The color of money

Michelle Singletary: Eight steps to making better financial choices


Washington Post Service

When it comes to your money, what you decide today can affect your finances for years to come.

And yet many people don’t decide anything.

Although most consumers say they are concerned about having enough money in savings, 51 percent still haven’t put more money aside, according to the 2013 Chase Blueprint Pulse of the Consumer survey.

In another study conducted by Chase and the personal-finance website, half the people surveyed didn’t believe they would ever achieve the American Dream. About half regularly worry about money, and four in 10 felt that they don’t have control of their finances.

Recently, Washington Post Live brought together a panel of experts to discuss “Kitchen Table Economics.”

The advice was useful — save for emergencies, cut your debt, invest for retirement, shop smarter. But one expert hit on something I’ve been concerned about for years.

“There is a vein of research that suggests, well, people don’t make very good decisions,” said Nick Bourke, director of the Safe Small-Dollar Loans Research Project for the Pew Charitable Trusts. “They’re not optimal financial decision-makers.”

In making big and even small financial decision, they fail to weigh all the choices and consequences. Lots of people would rather have $100 today than $150 a year from now, Bourke said.

“Everybody makes mistakes,” he said. “Everybody is a non-optimal financial decision-maker at one point or another, predictably, systematically.”

Using himself as an example, Bourke said recently he spent too much eating out on his credit card. But he could recover from that mistake because he has savings. Many people don’t have the money to withstand the consequences and shocks of a bad decision, he said.

I regularly work with people who are trying to recover from financial disasters brought on by poor decision-making. I once had a person tell me she decided to buy a car on her lunch break. She was tired of her clunker of a car. She hadn’t done any planning or research. The purchase was not optimal. She couldn’t afford the payments.

One young woman quit her job and decided to withdraw her 401(k) money. She didn’t fully understand the penalties of the early withdrawal — and she was shocked when the IRS sent her a bill for several thousand dollars in taxes.

One of the keys to a better financial life and security is to become better at making decisions.

But how does this happen?

One step at a time. So let’s go through eight steps to smart money decisions I use for the people I counsel.

No. 1: Define the decision. What are you trying to accomplish? State it clearly.

No. 2: What’s the need or want behind the decision? Why do you feel you have to make this decision now?

No. 3: What’s non-negotiable? What things are you not willing to compromise on if you decide to take action on this decision?

If you are buying a car and you have a large family, the vehicle has to accommodate at least seven passengers. Or, your commute to work is far and you need a car that gets good gas mileage.

No. 4: Identify alternatives. Have you carefully considered all the options? Yes, your older car is increasingly in need of repairs. But if you can plan the repairs so that you aren’t stranded, it’s still likely cheaper than getting rid of it.

Is public transportation an option? Do you absolutely need a car?

No. 5: Assess the various alternatives. Once you’ve identified them, examine each one carefully. Don’t rule anything out. Often bad decisions are made because you make up your mind about a particular solution before considering your options.

No. 6: What’s the cost and can you afford it? Calculate what each alternative would cost.

If it’s buying a used or new car, consider everything, including gas mileage, insurance premiums and reliability/repair records for the car you’re thinking about purchasing.

No. 7: Take a step back. Give yourself time to think about the decision. Be patient!

If it’s the right decision today, it will be right tomorrow. If the car you wanted is sold, there’s always another one.

No. 8: Make a decision. If you can say with certainty that you have followed the first seven steps, then proceed with confidence knowing you did all you could. Then, don’t look back with regret.

If you apply a systematic way of looking at financial decisions, you can avoid a lot of the bad ones that come back to haunt you.

Hear Michelle Singletary’s personal finance reports on Readers may write to her c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., NW, Washington DC 20081.

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