It's not so much the questions you ask about your personal finances that can make all the difference - it's the questions you don't ask.
Before I retired, I worked on big-name financial websites for years, often writing responses to frequently asked questions (FAQs). I always loved answering FAQs; I believe that helping consumers understand their finances is noble work.
These days, FAQs are one tiny piece of a broader effort to improve Canadians' financial literacy. The creation of financial websites, blogs, personal finance columns, online and mobile self-service resources, social media outreach and improved training of financial advisors have helped Canadians like you and me take charge of our finances.
You can access almost all those things 24/7, so access to information is no longer a barrier to financial literacy.
It's what you don't ask that's the problem.
As a recent retiree and current reader (vs. writer) of FAQs, I've come to recognize that some of the best questions are asked infrequently, if ever.
The answers to these questions can help you use your money more effectively and achieve your financial goals:
Who am I?
It sounds like a stupid question. But look closely at several months of bank statements from your main chequing account. Yes, your name is at the top, but how well does the pattern of financial transactions shown on the statement fit the life you want to live? What are you spending your money on? Your bank or credit card accounts don't speak up when you lose your way, like a GPS system would, so it's up to you to keep a close watch on your spending.
What are my goals?
Things important to you generally cost money. If you haven't written down your goals, put away your wallet until you do.
Does today trump tomorrow?
Card players often ask "what's trump?" to figure out how to play their cards. In your financial life, a better question may be, "when is trump?" At some stages of life, "today" is trump and you have to focus on short-term spending. But sometimes, "tomorrow" needs to be trump, so you can achieve longer-term goals, by putting current spending on the back burner. Be realistic: If today is always trump, tomorrow isn't going to turn out well. And if tomorrow is always trump, today won't be much fun. I remember when my wife caught my attention by counting how few paydays remained before we became empty-nesters. Trump was about to change ... and we needed to change our game strategy.
Am I getting distracted?
Is something drawing your attention and resources away from pursuing your goals? I really like the styling of some of 2014 cars, for example. But my key personal goals have nothing to do with replacing my perfectly serviceable, five-year-old car. So I ignore those fetching car ads.
When will I pay this off?
Be brutally honest.
What am I missing?
A good financial advisor is worth his or her weight in gold, asking you questions you probably aren't asking yourself. Advisors are better trained at this stuff than we are. They have better discipline than most of us. They're better at the math. Get a good advisor.
What could go wrong?
Life is like a game of snakes and ladders. If you're like most people, you're excited about the chance to do well in life and climb those ladders. But don't forget the snakes. If you lost your job, could you manage your debt? If you had to retire earlier than planned, how would you manage? If you became seriously ill, what would happen? If you or your partner died prematurely, what would happen? You can rely on an advisor to address this not-so-fun stuff.
What does my will say?
If you have a will, check it. If you don't have a will (and I didn't for an embarrassingly long time!), call a lawyer. It's no biggie to draw one up, and it's great to have it finished.
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