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As a personal finance reporter at CNBC, most days of the year, I’m at my desk talking to people about money.
Although the general topic stays the same, so many of the conversations I have with sources leave me with a new perspective.
When I got the idea to do a roundup of some of the most interesting and helpful money insights I’d heard in 2023, I knew right away the points I wanted to bring back. Maybe that’s one definition of good advice? Guidance you may ignore but can’t forget?
Well, here are some of the ideas and recommendations that stuck.
1. ‘When we don’t talk about money, we’re shielding ourselves from knowing reality’
“I find people are more private about money than their sex life,” psychoanalyst Orna Guralnik, who stars on the Showtime documentary series “Couples Therapy,” told me in May.
It can take years of therapy sessions, Guralnik said, for people to get around to the subject. I was amazed by that! Money is an unavoidable daily part of our lives, and so how could we not talk about it?
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Even more interesting was how Guralnik articulated the dangers of this avoidance.
“Money is a very important point of contact with reality,” she said. “People can have all sorts of fantasies and ideas about themselves. But money is feedback from the real world. So, when we don’t talk about money, we’re shielding ourselves from knowing reality.”
This really resonated. I’ve heard friends say they’ve gone months without checking their credit card balances, and I’ve noticed how I always underestimate my spending when I draw up a budget.
Psychoanalyst Orna Guralnik, who stars on the Showtime documentary series “Couples Therapy.”
Guralnik pushes people to be more real.
“You can’t take care of yourself if you don’t deal with reality,” she said. “We learn from reality. We grow from reality.”
2. How to still have $1 million at 100
Bill Stovall is a stellar example of how keeping expenses in line with income can pay off.
At 100, he still has more than $1 million saved. What’s more, throughout his career in the steel industry, he said he never had an annual salary beyond $40,000. But each year he salted away 2% of his income for his old age — and his employer usually matched that.
“That compounded over the years,” Stovall said in our November interview.
Bill Stovall and his wife, Martha.
The only debts he ever took on, he said, were for his mortgages. To this day, he looks for discounts at the grocery store and orders the cheaper dishes on restaurant menus. He enjoys following the stock market but almost never buys or sells individual stocks.
His life story illustrates the benefits of consistency and frugality, two of the most effective financial habits.
“I always lived within my means,” Stovall said. “I’m not a gambler.”
3. Money struggles aren’t just on you
When I interviewed Pulitzer-prize winning author Matthew Desmond in March about his new book “Poverty, by America,” we talked about a story from his own childhood. When his father lost his job and the bank took their house, Desmond originally blamed his family for their struggles.
“When you’re in the middle of something, you often grasp at the explanation that is closest to you, which is often about shame and guilt,” Desmond said. When he interviewed people facing evictions for his first book, he said they often believed it was their fault they were losing their homes.
“But I think it’s the sociologist’s job, to quote C. Wright Mills, to turn a personal problem into a political one,” Desmond said. “Millions of people are facing this every year. This is not on you.”
Desmond’s wisdom applies to so much of the financial hardship people endure today in the U.S.
Whether it’s a layoff or food insecurity, understanding when your struggle is the product of a larger societal problem helps you to be less hard on yourself — and hopefully more compassionate with others.
4. Tiny financial changes are powerful
I’ll end at the beginning.
In January, I interviewed financial experts about the money moves people should make at the start of a new year. I told my sources that I didn’t believe people could make big changes overnight. And so, I asked them, were there small things they could do that would still make a difference?
They had a lot of ideas.
Rita Assaf, vice president of retirement with Fidelity Investments, provided one example. For someone age 35 who is making $60,000 a year, upping their retirement saving contribution by 1%, or less than $12 a week, could generate an additional $110,000 by retirement, assuming a 7% annual return.
More recently, as student loan payments restarted, higher education expert Mark Kantrowitz illustrated the same lesson with paying down debt. If a borrower owed $10,000, and had a 5% interest rate, an additional $50 a month would shave nearly four years off a 10-year repayment timeline.
Those numbers have stayed with me, as a reminder of the power of tiny changes we can work toward in the new year.