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The basic principles of personal finance are familiar, widely applicable, and not really subject to change. No matter who you are or what you do, you know it’s important to spend less than you earn, avoid high-interest debt that doesn’t produce a measurable return on investment, diversify your investments, and plan for the future.
It’s nice that these and other personal finance guidelines are so well established, even if they’re not always followed to the letter. But their familiarity can be a double-edged sword. When you feel like you’ve heard it all before, it’s easy to tune out valuable financial advice that can improve your financial security and help you avoid costly mistakes.
Capital One wants to change that. In October, Capital One hosted a #CapXTalk highlighting ” Financial Realities That Inspire New Ideas, Innovation, and Education,” a look at the millennial generation’s personal finance challenges and opportunities, especially as relates to technology and innovation.
Moderator Mario Armstrong, host of NEVERSETTLE.tv (forthcoming in March 2017) and current NBC Today Show contributor, led an hour-long discussion on “the ways that visionaries are reimagining the role that technology and money play in our day-to-day lives.” Armstrong was joined by three panelists:
- Jake Fuentes: Cofounder and CEO of Level Money, an “application [that] simplifies money management for young adults, and has helped hundreds of thousands of consumers manage more than $12 billion in transactions.” Capital One recently purchased Level Money.
- Erin Lowry: Author of the popular personal finance blog Broke Millennial and a book of the same name, set for release in May 2017.
- Stefanie O’Connell: Author of the popular personal finance blog The Broke and Beautiful Life and passionate Gen Y advocate.
A Recap of “Reimagining Finances: Financial Realities That Inspire New Ideas, Innovation, and Education”
Armstrong and the gang packed a lot into the hour-long talk in Seattle, exploring new perspectives on a slew of interesting topics. If you don’t have time to watch the whole talk, here’s a look at some of the highlights.
Financial Education Early (or Later) in Life
Armstrong kicked off the discussion by asking the panelists about their backgrounds and prior experience with personal finance.
Lowry grew up in a “financially literate” household “where money was never taboo.” That provided an invaluable “foundation…that taught me how to make excellent financial decisions,” she said. She graduated from college with no student debt, then took an entry-level job on “The David Letterman Show.” Despite earning a modest income and living (by necessity) in an expensive New York City apartment, her above-average financial IQ helped her avoid financial crises, enjoy a sustainable lifestyle, and actually build some savings. The inspiration for “Broke Millennial” came when she realized “that not everyone had this base” and that millions of her contemporaries struggled with money. Her goal: “to trick [people] into learning about personal finance” through personal stories and examples.
Fuentes’ early life experience was very different – in his childhood home, “We never talked about money,” he said. In his 20s, he struggled to pay off $33,000 in student debt and $11,000 in credit card debt. That actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise – Fuentes’ money struggles were the inspiration for Level Money, a financial automation solution “that tells you how much you have left to spend on a day-to-day basis.”
An actor by training and self-described “Gen Y advocate” by inclination, O’Connell backed into the personal finance world. “My millennial dream was to be a professional actress,” she said, not to follow the “40-year career path, buy a house, and have 2.5 children.” Her dream seemed on track until she graduated into the heart of the Great Recession, armed with only a theater degree. The experience taught her a simple lesson: “money matters.” She’s now evangelical about the power of good financial decision-making and committed to helping millennials live their best lives.
Discretionary Budgeting: How to Handle Disposable Income
When is it okay to “waste money on yourself”? Is money really wasted when it’s spent on goods, services, and experiences that improve your mental health and make your life easier?
“If it’s something that’s bettering you, your career, your life, how is it a waste?” asked Lowry. She notes that, however modest their budgets, most younger people have some extra money for non-necessities. In her experience, this discretionary income is typically spent on outsourcing routine chores, such as dog walking, apartment cleaning, and laundry. That saves time that can be used for higher-value tasks, such as professional development or activities that improve mental health, such as seeing a therapist or getting a massage.
Armstrong pointed out that knowing about how much you have in the bank isn’t the same as knowing how much you can safely spend – or, in this case, “waste.” That’s a big problem with traditional banking, said Fuentes. My bank “knows” that I have credit card bills, rent, and other expenses coming up, he continued, so why can’t they “let me know what I can actually spend?” Unlike many other budgeting software solutions, Level Money takes a positive approach to this all-important question by letting users know what they have left over after accounting for necessities, rather than simply “slapping them on the wrist” when they exceed their budgets.
Lowry noted that many of her readers aren’t sure how much they can actually spend because they’re less financially secure than they’d like. Lowry herself knows what this is like. Now 30, she’s never had a set salary, an employer-sponsored 401(k), or employer-sponsored healthcare benefits. “That framework is completely different from the financial advice that we’re often giving people,” she said, meaning individuals bear more responsibility for “self-driven financial planning” than ever before. That supports the case for time-saving, sense-making automation solutions like Level Money.
Adjusting to Changing Economic Realities
Armstrong suggested that the fundamental uncertainty of many millennials’ financial lives is tied both to the generation’s formative experiences and to massive structural changes in the global economy.
