Personal finance is more personal than it is finance. This is a message, grounded in science, that I’m privileged to share in various forms speaking for various audiences. Whether for an association of financial planners, a Fortune 500 company, an academic institution or a non-profit, my strategy is to ENGAGE, ENTERTAIN and EDUCATE your audience, giving attendees tangible takeaways to improve their lives and work.
Life insurance is one of the pillars of personal finance, deserving of consideration by every household. I’d even go so far as to say it’s vital for most. Yet, despite its nearly universal applicability, there remains a great deal of confusion, and even skepticism, regarding life insurance.
Perhaps this is due to life insurance’s complexity, the posture of those who sell it or merely our preference for avoiding the topic of our own demise. But armed with the proper information, you can simplify the decision-making process and arrive at the right choice for you and your family.
To help, here are 10 things you absolutely need to know about life insurance:
- If anyone relies on you financially, you need life insurance. It’s virtually obligatory if you are a spouse or the parent of dependent children. But you may also require life insurance if you are someone’s ex-spouse, life partner, a child of dependent parents, the sibling of a dependent adult, an employee, an employer or a business partner. If you are stably retired or financially independent, and no one would suffer financially if you were to be no more, then you don’t need life insurance. You may, however, consider using life insurance as a strategic financial tool.
Then Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein applied the lessons of behavioral economics to everyday life with their book Nudge. The duo nudged so successfully that in recent years, their prescriptions have been put to work in corporate retirement plans—and even public policy—on a global scale.
When I spoke to Thaler to discuss his newest book, Misbehaving, a series of stories documenting the rise of behavioral economics, he told me that he has a message for those who seek to employ his methods:
“Nudge, for good.”
And why does he say that?
“It was totally worth it.” In this case, “it” referred to a Vitamix blender that a friend recently had purchased. He wasn’t the first. Indeed, I don’t know anyone who has purchased a Vitamix blender and didn’t share my friend’s effusive sentiment, even after spending between $429 and $719 (for the new line of G-Series models). For a blender.
But despite my appreciation for these friends and their opinions, I can’t help but notice their errors in judgment, explained by behavioral science, that, if followed, could lead to an unwise purchase for you or me.
To be clear, it’s not their purchase of the blender that I’m questioning. Rather, it’s their insistence that said purchase is a universal must. Worth, you see, is relative. What is “worth it” for you may not be “worth it” for me. Ultimately, determining the worthiness of your next purchase depends on many factors, but chief among them are 1) the joy you receive from using the product, 2) your personal cash flow, 3) how much you will use the product, and 4) the cost of available alternatives.
The most compelling findings regarding financial decision-making are found not in spreadsheets, but in science. A blend of psychology, biology and economics, much of the research on this topic has been around for years. Its application in mainstream personal finance, however, is barely evident. Perhaps a simple analogy will help you begin employing this wisdom in money and life: The Rider and the Elephant.
First, a little background.
Systems 1 and 2
Daniel Kahneman’s tour de force, Thinking, Fast and Slow, leveraged his decades of research with Amos Tversky into practical insight. Most notably, it introduced the broader world to “System 1” and “System 2,” two processors within our brains that send and receive information quite differently.
System 1 is “fast, intuitive, and emotional” while System 2 is “slower, more deliberative, and more logical.” The big punch line is that even though we’d prefer to make important financial decisions with the more rational System 2, System 1 is more often the proverbial decider.
Many other authors have built compelling insights on this scientific foundation. They offer alternative angles and analogies, but I believe the most comprehendible comes from Jonathan Haidt.
Most people avoid budgeting because they consider it an exercise in repressive tedium. But it doesn’t have to be. By applying the science of motivation, economic evidence and the art of creativity, the apparent boredom of budgeting and saving can be remade into part a life-giving financial rhythm.
In his book, Drive, Daniel Pink teaches us that most institutions still use outdated science to motivate. Known as the “carrot-and-stick” approach, Pink demonstrates that the archaic addiction many organizations have to extrinsic motivation is far less effective than intrinsic motivation, which comes from within. The most successful resolutions are those autonomously motivated. In short, the word could is more effective than the overused should.
