As a financial planner, I'd like to let you in on a little secret: Everyone has the ability to manage their finances on their own. In theory.
The information and knowledge you need to make the right financial decisions is at your fingertips. You simply need to do three things: learn, apply and manage. Let me explain:
Learn the Fundamentals
There is a ton of technical financial information out there, and it takes time to learn what you need to know. The Internet, though, has made this process easier.
You need to focus your attention on these areas:
- General principles of financial planning
- Estate planning
If you look at those areas and feel overwhelmed, I understand. It’s a lot.
On the other hand, if you look at that list and feel that you know it all, I’d suggest rethinking that. No one out there knows it all. There is always something else to learn.
Again, the Internet makes finding this information easier, but there's a catch. You need to carefully validate the sources of the information you collect before accepting it as true and accurate. Many financial blogs and podcasts can be extremely valuable, but others are based more on personal experience than on years of education, training, and professional work. Personal stories can help you tune in to your own situation, but they might not reflect a comprehensive understanding of finance or relevant laws and regulations.
Read next: How Do I Figure Out My Financial Priorities?
Wise Bread and Daily Finance offer advice from both bloggers and professional advisers. Bankrate has calculators that help you visualize how various savings and debt repayment strategies will impact your finances. Play with the numbers and notice how a slight adjustment to a periodic savings amount or interest rate can completely alter your results.
Apply Your Knowledge
Knowing that you need to budget and understand your cash flow is one thing, but actually doing it is another.
Start with the basics. You need to track all your money coming in (your total income) and everything going out (your fixed expenses and your discretionary spending). Once you know what your money is doing, you can set up a budget to help keep you on track from month to month. From there, you can determine what you’ll contribute to savings and investments. Make those transfers automatic.
After you set up the basics, your financial planning needs get more complicated. For example, you might start out by calculating how much money you need in your emergency reserve account, but then realize that you also need to figure out how much to save for retirement. Additionally, anyone earning income is exposed to various risks, including becoming disabled, so you’ll want to find the best way to protect yourself.
It’s all about understanding your unique circumstances, applying appropriate strategies and setting up systems to help you stay on track. There’s no right answer—only the answer that works and makes sense for you.
Much of what applying your knowledge looks like in practice is simply taking action and holding yourself accountable. It can help to write out your financial goals and check in with those regularly to remind yourself why you’re working hard to manage your money.
And to make sure you stay on the right track over time, you should set up check-in points periodically throughout the year. For example, you might want to revisit your budget monthly, your investments quarterly, and your overall financial plan annually.
Manage Your Behavior
This is by far the most challenging piece, because emotions often cloud our thinking. It can feel simple to manage our own money when times are good. However, we often fall prey to recency bias—assuming that what happened in the recent past will continue into the future. Confidence (or fear) projected into the future can distract us from making prudent decisions.
When things get stressful, you get distracted. Other things take up your time, energy, and attention, diverting you from managing your finances.
As you continue to learn, you might also find yourself confused by a myriad of opinions and different ways of doing things. Decision fatigue can set in. It can become extremely challenging to make even the simplest of decisions as you start questioning yourself and your knowledge.
After all, there’s a lot on the line—your money and your life. You don’t want to make a mistake, and you want to do everything you can to maximize your financial resources. Your decision-making can become clouded by fear, and it can just as easily be affected by greed.
To successfully manage your own money, you need to manage your own behavior. That means taking small, consistent actions over time. You need to create your plan of action and stick with it through market ups and downs, through everything from personal struggles to professional triumphs.
Why Work With a Financial Planner Anyway
All that being said, it’s worth reiterating that managing your own behavior is the most difficult part of managing your personal finances. Most people cannot do it successfully.
Most mistakes happen when people depart from rational decisionmaking with their finances. Hopes, dreams, fears, and other emotions start creeping in. We all do this.
It’s easier to manage our behavior when we have an outside perspective. While we can’t necessarily see the bigger picture when we’re immersed in it, someone looking in from the outside, from an objective point of view, may be able to help steer us in the right direction. That’s where a professional financial planner can add a lot of value.
It’s possible to manage your own money, but it's not probable that everyone can do it successfully. There is a reason why even some financial planners have financial planners. Everything is easier when you have someone who can help hold you accountable. A professional financial planner may be able to help you find more success than you would achieve on your own—even if you know all the right money moves to make.
Get started on your own by educating yourself, applying your knowledge, and practicing smart (rational!) behavior around money management. Then, for long-term success in avoiding behavioral traps and pitfalls, consider working with a financial adviser. Carl Richards put it bluntly but accurately: It’s well worth it to “put someone between you and stupid.”
Eric Roberge, CFP, is the founder of Beyond Your Hammock, where he works virtually with professionals in their 20s and 30s, helping them use money as a tool to live a life they love. Through personalized coaching, Eric helps clients organize their finances, set goals, and invest for the future.