by Lucy Schrader
It’s the beginning of a new year, and I’m going through financial papers at home to prepare for taxes, clean files and look ahead for the coming year. I had our college fund statements out when my 9 year-old son asked what they were. Then of course, he wanted to know how much he had in his account. After I told him, he very dramatically told me, “Mom!! That’s not enough. That’s not anywhere CLOSE to enough. How can I go to college? I don’t have a job. I don’t have that kind of money!!”
At first I was impressed—wow, he’s actually developing a sense of how much things cost and learning that money doesn’t grow on trees. My next actions were to try to help him realize that no, it’s not anywhere near the full amount to cover college and that’s ok; that we’re saving what we can and will have more by the time he goes; that there are different ways to pay for college (scholarships, loans, that he may have to help pay for some of it with a job, but he’ll gain new skills as he grows and can do more than he does now, etc); and that we will figure it out as we go. We do not have to have all of the answers right now.
Now, being realistic, my very logical reasons did not completely calm him. What I hope, though, is that we’re beginning those many conversations and repeated messages of “we plan for what we can, and we figure it out as we go, too.”
I also have to admit, that I had a gut wrenching moment just the week before–we’re not saving enough; we don’t have everything planned out; “they” [magazines, media, etc] say we need more. And that’s where I get stuck. How on earth am I supposed to know how much I’ll need in the future and in retirement? How can I truly guess at all of these things? I don’t know for sure what tomorrow holds, let alone in 30 years.
I also had to talk myself through those moments and remind myself of several points I found very comforting to follow from the book The Behavior Gap: Simple Ways to Stop Doing Dumb Things with Money by Carl Richards (I was also lucky enough to see him speak at the 2012 MU Financial Symposium). Mr. Richards, a Certified Financial Planner™, reminds us that we cannot control everything. There are so many global and national events that happen that are out of our control, so we have to look at our personal lives and own financial lives and find what we do have control over. Have a plan, but be willing to adapt to the present situation.
In his book, he relays a story that he was working with a client and asked the client how much was enough to save for the kids’ college. The man replied that in his mind it’s not about what’s enough—it’s about saving what he can at this time and that will be enough, because that is all he can do. In my “it’s not enough” moment, I had to remind myself that, yes, we’ve got a plan. We’re saving what we can. It might not be enough to cover all expenses, but it’s what we CAN do right now. Maybe in a few years we can save more, but at this moment it’s what is reasonable for our family.
Mr. Richards also suggests that once you have a plan, focus on shorter time frames and look at the next year or two years (or the next day, week or month). Find what you can control in those time frames, since we don’t know for sure what will happen in the future.
Instead of thinking “I don’t have enough saved,” think “what can I control right now to stay the course on my plan?” One example might be, I can bring my lunch today instead of going out to eat to save money on the food bill. That in turn will help us save money for the college funds this month. Spending is easy and saving can be more difficult, so give yourself credit for these day-to-day actions. Instead of negative thinking that you are not saving more, shift your focus and thoughts to the positive, which helps reinforce the actions you want.
When I or my son start down that negative path, we need to help each other to “keep calm and carry on.” Have a financial plan and follow it as you can, but realize you might not have all of the answers. Follow through with things that make sense for your family. Small steps DO make a difference.
Richards, C. 2012. The behavior gap: simple ways to stop doing dumb things with money. Penguin group: New York.
HES Associate State Specialist and
Building Strong Families Program Coordinator
University of Missouri Extension
162 Stanley Hall
Columbia, MO 65211
573-882-4071 or SchraderL@missouri.edu