On the first point, he alluded to millennials’ supposedly self-centered attitudes and asked how, if at all, those play into their financial calculations. Lowry argued that self-centeredness is actually an asset for many millennials, as it supports an entrepreneurial mindset. “We do have this belief that we can do what we set our minds to,” she said. That’s an advantage in a “drastically changed” world where traditional jobs are less secure and freelancing is more popular. “If the system has changed for us, why shouldn’t we change how we relate to the system?”
What if family members don’t support this mindset? Fuentes argued that they may not have much of a choice. “It’s apples and oranges” for millennials, he said, compared with the economic realities their parents faced when they were younger. He noted that the average job tenure is down to less than two years, a far cry from the decades-long employment stints common in the last century.
O’Connell agreed, stressing that millennials should worry less about precedent and more about “living and working on our own terms.” Millennials respond less to “preaching” about personal finance than to “participating and informing the conversation” and “creating communities based around values.” She cited the fitness industry model as an example: While the practice of balancing calorie inputs with exercise output underpins most mainstream fitness regimens, yoga lovers, SoulCycle enthusiasts, and CrossFit junkies take very different routes to the same end goal. Personal finance is the same way, with numerous approaches to the shared goal of living within one’s means. The trick is to foster niches and communities that embrace different lifestyles and financial priorities and empower financial well-being through shared values, active participation, and positive reinforcement – “a loop, not a top-down dialogue that’s not really a dialogue.”
How Technology Is Changing the Money Management Game
From ATMs, to online banking, to chip credit cards, technology and personal finance have a long, close relationship. Armstrong asked each panelist how “digital native” millennials could leverage their technological aptitude to improve their personal finances and money management skills, and whether they saw a need for any current or potential “fintech” innovations.
Lowry expressed hope for a marriage between technology and “financial therapy,” noting that there are already apps that let you talk to a doctor or therapist remotely. Following on O’Connell’s earlier point, she reasoned that the therapy approach might resonate with millennials who respond poorly to directives and admonition, but flourish when they’re allowed to reach their own conclusions about what’s good and right.
Fuentes argued for a stronger coupling of money management principles and positive reinforcement. “Every financial advisor I talk to tells me I need to cut back on buying a cup coffee every day,” he said, but “Coffee is one of the most delightful parts of my day. Cutting it out means compromising my happiness!” By taking the friction out of budgeting and saving, he added, Level Money makes it easier for people to reward themselves in small ways (for instance, by grabbing a latte) without the attendant guilt (“maybe that $4 would be better spent elsewhere…”) because they know just how many lattes they can afford each week.
Is Traditional Banking Still Relevant to Millennials?
Economic upheaval and accelerating technological change beg the question: Do younger people still have use for traditional banking services? Armstrong asked the panelists what they think big banks like Capital One are getting right about the “millennial mindset,” and what they still need to work on.
O’Connell came back to the need for community-building, plugging Capital One Cafes (cafe-like branches where visitors can use free WiFi, sip fresh-brewed coffee, and chat with Capital One staffers) as positive spaces that resonate with younger, on-the-go banking customers. The cafe concept facilitates discussions “beyond the black and white of the numbers on the sheets,” she said. “It’s very exciting…to see a big company taking that kind of step in the personal side of innovation….I don’t think it’s gimmicky, I think it’s real.”
“It just makes sense,” added Fuentes, noting that Capital One is rolling out a “money coaching” service that blends traditional banking services with life coaching and financial advising. In the old days, “there was no space for a conversation about what you should do with your money – the kind of thing that can actually help you live a better life.”
Lowry noted that the Great Recession struck at a crucial time for many millennials, as they’d either just entered the workforce or were preparing to do so. Understandably, many are suspicious of banks in particular and large, hidebound institutions in general. She credited Capital One for “improv[ing] lives for millennials, speak[ing] to us [and] to our values…we’re being recognized as a force in the banking industry.” Armstrong suggested that millennial-friendly banking practices, such as mobile check deposit and free-flowing customer-banker conversations, will eventually filter up to older consumers once they see their benefits.
Talking to Your Parents (and Your Peers) About Money
Every generation seems to represent a break from the past. The Greatest Generation, which fought in World War II, cast a skeptical eye on the rebelliousness and purported self-centeredness of the Baby Boomers. Boomers, in turn, scratched their heads at Generation X’s embrace of irony and irreverence. And now everyone is asking just what Generation Y stands for.
Armstrong noted that this disconnect is visible in the financial realm too. After polling the mostly young audience, he declared that roughly one-third of attendees had spoken with their parents about money – a pretty small proportion, given the topic’s importance.
Lowry suggested bridging the generational divide “gradually” so that “your parents [don’t] buck.” Eventually, you need to broach tough topics: “Are you Mom and Dad’s retirement plan? Do Mom and Dad have enough money to handle the end stages of their lives? Are they going to rely on you financially?”
