Get Money Smart

December 2013
Written By: 
Nanette Wiser

So, you’re no Warren Buffett. But even the average Joe —and Jane—can develop the know-how to make smart, informed financial decisions. Here’s how.






How can you safeguard and grow your family’s financial health? Everyone worries about money regardless of his or her net worth. Here’s the secret: Knowledge is power.

A smart fiscal roadmap begins with understanding your finances, terms and options. Unfortunately, Americans trail behind Brazil, Mexico and Australia in financial literacy according to the 2012 Global Financial Barometer.

It doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Find a financial advisor or mentor to recommend useful news you can use. Join an investment or financial book club. Sharing financial wisdom, especially how others survived hardships, can help you make good decisions. Start reading your local paper, Wall Street Journal, Investor’s Business Daily, Smart Money, Worth, Fortune, Working Woman, Business Week and watching CNBC.

Learning to understand money and investments helps you make informed and effective decisions. Books, newspaper articles, online resources, magazines and workshops can help you and your children prepare for the future. According to the Council for Economic Education, many schools and colleges now include personal finance education programs in their curriculum. By doing this, you can avoid the old adage pitfall: A fool and his money are soon parted.

“Most local vocational high schools and community colleges offer a personal finance course where you can learn how to establish a personal budget and gain an understanding of different investments,” says William Mahnic, associate professor of banking and finance at Case Western Reserve University. That’s  “a lot of bang for your buck,” he adds.

Ask yourself how financially literate you —or your children—are. Do you know how to craft a budget and stick to it? Do you understand the basics of credit and debt? Are you saving enough for retirement—or your child’s college education? When filling out your tax return, are you taking advantage of every deduction you deserve? Do you know how to protect your portfolio from volatility in the markets?

Make it your business to understand the 101 of banking services, credit terms, checking accounts, how to track your money, how to rebuild credit, how to keep your identity profile safe, even the pros and cons of home ownership vs. renting.  If you’re looking to invest, it’s important to understand the stock market, mutual funds, bonds and other investment terms. Know the wealth words (trade confirmation, proxy) and read the annual report of companies before you buy the stock.

Financial advisors come in all shapes and sizes. Do you need a tax preparer, stockbroker, a CFC, CFP, LUTCF or FC? Just because they have initials, doesn’t mean they should plan your investments. Research the advisor, get references, check their credentials and always make sure they empower you with knowledge to make good decisions. Check and double check all of your financial documents and resources and learn to comparison shop, from banks to credit cards. Read the fine print on all disclosure documents from your bank, your credit card and your investment group. Understanding the important details about interest rates, late fees and how much cash advances cost helps you avoid unforeseen charges and determine if your financial institution is right for you.

Set up a budget and learn to track your spending either with paper and ink or software such as Quicken, Microsoft Money or Make files for bills and financial records. Get a handle on how many accounts you have, how much money is in each and what rate of interest you are earning. It doesn’t pay to have cash sitting there, earning nothing.

Learn the basics such as living within your means and preparing for retirement. Develop good habits, such as consistently saving, putting aside 10 to 20 percent of your earnings. Plan for your tax bracket bite and review the benefit of pre-tax direct paycheck withdrawals to a 401(k), perhaps one with an employee-matched contribution.

Teach your children well. Get them involved in saving for things they want and earning money through chores and small jobs, like raking leaves for neighbors and selling cookies. Help them create a budget based on their allowance. Take your child on shopping trips and discuss what makes things too expensive or visit your bank so they can learn to prepare deposits, balance checkbooks or even start a savings account.

The challenge is to create a generation of smart savers and savvy investors. There’s even a Financial Literacy and Education Commission working with the Department of Education to develop financial literacy modules for school. Call the toll-free hotline (888-MYMONEY) to order a package of information.