Personal finance: How to save, spend, and think rationally about money

Finances can be a stressor, regardless of tax bracket. Here are tips for making better money decisions.

VICKI ROBIN: I was leading a session on a relationship with money. I just was curious about where people were with this at this point. This was in 2016. We had 50 people in the room. We circled up and we went around the room, just say something about your relationship with money. And I realized every person in that room was in fear about money. From the 80 year old who I know has millions of dollars to the 20 year old who's like already $20,000 in debt. And it just, honestly it infuriated me like what kind of society requires that everybody participate in something that terrifies them. This feels so amiss to me.

DANIEL KAHNEMAN: People are not fully rational and they make many choices that if they reflected upon them they would do differently. There's no question about that. The major tendency is people tend to frame things very narrowly. They take a narrow view of decision making. They look at the problem at hand and they deal with it as if it were the only problem. Very frequently it's a better idea to look at problems as they will recur throughout your life and then you look at the policy that you're to adopt for a class of problems. Difficult to do would be a better thing. People frame things narrowly in the sense, for example, that they will save and borrow at the same time instead of somehow treating their whole portfolio of assets as one thing. If people were able to take a broader view they would in general make better decisions. So that is certainly one of the weaknesses of human decision making. We call it narrow framing.

Four layers of financial independence

ROBIN: First of all, I'd like to distinguish between independence and freedom. So, financial freedom is like freeing your mind. Financial freedom is understanding that I'm me and there's an economy out there and I have a relationship with it but it doesn't run my life. It's freeing my mind from the messages of the consumer culture, the messages of the economy. The messages that a house is a starter house. No, that's my house. I could die in my house. It's like there's so many presumptions that drive us into waste slavery, debt, and it doesn't matter whether you are at the low end or the high end. If you are engaged in that sort of anxious process of more, more, more, you are not free.

So the first layer of financial independence I talk about is this freedom of the mind. This freeing your mind. Of saying like I am sovereign. The economy is secondary. I will move my sovereign self into the economy for my own purposes rather than I am a schlump, the economy is my mega-boss and I don't know, my boss seems to be as big as the sky and so I will just let my life be run by my boss and the tax system and I'm just going to let myself be run by this thing. No. So you are sovereign beings so that's your first layer of financial independence is your own sovereignty. And then the second layer is to get out of debt. And for some people debt feels endless. And the first step to getting out of debt is stop going into debt. There's many people who have written to us who flatten their debt in a couple of years. Impossible debt. Debt that was going to be endless. They would die with this debt. And once they see what the debt is doing to them in terms of the actual opportunities, the future opportunities of their lives, that's the sort of link that we try to get people to make so that something in the future is more important than the immediate pleasure of buying one more tchotchke that you're never going to use.

And the third level really is to get those six months of savings in liquid assets whether it's bank accounts. Someplace where you can actually within 24-48 hours you could realize that money. So that you have an emergency fund. So that you are not tumbled back into debt as soon as something happens amiss. You lose a job which, you know, many people now feel that even their very, very important and significant jobs are precarious. So you want to get out of the zone of precariousness and part of how you get out of that precariousness is savings. And then over time the next layer of financial independence is you start to see that surplus savings can be invested in such a way that it throws off an income. And over time if you become a systematic and sometimes obsessive saver – and you can see, you could chart it. You can watch your passive income grow knowing money is your life energy, you track everything you buy. And an easy way to do it if you don't like writing in a little notebook every time you do a transaction is just use your debit card. I said debit, not credit. You use your debit card and your bank has a complete record of all your purchases. Every month you take a look at your purchases, you sort out in categories that apply to your lifestyle. You just look at that and you kind of tell yourself the truth about whether spending your life energy in that way makes a difference.

Understanding finance and keeping emotions controlled

KAHNEMAN: You need to be numerate for certain kinds of decisions so numerate people have a significant advantage over those who are not. Understanding compound interest makes a huge difference whether you're a credit card borrower or somebody with savings. People have a very hazy idea of compound interest and it's very detrimental so I would say that first of all you need to be numerate but many people are. Then you need to frame things broadly. I mean it frequently goes with numeracy but it's not quite the same thing. By taking the broad view it is very important not to have overly strong emotional reactions to events. And what I mean by that is that most of us tend to respond to gains and to losses, to changes that happen in our life. Actually you're better off if you frame things broadly and you think of you win a few, you lose a few, and you have very limited emotional response to small gains and to small losses.

Money can buy happiness — if you spend it right

ROBIN: There's so many ways in which we project onto money the ability to not only make us happy but to make us better or better than other people or safe or so many deep, gut level emotional feelings are playing themselves out in our relationship with money.

MICHAEL NORTON: We want more money and we want more happiness so maybe if we get more money we'll get more happiness. And it turns out that the relationship is really a lot more complicated than that. It's not too surprising to say that money can't buy you happiness. We've heard that phrase a lot, but that doesn't help us understand then what kind of spending will actually make us happy and what kind won't.

ROBIN: So we've got a certain limited time on the planet. We're going to spend a third of it sleeping. We're going to spend another third of it commuting and showering and sitting at a desk and doing somebody else's bidding. That's not a lot of life. So you think I've got a third, I have a third of my waking hours are mine to do whatever I want. Who am I? It's like it then sends it into an existential question. Who am I? What do I care about? What do I want the impact of my actions to be? What do I want to learn? What do I want to understand? What do I want to feel, taste, touch? What do I want in what Mary Oliver calls my one wild and precious life.

