More than half of Americans report that either no one taught them about money or that they learned how to handle finances on their own.
Combine that lack of formal training with a desire to improve personal money management and you create as much potential for trouble as for profit.
It’s hard to know who to trust in the financial world, and that becomes more difficult when you lack a basic education in finances, because there are a lot of ways to achieve your financial goals, but just about any idea — no matter how crazy — can sound pretty good to someone who can’t properly size up the fit and the source.
According to a recent study by MyBankTracker.com, nearly one-in-four American adults say that no one ever taught them about money, and more than a quarter of respondents revealed that they had to teach themselves. Parents or guardians were the biggest source of information for 37% of respondents; fewer than 5 percent of respondents said they learned the most from a teacher or professor.
Considering how many parents aren’t great role models with their own finances, it’s pretty clear that more than two-thirds of Americans are basically being left to fend for themselves when it comes to financial education.
You can see in today’s headlines the importance of finding the right experts in your life.
No matter which side of the vaccine debate you’re on, for example, you can cite experts who you believe in and follow and decry others whose advice doesn’t sit well with you. Either way, you’re sizing up how to face the risks, and will gauge your decision based on the ultimate outcome.
Now let’s bring this back to finances, where you can find dedicated believers in buy-and-hold strategies covering entire markets, zealots in cryptocurrencies, sharpies making fast profits trading stocks, hobbyists turning favorite companies into meme stocks by battling the big institutions and more.
All of these strategies can make money and sound good, especially if you don’t know whom to trust or how to size up whether a specific financial tactic would work in your life.
As a result, knowing the source of the information — understanding where it comes from and how appropriate it is for you — is crucial.
When I hear from wealthy people who are finding ways to add bitcoin to their big, diversified portfolio using blockchain-oriented exchange-traded funds, it’s a very different experience than listening to a 20-something who has tied up what little money he’s got in crypto and is now trading it, sometimes via the cellphone while at the gym.
Both investors have had success, but their methods and means are very different; whether you can walk their path — or take your own and/or avoid cryptocurrencies altogether — is more about you and your risk tolerances than theirs. (Full disclosure: I do not invest in crypto; it doesn’t fit with my risk tolerance.)
Likewise, the appropriateness of financial advice depends on both the giver and the audience.
Suze Orman — who may be America’s best-known financial adviser — has helped countless people deal with personal and self-esteem issues surrounding money. Her take on debt – and on gaining control – has changed a lot of lives.
But her advice about stock investing has always been suspect, as she has often advocated a “buy when things are on the rise and looking good” concept that — coupled with her advocacy of a “sell after small declines” strategy — can lead to buying high and selling low.
Her asset-allocation advice typically is ultraconservative, too tied to bonds and real estate and not focused enough on the stock market, which is most Americans best hope for building long-term wealth through investments.
But in 2007, Orman acknowledged that her liquid net worth — excluding millions of dollars in real estate — was roughly $25 million, with just 4 percent of that money in stocks.
“I have a million dollars in the stock market,” Orman told The New York Times, “because if I lose a million dollars, I don’t personally care.”
Obviously, Orman can afford to invest like an ultraconservative retiree with no heirs.
The question is whether her disciples can afford to invest that way.
The financial media has changed dramatically in the last three decades. I know because I am one of the few journalists still writing about this stuff.
That’s not to say there isn’t great information out there, it’s just that Google searches for “mutual funds to invest in” or “choosing the right asset mix” will bring hundreds or thousands of possible results, a bunch of them coming from sponsors trying to sell a product, others from conflicted sites — paid to evaluate the financial products they report on — or bloggers with an agenda and more.
And as much as I believe I provide good information, I frequently find myself approached by someone who has heard my show, read my column or seen me appearing someplace and who wants me to help them manage their money.
That’s not something I do, but their willingness to trust after what amounts to a brief, impersonal encounter is alarming.
What if their random brush with “an expert” had put them in touch with a rogue, fraud or schemer?
Before you can trust advice or choose any sort of adviser — paid or otherwise — understand the source.
When your money is involved, trust is earned, not given.
No matter how little money education you ever received, you know what is right for you and your personality. Start by finding the right mesh – advice that you can live with and stick to, even as conditions change – and verify the expertise and experience that is guiding you.
Educate yourself about the sources of information every bit as much as the details you are being given.
Americans may be ill-equipped to teach themselves about finances, but the tools are out there to help them. At least rely on yourself to find trustworthy information; your financial future depends on it.
(Next week: Checking out financial experts before hiring them.)