Financial Security Looks Different to Different People


How do you define financial security?

With several lists floating around, it's easy to get caught up in the idea of "should." The idea goes that if you just follow a list of "shoulds" you'll automatically feel secure financially. The reality is that what makes us feel safe depends on family background, education, work experience, and more general feelings about risk.

One conversation about financial security that I've heard repeatedly demonstrates this well. It's the debate between spouses over investing any extra money versus paying down the mortgage.

Often one spouse says, "We should buy that stock." Then, the other spouse says, "I want to pay down the mortgage." This cycle repeats itself with things like starting a business or making some other investment instead of paying down a mortgage.

This conversation became much more common following the real estate meltdown. Because our circumstances have changed, we're asking questions that we might not have considered before. When people ask these questions, however, it can cause conflict in relationships because security (or lack thereof) often sits at their core. So when these questions come up, it's usually a signal to stop and listen to what your spouse is saying.

Instead of talking past each other, when you hear, "I want to pay down the mortgage," or "I want to buy more stock," take a minute to follow up with, "Help me understand why it's important to you that we do that."

These conversations are not simple, and as we've discussed before, many of us don't have extensive education or experience dealing with these complex issues. In fact, if you were raised not to talk about money, it may feel very uncomfortable to have detailed conversations about the things that make you feel financially secure.

It would be simple if we could make this discussion be only about dollars and cents on a spreadsheet, and I've talked before about how viewing your home solely as an investment can be a mistake. So depending on your situation (and your available interest rate and long-term goals) one option may end up being the obvious answer when we base the decision solely on numbers. For some couples, breaking down the numbers offers enough certainty that they feel comfortable making a decision.

But as you may know from personal experience, what makes us feel safe may be something completely different than what the spreadsheet tells you to do. Once we start talking to each other instead of past each other, we can hopefully reach decisions that not only make financial sense but make us feel safe too.

A version of this post appeared previously at The New York Times.

Carl Richards is a financial planner and the director of investor education for the BAM ALLIANCE, a community of more than 130 independent wealth management firms throughout the United States. Visit Behavior Gap for more of Carl's sketches and writings.

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