Do you know someone going off to college who’s clueless about money? What if they’re clueless about why they’re going in the first place? Then Finance is Personalby Kim Stephenson and Ann Hutchins should be on their summer reading list. Even those further along in their careers will benefit from portions of this book (as I did).
The most valuable aspect of the book is how it elevates self-knowledge and personal development over the nuts and bolts of personal finance. You must understand yourself and your true motivations before doing any financial education or planning. Early on the authors acknowledge that money (at least beyond about $75,000 per year) does not buy happiness. Being on a mission in life, giving back, good relationships, mindfulness and playing to your strengths are all more important. These create the motivation to work hard and develop resilience in the face of setbacks, which contributes to academic and professional success.
“The finances are pretty simple–it’s the people who are complicated!”
Consequently, the authors suggest creating long-term plans first, before selecting a college or worrying about how to pay for it. To do this, think about the things you enjoy doing, in which you experience “flow,” so you do it more and become better at it than most other people. For me, that would be financial models and photography. In both cases, I have developed a talent as a result of deliberate practice and these activities provide ways for me to connect with and serve others. (I have shared these ideas with both my college-age son and some middle-aged friends of mine who are considering second careers.)
The second chapter contains a useful discussion about habits including “money stories” which describe our relationship with money. These stories may be longstanding but unexamined attitudes and narratives that may not be so helpful. For example, growing up in a paycheck-to-paycheck environment created a sense of scarcity for me that likely pushed me to the overly-thrifty end of the tightwad-spendthrift scale. The book goes into a detailed discussion of how to use aspects of Cognitive Behavioral Coaching to adjust those habits by correcting long-held but inaccurate beliefs.
The “Setting Your Goals” chapter applies to anyone wanting to be more effective. Carefully constructed goals can be very motivating. The authors propose some changes to the classic SMART criteria, including that the goals should contribute to long-term happiness and are “exciting” enough to engage you in the short-run, adaptable as circumstances change, positively worded, shared with others and appropriately challenging: not too hard or too easy.
The following three chapters apply these planning and goal setting techniques to the practical issues facing the new college student including housing, “necessary” and “optional” expenses. The authors make the helpful point that having clearly defined values will make it easier to reduce the number of feasible options and avoid choice overload. However, I’m not a fan of the distinction they make between necessary and “optional” expenses. Even optional expenses say for a “social budget” meet legitimate human needs. Decision Fish’s budgeting approach takes all human needs as worthy and necessary for happiness; people should consider less expensive ways to meet these needs. The optional expenses chapter has some good tips for buying smart. For example, compare prices per unit and ignore the percentage discount and focus on the actual price.
The next three chapters on debt, investing and budgeting are required in a book like this and offer all the basic facts you would expect, and likely wish you had known, when you went to college. I would offer a nitpick about whether savings really should be a reduction in what’s available to spend on wants as the authors suggest. Saving should outght to be the first thing one does, ideally before any spending, even if it’s just a few dollars, not what you do with what may be left over. A savings habit can be very powerful, thanks to the compounding of interest.
In the final chapter, “Changing Habits and Behavior,” the authors explain that habit change does not result from willpower alone. You have to determine the tactics that will work best for you and stick with them. They apply the “transtheoretical model of change” to modifying habits. Key techniques include changing the environment to avoid temptation, creating different cues such as reminders, making things you must do obvious (to avoid ostriching) and leaning on friends and family who share your values and will support your goals. They offer several helpful financial tips such as automating savings.
Finance is Personal is an enjoyable read. In particular, I recommend chapters one to three and ten to just about anyone interested in self-improvement and better personal decision-making. I recommend the whole book to the slightly nerdy and already motivated 18 year old who really wants to know about creating a mindful, sustainable and meaningful life as well as managing personal finance effectively in college and beyond.