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I started writing about money nearly four years ago.
I knew the basics, like why it's important to save for emergencies and how to avoid high-interest debt, but I had a lot to learn. For the last year I've been on somewhat of a crash course as I prepare to obtain the Certified Financial Planner designation.
Money is relevant to everyone, and that's why I love writing about it. It's also heartening to see people overcome financial challenges they once thought were insurmountable and inspiring to talk with others about their goals for the future. And it's sobering, but essential, to understand how much harder women and minorities have to work to catch up.
Hundreds of stories later, here are four of the best lessons I've learned about money (so far):
1. There's no universally right or wrong way
While there are some universal best practices — living below your means is at the top of the list — the financial decisions you make should be based on your individual circumstances.
Renting for your entire life isn't wrong. Buying a house isn't the right choice, or even an option, for everyone. Likewise, credit-card debt is generally labeled "bad," but if it's your only option to pay a medical bill or help a family member in need then the benefits might outweigh the costs.
Rarely is there a right or wrong way to spend, save, or invest your money. There are proven strategies that work for a lot of people, but that doesn't mean they'll be the best ones for you.
2. Financial success (probably) won't land in your lap
I've learned that achieving financial success takes effort.
Read any story about someone digging themselves out of debt, buying their dream house, retiring a millionaire, or overcoming some belief about money that was holding them back and you'll find a common thread: It takes work and planning to make it happen.
Unfortunately, some people have to work much harder than others. Income inequality reached a record high in America in 2018, in part because of the advantage families with generational wealth — the vast majority of whom are white — carry. The reality is that people of color start with a disadvantage because of issues like lower pay and institutional discrimination.
Whatever your challenges, chances are it will take a commitment to expanding your knowledge, making informed decisions, and creating a plan to overcome them and make progress.
3. Risk is necessary to build wealth
I learned early on that building wealth is highly contingent on finding your ideal risk-reward level. The stock market is the most obvious example: In order to grow hard-earned money into more, one has to be willing to put some of it on the line.
Now, I don't trust myself to make those bets, so I use index funds and target-date funds in my retirement accounts because they're naturally diversified and automatically rebalanced. I understand that my balances will rise and fall, but it happens at a level I'm comfortable with.
4. Money is a tool, not a chore
I've learned that the people who make real progress financially view money as a tool rather than a chore. Budgeting or rebalancing an investment portfolio may not be your idea of a good time, but it's essential work if you want to move forward.
Instead of looking at saving money as an obligation, for instance, think of it as a gateway to your next vacation or the entry pass to an early retirement. After accounting for your living expenses, your money should be serving your goals. If it's not, then it's time to recalibrate.
Many of us share a common desire to do better and have more — more wealth, more time, more knowledge, more freedom of choice. When paired with intention, money can help get us there.