Level: Can a budgeting app change the way we bank?

Originally in Forbes“Level is dedicated to rewriting the financial rulebook to create a secure future for the next generation.” That’s budgeting app Level Money’s stated mission, which can be found on their website’s “About Us” page. But even as lofty as that objective sounds, co-founder and CEO Jake Fuentes says the company’s sights are set even higher.

“Basic everyday money management,” he suggests, could be “the first step toward changing—or creating—the next generation’s banking structure.”

An app that hopes to change the way the next generation banks? I’m listening.

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The Keys to Effective Budgeting: Autonomy and Automation

Originally in ForbesMost 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In his book, Drive, Daniel Pink teaches us that most institutions still use outdated science to motivate.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.

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A Misleading Moniker: Financial Literacy Month

Originally in ForbesApril 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?

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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.

‘The One-Page Financial Plan’—Simple, But Not Simplistic

Originally in ForbesSimple 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

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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.

3 Ways To Write Your Own Story, Like Baseball’s Daniel Norris

Originally in ForbesYesterday, 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: 

Putting Money In Its Place

Originally in ForbesWhat 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.

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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.

That’s it.

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.

The Dumbest (Most Important) Thing I’ve Ever Done

Originally in MoneyThe most important event in my life is one of which I was long ashamed.

I was an 18-year-old punk with a monumental chip on my shoulder. You know, the kind of kid certain of his indestructability, sure of his immunity from the dangers of self-destructive behavior.

At 2:00 a.m. on a random Wednesday morning in June 1994, after a long day and night of double-ended candle-burning, I set out for home in my Plymouth Horizon. At the time, my car was bedecked with stickers loudly displaying the names of late-60s rock bands. No shoes, no seatbelt, no problem.

Shame

Not even halfway home, I was awakened by the sound of rumble strips, just in time to fully experience my car leaving the road and careening over an embankment. After rolling down the hill, the vehicle settled on its wheels and I, surprisingly, landed in the driver’s seat. But all was not well.

Broken glass. My right leg was visibly fractured. I had hit the passenger seat so hard that it was dislodged from its mooring. Blood dripped on my white T-shirt.

You Can’t ‘Robo’ True Financial Advice

Originally published CNBCThe investing world is a better place, thanks to the advent of well-funded online investment advisory services.

Collectively dubbed “robo-advisors,” companies such as Betterment, Personal Capital and Wealthfront have managed in just a few years to do what the financial industry has failed to accomplish during a couple of centuries: provide quality investment guidance at a cost accessible to most demographics. It is a long time coming.

Adam Nash, Wealthfront’s chief executive, however, isn’t fond of the robo-advisor label.

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The Disciplined Investor’s Worst Enemy: Tracking Error

Originally in ForbesLast year was a tough one for disciplined investors. Disciplined investors know that diversification is a key element of successful portfolio management. But investors who stayed the course and remained diversified were punished for it in 2014, at least in the short term.

Disciplined investors will continue to be taunted over the coming weeks and months by headlines touting the success of “the market” in 2014. “Which market is that?” many of them will ask.

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Well, “the market” we hear about most often is the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which represents only 30 of the largest U.S. companies trading on the New York Stock Exchange. A slightly broader barometer of “the market” is the S&P 500 index, a benchmark tracking 500 of the largest U.S. stocks. In this case, “the market” could more accurately be translated as “the U.S. large-cap stock market.”

Stressed-Out Gen X and the Search for a More ‘Livable’ Life

Originally published CNBC“We’re just overwhelmed with life.” That was my response to an attorney looking for insight into the obstacles facing Generation X.

I’d referred a number of 30- and 40-something financial-planning clients to this attorney. All were in need of estate-planning documents.

But he came to me concerned about the difficulty he was having in reconnecting with clients who’d begun the process but were struggling to find the time to complete it. The time to complete anything, really.

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While folks of all generations struggle with being overwhelmed by the various responsibilities and obligations of life, I see the problem as endemic within the ranks of Gen X, my peers.