What is your number one piece of financial advice? A short time ago, I was faced with this question in a job interview. Normally I hate this type of question – I mean, really, how do you limit it to just 1 thing? There are many great pieces of advice: Spend less than you make, start investing young, build your emergency savings, don’t take on too much debt, etc. However, on this particular occasion, my response was quick and decisive, and it surprised me a little.
I simply said, “the most important thing is for people to make financial choices.”
Not only did this surprise me but it initially worried me. “That’s the best you can come up with?” I thought. It initially seemed overly simplistic and vague. But as I’ve thought about it since – why complicate things unnecessarily? At the end of the day, all personal finance and advice really boils down to one simple word: Choice.
Simple but not Easy
As simple as it may seem, making choices can actually be pretty difficult. It takes energy and focus both of which can be in short supply for many of us – particularly busy moms. If your house is anything like mine, one of the most dreaded questions is “What should we make for dinner?” (or similarly “Where do you want to eat tonight?”). All too often making dinner seems like the easy part – I’d rather cook the meal than rifle through the cupboard trying to decide what to make. So why can it be so tough to make decisions and what can we do to simplify and make choices that put us on the path to our goals? Here are a few thoughts/ideas:
One of the great things about the modern world is that we have access to almost limitless information and possibly more options than in any other period of the world’s history. But this can also present a challenge. There are dozens of budgeting apps, hundreds of investment options, and thousands of factors to weigh. With so many choices and such a complex system often we end up not choosing anything – which just means we are choosing to give up any control we could have in determining our outcome.
Solution: Find ways to narrow down the number of options (categorizing or eliminating choices based on features or criteria that are important to you) to just a few. From there, don’t sacrifice progress for the unicorn many of us chase: perfection. There are often multiple good options and taking action in a positive direction will get you further than no action at all.
Different Priorities/Goals in Relationships
Combining finances and managing money with a spouse or significant other can be a challenge. One might be more of a spender while the other is a saver. One may be generous with their money while the other may value socialization or belonging based on how you spend (or don’t spend) money. None of those are inherently good or bad, but the differences can be difficult to reconcile.
Solution: Find ways to have positive discussions about money. Difficult conversations are often necessary but they shouldn’t be the only money conversations. A money date where you leave the budget and bills behind and talk about your dreams (a vacation, what retirement looks like, etc.) or goals can be a good break from the monotony. Focus on what you each want in the present, future, or both and seek to understand what your spouse values.
Executive Decision Fatigue and Impulse Control
Have you ever noticed that when you’re faced with making many decisions in a short period of time it can leave you tired or even exhausted (think wedding or event planning)? We each have a finite amount of brain capacity for making decisions. This is part of the reason candy is at the checkout line and restaurants close to the exit of a store. How many times have you said yes to your kids (or been tempted to) just because you were tired of saying no? A shopping trip can include making a number of decisions shopping (even if they’re small ones – like constant requests from kids) and can wear you down. The same is true about decisions made at the end of a long day.
Solution: Pre-commitment – preserve your decision making energy by making decisions ahead of time, so in the heat of the moment, it is more automatic (shopping lists, automatic deposit to a savings account, etc.). Be aware of when you have financial conversations – try to plan ahead or take time when your mind is fresh.
These are just a few examples of what can make financial decisions tough. Consider your situation and how these (or other) solutions can help you take action and make progress toward the things you’d like to accomplish. What other challenges have you faced in making choices and what solutions have worked for you?