On this episode of the Millennial finance podcast Financially Well, I want to share a few financial wellness tips for 2022. Based on recent articles from Wall Street Journal reporters Anne Tergesen and J.J. McCorvey, I’ll discuss a few approaches to thinking and feeling differently about your money. When we’re stressed about our personal finances, we often dwell on specific numbers, tactics, and factors we can’t control. But the most useful financial wellness tips actually focus on our own habits and mindset.
Anne Tergesen and J.J. McCorvey are personal finance reporters for the Wall Street Journal. And at the end of December, they each wrote articles about pursuing a “happier financial life” in 2022. Tergesen’s article was entitled, “How to Make Your Financial Life Happier in 2022.” McCorvey’s article, meanwhile, featured the headline, “For a Happier Financial Life in 2022, Face Your Money Fears.”
In the first few paragraphs of Tergesen’s article, she writes:
“Instead of setting an ambitious money goal in the new year, consider some smaller and more cerebral ways to make your financial life happier.
This approach is likely to be especially helpful in 2022, after two years in which many have been under financial and other sources of strain….
She also quotes Dan Egan, vice president of behavioral finance and investing at Betterment, who said, “‘People spend a lot of time talking about how to manage their money but rarely think about how to improve their relationship with their finances.’”
Many people, amid the feeling of a fresh start, put extra energy into their finances during the first month of the new year. Your specific focus may revolve around a tangible goal, such as buying a house in 2022. Or, even more commonly, we attempt to resolve some financial stress we’ve felt in recent months or years. For example, if you haven’t saved much for retirement, you may decide that this is the year you contribute to an IRA. Or, if you haven’t started saving for a child’s college education, you may decide that this is the year you open a 529 plan.
These are all worthwhile objectives and interests. No judgment here. Before you commit meaningful amounts of money to any one goal, though, you may want to pause for a few reflective questions. Financial wellness tips can come in many forms. In this case, you may benefit from first considering the following questions:
The answers to these questions certainly may be ‘yes.’ But you also may notice that these gaps in your financial progress are mostly symptoms of other, underlying fears, anxieties, or uncertainties.
In a moment, I want to share a few financial wellness tips that may address your financial concerns at a more psychological or emotional level. First, though, I want to put this discussion, including the two Wall Street Journal articles, into context. I regularly help other Millennial parents with their money, either as their financial advisor or through a financial wellness program. In these cases, many people turn to me for specific numbers. They assume that if I tell them how much to save or how much to invest, they’ll feel better about their finances almost overnight.
But I often can see, in their request, a lack of confidence about how they approach their money. They may just be trying to achieve goals that other people told them they should achieve. They may not have acknowledged the parts of their past that still influence how they make financial decisions. Or they may seem reluctant and self-conscious about trying to learn how to effectively manage their finances on their own. Strong financial wellness, though, includes a willingness to think differently – and confidently – about what you do with your money. And this is why I believe the best financial wellness tips don’t involve percentages or dollar amounts.
With that in mind, I want to point out what I value most in those two Wall Street Journal articles. The authors recognize that financial wellness closely ties to a person’s thoughts about and emotions around money. In fact, they offer four financial wellness tips that I agree would make excellent financial new year’s resolutions:
Anne Tergesen writes, “Part of the problem is that when income rises, we start to compare ourselves with new peers, said Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor who studies happiness at the University of California, Riverside…. One way to boost happiness is to analyze what really matters to us — rather than to others.”
If saving for a child’s college education isn’t a high priority for you, you shouldn’t feel guilty about using your money in different ways. Perhaps you have stronger feelings about retirement. If that’s you, you must remember that the college savings opinions you hear from friends don’t necessarily apply to you and your family.
Tergesen also writes, “‘Anything you can do to create more free time can lead to happiness,’ said Dr. Lyubomirsky…. Ways to save time on your financial life include automating bill payments and putting savings on autopilot.”
