Let's face it: Most of us weren't born eager to delay gratification, invest in IRAs, diversify our assets, and give a hoot about personal finances whatsoever. If you told me back in high school that I was going to be a financial writer, I would have laughed with gusto and perhaps a little dread. (I get the same reaction nowadays when I tell people that back in high school, I wanted to be a priest.)
However, something happened to you, and you decided to take control. Otherwise, why would you be reading this website (other than a weird obsession with turtle logos)?
For me, it was being a teacher making $20,000 a year while living in Washington, D.C. (No, this wasn't the 1970s, but the mid-1990s.) And I knew I had to be smart with every penny. I checked out books like Personal Finance for Dummies from the library, and a whole new world opened up. I asked myself again and again, “Why didn't anyone teach me this stuff?!”
So that's my story. What's yours? What got you to change? I'm really curious, because I think identifying those motivators/triggers/kick-in-the-butters (whatever you want to call them) is key to getting more people to take their personal finances seriously.
Not that I don't have some ideas. Last year, we solicited ideas from the readers of our Rule Your Retirement service. Several of their responses are below, grouped according to a general principle behind their transformations. (As is Motley Fool custom, I've used their discussion board nicknames rather than their real names.) See if you don't recognize yourself in some of their stories.
Sometimes just thinking about the future will get someone to change. That's what happened to RnRretirerican. She wrote:
One day you're hurtling along the madness that is the everyday, and something happens that makes you slow down a little — read the fine print, breathe deeply, and wonder about it all. For me, it was the realization that although being a parent is my proudest achievement to date, one day it will be just my husband and me at home. We had spent years … ensuring that the futures of our children would be bright, but what about our future?
So RnRretirerican began educating herself about investing. Her husband had handled most of the investment decisions up until then, but a demanding job limited his time. The result: “I decided that I could help do the investigating and that together … we could make our retirement stellar, rather than stale.”
Pain or Despair
Unfortunately, a really bad experience is perhaps the number one reason people change course. Often that experience involves a “financial advisor” who is really just a salesperson. Fool reader Scottyzee wrote: “We decided to put our money in the hands of professionals. … This leading brokerage firm lost it all. … Now I do my own research and make my own decisions and sleep a little better at night.”
Even hiring friends doesn't always work out, as pepperidgetrln found out. She was “panicked” about what to do with an old 401(k). A friend's husband offered to help.
“I figured he really must be doing me a favor as he was used to dealing with much larger accounts,” she wrote. “So, I invested in whatever he recommended and was grateful for what I considered the ‘free' advice.” Of course, the advice wasn't really free — the costs were just buried. “The mutual funds he recommended were all high-fee, actively managed funds with loads. I think some even charged 12b-1 fees!” (A 12b-1 fee is an annual marketing fee added to the cost of owning a mutual fund.)
Of course, pepperidgeltrln was probably correct in assuming that her advisor friend was used to dealing with large accounts; many advisors require high minimum investments. F4Phanatic's advisor required at least $80,000. He decided to hire the advisor, but also manage some of the money himself. “My financial advisor is still the same guy,” he writes. “I rub it in about how I'm beating his performance.”
Not that getting a financial advisor is a bad thing. Just make sure you get the right one. Start by checking out the Garrett Planning Network, an international group of fee-only planners.
Belief That Change Is Possible
Reader smoothk came to The Motley Fool a decade ago, ready and raring to buy stocks. But after reading the personal finance area of the site, he realized he first had to eliminate his tens of thousands of dollars in credit card debt. “It was then that I became dedicated — no, committed — to eliminating my debt and never getting in debt again,” he wrote. “That was my one and only financial goal.”
He and his wife are now debt-free except for a mortgage, their cars are paid for, they've opened college savings accounts for their kids, and smoothk is contributing 6% to his 401(k). “It has taken us about 10 years to reach this point. Actually, that's far less than originally planned because every bit of extra money we could muster to pay off that debt load was used! We are so glad we did!”
Dedication to Action
For Darwood11, the painful event that prompted his turnaround was a divorce. “Nearly broke and facing bankruptcy,” he writes, “I started over.” He began his self-education by reading all he could about retirement planning, then inputting his numbers in worksheets and financial calculators.
“It had taken me about 35 years to get to that place in my circuitous financial planning journey,” he wrote. “However, something reached critical mass and within two years I had created and implemented a completely new plan that incorporated better funds, substantially better asset allocation, some dividend-paying stocks, an emergency fund, and a CD ladder.”
What About You?
So go ahead. Tell your story in the “comments” box below, and give us your theory on what would get more people to get their acts together. I'll summarize the results in my next GRS missive.