Once you do get into a rhythm, “sit your parents down for an hour or two” every so often and go over their questions and concerns, especially with regards to the intersection of finance and technology. Just avoid controversial topics at the holidays, and listen to personal finance podcast or read personal finance blogs for conversation-starting tips. (O’Connell seconded the second point, noting that podcasts and blogs provide glimpses into the lives and vulnerabilities of real people of all ages and backgrounds, facilitating a more natural approach to sometimes-awkward discussions.)
Fuentes suggested talking to your friends first about this topic. He cited periodic “tough conversations” he’d have about money with friends, often centering on “things we really don’t know.” Simply knowing that someone else is wrestling with the same issues as you, he added, can really clarify your thinking and boost your confidence. And when you give financial advice, make sure it’s done in a “set it and forget it” way that doesn’t require lots of buy-in on the part of the less experienced party.
Dealing With Risks and Failure
The erosion of the traditional employment model and the corresponding growth of entrepreneurialism and professional independence necessarily poses risks for younger workers. But, as Armstrong said, “Failure is something that you [the panelists] don’t subscribe to.”
O’Connell noted that in show business, she “literally failed every day.” Instead of wallowing or retreating, she’d simply dust herself off and go on to the next audition. That mindset has “allowed me to be effective as an entrepreneur…and take huge risks.”
“I like to think of my worst-case scenario,” she said, which wouldn’t be that bad. “I’d go back and work at a restaurant like I did when I was an actress,” she shrugged. “Giving up on my dreams would be a far greater price to pay than failing.”
Fuentes noted that one of the major defining characteristics of the millennial generation is the “willingness and need to take risks.” As long as you learn from your experience and don’t keep trying to do things that aren’t working, you’re moving in the right direction.
Also, Lowry joked, we don’t say “failure” anymore – we say “pivoting.” Armstrong reminded the audience that Instagram grew out of a successful “pivot.” Once a geolocation/check-in app like Foursquare, Instagram became a photo-sharing tool only after its initial approach failed.
Missed Opportunities and Do-Overs
Toward the end of the conversation, an audience member asked the panelists to name “the one thing you wish somebody had told you when you were first starting out in your career or first starting to look at your finances.”
Fuentes got a laugh when he responded, “That you actually have to pay your credit card.” He learned the hard way that spending up to your credit limit and ignoring credit card bills is not sustainable.
O’Connell said it took a while to realize that she had control over her earning power, that she could “[attack] the income side as bullishly as possible” by hustling. That’s increasingly important in an era of rising costs and stagnant wages, she added.
Lowry regretted waiting so long to go out on her own. It wasn’t until her younger sister took a major risk (producing an independent film that made it into Tribeca Film Festival) that Lowry resolved to pour herself into blogging and freelancing full-time.
Ultimately, said O’Connell, it’s important to realize that “being your best self” doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is going to go perfectly.
“You’re an expert at your own experience,” she said. “At the end of the day, I have a degree in drama, and yet I’m here as a millennial money expert. I’m resonating with people in some way that’s effective…and it would be a disservice not to share my story.”
“Tap into the ownership of our own experiences and our own lessons…by being vulnerable, and transparent, and real, and open,” she concluded.
Key Quotes and Takeaways
The three “Reimagining Finances: Financial Realities That Inspire New Ideas, Innovation and Education” panelists produced plenty of sound bites during the course of the talk. Some of the more memorable quotes and nuggets include the following:
- “At the end of the day, there’s a difference between doing what you love and having a lifestyle that you love.” – Stefanie O’Connell
- “The delusional self-narcissism [that millennials are often accused of] has a positive: it’s making us entrepreneurs.” – Erin Lowry
- “We need to not only talk about numbers when it comes to money, but [also] the things that make people happy.” – Jake Fuentes
- “Your income is driven by you.” – O’Connell
- “I wish I had invested in myself earlier.” – Lowry
- “You don’t fail, you gain experience. Experience is [what] you get when you don’t get what you want.” – Fuentes
- “My mom and dad’s dream isn’t my dream, and that’s okay. The dream for millennials is more diverse than ever. If I had to sum it up, I would say ‘living and working on my own terms.'” – O’Connell
- “One of the issues [around financial concerns] is learning how to do things right and understanding how and why people approach personal finances.” – Lowry
- “[Capital One is] building culture and community. Millennials will prioritize that over numbers and salary.” – O’Connell
- “If we are going to allow the millennial generation to take control of their own finances, we need to make it easier to put your finances on autopilot.” – Fuentes
If you like what you heard from “Reimagining Finances: Financial Realities That Inspire New Ideas, Innovation, and Education,” you’ll be happy to learn that the #CapXTalk series isn’t going anywhere. Following “Reimagining Finances,” the series continued with “Building a Thriving Tech Ecosystem,” which examined the tech industry’s success in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and offered some takeaways for tech boosters in other metropolitan regions. You can keep up with all the latest happenings by monitoring #CapXTalk and periodically checking Fora.tv’s Capital One partner page.
What’s your favorite bit of insight from “Reimagining Finances: Financial Realities That Inspire New Ideas, Innovation and Education”? And are you looking forward to the next #CapXTalk?