This article is by staff writer Lisa Aberle.

The older I get, the more complicated my life gets — and the harder it is for me to make decisions. Do we have anything in common there?

By far, the most complicating factor has been having children. Not that that’s a bad thing. It’s not bad, just … complicated. And since we just added another child about two weeks ago, we’re adjusting to less sleep and more laundry. So kids = sometimes hard decisions. For example, here are a few of the decisions that we’ve considered since having children:

But the decisions extend beyond money, too. How do we manage our time? In the middle of adjusting to a newborn, we are still in the middle of a huge remodeling project on our fixer-upper. What sane person decides to replace the siding, windows, wiring, and insulation in the middle of major life changes? We are doing it, but our sanity should be questioned.

Anyway, so I find myself a little overwhelmed with making the best possible decision for my (and my family’s situation).

Enter Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath. The subtitle of the book is How to Make Better Decisions in Life and Work. If that doesn’t sound like what I need (and maybe you, too?), I don’t know what does.

I loved the book and wanted to share a few things I learned from it.

Agonizing over decisions?

The authors describe four “villains” to decision-making.

  • First, we define our decisions too narrowly. For example, as we were preparing to have children, I first asked myself: Should I quit my full-time job or keep it? Two options. The authors say that often, we should be asking ourselves broader questions and broadening our options. Should I stay full-time? Quit completely? See if working part-time is a possibility? Maybe my husband should cut his hours or work from home two days a week.
  • Second, we — all of us — suffer from “confirmation bias.” As they discuss in the book, “Our normal habit in life is to develop a quick belief about a situation and then seek out information that bolsters our belief.” Uh oh. So we deliberately seek information that supports what we think already, huh? We think we’re making good decisions, but we probably aren’t making the best decisions if we unconsciously sought what we wanted anyway.
  • Third, short-term emotion affects our decision-making abilities. Sometimes we need to detach ourselves from the situation to gain some perspective.
  • The last villain is overconfidence or assuming that we know more than we really do about what the future holds. This is one that some readers took issue with when I wrote about our smaller retirement savings. Just because we think we’re doing okay doesn’t mean our retirement savings won’t be obliterated by an accident or disability.

Decision-making tips

So how do we make smart decisions anyway?

  • To counteract the narrow framing, widen your options. Are there more than two choices? Is there a better way? And another way, take away all current options and force yourself to think of new options. But don’t have too many options. Studies have shown that having too many options doesn’t improve the decision-making process. You can also look for others who have already solved your problem. One of my favorite things they recommended was looking at yourself when you did do things well. For instance, if you had several days in a month when you didn’t spend money impulsively, analyze what was different about those days compared to the days you did spend impulsively.
  • For confirmation-bias, you need to test your assumptions against reality. Instead of looking at the option you want, you may want to consider the opposite — or find someone who disagrees with you. They also discuss zooming in and zooming out on certain situations. By zooming in, we’re looking at a close-up, and by zooming out, we’re taking more of an outsider’s perspective. And I learned a new word by reading this book: “ooching.” “Ooching” means to test your hypothesis by creating a mini-experiment. A swimming example is to dip one toe into the water to test it before diving in.
  • Find a way to become detached from your short-term emotions. Another excellent strategy they offer is the 10/10/10 strategy. When faced with a decision, ask yourself how you will feel about your decision 10 minutes from now, 10 months from now, and 10 years from now. We like what’s familiar to us, so even though not all personal finance advice is applicable to us, we are more comfortable with what we’ve heard most often. To combat this, try looking at the situation from the perspective of an uninvolved observer (or, think about what you would tell your best friend to do if she were facing a similar situation, and why). Think about your priorities and honor them.
  • Since no one can know the future, prepare to be wrong about the future. The authors talk about a tripwire, something you put in place that causes you to evaluate past decisions. I think this one may be particularly valuable in past financial decisions, because it prevents status quo. To prevent overconfidence, they mention considering a range of possible outcomes, both good and bad: What’s the worst thing that can happen? What’s the best? A premortem is to consider that your decision has totally tanked. By asking yourself why your decision was theoretically a bad one, it forces you to face your overconfidence.

This book was full of interesting stories and case studies. I found its premise to be very helpful as I personally navigate a lot of important decisions.

Do you have any tricks to avoid decision paralysis? Do you think you make good decisions generally and, if so, how do you think you accomplish this?

