ahead or remind you when and how to accomplish something financially. Not only that – but an advisor can help keep you focused on the bigger picture of working toward your goals, building financial resilience and ensuring you’re making progress.
You’ll remain in control of the decisions and have full transparency. While you can outsource the day-to-day investment management, it doesn’t mean you don’t have to look at your statements. While you can outsource creating a budget plan, you still need to follow the plan on your own. While you can seek a sounding board when it comes to making a financial decision, you’re still responsible for executing on that decision. You are the CEO of your financial life, but good CEOs hire excellent advisors around them to help them make decisions.
What do you think? Do these sound like good ideas to help you build more financial knowledge? What do you want to try first?