General advice for an imaginary average person
Personal finance advice comes in many forms, running the gamut from Dave Ramsey’s philosophies on getting out of debt to Suze Orman’s no-nonsense anti-stupidity spending advice. Opinions vary wildly as you stroll down the promenade from the broker, a salesperson, to the financial planner paid by the hour rather than commission. Mass media, by definition, must appeal to the masses, so unless you’re working individually with a professional, the advice you hear is geared towards the “average” individual.
I don’t know any average individuals. This concept is a fictional statistical human being, an amalgamation of a sample population, with no defining characteristics. Mass advice cannot cater to the most diligent or intelligent of the crowd, because invariably less apt individuals overestimate their abilities, attempt techniques designed for the more able, and fail. Thus, advice is often “dumbed down” or simplified to meet the lower qualifications of a larger group.
Take, for example, the case of the best way to pay off credit card debt. I call it the “Debt Avalanche” but it certainly wasn’t my invention. While there are exceptions, this method of debt repayment calls for credit card debt always being paid off by focusing on the debt with the highest interest rate first. But people don’t always want to take this approach. They may receive more “satisfaction” by paying off the debt with the lowest balance first, which they believe will motivate them to continue paying off debt. Money, after all, is emotional more than it is mathematical.
Unfortunately, it’s this mindset which helps many people fall into debt in the first place (or repeatedly), and it is not correct. The best way of reaching a specific financial goal will always be the mathematical way. If not, your true goal is not purely financial. For example, is your true goal to get out of debt quickly and efficiently or is it to feel good about your debt situation? You will feel better in the end knowing you took less time and spent less money to get out of debt. If not, then perhaps you haven’t learned much from the experience and will find yourself succumbing to the “emotions” of money again and perhaps falling back into debt.
There are legitimate places for emotions when dealing with money, but debt reduction is not one.
Self-limiting philosophies and beliefs
You may hear that “doing what works for you” is the best way to approach a financial situation, but it’s often not a good idea. Doing what works the best mathematically is the ultimate approach. Other approaches may help you reach your goal, but not in the best way possible. “Doing what works for you” is an admission that you feel you have no need to improve yourself. This philosophy tells the world that you’ve learned everything you need to learn and are satisfied with your choice, even though you know it may not be the best. Or worse, if you have not learned all you need to know about your situation, you may not even realize that what you’re doing is in fact “not working.”
“Doing what works for you” is one of a number of self-limiting philosophies, excuses that people will use to convince themselves that they don’t need to strive for excellence. Here are some others:
“Luck and chance affect me more than my effort and skills.” Do you attribute a missed career opportunity to bad luck or not enough hard work? When you received a good grade on a college exam, was it due to the ease of the test or your preparedness? Those who attain their goals are more likely to be those who believe their own decisions and actions affect outcomes, good or bad. Those whose philosophy of outcomes is built around an internal locus of control have been shown to reach their goals more often.
The locus of control is one way psychology pays a significant role in your goals, financial or otherwise.
“Anything is better than nothing.” When it comes to saving, reducing debt, and investing and planning for the future, I agree. You have to start somewhere, but it is only a start. But if you believe that your financial condition in the future is important, the minimum is not enough. Don’t stop at “anything,” even if it is better than “nothing.” This is like saying it’s fine to feed your children one meal a day because one meal is better than no meals. Everyone is busy, but if the minimum is all you have time for, don’t expect results.
“At least I’m better than average.” The New York Times recently cited the Federal Reserve Board with an “average household credit card debt” figure of $8,565. Owe less than that and you’re in good shape, right? It’s unclear how that figure is determined. It may in fact be the average credit card debt of only households that have credit card debt. Include debt-free households in the calculation and the figure will drop. A number this high lulls many people into a false sense of security with the belief that with their balance of $6,000 in credit card debt, they’re “doing better” than most of the country.
This “security” leads to inaction and, in this case, to the glee of credit card providers, merchants, and manufacturers around the world.
Getting over it
The result of a lifetime with these beliefs is guaranteed mediocrity. While removing self-limiting philosophies doesn’t guarantee excellence and the ability to reach every goal, keeping these philosophies guarantees that you will not do your best. I do not know any man or woman with children who is satisfied with being anything but the best father or mother he or she could possibly be, so why are so many people satisfied with being an average personal financial officer?
There is usually a perfect mathematical solution to financial goals, like the Debt Avalanche mentioned above. Although Dave Ramsey says that most people have more success with a different, more expensive and time-consuming technique, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive for the better solution. Just because perfection is not always attainable doesn’t mean that it’s worthwhile to stop striving for that approach and settle for lackluster results, especially if the better approach is not more difficult than the alternatives.
If you’ve found something that “works for you,” don’t assume that there isn’t something else that works better for you. Follow the best examples, not examples set by the fictional average individual. If your financial security is important to you, don’t settle for mediocrity. You won’t always reach your highest goals or always be excellent, but you’ll never be excellent if you limit yourself.
Updated August 22, 2008 and originally published August 20, 2008.