This article is about Self-Improvement

There are 24 comments on this post.

Did you enjoy reading this article? You can receive free full-text articles from Get Rich Slowly in your email inbox daily by entering your email below. Along with this daily subscription, you’ll also receive personal finance advice selected by our Network financial experts. Also become a Facebook fan or follow us on Twitter.

This article is by editor Linda Vergon.

It used to be part of everyone’s existence, like going to the grocery store once a week. You’d stand in a teller’s line and hope everyone in front of you had uncomplicated transactions. Then you’d hand over your cash and the teller would stamp your passbook to record your deposit. It all felt very solid and respectable, even sort of fun knowing you were adding to your savings.

When we moved to rural Washington, the nearest branch for the big bank where I had my accounts was 70 miles away, so I opened an account at the local bank too. It was an entirely new experience for me, going to the bank in our little town. I’m certain that the tellers were on a first-name basis with all their customers, and it didn’t take long for us to fit in and enjoy the social interaction at the branch too. In fact, we still have the branch manager’s mobile number on our cell phones.

Now that we live in the big city again, it’s actually been five months since I stepped foot in a bank. The last time was in March, and I only went because I needed to give the bank my new address – for my safe deposit box that is housed in another city. Apparently client information for safe deposit boxes at my bank is still handled the old-fashioned way. Otherwise, I could say I almost never go into a branch.

In this environment, I much prefer to conduct my banking online – day or night, from my computer. When I went in March, I actually thought I’d have to take off work to conduct my business; so I checked online for the location and hours to plan my visit. I was surprised to find that they were open even though it was 4:00 p.m. on a Saturday. (Definitely not the bankers’ hours I remember.) I decided I would just go to the bank on my way to the grocery store that day so I didn’t have to take time off from work.

We talk a lot about the convenience of online banking at Get Rich Slowly. And I get that not everyone has a computer. (Heck, not everyone has a bank account!) But I have to admit to being surprised that there were actually people at the branch. I mean, it’s not like I had to fight for a parking space – and the customers were outnumbered four to one – but that’s not where we go for social interaction in the big city, so were they all dealing with their safe deposit boxes? I think not.

It’s obvious that some of us still need to visit a branch every so often. But when I live in a large metropolitan area, there’s virtually no reason for me to visit a branch when I can transact all my business and even open a new account online. I think, overall, that we’re moving away from needing brick-and-mortar institutions, but I also think we’re sort of just at one point along a continuum.

If you look back at how other banking products like automated teller machines (ATMs) and debit cards were introduced to the public, there was a tipping point beyond which you could say, yep, this is the new norm. Where do you think we are with online banking? Is it now the norm? How long has it been since you went to the bank? Is there another way to measure the tipping point?

Former GRS staff writer Donna Freedman has been researching the importance of teaching children about money, and she asked if she could share some things she’s learned. This is the first of two articles on the subject. Donna writes for Money Talks News and blogs about money and midlife at

While researching a magazine article on “raising money-smart kids,” I felt sorry for parents and terribly worried about their children. (Also greatly relieved that I am not raising kids today.)

The article, for Consumers Digest, ran to a few thousand words. Short form: Our children face serious money temptations and pressures, and generally receive very little useful info either from parents or schools.

They also face consequences more serious than their parents ever did. We’re not talking about a few bounced checks or some other financial oopsie that you remember from your own early adulthood. An 18-year-old without sufficient financial savvy could within five years find himself:

  • Saddled with several decades’ worth of student debt
  • Paying double-digit interest on an auto loan
  • A victim of identity theft
  • Unable to get a mortgage
  • Looking at seriously underfunded retirement

Sound grim? It could be, but it doesn’t have to be. You can help your kids avoid years of financial struggle by consistently modeling certain basic money principles.

Today’s tykes are affected by a consumerism-drenched culture, and keeping up with the junior Joneses is a battle that gets more fraught every year. Even if your child doesn’t know someone who gives out $150 birthday favors or rents a limo for the junior-high dance, he’ll see similar excesses on social media or shows like “The Rich Kids of Instagram.”

Prepaid debit cards are marketed to impressionable tweens who then develop a taste for plastic a decade earlier than the previous generation. (One is actually called “Bill My Parents.” So help me.) It doesn’t help that plenty of today’s kids grow up watching parents swipe cards to pay for everything from a gallon of milk to a new dining-room set.