So, please hear this: Only budget if you want to, on your terms. It’s up to you.
April is National Financial Literacy Month, and while I would never argue against financial literacy, I have a fundamental problem with the moniker. Who, after all, would willingly step forward and proudly announce themselves illiterate—at anything?
Unfortunately, I believe that’s what fully embracing the financial literacy movement requires. It positions financial educators as the Dickenses of currency and those who struggle with money as the collective Oliver Twist. Yes, it’s unfortunately true that too many Americans lack optimal—and perhaps even sufficient—personal financial education. But a sweeping declaration that labels the majority of the country financially illiterate does little to advance the cause. And it may even slow the progress we seek.
Simple is hot, even fashionable. But in many cases, it’s for all the wrong reasons. Simple is easier to pitch, explain and sell, and therefore also easier to receive, understand and buy. But when simple devolves into simplistic, becoming a one-dimensional end instead of a user-friendly means, it’s no longer an advantage and may actually be doing damage. Not everything can be turned into a tagline, a rule of thumb or a short cut.
Therefore, when my colleague and New York Times contributor Carl Richards first asked me a couple years ago to think about what a financial plan might look like if it was constrained to a single page, I was skeptical. After all, I’d dedicated my life and work to helping people, primarily in their dealings with money, wholly through the written and spoken word. The fullness of that education seemed impossible to responsibly confine to a single page. Then I read Carl’s new book, The One-Page Financial Plan.
At 208 pages, it may be a tad shorter than most personal finance books, but it’s obviously longer than one page. There is, however, a single page in it that I believe will help you understand why the book was written and how it could benefit you. On page 11, toward the end of the book’s introduction, Richards shares with us his family’s first attempt at an actual one-page financial plan.
Yesterday, a bearded 21-year-old surfer who lives in a 1978 VW bus, and on a self-imposed annual allowance of $10,000, mowed down my beloved Orioles with a 96-mile-per-hour fastball.
Blue Jays pitcher Daniel Norris isn’t striving to make a statement with his apparently Spartan existence. He’s simply choosing to live life according to his priorities. He’s writing his own story.
According to ESPN, Norris’ values system is strengthened by generational ties and rooted in the topography of Johnson City in northeast Tennessee: “Play outdoors. Love the earth. Live simply. Use only what you need.”
The point of this article is not to compel you to adopt Daniel Norris’ values, but to convince you to live by your own. Here are three ways to do so:
What we believe about money will impact how we use it. Unfortunately, a central belief most of us hold about money is fundamentally flawed. We believe that money is either good or bad when, in reality, it is neither.
A belief that money is bad certainly is the minority mindset. But it may be a more dangerous conviction than its inverse, if only because it appears virtuous. After all, how could using less water, less square footage, less medication, less natural resources — less money — be a bad thing? Perhaps because there’s a deceptively short distance between being pro less-[fill-in-the-blank] and becoming anti-[fill-in-the-blank]. And if we’re anti-money, we may also become anti-people-who-have-money, including ourselves if such a circumstance arose.
A friend of mine has a huge heart for people with less — I mean, really less. So much so that he dedicated his life and work to serving them. He regularly goes to the world’s most deprived places, using his powerful combo of empathy, education and experience to rally the necessary aid. Once, when he received a sudden sum of money, I asked him if he was capable of committing financial suicide — by which I meant divesting himself of all the extra decimal places in his bank account — simply because it wouldn’t feel right for him to have such a possession as one so wholly dedicated to the world’s underserved communities. He acknowledged it was possible.
The far more common belief is that money is inherently good. Although this belief appears innocuous at first blush, it’s important to consider its logical conclusion. If money is good, then more money is better. If so, we might be inclined to accept a common lament as true: “If I only had more money, I’d have a better life.” Inevitably, money becomes personified, and thus becomes an unconquerable competitor pitted against the actual people in our lives. In this reality, our friends and family simply can’t compete with money. People let us down, while money only promises to make our hopes and dreams come true.
We need to put money in its place. Specifically:
Money is a neutral tool that can be used for good or ill.
When we believe that money is bad, we typically handle it poorly and strain our relationships. When we believe that it’s good, we tend to put money in competition with people and strain our relationships.