Weston: Why is money so confusing?
Money management is an essential life skill, but most American adults would fail a financial literacy test.
Consider the results of a survey designed to measure financial literacy, called the TIAA Institute-GFLEC Personal Finance Index. On average, American adults answered only 50% of their financial literacy questions correctly in 2022.
In other words: if you find money confusing, you are far from alone. But the reasons you’re confused may have more to do with how our brains work than how money works. Understanding some of the common obstacles, as well as strategies for dealing with them, could help you finally get your finances under control.
MONEY IS A NEW LANGUAGE
You wouldn’t expect to have a fluent conversation in Madrid or Mexico City if you only knew a few words of Spanish. In the same way, personal finance is loaded with terms, jargon, and concepts that take time to learn.
“Entering the world of money is like stepping into a whole new culture and learning a new language,” says Ed Coambs, a certified financial planner and couples therapist in Charlotte, North Carolina.
You shouldn’t feel stupid for not understanding everything instantly, and no one should make you feel that way. However, it can be harder to learn if we come across people who are judgmental, condescending or dogmatic – which unfortunately describes many people who have mastered personal finance lingo.
“Many financial experts, professional or not, can become more or less authoritative: “Yes, I know what is best for you. That’s what you should be doing,” Coambs says.
People with a rigid approach to personal finance may not understand the culture and life experiences that shaped you. They may insist that you spend every dollar you can on paying off debt or saving for retirement, for example, but you may think it’s important to tithe your church or support your aging parents.
Rather than dictating how you should spend your money, helpful counselors meet people where they are, says Rachael DeLeon, acting director of the Association for Financial Counseling & Planning Education, a nonprofit foundation that administers the financial advisory degrees.
“It’s understanding: what are your values? What is important to you? And how do you make it work in your own financial situation? DeLeon said.
MONEY IS EMOTIONAL
For many people, money evokes strong and often negative emotions. For example, if you have trouble managing your finances, you might be so embarrassed that you try to avoid talking or even thinking about money.
“That’s what’s really stopping people from making money,” Coambs says. “They’re ashamed of not knowing, and they feel like they should know.”
Early painful experiences often shape how we view money, says Coambs, author of “The Healthy Love & Money Way: How the Four Attachment Styles Impact Your Financial Well-Being.” Listening to parents arguing over money or suffering financial difficulties can be traumatic, leaving us convinced that money is dangerous or shameful.
Coambs suggests discussing your feelings about money with caring, compassionate people. This could include an empathetic financial advisor, financial therapist, or trusted, knowledgeable friends.
“The action is based on the feeling of safety for many of us,” says Coambs. “Until we feel safe and accepted, we are generally going to feel stuck and blocked.”
MONEY IS COLLABORATIVE
Fear is another common emotion people feel about money: the fear of making a mistake, of not having enough, or of being scammed or misled.
“There are a lot of predators in this space, and it’s hard to know who to trust,” DeLeon says.
Education is crucial. You can learn more about personal finance basics from trusted sources, such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or JumpStart Coalition, which focuses on financial literacy for young people, DeLeon says.
But you can also hire people to help you. DeLeon recommends paid advisors, which means that they are only compensated by the fees paid by their clients rather than by commissions or other financial arrangements that could influence their advice.
Look for advisors who are fiduciaries, which means they are required to put your interests before their own. Fiduciary advisors include CFPs and individuals with credentials offered by DeLeon’s organization, AFCPE, including Certified Financial Advisors and Financial Fitness Coaches.
Currently, the AFCPE offers free virtual financial advice sessions. You can find out more on the AFCPE website. Additionally, your employer, 401(k) provider, bank, or credit union may also offer free or low-cost financial advice.
With money, knowing who to ask is more important than having all the answers ourselves, DeLeon says.
“Not everyone needs to be a personal finance expert,” says DeLeon.
—Liz Weston of Nerdwallet, Associated Press