One Lesson From a Financial Whiz Kid

When Zac Bissonnette writes about how savvy he was about money in high school, I know his unusually precocious wisdom is not a put-on. I knew him back then. And, with his new book, How to Be Richer, Smarter, and Better-Looking Than Your Parents, I think you should listen to him.

Even though, admittedly, he only has one lesson to teach you.

I Knew Him When

Zac was one of the first writers I contracted for the fledgling BloggingStocks (an AOL-owned web site focused on news and analysis of “America's favorite stocks”), back in 2007. Since then we've become friends - well, I felt I knew him well almost immediately; he pestered me via IM to finish the paperwork and the pinging has never stopped since. How to Be Richer, Smarter, and Better-Looking Than Your Parents is his third book; both of the personal finance books he sold to Penguin have become immediate best-sellers and have given him, if not fabulous riches, fabulous riches compared to just about most of those people writing books.

Richer, Smarter and Better-Looking is targeted at 20-somethings like Zac, and though I'm not a 20-something, his statistics feel familiar and his arguments are persuasive. He begins the book by recalling a conversation he had with his dad in high school, where he asks him, “Who do you think thinks about money more? You or Bill Gates?”

The answer is, of course, his dad thinks about money way more. He was defaulting on his mortgage at about the time I met Zac; about the time Zac had started thinking about writing about money.

People Make Bad Decisions About Money Because It Sounds Too Hard to Learn Better The reason there is so much room in this world to develop as a financial whiz kid is that it sounds too hard to figure out. As Zac learned, his dad and a lot of the parents around him weren't doing a great job of teaching financial literacy to their kids. (Luckily, he writes, his mom taught him a lot; more on that later.)

I see this a lot, especially among the 20-somethings I know; my little sister's friends, my babysitters, the young women and men who work in the coffee shops and co-ops and organic groceries around me (I can't help it, these are the only places I go!). Learning about money seems hard, so it's skipped in favor of learning about Dungeons & Dragons (my barista this morning) or how to grow every single kind of cruciferous vegetable (the co-op cashier) or philosophies of teaching English as a second language (my babysitter).

As Zac writes, “Managing your financial life is not about spreadsheets and compound interest. It's about your life. The financial decisions you make can give you freedom or make you a slave.” He goes on to list ways money problems ruin people's lives:

  • High credit card debt is correlated with high anxiety, physical health problems, and increased risk of depression and suicide.
  • Graduate students with high debt are more likely to have poor mental health and poor satisfaction with life.
  • One poll showed that ulcers and anxiety were three to eight times as likely in those with high debt loads than those with low debt loads.

So Give Us the Lesson Already!

Luckily, he writes, it's pretty easy not to get into loads of debt, especially as a twenty-something to whom he's targeting his book. Take a look at all the young people who populate the reality TV shows - who say things like, “If you're going to consume, why not do it conspicuously?” He writes about their crushing, awful debt (I think there were more foreclosures per capita for Real Housewives stars than even the most blighted neighborhood in Florida or Nevada or one of the other states famous for its terrible real estate market), and points to what one financially ruined star said “it was all props.”

“A house you can't afford can be a prop,” Zac writes. “Or a car. Or a watch. When you think about it, we spend a lot of money on props - stuff that makes us look like something we're not.”

“I started the research for this book with one simple question in mind: What should young people do with their money in order to have the best life possible today and for the rest of their life? After a year reading everything from the Bible to a nineteenth-century home-economics book that suggested using earwax as a free replacement for lip balm (seriously), I'm pretty sure I've found the answer: You shouldn't spend it. On Anything. Ever.”

So That's It: Don't Spend Money?

Pretty much. Well, don't spend money on stuff, and don't spend it on education (at least not if it's going to crush you with debt), and don't spend it on cars (at least not a nice, new car), and don't spend it on anything that could be considered a “prop” - something to make people think you're rich. Perversely, that will keep you from being rich.

Zac goes on to cover lots of funny and useful topics, like banking (favorite chapter title ever: “The Financial Services Industry and You (Brought to You by the National Center for Domestic Abuse Prevention)”), debt, investing, cars, homes, careers, and financial things to think about when dating and marrying and planning a family. If you've read Get Rich Slowly for a long time, you won't find a lot of new topics there, though you'll surely find new information - Zac peppers his book with examples of reality TV stars, movie stars, sports stars, his parents, and the people he's dated.

Worth Reading, Even If You Already Know This Stuff. When Zac and I chat via IM these days, it's usually about the crazy financial advice other people are giving. We talk a lot about how other people should spend their money. But we're us, and sometimes we spend our money unwisely. I will do Zac the favor of not linking to the signed print he wanted to buy to celebrate his appearance on the New York Times bestseller list.

One big piece of advice he has (that I love and have recently added to my repertoire of tricks): don't watch TV. “One reason we've gotten so profligate is that we've been exposed for our entire lives to examples of lavish consumption-whether responsible or not,” he writes. “Thanks in part to reality television, especially our favorite Housewives, we're bombarded with the message that spending equals success. In fact, according to one study, the more television you watch, the more materialistic you tend to become and the more distorted your perception of reality. Consumer researchers Thomas O'Guinn and L. J. Shrum found that the more television people watch, the higher percentage of Americans they think have tennis courts, luxury cars, maids, and swimming pools.”

OK: I do watch a little Netflix, but we try to keep our consumption to medieval shows like Merlin and fanciful animation like Miyazaki's highly non-materialistic movies. The important thing is to think about how we're benchmarking ourselves, and how we're measuring our happiness - and keep reminding ourselves of the very real, many-times-over researched finding that happiness from buying things never lasts (but debt-induced ulcers are forever) and the goodwill and benefits of financial freedom (from debt) are many-faceted and worth so much.

Now I'm Going to Go Dig in the Garden

One of Zac's ideas in his chapter on credit card debt - and the quest we so often have for high FICO scores - is to, instead of questing for better credit, to get a hobby. My credit is less than stellar for many reasons, but my garden is gorgeous. I love how I can turn $16 in seeds and plants (less than I spent on a rare dinner out with my boys at a kid-friendly restaurant yesterday) into years of bountiful, lush, photo-worthy awesomeness. And food too! What a bonus. I'm going to go dig in that garden right now.

What do you think: Do you believe in the mantra, “don't spend money ever”? How do you make that happen?

The original article can be found at Lesson From a Financial Whiz Kid