There are many personal finance books and tools out there, useful to people in all stages of personal finance. I have a lot to learn before reaching financial independence, and the editorial elves thought it would be useful if I shared some of what I learn with you.
My recent reviews include “The Smartest Investment Book You'll Ever Read” and “Soldier of Finance: Take Charge of Your Money and Invest in Your Future.” This week, I'm reviewing “FlexScore: Financial Advice for the Rest of Us” by Jeff Burrow, CFP®, and Jason Gordo, AIF®.
CFP stands for certified financial planner and AIF stands for accredited investment fiduciary. Burrow and Gordo used to work for some of the big Wall Street brokerage firms, but they became disenchanted with that culture. Haven't we all?! They believed people should have access to advice that isn't tainted or distorted based on the interests of the company or salesperson giving it.
To address this need, they founded FlexScore, which is an online tool that “gameifies personal finance.” It's in Beta right now, and while I have been poking around a bit, it's not yet fully functional. So in this review, I'll be discussing their book, which explains the system and their philosophy. In my next review, I'll talk more about my experience using the site and reveal my own personal FlexScore.
Philosophy behind the book
Burrow and Gordo believe that one of the biggest reasons that people don't plan for the future is that it's really difficult to see how to get from here to there. Many people have a vague sense of whether they're doing well financially or not in the moment (though many other people don't). However, even if you have a good idea of where you stand now, do you know whether you're actually on track to achieve longer-term goals? Do you know if your goals are even achievable?
Take retirement as an example of a goal. Burrow and Gordo define retirement as the time when you are both mentally and financially prepared to leave the working world. Some people have all the money they'd need, but love their work and don't want to stop. Others have pinned all their hopes on leaving the daily grind behind at age 62, but haven't saved nearly enough to make that dream a reality.
If you're in the former position, rock on! If you're in the latter position, you have three main options: 1) delay retirement, 2) continue working part-time to supplement your income, or 3) scale back your standard of living expectations to a level that is sustainable given your assets. FlexScore's aim is to give you all the information that you need to decide which option (or combination of options) is going to work best for you.
Maybe you can't quit work at 62 and travel the world with your partner three months out of every year. But there are many roads to retirement. If you continued working full-time until age 65, transitioned into half-time work until you were 70, and downsized your house, you could afford to vacation one month out of the year. That's still pretty awesome!
What I didn't like
Your FlexScore is based on a 1000-point scale. Five hundred of these points are a sort of “financial snapshot” of where you are now. The other 500 points are “if you stay on your current trajectory, this is how likely you are to achieve your goals.” A score of 1000 points means that you have reached financial independence and are ready to retire (assuming you're also mentally prepared).
That seems simple enough. Knowing that 1000 means “okay, retire today if you want” takes the potential sting out of a lower score. And knowing that you can raise your FlexScore by modifying your goals to make them more realistic is also helpful. After all, goals are the gateway to financial success. But is there a way to determine what a good score for a particular age range is, regardless of your goals?
As someone who was a grades-obsessed honors student, I assumed that I should be shooting for 1000 straight out of the gate, but one of the examples given is a 27-year old guy with a FlexScore of 245, which is described as “middle of the pack among his contemporaries.” What does that mean for me?
What I loved
There are several of examples based on clients Burrow and Gordo have worked with in the past. These examples explain what score people with different circumstances got, why, and what someone like them could do to improve their situation. As someone whose favorite aspect of personal finance is “spying” on people to get takeaways for my own life, this was pretty awesome.
There's also a huge focus on trade-offs. What are you willing to sacrifice now so you can have what you want later? Or maybe what you want later will never be possible — how are you going to scale back your expectations to something that you can achieve? They recommend the SMART system for goal-setting, to help you set goals in a way that makes tracking progress easier.
It's clear that their primary goal is to help people get a realistic understanding of their finances. From there, they work to provide a transparent system where people can see exactly how an action they take today will pay off five, ten, or 30 years from now. And because the online tool will award the “points” for taking action right away, personal finance becomes a game you can see you are winning.
Who should read FlexScore
“FlexScore: Financial Advice for the Rest of Us” is available on Amazon in both ebook and paperback versions if you're interested. I imagine that using the online tool in conjunction with the book would enable you to get the most out of both. Thus, I'm antsy for the online tool to be fully functional so I can see if it lives up to its promise.