Most troubling of all: Our children will have to think about credit scores and self-funded retirements almost before the ink is dry on their diplomas – and those degrees now come with an average of $29,400 in debt, according to the Institute for College Access & Success.

That’s a lot to consider, and frankly some parents don’t feel up to the challenge. But if you want what’s best for your kids, it’s time to lean in. According to a 2013 study from Cambridge University, our money habits are formed by the age of 7. While it is possible to modify our behaviors later on, it’s easier to build a money-savvy kid than to fix a financially busted grownup.

‘Negligible effects’ on behavior

The youth financial literacy movement that began in the mid-1990s created a lot of sound and fury. Yet it signified virtually nothing, for two reasons:

  • There’s no guarantee your child will receive instruction. Currently only 17 states require some form of PF education during high school. It may not even be a stand-alone class, but rather a component of another subject (e.g., civics).
  • Recent research suggests these classes don’t work anyway. A 2014 study published in the journal Management Science analyzed 168 papers covering 201 previous financial literacy studies. It concluded that even “many hours” of high school PF classwork “have negligible effects on behavior 20 months or more from the time of intervention.” (Just ask J.D. Roth, founder of Get Rich Slowly. He did well on his high school PF class tests and wound up in major debt anyway.)

As youth financial literacy expert Dr. Lewis Mandell wryly notes, teaching PF is “the same as offering sex education and expecting there won’t be any teen pregnancies.”

At the first meeting of the new President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability for Young Americans, council member Richard Cordray stated that he will “insist on financial education at all schools,” from K-12. (He is also director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.)

That was in late March 2014. It’s unclear when such a project might be implemented. After all, the much-discussed Common Core educational standards originated from a 2006-07 initiative, but the curricula were not available for adoption until 2010.

What’s also unclear: whether a new approach will make any difference. (See “negligible effects on behavior,” above.)

Money comes from work

Even if those classes do get implemented – and actually work – parents still wouldn’t be off the hook. Would you let one sixth-grade health class about the birds and the bees provide the only information your kids get about love and relationships? Then don’t rely on schools to reflect your own money values, either.

For example, a class might presume that a two-income household was the norm, whereas in your family it’s important to have an at-home parent. Emphasizing the day-to-day tactics that stretch a single salary could teach a lot about smart money management – and also why the sacrifice is worth it. And if the at-home parent is also starting his or her own part-time business, kids could certainly learn a lot about the ups and downs of entrepreneurship.

Individual circumstances aside, all the financial experts with whom I spoke agreed that children should learn:

  • Money comes from work.
  • Money pays for needs first and then for “wants.”
  • Money also pays for emergencies and long-term goals, which means a portion of each paycheck must be saved.
  • Money is a limited resource, so you must make careful choices about how to use the cash you have.

Tips should be age-appropriate, of course. There’s no point in discussing mortgage points with a kid who can’t even stay dry at night. But even the weekly trip to the grocery store can yield lessons. Your 3-year-old can match coupons to products. An 8-year-old can search for the best deals on pasta or peanut butter. You can even bring up wants vs. needs: “We don’t get what we want every week, but this week we’re going to buy ice cream.”

Here’s a phrase to avoid: “We can’t afford that.” Don’t make your kids think you’re poor (even if you are). Instead, say, “That’s not in the budget right now.” This promotes the idea of spending as something that you plan and follow through on vs. giving in to temptation (or pleading).

“Every time you spend money you are making a choice,” says Gail Hillebrand, the CFPB’s head of consumer education and management. “It’s not, ‘I have some money in my pocket I can spend’ – it’s ‘I am making a choice about my family’s budget every time I spend’.”

Over time, children observe the results of those choices: “Those kids see their parents scrimping and saving – but they also see their parents making that down payment on a home or paying cash for a car.”

Pocket money: earned or given?

Thus the family budget should be a mostly open book. You don’t have to share everything, i.e., you don’t have to tell them exactly how much you earn. Simply explain that X percent of income covers the family’s essentials and the rest gets apportioned among other categories. Depending on your situation, these may include:

  • Savings/emergency fund
  • College accounts
  • Retirement
  • Future goals (e.g., pay cash for the next car)
  • Family fun (including saving up for electronics or vacations)

About that last: It’s vital that children learn the concept of saving up for non-essential items. Watching parents set aside $100 per month is a good example: By the time school lets out we’ll have enough to go to Six Flags! Experts suggest creating a visual representation of the goal; allowing kids to chart the family’s progress toward that summer trip gives a sense of pleasurable anticipation as well as cause and effect.

