Intelligence comes in many different forms. Some people are great with numbers, others with words, still others with spatial reasoning. Intelligence comes in “non-intellectual” packages too—professional athletes are geniuses at using their bodies to achieve desired outcomes, for instance.
Some forms of intelligence can’t be learned. You either have them or you don’t.
Financial intelligence is different. Everyone can learn to save and spend responsibly, to set clear financial goals, to invest for the future, to protect themselves against the unknown. If you’ve never thought about these things before, they can seem completely overwhelming. But, just as you can train your brain to learn new skills or concepts, you can slowly raise your financial IQ over time.
These five things are all essential building blocks of money savvy.
1. Clear Financial Goals
Where do you want to be in five years? Fifteen? Thirty?
Don’t idly dream. Set concrete, achievable (no matter how ambitious) goals covering major life events like buying a home, sending your kids through college, and retiring, plus smaller-scale goals like that European vacation you’ve always dreamed of or the new kitchen you needed two years ago. Whether they are short or long term goals, you need to set tangible and realistic goals.
2. A Diversified Investment Strategy
In a near-ubiquitous commercial for a major financial firm, two well-dressed (but casual) gentlemen meet in a golf clubhouse. One guy’s bag is filled with drivers—clubs designed to hit the ball hundreds of yards down the fairway. The other guy expresses incredulity. Doesn’t his friend need irons, wedges and putters too? The commercial ends with the driver guy saying something to the effect of, “Why would I need anything else?”
The setup is a metaphor for the market, and it’s a good one. In short, a diversified investing strategy is always superior to a non-diversified one. In“The Little Book of Market Myths” by investing expert Ken Fisher, Fisher notes that investors need a range of assets in their portfolios—that focusing solely on bonds or other instruments is a ticket to underperformance.
3. A Disciplined Personal Budget
“Don’t spend more than you earn” is the cardinal rule of personal finance. But it’s easier said than done.
We’re tempted to make frivolous purchases every day. It takes discipline—resolve, even—to resist the urge. The best defense against slippage is a well-defined personal budget that includes every recurring expense and outlines tight limits on discretionary spending. If it’s hard to stick to those limits, create a separate budget category that you can tap to reward yourself for staying below your spending goals in other categories. If you need help, there are simple budgeting tools you can use to help you stick to your budget.
4. Room for the Unexpected
A sudden, costly health crisis. A “surprise” kid or two. A layoff without advance warning. A parent’s long, painful illness.
The unexpected comes in all forms—good, bad, ugly and just plain unwanted. Your financial plan needs to accommodate the unexpected, whatever its nature. Most experts advise families to keep at least three months’ earning equivalent in an emergency reserve fund—a separate savings pool that doesn’t count toward retirement and isn’t to be tapped for non-emergencies. Ideally, you’d have closer to six months’ earning equivalent, to accommodate long layoffs from work and other potentially costly events.
5. No Expectations of Special Treatment or Assistance
You’ve probably heard worrying rumblings about Social Security’s solvency, or lack thereof. The Social Security Administration takes a measured, if dry, approach to the question here, while other observers are decidedly more alarmist.
The bottom line: If you’re relatively young today, you should not expect Social Security to be around when you retire—at least, not in its current form. It’s entirely possible that Social Security will outlive everyone alive today, but that’s not something you should bet any part of your nest egg on. The same goes for your current employer’s pension or retirement plan. Expect to face the future on your own.
What’s your financial IQ?