One of my favorite bloggers, and likely one of yours, is J.D. Roth. He has been writing about personal finance at Get Rich Slowly for some time now, and I was a fan of his writing at foldedspace when “blog” was still a new word. He is working on a book now, which I can’t wait to get my hands on (and read), and at the same time, he has been working on a blog series condensing his thoughts about personal finance into thirteen core tenets.
This is one of J.D.’s favorite mantras when offering financial advice or support: Do what works for you.
I think this is a great philosophy, and I can see how it is appealing to intelligent people who are capable of thinking independently, performing objective analysis, and making decisions based on empirical data and other established facts. It cuts directly to the core of personal finance: that money is personal and not every solution is universal. Different people require different answers, and what works for one person might not necessarily work for another.
The spirit of “What Works For You” is the important aspect: there are many paths to success and one should find the path that fits personally, using experimentation and consideration as a guide.
There are many open questions in personal finance but few concrete answers. What is a good investment? What will the stock market do tomorrow? Will I be able to afford college for my children in ten years? health care for myself next year? Uncertainty can lead to frustration, and when people don’t know what to do, they want to stick with something that feels comfortable.
I think it’s easy for the spirit of the “What Works For you” philosophy to be lost as one spreads the message, because the philosophy implies a search for comfort and is therefore subject to a number of psychological traps.
“What Works for You” grants a license to ignore criticism
One thing I remember about the time I was required to listen to a day-long Landmark Education seminar is the leader’s ability to silence anyone who didn’t accept their philosophy. If you disagreed with one aspect of their nonsense, a Landmark follower simply claimed you had a “racket” and you were immediately dismissed. The “What Works for You” argument does the same thing.
If you are focused on doing “What Works For You,” there is no room for opposing viewpoints. We are given the opportunity to selectively ignore facts that don’t fit our world view. Consider credit cards that offer rewards when you use them. I use a cash back credit card and never pay interest or late fees. That sounds like a great deal, and I often suggest this as a good way to make the credit card companies work for you. But according to consumer studies, on average, people like me spend more using credit cards than they would with cash. Even the rewards earned, particularly as credit card companies find ways to keep reducing these rewards, don’t make up the difference due to increased spending.
But many like me continue to use credit cards because it works for us. We say that we are spending less than we earn and we’re winning the battle with credit cards. But unless we have conducted our own experiments to determine how our own behavior, as an individual or family, is affected differently through using credit or cash, we have silenced criticism from cash-only advocates with a nothing more than a wave of the hand and the contentment that since we don’t see any surface damage on our finances, our behavior works for us.
“What Works For You” invites analysis that could be far too simple
Notice that the philosophy is not “What Works Best For You.” Whether something works is a binary state: either something works or something does not work. The only answers are yes or no. There is no gray area, no sliding scale, no room for judgment.
The Debt Snowball is often touted as the best method to pay off debt. There is no doubt this method, which calls for paying off your credit card debt from the card with the lowest balance to the highest, works for many people. And its popularity leads people to believe that it’s not worth considering another choice.
But many people who have succeeded paying off debt with the Debt Snowball would have succeeded with the Debt Avalanche, which offers similar psychological benefits but saves money and time. It’s important for someone embarking on the journey to pay off debt to be presented with options and be allowed to make their own decision. If you look only for “What Works For You,” you could be missing something that works better.
“What Works for You” accepts mediocrity as a way of life
I have been around enough high-achievers to be jaded with the constant strive for excellence and the endless desire to be the best in whatever activity happens to be involved. Determination to be the best is how some teams win world championships but others live in misery with failure. Thankfully we don’t all have to be the best in the world at what we do.
But that’s not an excuse for refusing to seek improvement. Since the 1970s, there has been a new focus on self-esteem, which after many years of filtering from psychologists through to popular culture, has resulted in an environment where “everybody is a winner.” Everyone in Little League gets trophies, even the team with the worst record. Consideration of self-esteem is important to a point, and the placement of that point is debatable; before too long, people should be rewarded for something more than just participation, something beyond just the minimum.
“What Works” is just the minimum. Do more than that. Do what works and look for something that works better. Don’t just stop buying daily $5 lattes, stop leasing expensive cars every three years. Don’t just start putting 5% of your salary into a savings account, put 10% into a great savings account, contribute the maximum to your Roth IRA, and get at least the maximum employer match in your 401(k).
It’s important, in dealing with personal finance, to just start somewhere but that’s not an excuse to stop doing or to stop thinking.
The spirit of “What Works For You” is a good philosophy. Personal finance is personal. You should be free to make your own choices based on the best information and experiences and find the path that works best for you. I will submit that it is also important that while searching for your personalized version of a financial plan that you don’t fall into the above traps.
Updated June 24, 2016 and originally published November 10, 2009.