Philosophy behind the website
As I mentioned in my previous review, the aim of the FlexScore tool is to “gamify” personal finance. What does that mean, exactly? They make 1,000 a perfect score of sorts, meaning if you score a 1,000, you can probably retire today without a problem. Your initial score is determined in part based on your demographic information, your debts and assets, the insurance policies you have in place, and your goals for the future.
Once you have an initial score, the tool creates an individual action plan for you. FlexScore assigns different values to different activities, and by completing those activities you can gain additional points. Examples of activities you could do to gain points are:
- Getting life insurance, or increasing the amount you carry if you have it
- Completing or updating your estate plan
- Opening an Emergency Fund
Sometimes getting points is as easy as reading articles on the FlexScore website or watching their informational videos on a variety of topics. The tool will recommend that you watch specific videos or read certain articles based on your action plan. However, you can access all the articles and videos on their site via the FlexScore learning center.
One of the ways the tool will be monetized is by having sponsored links to companies that provide the services. For example, if “get life insurance” is on your action plan, the site will link to one or more companies that sell that product. However, as long as you get the life insurance and update your profile accordingly, you don't need to buy from a sponsor to get the points.
What I didn't like
My main complaint in the review of the book is that there was little information about what constituted a “good score” for a particular person. The main reason for that, of course, is that scores vary widely depending on factors like age, current financial situation, and goals. The online tool gives you not only your FlexScore, but also tells you how your score compares to that of your peers (based on age and location).
While the tool did provide more information on what a good score is, I didn't find the compare feature to be all that useful. This was mostly because it just seemed to compare my raw score to that of my peers'. While my FlexScore suggested that I was right on track with my peers, I suspect that's because my student loan is the size of a mortgage and, well, I don't have a mortgage.
Maybe I'm just nosy and want to know exactly what my “peers by age” are up to. I think making the comparison tool more robust and comparing scores not only holistically but also by category would be awesome. I do expect that the tool will become more robust with time, however, so maybe it's coming someday!
Also giving access to your accounts means they will have access to your data (as Mint does) and can send you marketing offers they believe you may be interested in.
What I loved
My favorite part of FlexScore was the “breakdown” tool. What this does is put variables on a sliding scale and let you play with the effect that changing your goals would have on your score. The variables are:
- Retirement age
- Monthly income goal in retirement
- Current monthly savings
- Current cost of living
By sliding each variable up or down, you can see the effect that delaying retirement, decreasing your current cost of living, or paying off a debt would have on your FlexScore. Then you can decide what trade-offs you're willing to make.
The learning center is also pretty neat. I watched a couple of the videos and they're not too long or technical. They seem to be designed to explain basic concepts and inspire you to take action. For more in-depth explanations on various topics, the articles are extremely comprehensive.
Who should use It
My FlexScore was 400, indicating that I have a long ways to go before retirement. That's news to precisely no one! However, I learned my peers have an average FlexScore of 380, which puts me about on track for my age and location.
One of the questions I asked Jeff Burrow and Jason Gordo, co-founders of FlexScore, was what makes FlexScore different from something like Mint. They said that Mint is extremely robust for day-to-day budgeting. However, it's harder to get a sense of where you stand in a holistic sense, or understand how changing one aspect of your financial life can impact your ability to reach future goals.
With FlexScore, the action plan and points are part of the game. Sometimes it can be hard to get up the motivation to do something tedious and/or boring, like compare policies and obtain disability insurance. FlexScore is predicated on the belief that by getting points today, you're less likely to put things off until it's too late.
FlexScore isn't a site for micromanaging your daily finances. You're not going to be categorizing each transaction you make. This is a site for people who want:
- A big-picture understanding of their finances and how it relates to major life goals
- An action plan that is customized to their specific situation
- One central location for information on a variety of financial topics
- Are inspired by competition and games (you don't compete against others, but can compare yourself to others, and compete against yourself)
A note about swag: While I was provided with early access to FlexScore for review purposes, my opinions are entirely my own.
What's your current method for setting goals and evaluating your progress toward them? Do you think FlexScore sounds like a potentially useful tool? Do you have any questions about the online tool for me to keep in mind while I'm poking around in Beta?