Recently, I read the pithy but powerful business inspiration book, "Rework," by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, the founders of small business software company 37signals. The book is formatted into mini-chapters with provocative titles, including a couple that put me in mind of this column’s current series of mindset-shifting recommendations for Americans around money matters.
One, ASAP is Poison, reminded me of the much-needed mindset shift away from instant gratification. Another, Inspiration is Perishable, "inspired" me to think of the Conscious Bookkeeping approach to your relationship with money, including transforming your monthly budget into a "map of intentions," renaming the staid, standard expense categories by what they really mean to you, rendering it much juicier and more likely that you will honor your own values and intentions with your dollars.
But the third "Rework" chapter that got my money mindset gears shifting was this: Planning is Guessing. The American obsession with books and television shows on retirement planning belies the truth that 43 percent of Americans have less than $10,000 in retirement savings — and 27 percent have less than $1,000, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute’s 2010 Retirement Confidence Survey.
I know a number of very smart people who have waited a very long time — procrastinated, actually, to get serious about their financial planning — not only for retirement, but also for big-ticket purchases like homes and children.
We procrastinate because we don’t think we have enough money to save, so we put it off until that someday when we make more, not realizing that as we make more, most of us also spend more, so the surplus for savings never magically appears unless you intentionally create it.
We procrastinate because we don’t think we have the time in our daily schedules for financial planning. We procrastinate because we fear what we don’t understand, and we don’t understand how to approach large dollar amounts, projections and investment accounts.
And we also procrastinate because we are overly confident that we have many years ahead to plan.
So, the book’s "Planning is Guessing" mantra can be useful to those of us who procrastinate at financial planning in two different ways. First off, knowing that all planning is a form of guessing can extract some of the intimidating fear factor out of the process, and in that way, help activate us out of procrastination.
Your financial plans aren’t boring, set-in-stone treatises that lock you into a certain way of life — they’re just guesses about what your future might look like that can help you set yourself up to have funding for the things you may want to do in years to come.
In discussing the implications of Planning is Guessing, the book’s authors suggest that in business, much of the long-term planning that goes on should be eighty-sixed entirely and immediately swapped out for action. Even erroneous action and course correction is better, under the Planning is Guessing belief system, than simply planning and planning and planning.
And I agree — if you can include managing and largely eliminating large impulse purchases in your immediate action plan, it is better for you to immediately activate your 401(k) or set up an automatic deposit of even 5 percent of your income into an automatic savings account today, with no planning at all, than it is to wait for three years until you think you have enough cash to make it worth your while to meet with a financial planner. (Of course, 10 percent would be better.) Pay off a credit card with your next paycheck — no planning necessary.
The best approach may be a hybrid one: setting forth your vision and intentions for both the short and long term on paper. Calendar some time to set up an income and expense plan that prioritizes what’s important to you. The earlier you plan for retirement and other major financial goals, the better — but if you’re struggling with that, just start doing things that further those goals. Now.
If you’re struggling to get in motion on your financial planning, consider this: We humans hate the idea of losing money, more than we love the idea of making it — this is a phenomenon behavioral economists call myopic (i.e., shortsighted) loss aversion. However, we also often commit the financial logic error of underestimating opportunity costs — the money we miss out on by our actions (or inaction, in this case).
Financial expert Manisha Thakor explains, "Assume Jane starts saving at 45 years old, because she spends her money on grooming in her 20s and on her children in her 30s. Joe, on the other hand, starts saving at 25 years old. Each saves $5,000 a year, with an average 7 percent annual growth until they are 65 years old. Joe will have $1 million at age 65, while Jane will only have $200,000 — the head start gives Joe five times as much cash as Jane!"
OK, so 7 percent seems high, but it is a hypothetical that proves a critical point: Jane incurred opportunity costs of $800,000 by failing to start saving money at the time Joe did. Note: the loss was not incurred by failing to plan — it was incurred by failing to save. Delayed action to further your financial future — whether saving for retirement, emergency fund, children’s college or a home — is actually costing you money.
"Planning is guessing." So get over it, and get on with it — and if you can’t do that, just do something you know will benefit your financial situation. And do it now.