As we approach the one-year mark of my personal finance columns in the Courier-Herald, I truly hope you’ve enjoyed reading these tidbits, thoughts, and statistics as much as I’ve enjoyed putting them together. My hope is these resources have been helpful in some way, be it exposure to a topic for the first time that sparks positive change, a refresher on the basics, or even just providing one or two ideas to make your personal finance system even better. If even one person’s trajectory has been changed for the better, I consider it a success.
Over the years, it’s become increasingly clear to me one of my passions is helping people better understand personal finance management and improve their quality of life through wise dealings with their money. We all have backgrounds and events that make us who we are: my vision was shaped profoundly by watching money drama harm extended family when I was younger. I swore that whatever I had to do, I would make sure my future family would never operate that way.
Beginning my career in the post-college workforce, low pay and poor work rules taught me I needed to have a solid future plan for career progression, yet live wisely in the moment to make immediate ends meet. Today, almost a decade later, I want to move beyond simply acknowledging the socio-economic problems in America today and begin addressing them instead.
I truly believe there is a profound crisis of personal finance education in America today. If COVID-19 taught us anything, it demonstrated we need to do a better job of educating and preparing our citizenry to manage their money well, save for emergencies, invest wisely without panicking when the market takes inevitable dips (as it has many times before and will again), and understand the need to think years ahead about long-term career plans and retirement.
Yet the crisis is twofold: While many of us were never taught basic money management principles or economic theory, in the end, personal finance mostly boils down to making decisions and exercising personal discipline. In other words, how badly do you want things to change? The person lacking knowledge but willing to learn and do whatever is required will beat the book smart person every time. I know plenty of people too smart for their own good, struggling to survive in the “real” world outside academia.
As the banner in Mr. Benson’s high school math classroom 13 years ago read: “YOUGOTTAWANNA”.
The good news is for those who “WANNA”, the tools and knowledge available for learning, growing, and succeeding have never been more free and accessible than they are today. Yet, I still hear people say, “It can’t be done.” They spend a few minutes, hours, or days (or no time at all!) trying to solve a problem, then they give up. An important trait separating those who are successful and at peace from those who wish they were is taking 100 percent personal responsibility for their outcomes.
Don’t like it? Change it. Choose intentionality and a mindset of doing “whatever it takes.” If we can get past the idea that short-term sacrifice is unpleasant, the long-term gains are life-changing. Rather than giving up, be a barricade-rammer (in a good way). While this will change the whole face of your relationship with money, it will change your life in almost every other area, too, since how we handle money reflects our values.
Actions you can take today, right now: First, let us think critically. In 2021 we are exposed daily to media content in many various forms. Whatever content we consume, I would urge us to think critically; look past the spin. Voices in today’s culture are still telling us “it can’t be done”, but it’s a false narrative. I personally know many people from all cultures, family backgrounds, and immigration histories taking phenomenal advantage of the opportunities this great country affords us.
Whoever we are, let us not take the easy way out by claiming victimhood. Rather, let us take 100 percent responsibility for our personal outcomes and not waste time waiting for anybody else to solve our problems for us. I will warn you, though; prepare to be amazed. The positive results may shock you. It can be done!
Again, ponder where you dream of being in 5-10 years. What small steps do you need to take? We are the sum total of the small decisions we make over time – financial and otherwise. Consider what it would be like living a life not propped up by debt. Make the budget. Cut up your credit cards. Ask someone you respect who works in a field that interests you what it takes to make a career there. Consider it, craft a plan, then go do it.
Dress nicely, walk your resume into a prospective employer, introduce yourself, and tell them why you want to work for them and why their values resonate with you. The saying on the fortune cookie is perhaps cliché, but it’s true: a journey of 1,000 miles does indeed start with a single step.
Lastly, never stop learning. We will never be so successful we cannot improve our system or learn a fun new skill. One of my college economics professors recommended we subscribe to the Wall Street Journal, but I didn’t heed it. I thought the Wall Street Journal was boring (and expensive). Ten years later, especially if I can find a complimentary one at a hotel (remember: frugal airline pilot), I read the Wall Street Journal for fun, because I want to better my understanding of economics.
While we’ve focused much of the last year on specific, useful ways to improve our finances, I would remind us in closing that the whole point of managing money well is not money itself, or gaining more possessions, or having the freedom to do whatever we want whenever we want.
Our highest objective is getting the money stuff out of the way and automated so we can focus on the most important things in life: faith, family, serving others, being generous in awesome ways, and doing good, healthy things we enjoy. If you’re looking for recommendations, those are investments worth making!