There is a weight problem in America—no, not that weight problem, it is a growing stack of unaddressed financial "to-dos" cluttering the minds, emotions, attention spans and well-being of many Americans.
From spending and debt to savings and retirement, housing and health care to college and credit, there are myriad financial choices, opportunities and expectations generated and reinforced by media, advertisements, experts, employers and family members. All these inadvertently conspire to create a heaviness of jumbled priorities often leading to financial inaction, frustration, confusion and despair.
While some financial to-dos require attention, there is also financial “noise” emanating from other people, including spouses, partners, children, parents and grandparents. The to-dos vary in complexity and price. Some are subject to inflation—like higher rents and the cost of childcare and eldercare. Others are new or changing—like new state-based retirement programs or high medical deductibles, premiums and copays before insurance kicks in.
Many individuals face the additional challenge of an emotional “screen” or filter around their financial to-dos. These include regrets, missed opportunities, lack of engagement and even misplaced confidence due to past financial successes, which may have worked well in a different economic or life stage, but are not good tactics now.
The path to sorting one’s financial stack is paved with obstacles, including overcoming the learning curve to understand unusual names of financial products and services brought on by regulation and tax law changes (HSA, EITC, Roth, 403(b)). Americans often are told to take action: Buy a product; open an account; add to an account. Seldom are they asked to slow down decision-making, or to intentionally align life and financial goals with financial products or services.
Consumers need to sort their stacks—separating the necessary to-dos from the noise—then prioritize and sequence their decisions. Financial counselors, planners and coaches can help, but most Americans do not seek professional guidance unless they are beginning to build significant assets or feeling they can afford these services.
Together, at the AFCPE Symposium in November, we will figure out how to kick off this process, fund it, and give it a running start of financial accomplishment and momentum. We will explore ways to lighten the load of our financial stacks and identify where to begin.
We will look at the power of choice. Every choice builds our financial story and thus, our financial history. Even if we do not choose, we have made a choice. Lessening the weight of our financial stacks involves several steps best discussed with loved ones, who carry their own list of financial to-dos.
Together we’ll cover several steps to sort and declutter the stack, master the nagging to-dos, and lighten the heavy load. In addition we will explore ways to:
Sequence short- and long-term financial actions.
Tackle tax opportunities and savings in our stacks.
Overcome barriers that thwart employment and earnings growth.
Automate essential financial decisions to accomplish lasting goals in housing, small business and retirement savings.
Adjust our stacks for life events and opportunities to plan for the unexpected.
As we tackle our financial stacks, the weight lifts. Situational awareness grows, revealing a clearer path to financial and life goals. We recalibrate, reset and, most importantly, learn as we accumulate knowledge and financial judgment. This happens through experience and smart questions, which keep the financial weight off, providing clear direction and lessening future financial fatigue.
As a side benefit of learning how to manage the stack, one’s muscle memory develops to improve financial well-being and efficiency.
Financial stacks can evolve into intentional personal finance stories that become legacies, boosting not only one’s own spirit, but those of one’s family and community. Every day we set an example with how we manage our financial stacks, as well as the stacks of our clients and communities. Just as we, with AFCPE, set the standard, it is time to set our financial stacks in order.
Brent Neiser, CFP®, AFC® is Senior Director of Strategic Programs and Alliances for the Denver-based National Endowment for Financial Education, a private operating foundation that inspires empowered financial decision making for individuals and families through every stage of life. Brent creates national programs on personal finance for the American public including Youth, College (in over 1,000 colleges), Low Income, Community, and Retirement as well as over 100 partnerships with groups like Sesame Workshop, Habitat for Humanity, Red Cross, American Indian College Fund and National Military Family Association.