Children should be saving on their own, too, starting as early as age 2 or 3. Many PF experts suggest the “three jars” method: saving, spending and giving. Have your kids divide those coins or dollar bills among the jars, specifying at least 20 percent for saving. (gift money goes there, too – thanks, Grandma!). Emphasize the ways that saving gives us options: to handle emergencies, pay cash for an auto, buy a home, have a comfortable and happy life.

Let the kids determine where the giving-jar cash goes: a church collection plate, the food bank, an animal charity. When it’s time to go shopping, telling Junior to bring his spending jar is “a wonderful way to stop the whining,” notes Jean Chatzky, author of “Not Your Parents’ Money Book: Making, Saving and Spending Your Own Money.”

Where does this money come from? An allowance, probably: A 2012 study from the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants indicates that 61 percent of U.S. parents give money to their kids on a schedule.

Most money experts believe that allowances should be earned, e.g., for doing household chores or feeding the pets. Some advocate a “blended” approach, in which children get a relatively small sum plus the chance to earn more via special chores. Rachel Ramsey Cruze, who co-authored “Smart Money, Smart Kids: Raising the Next Generation to Win With Money” with her financial-guru father Dave Ramsey, grew up with “commissions” vs. allowances. All money had to be earned, first through chores and later through babysitting and other jobs.

Kids who earn most of their spending cash are more likely to understand the connection between “work” and “money,” according to Cruze. They’re also more likely to “treat their things better when they pay for it vs. when it was just given to them.”

Parents should gradually cede control of their children’s expenses to the kids themselves. The emphasis is on “gradual.” You shouldn’t expect a 9-year-old to budget and shop for her own school wardrobe, but she could be given enough to cover iTunes downloads, treats away from home and birthday gifts for friends.

Explain that there will be absolutely no bailouts. (Chatzky liked to remind her kids that their future bosses wouldn’t advance them their salaries.) So if Junior spends half his school clothing money on a single pair of shoes, then it’s up to him to learn to stretch what’s left. When your daughter chooses to blow the budget the first week, the corollary choice is having to skip a birthday party at the end of the month – unless, of course, she wants to take on extra chores to earn the money for a present.

“The only way to raise kids to be financially responsible is to allow them to make their own decisions and then to live with the consequences of those decisions,” says Mary Hunt, author of more than two dozen books including “Raising Financially Confident Kids.”

She used a monthly vs. weekly allowance because it taught her two sons to plan ahead. Hunt says if she had to do it over again she’d impose a 15 percent tax to get them accustomed to the idea of take-home pay vs. salary. (Now that’s some tough financial love!)

This article is by staff writer Kristin Wong.

When I first started writing for Get Rich Slowly, I’d just become interested in my finances. While I’ve always been frugal, I started to realize there was much more to personal finance than finding ways to save money.

Here’s where I was, financially, at that time:

  • I was rebuilding my recently depleted emergency fund.

  • I had just started to earn more.

  • I was working hard for my money, but I had no idea how to make my money work for me. I still didn’t feel in control.

  • My boyfriend/partner was in debt. Sometimes, we fought about money. We keep our finances separate, but there are some goals for which both of us need to be on the same financial page.

A couple of years later, a lot has changed. Writing for this site has taught me a lot about money, and my finances have greatly improved as a result. I’ve now built a healthy emergency fund, started investing, and learned how to manage my income as a freelancer more effectively. For his part, my boyfriend has gotten out of debt, built an emergency fund, and is now researching index funds on his own. We ended up on the same financial page; all is well.

I’m lucky enough to be in the beginning of what J.D. calls the Third Stage of Personal Finance. My major financial goals have been met, and I’m now happily saving away — for what, I’m not sure.

Reaching the Third Stage

How did I get here? It was the boring, straightforward stuff:

  • Cutting back on my expenses and living frugally

  • Finding ways to earn more

  • Investing

  • Avoiding debt

But I was also lucky. I was lucky enough to be offered a great job that helped me reach my goals. And when I lost that job, I was lucky enough to have colleagues that helped me find other work.