NORTON: What we tend to find when we look at the data is that the biggest category of things that people spend on is stuff for themselves. Of course we need to pay rent or our mortgage. We need to have a car. We need to have food and clothes, but it seems as though people are spending an inordinate amount of their money on stuff for themselves. And the biggest problem from out standpoint as psychologists is the percent of money that you spend on stuff for yourself is completely uncorrelated with how happy you are with your life. It doesn't make you unhappy. It's not like if you buy a lot of stuff you're miserable which sometimes we think is the case. It's just the case that it's flat. No matter how much it seems you buy for yourself, nothing really seems to happen.

ROBIN: Once people start to pay attention to the flow of money and stuff in their lives in this way their consumption drops by about 20-25 percent naturally because that's the amount of unconsciousness that you have in your spending. So, when you become conscious that falls away and many people say they don't even know what they used to spend their money on. They just oh, surprise. I'm spending less. I don't know how that happened. I just paid attention. I just asked myself is this purchase of something making me happy.

NORTON: When you focus on other people you sort of reverse the arrow from me to you, it seems that on average when people give to others which can be giving to charity, it can be treating a friend to lunch. It can be buying people gifts. Those actions of giving rather than keeping seem to be associated with more happiness. But another opposite of stuff for yourself is to think about changing, you can still spend on yourself but change from stuff to something else. And lots of research over the last decade has shown that on average when people buy experiences it tends to pay off in more happiness than buying stuff for themselves. Often when we buy stuff for ourselves we end up by ourselves with our stuff. Think of yourself on your phone playing a videogame, whatever else it might be. You're often alone with your stuff. Whereas experiences yes, we do some experiences solo, but many, many experiences have built into them that they're social. If we go out to dinner or go see a movie or go on a hike, whatever else it might be, now we're with other people. It turns out that talking to other people makes us happy. Even casual interactions with other people make us happier than sitting by ourselves in a room.

Teaching children about money

BRUCE FEILER: Eighty percent of children, eight zero, get to college having never had a conversation with their parents about money. Where it comes from, how it's earned, how it's spent, what debt is. You can't just give your kids, launch them into their lives without giving them the tools. So I went to what I thought would be the smartest people to talk to about this – Warren Buffett's bankers. They advise the wealthiest families in the country and I thought they must know more. They can help my family. It turns out that these wealthy families are making even more mistakes and I walked away from this conversation with a number of takeaways. Takeaway number one – show them the money. It's incredibly important to talk to children about money at an age appropriate level, but you need to talk. Buffett's banker said to me, "I spoke to the richest woman in America and she said it's a burden if I tell my children how much money they have." And he said, "It's much more of a burden to burden them with ignorance than to burden them with the truth." Number two, actually try to limit the influence of money. After doing all this research in our home, we have chores, we have allowance. We do not overlap the two. Because if you do it turns out the kids will do the chores just for the money. You get an allowance as part of being a member of our family, but sorry, someone's got to put the dishes in the dishwasher, someone's got to make their bed. You're part of the team, you have to take care of yourself. And the last thing is let them make mistakes. Buffett's banker chided me when I told him we were kind of forcing our kids to put their money into different pots – spend, save, give away, et cetera. He said, "Let them decide for themselves." And I said, "But what if they make a mistake? What if they want to buy something and they've spent all their money on candy? What if they drive into a ditch?" And his answer was one of my favorite quotes in "The Secrets of Happy Families." He said, "It's much better to make a mistake with a six dollar allowance than a $60,000 a year salary or a $6 million inheritance." The point is when the kids are young, when the stakes are lower, let them make their own mistakes. Then you're there to pick them up. You don't want to get that call when they're 24 and suddenly they're in debt and they've made bad decisions and they're really in a hole.

The new road map

ROBIN: There's several ways to expand markets. One is you export and another is to educate your citizens to want more than they need. And then you've got an infinite way to, you've got an infinite market called the endless willingness of people to buy into the story of more is better and keep buying stuff. So that is the old roadmap. Growth is good, more is better, game over. The new roadmap says that there is something called enough and enough is not sort of like this oppressive ceiling that okay, I've got enough and I can't have anymore. No, enough is this sort of vibrant vital place. What we teach is an awareness about the flow of money and stuff in your life in light of your true happiness and your sense of purpose and values. And that you're enough point, having enough, is having everything you want and need to have a life you love and full self-expression with nothing in excess. It's not minimalism, it's not less is more because sometimes more is more. But it's that sweet spot. It's the Goldilocks point. And so enough for me is like one of the absolute fulcrums between the old roadmap for money and the new roadmap for money.

  • Whether you have a lot of money or a lot of debt, it matters how you handle your personal finances. A crucial step when it comes to saving is to reassess your relationship with money and to learn to adopt a broader, more logical point of view.
  • In this video, social innovator and activist Vicki Robin, psychologist Daniel Kahneman, Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton, and author Bruce Feiler offer advice on achieving financial independence, learning to control your emotions, spending smarter, and teaching children about money.
  • It all starts with education and understanding. The more you know about how money works, the better you will be at avoiding mistakes and the easier it will be to take control of your financial circumstances.



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