Note: A version of this post appeared in the San Antonio Express News
My wife and I headed East on I-10 recently to visit our New York City friends Jay and Nina – another married couple and their kids – who now live in Houston.
The conversation over the weekend turned toward their personal finances and Jay began calling himself a ‘stupid smart person’ when it comes to the world of finance and their own personal financial situation. I really like that phrase.
As they approach their 40s, they’ve realized they had no idea where to even begin. While they have now begun to learn, they mostly recounted to me just how unaware and mistake-prone they had been, until very recently.
Jay calling himself ‘stupid’ needs some explanation, as his self-deprecation should only be understood ironically.
Jay and Nina both graduated from Harvard College, then Columbia and NYU medical schools, and finally Columbia Medical residency programs.
They continued training as cancer specialists at MD Anderson Medical Center in Houston – one of the most educationally advanced institutions on this, or any other, planet.
Between them they share three Ivy League degrees, as well as approximately 20 years of specialized education, after college.
I would expect they have enough higher learning to earn an invitation to the Jedi Council by now, so how can my smart Houston friends be – by their own description – stupid?
Clearly, they are not.
But if even they don’t get it…
You might be thinking that if even my friends Jay and Nina don’t feel confident about understanding their personal finances, how does anybody else even have a fighting chance?
I’ve known far more people uncertain about their personal financial situation than I’ve known people who feel totally confident that they can handle their own money.
I’m describing my friends’ specific situation not to pick on them. They’re on the right track now. I’m bringing this up because I hope their situation gives everyone permission to do two things.
First, it’s ok to feel like you do not know enough about your personal financial situation – even my Jedi Council friends felt clueless.
Second, it’s ok to begin the process of self-education about your finances at any time, even long after you’ve become an expert in your own profession. It’s not too late. Even for you.
What is it about money and finance that stumps even the most brilliant among us?
I don’t know yet. I’m still trying to figure this out.
This is one of life’s great mysteries. Just like why C3PO never said anything to Luke about his father, since the droid was created by him? Seriously what’s up with that?
The Finance Industry, like a Sith, wants you in the Dark
My answer about money so far comes from my Wall Street experience: The finance industry – taken as a whole – has a vested interest in making financial services seem as complicated and opaque as possible.
The more specialized and mysterious we can make it all seem, the thinking goes, the more we can charge extraordinary fees for very ordinary services.
I think we fear that simple financial solutions would lead to lower fees, and I’m sorry to say but lower fees are just not getting me the Mazarati Quattroporte I’ve always wanted.
Landspeeders on Tatooine don’t come cheap either.
Simple beats complicated
So what is a stupid smart person to do?
Start with the following true (ok, more like “truthy”) statistic:
In 98.75 percent of all financial situations simple beats complicated 100% of the time.
How do you increase your chances of choosing “simple” over “complicated?”
Embrace your identity as a stupid smart person.
For example, only make investment choices that you – a stupid smart person – actually, fully, deeply, simply, understand.
Here’s a good test: Could you, personally, explain your financial and investment decisions to a fifth grader?
If your insurance salesman cannot tell you precisely, in language even you can understand, how that whole life policy or variable annuity is a better deal than just taking the money and putting it into a retirement plan and thereby ‘self-insuring’ – and believe me he can’t, because it isn’t – then you don’t need that particular type of insurance product.
If your mortgage broker cannot explain exactly how that interest-only, variable-interest reset loan to LIBOR + 8% in three years is a good option for you – and believe me he can’t, because it isn’t – then you need a simpler mortgage.
None of us need a stack of Ivy League degrees to get a grip on our finances. And even having the degrees does not ensure financial sophistication. So just forget the sophistication part and concentrate instead on doing only what you can understand, and then work to understand what you’re doing.
I get it that encouraging you to be a stupid smart person may leave you feeling confused: I’ve told you what not to do, but not yet what you should do.
Patience, my Padawan learner, patience.
Early still it is.
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