Anna* was surprised by what she found when she started digging into the less obvious details of her finances.
Anna is a professional who works with financial information all day long. Both she and her spouse have great salaries, they don’t have any debt beyond their mortgage, and they have a sizable chunk of change invested for their retirement. “I’m really good with money and we’re doing well. I’m pretty sure I don’t need this,” she insisted when she heard about my financial literacy courses. “Why would I go?”
Still, she was curious. Was she making the best use of her money? Could she do better? Was there something she was missing?
“Honestly, it’s the bit about money mindset that piqued my curiosity,” she admitted to me afterwards. She attended to prove her point: “I’m doing well; it’s all good.”
After working through the exercises, in the group and at home afterwards, the results surprised her.
Anna had two big “aha” moments when we explored the concept of money patterns. First, even though she and her husband were saving a fair amount of money every year, there were still a lot of dollars leaking out of their pockets through unconscious spending patterns.
See a cute shirt for a great price? Buy it because it’s a great price.
See a pair of shoes for $30? Buy them because they’re good shoes for a great price.
Another water bottle with a cool feature at a great price? Bring it on. What a deal.
Do you see a pattern here? Anna did.
I asked a few simple questions: Are your spending patterns in your highest, best interests? Do they support your values and your value-driven goals? Do you LOVE what you’re buying and will it bring you joy beyond the short-lived new-and-cute period?
Anna realized that a significant number of expenditures were for items that did not serve her higher goals. They were bought for the wrong reason, though she wasn’t aware of that until we shone a light on that area of her finances.
The second aha came when she was asked to take a good look at her investments. This bit made her mad – at herself. For decades, she and her husband had fastidiously invested money for their retirement. They had entrusted someone else to make suitable choices for them and while they met annually with their adviser to discuss their progress, Anna had never really gotten involved. The money seemed to be growing. She trusted that they were on the right path. Besides, investing intimidated her.
Emboldened by her growing confidence, she did a deep dive into the state of their investments. What she found shocked her. Their money, invested for more than two decades, should have yielded so much more than it had. “If I had only paid attention from the beginning, I could have made different choices and been so much further ahead.” How much further? Tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars ahead.
Barb* also had a sobering realization as she pulled up the rug on her own finances. Without being aware of it, she had allowed consumer debt to climb to the tens of thousands of dollars on credit cards and lines of credit. Since she always made on-time payments, she figured she was in good shape. Sure she owed some money, but she felt it was under control since she could easily afford the minimum payments. She financed a new bathroom on her line of credit and used her credit cards to pay for the kids’ summer activities as well as family vacations. When, as part of one of my exercises, she made a complete list of her liabilities and calculated the interest costs using an online calculator, she was stunned.
“No wonder I wasn’t able to save and invest much! If I had to do it over again, I would make very different choices and I’d probably have a good start to a nest egg instead of just debt,” she said. “One thing is certain: I’m going to be keep a close eye on spending and bills from now on.”
Paul* was in a similar boat. For him, the issue had to do with under-the-radar expenditures and a disorganized bill payment system. When I asked him why he wasn’t able to save any money on a monthly basis despite having a great salary and no dependants, he shrugged his shoulders. He honestly didn’t know. “I really don’t spend much on myself or frivolous things,” he said.
Then we talked about his daily patterns and that’s where he uncovered some harmful habits. It turns out that Paul ate most meals outside the house. It had never occurred to him that this would amount to anything since the individual meals never cost much, but when he added up one week’s expenses and multiplied that by the average number of weeks in a month, he changed his mind. “Oh wow,” he said. “I’ve been spending like that for years. Years! All that money burned.”
When it came to bills, Paul would open them up as they arrived and place them in a pile in his home office. He’d get around to paying on a “roughly regular basis”, every month-ish without much concern for the exact date. “I thought I was fine if I paid them off regularly,” he said. When he learned how credit reports work and he checked his score, he realized that his habit of paying bills late, sometimes only by one day, had left a trail of late payments recorded on his credit report which, in turn, had reduced his score.
Paul immediately automated the payments for as many bills as he could and set a reminder in his electronic calendar to pull his credit report once a year to check on his progress.
All of the above examples are the result of one thing: financial neglect. In some cases, the people didn’t even know they were neglecting aspects of their finances. In all cases, they did not have a system in place to check on their finances from A to Z – kind of like a regular money check-up.
Let me ask you this: Which aspects of your finances are you neglecting? Putting off?
Which bits intimidate you? Chances are that if something intimidates you, you won’t go near it. That will hurt you sooner and/or later.
Even though this post is about the cost of neglect, I don’t actually want you to calculate it. Why? Because the answer may frustrate or anger you, and that’s not productive.
I want you to achieve positive results in the fastest, kindest, most effective way. Therefore, I suggest that you let go of any mistakes you made in the past, forgive yourself completely for them, and make a pact with yourself to behave differently moving forward, beginning today. Not tomorrow or the day after; today.
Some ideas on where to start:
1. If you’re not sure how much you earn on a monthly basis, start by digging into your pay stubs or financial statements and tracking it starting today.
2. If you’re not sure how much you spend on a monthly basis, start pulling out credit card and banking statements to see how much you’ve spent and withdrawn, respectively. Do it today. Start your own spreadsheet or use one of the many tracking tools available online.
3. To ensure better results moving forward, figure out what really matters to you, what you value, and redirect your spending to be in line with your values.
4. Set up tracking tools for the main categories of your finances: MAKE (your income), MANAGE (how you spend your money), GROW (how you save and invest). Be sure to track all of these in equal measure, not just the parts you’re comfortable with. In fact, it’s probably the bits that make you uncomfortable that have the most to teach you.
5. Most important of all: Track how much more money you save and/or grow on a monthly basis as a result of your actions. This will make you feel like a rock star in short order, which will then motivate you to do more! Years from now, go ahead and calculate the positive difference paying attention to your finances has made for you.
For a sense of how much you stand to gain by paying attention to your money, you need look no further than at the women in my Women’s Money Group. After just a few months of working consistently on their finances, they report a growing sense of financial confidence, more money saved and invested, more debt paid, and more peace of mind.
If you want a guide and a supportive community, join our Women’s Money Group. We’re starting up a whole new season on September 25th! Or check out our Money Power 1 course (the co-ed version is coming in February 2019).
If you have a story to tell about digging into your finances, please share your lessons below. We all benefit from sharing our stories.
*Not their real names. The case studies presented are composites of past clients.