The role of luck

I don’t ignore the role of luck in my life, but I do think luck is meaningless if you don’t take some kind of action. I would never have been offered that job if I didn’t a) bug my friend about it, b) have previous experience and c) do the required work.

Also, if I wasn’t in the right financial mindset, I could have just as easily squandered that money by inflating my lifestyle. In writing this piece, I asked my boyfriend if it was okay to talk about his experience getting out of debt and building an emergency fund.

“Sure. But I didn’t build anything. I just got lucky,” he said, referring to a hefty windfall he got earlier this year.

“What are you talking about? You work your ass off. You negotiated your salary and you’ve been saving like crazy!”

That was true, he said, but that windfall really helped get him started. “That’s when things turned around,” he told me.

But the thing is, if that windfall had come just a few years earlier, it would have been blown. In fact, when it came, he briefly considered using it as a down payment on a car — a really unnecessary expense right now. But, because he’s become committed to getting his finances in order, he decided to use the windfall to reach his money goals instead and he allocated the money to an emergency fund.

Luck definitely plays a role in our success; but most of the time, it still requires at least some action on our part.

Life in the Third Stage

One night, while visiting my parents, we went grocery shopping. My Dad happened upon some tiki torches, which he’d been looking to buy. “How much are they?” I asked. “I’m not sure,” he said, putting them in the cart.

Later, when we had a discussion about money, my Dad brought this up, saying this is what he loves most about being in the Third Stage. “I don’t have to fret over small purchases and decisions,” he told me. “If I want to buy something for the backyard, I can do it. And I don’t have to worry about whether or not I can swing it this month.”

My parents have come a long way. Back in the day, even an extra dollar spent would have hurt us, much less whatever he spent on those torches.

I feel more in control of my finances these days. When I was repaying my student loan, I felt in control of my debt, but I didn’t really feel in control of my finances. And when I got out of debt, moved to California (where I was barely making ends meet) and depleted my emergency fund, I definitely didn’t feel in control of my finances.

But now, I do. I’m not yet financially independent. But I feel like my money is working for me, instead of the other way around. Control and freedom are probably the best things about being in this stage.

But What’s Next?

I’m complaining about a damn good problem here, but the third stage is kind of boring. Right now, I don’t have any clear goals, aside from working toward financial independence. I’ve plateaued.

And there’s nothing wrong with sitting back and saving, but I’m a goal-oriented person. I like having tasks; I like striving for things. In the Second Stage, it was all about paying off debt, cutting back, building my funds and working to max retirement. It was challenging, and the answer to “what’s next?” came naturally.

The Third Stage is a little more stable, and the goals are a little less obvious. Here’s what’s next, for me, in the third stage:

  • Work on “multiple streams of income”

J.D. has written about this before, and so have many personal finance writers. My goal as a freelancer has been to diversify my client base. But I’d also like to find other, non-work-related ways to earn extra income.

  • Educate myself

Trying to find other sources of income means learning about how to do it. I want to learn how other people earn passive income and invest wisely in other endeavors.

  • Continue to save

J.D. wrote a great piece about starting an opportunity fund. This way, if some kind of investment opportunity should arise, I’d be prepared for it. I love this idea.

And I’m continuing to save for my future goals too, even though I’m not sure what they are. I don’t know what I want to do with my life in the next few years. Maybe start a family? Maybe move to another country? I really don’t know. But whatever it is, it will probably require money. So I want to be prepared to say “yes” to whatever sounds great at that time.

I also opened an SEP-IRA. As a self-employed person, this helps me sock away even more for retirement.

  • Give back

For me, being grateful for what I have makes me want to help others. In this stage, I’ve been looking for ways to give back, whether it’s time or money.

Plotwise, the Third Stage of finance isn’t terribly exciting. Control and freedom are wonderful feelings; but, as far as action, there aren’t many highs or lows in this stage. At least that’s what I’ve found so far.

And that’s kind of awesome, really. For once, I don’t have to worry about money. I don’t have to be scared that I’m not going to be able to make ends meet. Comfort is good. I’m immensely grateful for it.

But at the same time, I don’t want to get too comfortable. I don’t want to forget that there’s still work to be done. I want to keep my eye on the ultimate goal: financial independence.

What are you doing (or, what do you plan to do) during this stage of finance?

Next Page »

See Archives