It takes a lifetime to learn how money works. With the speed of change, the creation of new financial products and an overabundance of data that can be reached simply by tapping on your iPhone, you would think there are many things I was taught about finances that no longer apply today.
Follow me into the time machine as I go back through the financial lessons life has taught me that have never gone bad and stand the test of time.
40 Years Ago
Even as a toddler, I learned that money is initially earned by doing things for others. My parents called it doing “chores,” while I called it “torture.” My brothers and I learned that our parents would give us money to do things they didn’t have time for (or secretly were bribing us to do for ourselves). Our chores included straightening our rooms and helping clean the house.
There was no discussion about minimum wage or income taxes. I was 5 years old. My parents showed us that work equals money.
That advice still rings true today.
35 Years Ago
Before I was a teenager, I learned that assets also equal money. There were a few things I owned that others would pay for. However, the true street value of an old toy sitting on the garage sale table become painfully evident from the amount of coins a stranger was willing to give me. Being 7 years old I had to ask myself “how could this be?”
This was not a typical retail transaction; it was a punishing lesson about how expensive depreciation can be. Can you name some of the things you drive or type on that are not worth as much today as the day you bought them?
This is a very important lesson that never goes out of style.
30 Years Ago
Girls. Movies. Cars. Combine these three things together and you have a very expensive date.
Every teenage boy wanted to be independent and being able to drive wherever we wanted to go bought us that sense of freedom. We also wanted to be with pretty girls. The best way to do that was to invite them to see a movie. What did that require? My answer was C-A-S-H, the world’s answer was a J-O-B.
Doing odd jobs and selling assets was not a very effective way to fund a teenage lifestyle. This required a regular source of income. This required delivering papers, washing dishes and other things I really didn’t feel like doing.
However, many of life’s lessons about finances can be experienced firsthand while wearing rubber gloves in a scalding hot sink of soapy dish water. Well, at least it’s a lesson I learned.
25 Years Ago
“You want what for this apartment?”
“I think I have just enough gas to get me through the week.”
“Wait, I don’t think I heard you correctly. You said my grocery total was how much?”
Being fully independent is fun — if you have the money. “How Far Can You Stretch a Dollar?” is the new game you play as a young adult. I wasn’t very good at this game at first, but there are lots of ways to cheat the system:
- Make your own soap.
- Have your buddy drop you off at work.
- “Don’t throw that out! I can still use it.”
The value of a dollar: This is a lesson that was 15 years in the making. Don’t look away! It is the most important financial life-lesson that will affect everything else we do.
Spending money wisely is the Siamese counterpart of making money; you can’t build net worth doing one without being wise in the other.
20 Years Ago
“The boss wants me to go to a meeting and he’s paying me for it? They’ll have free sodas and snacks? Sure, sign me up.”
This was way back in the 1980s, when employees would retire after decades of working for one company with full pensions, entrepreneurship was a French word and Wang Chung exclaimed, “Everybody have fun tonight.”
This weird letter-number titled off-site meeting was my introduction to investing. A nice lady from Merrill Lynch urged a room full of young people to start saving for retirement. “Really? Isn’t that the government’s job?” Apparently, it’s not.
I’m thankful for the financial lesson of skimming a little off each paycheck, saving it into a goofy account called a 401(k) — whatever that meant — and getting a match.
As a young adult, I also enjoyed the fact that I was legally sticking it to “The Man” by saving on taxes.
15 Years Ago
Diversification. This was a painful lesson of starting over after a failed marriage. My wife had left, and all I had was two dogs and a mortgage. All our money had gone into the condo, and the only savings was used for the divorce proceedings. There were no side-accounts, there wasn’t a separate emergency fund and the only positive asset on my net worth statement was that little retirement account.
But wait! That little 401(k) has turned into “The Little Savings Account That Could.” It had grown to more than twice the size. I wasn’t putting a bunch of money into it — just a little every paycheck.
Could the 401(k) lady have been right? Can this growth thing with compounding interest over a long period of time be real? Oh, yeah, I remember now. She did recommend that we spread the money into more than just one of the options offered by my employer.
Now I understand how one fund can do poorly while another fund can do well. That was a good financial lesson.
10 Years Ago
Who is this weird guy on the radio talking about how credit cards are bad and we should pay off the mortgage – even if it means losing the tax deduction?
I’m driving through Illinois before iPods and before CD players were installed in any of the cars I was driving and I came across this talk radio DJ that sounded as if he could have been yelling at his audience. But he was actually talking to them and giving good financial advice.
The advice he gave was really weird. I had never heard this stuff before. I mean, could you really live in the U.S. without a credit card? Was this a financial version of Doomsday Preppers?
The guys name was Dave Ramsey. I called him “very questionable” until I started doing my own research. Then I found out that he was always right.
Dave Ramsey is always right about selling the car payment, building an emergency fund, and this thing called a “Debt Snowball”.
The most important financial lesson that I learned was to avoid debt at all costs:
- To provide for my family
- Be prepared for emergencies
- Start building net worth
I could go further into this but you already know the story – we are completely out of debt with less than 3 years left on the mortgage. Personal finance has actually become exciting because we are winning with money!
Financial Lessons that Stand the Test of Time
Fast forward to today: Individual investments go bankrupt and markets go south, but good financial lessons never go bad. These lessons work heavily in our favor:
- Work equals money
- The value of a dollar
- Debt should be avoided
These financial lessons that stand the test of time changes how we spend our money and that being diversified with investments will grow a nice, thick portfolio.
What have been some of the hard money lessons you have learned?