I can't believe my youngest child is heading off to college in the fall. This milestone has me brooding about my own mortality (which is no surprise), while also contemplating his. The world, after all, is a dangerous place.
Perhaps the quietest, yet most pernicious, danger we face is the lack of financial knowledge. Every year, this ignorance leaves millions of Americans woefully unprepared to fund their children's education or enter retirement. Fortunately, powerful online tools have emerged to help boost America's fiscal IQ, including the rise of financial influencers.
Recently, personal finance community MoneyTips.com commissioned a study of such thought leaders: The Top 30 Social Influencers in Personal Finance & Wealth. These financial planners, wealth managers, journalists, entrepreneurs and bloggers have built lasting online connections with American consumers, engaging them on such vital topics as debt management and retirement savings. All candidates were vetted and scored using a proprietary formula that considered things like engagement, social footprint, and popularity among insiders.
This week, I asked several of these top influencers to comment on what Americans don't know about their financial lives, what they should know, and how we all might shore up our financial futures. Dave Ramsey, host of the Dave Ramsey Show,
said the main thing Americans don't know is how to think long-term. "Most Americans live with a microwave mentality," he said. "They were never taught, or haven't learned, how to delay gratification. This immaturity spells trouble when it comes to saving money and making plans down the road."
This view was echoed by Manisha Thakor, CEO of MoneyZen Wealth Management, who said, "The average American doesn't know what healthy spending looks like. They see how people living around them are spending, and emulate that. But if we're all in the dark, that's a dangerous cycle."
According to Pamela Yellen, author of The Bank on Yourself Revolution, a core problem is that, "Americans don't understand the difference between saving and investing. To save means to place money you can't afford to lose in a vehicle that is safe and has guaranteed growth. But to invest means to place money in a vehicle that has a certain amount of risk. You hope to make a gain, but it's not guaranteed. You might even lose money. Thus, you should only invest money you can afford to lose - or money you can let languish in the market for twenty years, if necessary, until it recovers."
Shifting to what American's need to know, Michael Kitces, publisher of The Kitces Report, suggests, "The trick to building a path to retirement success is two-fold: First, invest in yourself and a path that can boost your earning power. Second, control your standard of living as income rises."
He points out that, "...investing in yourself doesn't mean paying for a top private college and racking up immense debt. It could instead mean going to a community college or technical school. Or it could be getting advanced training, certifications, or designations in your current career track -- or kicking off a new one. It could also be getting help launching a side business to earn more money.
"Similarly, controlling your standard of living doesn't mean trying to save your way to retirement by skipping every Starbucks latte. Instead, the real key is to focus on those expenses that matter most: where you live and what you drive. Don't push yourself to the brink; a modest car and a modest home (or apartment, even!) takes a lot of pressure off the rest of your lifestyle and leaves far more room to save and invest."
Ms. Thakor advises Americans to adopt a formula for healthy spending. "My favorite rule of thumb comes from Elizabeth Warren's classic book of twenty years ago, All Your Worth. In it she suggests a simple 50/30/20 model for spending money on needs/wants/savings." If more boomers used a guidepost like this, Thakor says, "I think they'd see how far off they are from target and then slowly start to change. But when you don't know what the target is, how do you know you are off the mark?"
On a more sanguine note, Bob Lotich, founder of ChristianPF.com, observes that a simple change of perspective could improve people's lives markedly. "Even though many of us are struggling financially, we should continue to focus on how great things truly are. I agree with Louis CK that everything truly is amazing and yet no one seems to be happy. If you stop to think about it, John D. Rockefeller (the richest American in history) with all his wealth, power, and means still didn't have most of the creature comforts working class Americans take for granted today."
I'll give the last word on how Americans might improve their long-term financial outlook to Carl Richards, The New York Times columnist, who said, "Rule 1: Decide to invest. Rule 2: Make it automatic. Rule 3: Never forget Rules 1 and 2."
Perhaps these top financial influencers are onto something after all. Understand the difference between saving and investing. Spend wisely and invest automatically. And don't get so immersed in your life today that you ignore your life tomorrow.
You can learn more about the study as well as follow the influencers in a single click from the MoneyTips site.