Our economy is far from perfect. Student loan debt is at $1.3 trillion (and growing), and the income gap is staggering. While there are plenty of factors beyond our control that affect our finances, it’s perhaps more useful to focus on changes we can make. Sometimes, there’s more we can do about our finances than we think.
The problem is, those possibilities are often ignored, thanks to a few common, pervasive "truths" we tell ourselves. In other words: We make excuses. Working past these excuses could make all the difference in turning your finances around. Here are some common personal finance myths, along with a few first steps to take to overcome them.
1. MY MONEY SITUATION IS TOO FAR GONE.
When money problems abound, it’s easy to give in to the belief that things are hopeless. This is one of the most common reasons people ignore their finances, says Jean Chatzky, financial editor of NBC’s TODAY Show and host of HerMoney with Jean Chatzky.
“When a person’s financial situation seems overwhelming or in despair, it’s challenging to discipline one’s thinking and emotions for certain. However, we are always in the driver’s seat for taking leadership action for our finances,” she says.
In other words, even if your finances seem overwhelming and your options seem limited, you can always take action, even if it’s just setting goals. Chatzky says it starts by building small habits. “Start by doing something you can feel good about. Automatically transfer some money every time you get paid into a retirement account, emergency savings account, or some other savings account. Then start visiting those savings on a regular basis to watch the money add up. Tack on a few other good habits as well: Take a look at your credit report, pay your bills as they come in, and find someone in your life—your spouse, a buddy—that you can talk to about your money goals.”
2. DEBT IS JUST A PART OF LIFE.
The average household carries $7879 worth of credit card debt, according to a study from CardHub. Combine that with student loan and other consumer debt, and it’s easy to accept the idea that debt is simply a part of life. But that mindset is often exactly what keeps people from getting out of debt. We don’t have a chance to rein in our finances because we’ve come to terms with being controlled by them.
“It's like being controlled by your weight. You have to put yourself in a position of control over the scale in order to feel that you can conquer this demon,” says Chatzky. “And that means making some headway against it. Paying off debt is often a slow and tedious, if not painful, process. But you have to allow yourself space to feel good about the progress that you've made. Visit the balances, watch them go down, give yourself a little cheer—or share the news with someone who will give you a little cheer—and you'll be inspired to keep going.”
Ultimately, it’s about committing to a different mindset. “It will take a commitment to new habits, a new philosophy, and new thinking,” says Leanne Jacobs, a holistic wealth expert and author and creator of Beautiful Money.
She says one way to motivate yourself to stick to your commitment is to get organized. It’s a small action, yes, but small actions lead to big change. “Make files for all of your expense categories, utilities, and bills and start saving all of your receipts. Keep your desk, office, or personal space where you pay bills clean and organized. Commit to taking little steps every day to sort your receipts, file them, and pay bills on time. The energy associated with being organized and efficient will create a domino effect to being on your money.”
3. PERSONAL FINANCE IS TOO COMPLICATED.
Personal finance has a lot of rules, and that can be intimidating for many people. Rather than digging in and getting started, they put off dealing with their finances because it just seems way too complicated. As Chatzky puts it, many people think they need a certain level of expertise to make headway with their money.
“What you need is some basic knowledge combined with solid habits," Chatzky says. "If you can get yourself to save automatically, invest that money (again automatically) in a diversified portfolio (a target date fund, say, or a couple of index funds), and keep your hands off, you'll be golden.”
The basics of money management are important, but you don’t have to learn them all at once. You just need a starting point. “The best starting point is to be open, honest, and fully ready to learn,” says Jacobs. “Grab three best-selling money management books and start reading. Act as if you just enrolled for a degree in leadership and finance and be a student of wealth. The first money management book I read cover to cover gave me the energy and will to start automating my savings that same day.”
4. I’LL NEVER HAVE ENOUGH MONEY TO REACH MY GOALS.
Perhaps you see the financial possibilities, you’re just not sure how you’ll ever earn enough to get there. “First, chunk the problem down,” Chatzky says. “Your goals may be lofty and big in terms of the dollars that it will take to accomplish them, but framing them that way helps no one. Instead, divide them into bite-sized pieces that you can a) accomplish, and b) feel good about yourself for doing so.”
Another issue is prioritizing. Sometimes saving up for the things you love means trading in a few things you like. “Let your values be your guide,” Chatzky says. “Money is a limited resource and we all—some of us from time to time, some of us, more often than that—use our resources for things that don't matter to us in the end. Start tracking your purchases. Then go back to them a week and a month later and write down how you feel about having made them.”
From there, you can look at your expenses and see if there are any you’re willing to cut in order to make room for spending on things that matter more. “You'll see what matters, what doesn't, and where you should allocate your resources in the future,” Chatzky says.