Russ Wiles, Arizona Republic Published 11:55 a.m. ET Jan. 31, 2021 | Updated 2:51 p.m. ET Feb. 2, 2021
Finance Your Life: Up your investing game with these two simple moves.
One of the common misconceptions about achieving financial success is that it requires complexity, sophistication and intricate effort. Sure, you might want to construct a detailed analysis of investment allocations, debt payback schedules, or whatever, but you probably don’t need to.
Sometimes, just a handful of straightforward guidelines, consistently followed, can do the trick.
People use mental shortcuts all the time elsewhere in their lives to achieve goals such as losing weight, eating better, exercising more and so on. You can also successfully apply rules of thumb to money matters such as saving more, investing better and keeping debts under control.
“Good rules are really simple ones,” said Ryan Murphy, head of decision sciences for Morningstar Investment Management. “They can be just a couple of words.”
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1. Start a budget – According to a 2013 Gallup poll, a mere one-third of Americans said they budget monthly. From tracking income to recurring expenses, such as income taxes or insurance, review your spending to help map out where you want to go. With various online resources, budgeting has become easier than ever. (Photo: Getty Images)
He and Samantha Lamas, a Morningstar behavioral researcher, set out to determine which rules people view as most important, which they actually use and which are more closely correlated or associated with financial well-being.
For that latter part, their report looked at which rules of thumbs are favored by successful individuals compared to those who are struggling, based on a 10-question financial well-being survey developed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and viewable at consumerfinance.gov.
Follow these highly effective shortcuts
While many Americans continue to struggle financially, take note of these four top tips for financial success from readers. (Photo: Getty Images)
Murphy and Lamas gleaned responses from 867 adults about their use and perception of financial rules of thumb. Several rules were deemed both popular and relatively effective. These include goals to:
- Pay down debts in full, when possible.
- Pay more than the minimum (especially on credit card balances).
- Save as much as you can.
- Separate spending from savings (an element of budgeting).
- Keep an emergency fund equal to 3 to 6 months of expenses.
- Diversify your assets.
- Try to save 10% to 30% of your income each month.
- Invest in line with your risk tolerance.
Other rules didn’t fare as well. Among them: avoid borrowing money from a 401(k) plan (if available), take advantage of matching funds on retirement accounts and organize your finances frequently. These are all smart ideas, but they didn’t resonate as much with respondents.
In a few cases, the researchers noticed that sound rules were followed more by people who described themselves as not well off, according to their responses to the CFPB survey.
These included “paying yourself first” and “trying to find ways to earn extra money.”
Another rule of thumb embraced relatively more by struggling individuals was the notion of investing a percentage equal to 115 minus your age in stocks and stock funds, with the rest in more stable bonds or cash. (For example, if you’re 40 years old, you would strive to hold 75% of your assets in stocks/stock funds, as 115 minus 40 equals 75.)
Again, that’s not a bad general idea, but more affluent individuals said they didn’t follow them as much.
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Focus on what works for you
The researchers didn’t explain why people with less financial success tended to use various guidelines more often. But some rules, such as paying yourself first, might be too vague, they said.
“Good rules are specific enough to be actionable but not too specific,” Murphy said in an interview.
Some rules also might be too complex, such as the one about investing a percentage equal to 115 minus your age in the stock market.
Some financial rules are neither applicable nor practical, according to the report.
For example, the notion of investing as early as possible wasn’t deemed especially useful or valuable by respondents. The idea is a sound one – people who start investing in their 20s or early 30s often will wind up well ahead of friends or colleagues who start later in life.
But it might not be practical, Lamas said, for people who must prioritize other objectives such as paying down student debts first. And for those who have gotten a late investment start, it’s a moot point anyway.
And sometimes, rules of thumb and the goals they seek to achieve are limited by various factors, such as insufficient income. But usually, people can control some or most of the factors that affect their financial decisions.
How to turn rules into habits
The researchers emphasized that financial rules of thumb are most effective when they become second nature from habitual use, and when they are easy to remember.
Various tips can help you build them into habits.
For example, if your objective is to save more for large purchases, you could learn to set aside money as soon as you get paid. You could then reward yourself for good behavior with a coffee drink after you complete the transfer to your savings account, Lamas said.
The point here is to associate good behavior with something that makes you happy, thus encouraging you to keep it up.
Other tips for building good habits, though not discussed in the study, include sticking with a routine for at least a month, enlisting a buddy to keep you on track and writing down and posting your goals on a bathroom mirror or refrigerator, to keep them front and center.
Often, people must make financial decisions despite obstacles such as time constraints or a lack of experience or information. But that’s also a reason for following rules of thumb in the first place – they’re simple, easy to apply and don’t require much analysis or deliberation.
“Each person is different, and the rules (to be effective) must fit into our lives,” Lamas said.
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