In today’s post, we discuss why many feel that money is a scary topic and why it doesn’t have to be this way.
As a personal finance educator and investor, I talk and write a lot about money. But many people find the mere thought of money scary.
It’s not surprising. Certain topics are considered taboo in American society, and money is one of them. Along with politics, sex, and religion, money is a topic that’s banned from many American dinner tables. Also, there’s no formal educational curriculum in the public school system about how to make and invest money. So perhaps it’s no wonder that for many people, money is taboo.
My money story
I can relate. When I was young, my father was our sole source of income. But aside from some vague notion that he needed to commute to New York City every day to make money, I had no idea what he did or how much money he made. I could infer some things based on how freely we were spending money, but I was pretty much in the dark.
In middle school, we lost our house to foreclosure and had to move out suddenly over the course of a weekend. It was pretty clear that we were in financial trouble.
And later, when we couldn’t even afford a meatball sub, again I knew that money was tight. But since we never explicitly talked about what was going on, the only thing I knew for sure was that financial affairs were a source of stress and trauma.
Later on, it was my fear of money (or lack of money) that was one of the reasons why I went into medicine. At the time, I felt that becoming a physician was going to be the cure for my money issues. (It wasn’t, but it did eventually provide a high income stream.)
My story is not unique
Not everyone has the same childhood experience like I did. But many do, or experience it later in life. Years of scraping by to make rent, mortgage, or student loan payments will create a stress reaction to money even without childhood trauma. This is why some try to avoid thinking about money altogether.
Money is essential
The problem is that money is essential in our society. Without it, you’re relegated to a subsistence level of existence on the streets or on the homestead.
Money is required to access everything from food and shelter to higher education. But without an understanding of how to manage and invest money, it’s incredibly difficult to utilize money well and build financial stability and wealth.
Money doesn’t have to be scary
When it comes to my own financial journey, I didn’t start to repair my bad relationship with money until I found myself overworked and burnt out just a few short years into my career as a surgeon. I was hundreds of thousands in debt with my student loans with a big mortgage on a doctor house. I saw no way out other than continuing to work the long hours and drive the long commute.
Instead of just sinking further into burnout and despair, though, I decided to educate myself about personal finance, investing, and the most efficient way to achieve financial independence.
Now it’s a few years later and I feel firmly in control of my destiny. I have a shrinking timeline to financial independence and a rapidly growing portfolio of index funds, individual stocks, and real estate. I am finally starting to feel the financial security that I always wanted when I was a child.
So what’s the solution for everyone else?
Break the taboo around money
First of all, I think we need to break the taboo around money. Only by acknowledging the importance of money can we start to have honest conversations about it. Ideally, money conversations should begin in childhood, with frank discussions about how money is used in our society. All children should know who takes care of their family’s financial responsibilities, and how.
I don’t expect money to become the source of light dinner-table conversation, but at the very least it shouldn’t be seen as only a terrifying burden on the family.
Teach personal finance in school
The next step is to insert formal education about personal finance into primary school. Ideally, it should go beyond the basics of balancing a bank account. It should go over creating a budget and the basic concepts of investing, compound interest, interest rates, and debt.
Furthermore, it should go beyond the short discussions about the stock market that pass for financial education in our schools. Young people should graduate high school understanding the importance of a good credit score and the need to avoid credit card debt.
Kids should also be taught that the spectrum of financial goals goes beyond just having enough money for covering expenses. It should include discussion about a life well lived, a comfortable retirement, and financial independence. They should understand that all financial decisions are small steps on a larger personal journey to financial success.
Everyone should have access to financial planning
Finally, government sponsored financial planners should be freely available as a public service. It should go beyond the current standard where a financial planner might be more of a salesman than an unbiased advisor.
I firmly believe that a society where more people are financially stable is a better society. And that starts with access to good financial education and advice.
In support of this belief, consider the current reality where most households only have $5000 in savings for emergencies. One uncovered medical mishap can be catastrophic in this situation.
Financial wellness will mean a healthier society: less chronic conditions and less bankruptcies related to difficult health care situations. After all: the rich are healthier in addition to being wealthier.
Financial planners can also go beyond the basics and help tackle the finer points like life insurance, long-term care insurance, and estate planning. They can also help people create a detailed estate plan to avoid the long legal process and potential likelihood of probate that happens when people die without a will. All of the best tricks of a fancy financial planning firm, distributed to the public at large? This is a good thing.
Your average American might not take advantage of these services. But if they were available, I feel it would slowly but surely reduce wealth inequality.
Although I’m happy and honored to provide financial education via my blog and social media accounts, it’s a sad situation where this is the only freely accessible source of information on money in our country.
It would be a different situation if we had robust social services for all citizens, like universal healthcare and well funded social security. Perhaps financial education wouldn’t be as important in that scenario. But we all know that this is not the case.
It’s time that America takes an honest look at the state of financial education in our country. Let’s get the ball rolling and move the country towards a financially secure future.
Money is scary. But it doesn’t have to be.
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