Up to a certain amount, money – compared to other considerations and tradeoffs – has a high value to most people. We all need to pay bills, buy food, and purchase other basic necessities. Some people are fortunate to reach a point, though, where more money may not be their highest priority. For example, how much salary might you sacrifice to spend more time with your kids? To travel or pursue your hobbies? Some people eventually recognize that their time is as valuable – if not more valuable – than each additional dollar.
McCorvey writes, “The most daunting part of facing your financial fears might be figuring out exactly what you’re afraid of and why…. How someone handles finances might vary widely depending on the person’s first money-related memory. For example, someone who earned an allowance might have a very different experience with money compared with someone whose earliest memory is of a single parent struggling to make ends meet, said Mark Reyes, a certified financial planner.”
I’ll concede: it’s daunting to try to acknowledge and understand difficult financial experiences from our past. Yet, the key to strong financial wellness in the future often hinges on this very exercise.
McCorvey also notes, “As with health information, details of just about any money topic are just a Google search away…. While social-media platforms abound with money influencers dispensing advice and basic tips, Chelsea Ransom-Cooper, managing partner and financial planner at Zenith Wealth Partners, warns that influencers’ backgrounds might be hazy. Some might be sponsored by financial firms pushing certain products or services. ‘It’s just hard to filter through what’s real, what’s not and who actually has the education to put this out,’ she said.”
Let’s say you find an article or post whose content appeals to you. Please first take a few minutes to Google the creator. You wouldn’t go on a date without first checking the person’s social media accounts. You might also sneak a peek at their LinkedIn profile or appearances in Google search results. Unfortunately, we all need to be just as rigorous before accepting online financial advice as accurate and useful.
Before we conclude this discussion, I want to add a fifth financial wellness tip, based on my experiences working with other Millennial parents:
In my years working as a financial advisor, I’ve been surprised at how many Millennial parents reach out to me with relatively large savings account balances. And many of them list more frequent, consistent investing as a primary financial objective that they want to achieve. Yet, those savings often languish in their bank accounts for years. They all share a hesitancy to take any action with that extra cash. They’re afraid to make a mistake. They’re concerned that they don’t know enough to make a good decision.
When one or more of your goals relies, in large part, on investment growth – which applies to many of us – timely decisions and action are essential. The longer you wait to invest, the more challenging your path to success becomes. You certainly don’t need to invest everything at once, particularly if you feel uncertain or nervous. And you also don’t need to wait to make sure you pick the “best” mutual fund or ETF with your initial investments. Finally, you don’t even need to choose among the various tax-advantaged investment accounts that exist. Instead, a basic, taxable, non-retirement brokerage account can serve any number of purposes over time. But it’s critical to start somewhere, relatively soon, and then work on improving your knowledge and confidence.
I hope the two articles that I highlighted today, and my own financial wellness tips, empower you to make small tweaks to how you approach your finances this year. You don’t need to be perfect. And you don’t need to immediately correct every frustrating financial habit or weakness that you identify about yourself. But I do encourage you to devote more attention to how you think and feel about money. What barriers are these personal dynamics creating for your financial life? Even one small adjustment in this area can have a significant impact on your long-term financial stability.
Check out both Anne Tergesen and J.J. McCorvey’s articles at the Wall Street Journal. I also encourage you to regularly read their writing and support them on social media. And, of course, subscribe to this Millennial finance podcast to learn more about how you can improve your own financial wellness in the year ahead.
[Editor’s note: this article reflects the transcript (which I’ve edited for clarity) of a recent Financially Well podcast episode.]
Kevin Mahoney, CFP® is the founder & CEO of Illumint, an independent firm in Washington, DC that offers financial planning for Millennial parents. He specializes in navigating the new financial decisions that arise during our 30s and early 40s, such as repaying student loans, buying a house, saving for college, & investing for the future. In addition, Kevin also leads a financial wellness benefits program for Millennial employees around the country, including group speaking engagements.