Photo illustration by Diana McNary / The Detroit N)
“Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend.”
— Polonius giving fatherly advice to his son Laertes in William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”
It’s “dads and grads” season, which, besides being retailers’ rhyming reminder to buy gifts for Father’s Day and graduations, provides an opportunity to examine fatherly wisdom about money — as in, he’s not made of it, and it doesn’t grow on trees.
The average person buying graduation gifts will spend $97.79, according to the National Retail Federation. Total spending on gift cards, electronics, apparel and other items is expected to amount to $4.7 billion, the highest in the survey’s nine-year history.
But some pearls of wisdom falling from Dad’s lips — intentional or not — will endure long after all those gifts are gone. And they might end up being more appreciated.
What advice would dads give grads about money by way of fatherly aphorisms?
“You can’t have champagne taste on a beer budget.”
Perhaps no advice is more important than the simple axiom that you should live within your means.
That’s not so simple nowadays when your “means” go beyond your cash. You can buy now and pay later, whether with credit cards or any number of loans, from payday and car-title loans to home equity loans.
For most people, living within your means doesn’t mean living a life of spending denial. But it does mean picking your spots to splurge. Besides, your dad also might say, “A little pain never hurt anybody.”
“You keep making that face, and it’s going to stick like that.”
The second-most important advice is probably that little things, like daily spending habits, mean a lot. You keep making bad spending decisions, like making an ugly face, and you’ll be stuck with money woes.
True, buying big-ticket items — houses and cars — matter. But they are big decisions that you’ll probably consider thoughtfully.
You have more immediate control over the seemingly unimportant daily spending decisions amounting to dozens of money leaks. It’s not bringing your lunch to work once that creates savings, it’s bringing lunch every day.
That’s why Dad likes to save on utilities with such brilliant utterances as, “Turn off lights — do you think we own stock in the electric company?” and more simply, “Were you raised in a barn?”
“Use the right tool for the right job,” and, “Let the saw do the work.”
Sometimes the simplest solution is the best one, and that applies often to money.
Buy simple term life insurance, invest with index mutual funds and target-date retirement funds, use a credit union or small community bank and build an emergency cash fund for repairs instead of trying to beat the odds with extended warranties. A simple TV antenna provides a better picture than cable, tap water is usually as good as bottled, and the best way to improve your credit score is to pay your bills on time.
With money issues, sometimes you’ll need something more complicated, but have a good reason to stray from simple.
“Someday, when you’re older, you will understand.”
You can download a smartphone app that allows you to take a photo of yourself, and the app will then “age” the photo so you can see what you might look like decades hence. One is called AgingBooth.
It’s probably a good exercise — one suggested by Kimberly Palmer, author of “Generation Earn: The Young Professional’s Guide to Spending, Investing, and Giving Back.”
The point is to imagine your older self and to be kind to that person by saving money for him or her. At the very least, young grads with new jobs should contribute enough to their 401(k) plans to get the company match, which amounts to free money.
“Keep your eye on the ball.”
The best way to save money for the future, whether for retirement or a beach vacation, is to have money goals that keep you focused on what matters.
Goals give you a reason to say “no” to daily spending temptations and help plug the leaks of wasteful spending.
“They don’t make them like they used to.”
Here, Dad might have been talking about benefits you get nowadays from an employer. These benefits require a lot more work from you, as opposed to working for the same company all your life and receiving generous health care and a guaranteed pension.
Today, employees are often responsible for managing their own health insurance spending, through high-deductible health savings accounts, and managing their own retirement money, through 401(k) plans, for example.
That transfers a lot of burden to the employee, giving you no choice but to become more knowledgeable about the sometimes-confusing topics of insurance and investing. There’s no easy advice here except to teach yourself by reading books, articles and doing the requisite research.
Dad will surely remind you that “life’s not fair,” and you should “take some responsibility.”
“Go ask your mother.”
When it comes to investing, men tend to be overconfident with their money management and investing abilities, while women are more risk-averse and open to seeking and accepting help.
And women handle money more often, tending to do more of the routine shopping, on food and clothing for example.
So, although some of Dad’s advice might sound profound, sometimes you can go to Mom for the real scoop.
“You only go around once on the carousel of life. So you might as well enjoy the ride.”
Though most money advice is about being careful, some grads will be hard-wired to be too careful.
Money is only good for spending it now or saving some so you can spend it later. How you spend it is key and what being a financially responsible adult is all about.
A hint for discretionary money, the cash left over after necessities are satisfied: Academic research shows people are happier when they spend money on experiences, especially with other people, rather than on things.
But what if your dad was a poor manager of money? He’s got that covered too:
“Do as I say, not as I do.”