According to the National Endowment for Financial Education, about 70% of people who win the lottery or receive a large windfall (e.g., court settlement, insurance claim, etc.) go bankrupt within a few years. This shouldn’t be surprising since financial literacy is largely inherited—with good and bad money habits passed down from generation to generation.
Chances are, these lottery winners never received the proper financial education from their parents to manage money. In fact, it’s estimated that half of Americans, or 120 million adults, do not practice responsible finances.
Are you ready to invest?
One of the most frequently asked questions in the BiggerPockets forums is “How can I start investing in real estate with no money and bad credit?” The answer? You shouldn’t. You need to fix your situation and invest from a position of financial strength.
The lack of financial literacy education
The burden is on parents to teach their children financial literacy because they will not learn it anywhere else. Most schools don’t teach financial literacy. Financial literacy is not one of the four core subject areas, although it should be. It seems financial literacy is just as vital to forming well-rounded adults as the four core subject areas of math, science, English language arts, and history/social studies.
Financial institutions are not focused on teaching children financial literacy either. With minimal outside support, children raised in financially illiterate households face an uphill battle.
Breaking the cycle
The good news is the cycle of poor financial literacy can be broken just like the cycle of poverty can be broken in the same way—through education. When I think of breaking the cycle of poverty, I think of “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” a 2016 memoir by J. D. Vance adapted into a 2020 film directed by Ron Howard.
In his memoir, Vance tells the inspiring story of his upbringing in Appalachia and his escape from a family legacy of poverty, family dysfunction, and drug use through hard work and education. Pushed by his tough but loving grandmother, Vance left Middletown, Ohio, to attend The Ohio State University and Yale Law School.
After law school, he worked as a principal in a venture capital firm Mithril Capital Management, owned by PayPal co-founder and billionaire Peter Thiel. In 2020, Vance raised $93 million for Narya Capital, his own Midwestern venture fund. Raised with no financial literacy, Vance was able to break his family’s cycle of poverty through education and perseverance.
Focus on producing, not consuming
For far too many Americans, financial disaster is just a paycheck away. According to the Federal Reserve, as of 2017, 40% of Americans surveyed did not have enough cash on hand to cover a $400 emergency. Of those respondents, many said they would cover the expense by using a credit card or borrow from friends or family. How did this 40% of Americans get here, and how can they get out of it?
To me, the first step to financial literacy is understanding money. For far too many Americans, money is simply a medium of exchange. If you want something, you hand over money. If you want money, you offer your services to an employer in exchange for money. If you want more stuff, you work more hours or get another job. The problem is many people continually expand their basket of needs and wants to match their income— spending everything they make. Some even spend more than they make by taking out consumer debt.
The problem with how the financially illiterate treat money is by viewing it through the only lens they know: as a consumer. The financially literate, on the other hand, view money through the lens of a producer. To consumers, money is a commodity—only good for buying things. To those with a producer’s mindset, money is a productive asset, one that can be put to work to make money for them in their sleep.
The rooster vs. the hen
I like to use the following example when teaching kids about money:
If you had a choice between a rooster and a hen, which would you choose? Your chicken comes with a month’s supply of food, but after that, you’re responsible for its food. If you’re like most kids, you’ll choose the rooster because it looks and sounds cool. Who wants a plain old-looking hen who just clucks?
Kids who choose the rooster run into a common problem. They don’t keep track of how much food they’re giving the rooster and burn through the initial month’s supply early. The rooster owners kick into panic mode. Unless they find a way to come up with more food, they will have to give their rooster away to someone who can afford to feed it. The rooster now rules their lives as they scramble to find more money to buy food. They have three choices:
- Take on more chores to earn more money.
- Start begging friends and family members for money.
- Borrow money from a sibling at an exorbitant interest rate.
None of the alternatives are pleasant.
The kids who choose a hen choose it for one specific reason: The hen lays eggs, which can be sold to the neighbors for money that can be used to buy food. And after taking care of the hen’s food, the young owners even have a little money left over. What do these kids do with the extra money? They don’t just go out and spend it. No, they reinvest the money to buy more hens. They may even diversify down the road and buy a dairy cow for its milk. Eventually, the hen owners will be able to hire other kids to take care of the hens, freeing up their time to do whatever they wish.
There are several important lessons the financially illiterate can learn from this object lesson:
- Making your money work for you will eventually free you from having to work for money.
- Spending money on things for show will only suck more and more money from your pocket down the road.
- Taking any extra money you make and reinvesting that money will help you achieve that freedom from a time clock even sooner.
- Sacrificing today makes for a much better tomorrow.
Making money work for you
What do you call money that works hard for you—that works 24/7? Passive income. Once you generate enough passive income to meet your financial needs, you will no longer have to rely on your day job to meet your financial obligations. You will no longer depend on a paycheck. This is what people consider financial independence. What gets lost in this whole discussion is that there is more than one way to accelerate the timeline for achieving financial freedom:
- You can close the gap by increasing passive income streams.
- Reduce your expenses.
- A combination of both.
At the end of the day, what do I think are the most important habits someone can adapt to break the cycle of poor financial decision-making?
- Educate yourself. Seek out knowledge and learn about investing and wise financial decision-making.
- Treat money through a producer’s lens, not a consumer’s. Make your money work hard for you instead of the other way around.
- Live within your means. Don’t spend to be seen. Spend to be free. Save what you don’t spend for reinvestment.
So, which will you choose—the rooster or the hen? Stop working for your money and instead let your money work for you through the ways listed above. Do this and you’ll be able to turn your savings into passive income—thinking like a producer rather than a consumer.