According to a recent study by Columbia Business School, the third most commonly held secret in America is personal finance information. The first two secrets, if you’re curious, are a past lie and romantic desires.
Columbia’s study found that over half of Americans keep their personal finance details as closely guarded secrets, even from their closest friends and family members. We as a nation are more open about our sex lives and infidelity than we are about our finances.
Why is that a problem? Imagine you want to get better at something—an art, a musical instrument, a career skill. Let’s randomly say you’re trying to improve at graphic design.
Then imagine that you never discuss graphic design with anyone. Your friends and family members never know you’re trying to learn and get better at it. If they do know, they don’t bring it up for fear of offending you.
You would never receive tips from your neighbor who’s a graphic artist. Your colleague in the next cubicle over, a Photoshop expert, would never know of your interest and would never be able to show you the basics. You would never get feedback on your progress, never hear the word “congratulations,” never be shown the errors you’re making.
Could you improve? Yes, but only through grinding personal initiative, struggling forward in the dark. You’d be learning the hard, slow way.
It’s the same with personal finance.
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Divorces & Fights
Did you know that nearly a quarter of Americans admit that they’ve lied to their spouse about money?
That’s pretty scary. But it makes a sad kind of sense: Money is the leading cause of stress in relationships.
Oddly, 88% of couples insist that they don’t “fight about money,” though. These statistics seem to clash—until you consider that sources of stress aren’t always openly fought over.
Related: Why Making More Money is NOT the Solution to Your Financial Problems
Couples simply aren’t talking enough about money.
Need one more statistic to bring that fact into perfect clarity? Consider that finances are the third leading cause of divorce in the United States. (The first two are “basic incompatibility” and sexual infidelity.)
America’s Financial Illiteracy
Is anyone surprised that the United States isn’t even in the top 10 of countries ranked by financial literacy? The good ol’ U.S. of A. ranks 14th in the world—a poor performance for the world’s wealthiest nation and a grim reminder that we won’t last as the world’s largest economy (by some measures, China will overtake the United States by next year).
Nearly two-thirds of Americans can’t pass a basic financial literacy test. That means that on a five-question test, they answered three or fewer questions right.
And these questions are basic. A sample question: “If you borrow $1,000 at 20% interest, how much interest will you pay in a given year?” It’s not a trick question; it doesn’t require an understanding of amortization tables. You would think that the multiple-choice answer of “$200,” 20% of $1,000, would stand out like a beacon among the others. Alas.
The news gets worse. The number of Americans who can pass this test has actually declined since the Great Recession. In 2009, 42% of Americans answered four or more questions correctly. Last year, that number dropped to 37%.
So much for learning lessons from our fiscal mistakes.
Nearly 70% of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings. The median retirement savings in the United States is $5,000. Need I go on?
The saddest part of this problem is that young people actually do want to learn about money—and we’re not teaching them. A study by the National Financial Educators Council asked young adults aged 18-24 what high school-level course would have benefitted their lives the most. The majority of these college-aged adults answered “Money Management.”
Social Norms Are Stifling Financial Literacy
I get it. It can be tacky to talk about how much money you earn. So don’t.
Instead, talk about savings rate. Talk about financial goals, so you can be held accountable to them by your friends and family members. Collaborate with friends on how you can cut expenses.
Discuss retirement savings strategies. Debate investment types. Analyze specific stocks or mutual funds together.
You don’t need to reveal exact numbers of your salary or your investment portfolio. No one is proposing that you brag about your wealth. But that doesn’t mean you can’t share the sacrifices you’re making in order to hit your target of a 20% savings rate this year—or better yet, to live on only half your income.
Your best friend may know a lot about 529 college savings plans, but know nothing about real estate investing. Maybe you have a working knowledge of real estate investing, but are interested in learning more about a 529 savings account. Imagine how much better off you’d both be if you only talked about your goals and what you want to know!
Don’t be afraid to talk about money. Be afraid to be financially illiterate by not talking about money.
You can discuss personal finances tactfully and tastefully. Avoid bragging, never ask for specific dollar figures from friends, and when in doubt, discuss percentages rather than exact dollar figures. Most importantly, talk about your goals and brainstorm ideas to help get there faster.
If you can’t bring yourself to talk to your close friends and family members about money, start by joining an online discussion group. Use a pseudonym if you must, but discuss personal finance issues there, in the comfort of anonymity.
5 Financial Moves Every American Should Be Making
Whether you’re a financial whiz or just starting to take control of your finances, check on where you are currently with these financial yardsticks.
- First, do you have a target savings rate? If so, are you reaching it every month? You can do better than the average savings rate of 5.6%. Aim for a bare minimum of 10%, but the higher your savings rate, the faster you can reach financial independence.
- Second, how structured is your budget? Are you paying yourself first by making your savings your first “expense” transferred each time you get paid? Do you track your spending?
- Third, check on your retirement status. Do you have tax-advantaged retirement accounts, such as an IRA and/or 401(k)? Are you maxing them out? At your current retirement investing rate, how long will it take you to retire? Make sure you know the answers to these questions.
- Fourth, use an online service like Mint.com to pull together all of your financial accounts into one snapshot of your net worth. This one-page dashboard showing your entire net worth helps make your net worth a real, tangible “thing,” rather than an abstract concept. You can watch your net worth grow as you save and invest money rather than spending it on new clothes.
- Lastly, what are you doing to create passive income? Income, not savings, is the key to retirement and financial independence. How much of your monthly budget can be covered by income from your investments (passive income), rather than income from your job (active income)? Over time, that proportion should grow toward 100 percent, at which time you will have achieved financial independence.
What You Think About & Talk About Determine Your Outcomes
Gone are the days of 40-year career jobs and pensions. In today’s economy, everyone must take control of their own financial future.
Set aside 30 minutes/week to review your finances and check your progress toward your long-term financial goals. (You can start with these financial fixes that take 30 minutes or less.) But don’t stop there—start talking to your friends and family members about those financial goals.
When you vocalize and share your dreams with others, they become much more real. It’s a form of commitment: You are opening yourself to your loved ones to hold you accountable to those goals. In fact, studies have found that sharing your goals with others makes them far more likely to be realized.
Talk about money. Share what tips, tricks and information you’ve learned, to pass them on. Learn from the financial wisdom of your friends and family. Share your financial goals and ask your friends to hold you accountable.
Far from being offended, they’ll be inspired. In all likelihood, they’ll be moved to share their own financial goals, and you can collaborate together in reaching them—fiscal “gym buddies” to motivate each other and grow financially stronger together.
There’s no need to struggle alone.
Are you reluctant to talk about money with your friends and family members? What financial goals can you share with a few friends or family members this week?
If you’re not ready to share with your next-door neighbor, share with us in the comments section. We won’t judge!