A modified version of this post first appeared on MarketWatch.
After I started my first job at the age of 22, my colleague Chris informed me he was putting all his savings into the stock of one company. He recommended that I do the same. Chris was smart and articulate, and his reasoning made sense—the company, which had a well-recognized brand and was one of the leaders in its industry, had seen its stock price fall in half in recent months due to market jitters. Having just started to save some money for the first time in my life, I was itching to invest it even though I was clueless about investing. So, I followed Chris’s recommendation and also began to buy stock in the same company. And… POOF! Thousands of dollars of my hard-earned cash vanished as the company—Citigroup—came close to collapse in the financial crisis of 2009, its stock price plummeting a stunning 90 percent soon after I purchased it.
This experience taught me not to trust the financial opinions of friends and family who, despite their good intentions, may not know what they are doing. With personal finance, experience matters because the stakes are high—one mistake can cost thousands of dollars. Also I learned the importance of diversification; I was working at an investment bank, and to invest in the stock of another investment bank made me vulnerable to negative changes in the industry.
Although my university education had enabled me to get a good job, I was completely unprepared to manage the money I made in that job. This is a big problem across society: Our educational system teaches us little or nothing about personal finance. A 2015 nationwide study of over 27,000 Americans found that two-thirds could not pass a basic financial literacy test. This has serious consequences; many people don’t know the difference between a bond (the debt instrument) and James Bond.
After losing some of my savings in the financial crisis, I became fascinated by the stock market and worked at a pension fund, a hedge fund, and a private wealth management firm. These experiences showed me that the finance industry does a great job of catering to the top 1%, while the remaining 99% of us are left to figure it out for ourselves. For those of us who are not super-rich, financial guidance is hard to find—even for basic questions.
In addition to affordability, trust—or the lack of it—is an important factor. Surveys consistently show that consumers distrust financial services more than any other sector (even casinos or drug companies). Only 8% of Americans have faith in financial institutions. This skepticism is rooted in reality: Americans are losing up to $17 billion each year as a result of financial advisors and brokers recommending mutual funds and other products that generate commissions for themselves but are not in the best interest of their clients.
This gap in financial knowledge inspired me to start Zavvy, an online platform that enables clients to boost their financial savvy through personalized, expert coaching. Financial coaches differ from traditional financial advisors in that their fees are based on time rather than assets (so you matter equally regardless of how rich or poor you are), and the focus is on sharing knowledge rather than selling products. What’s the difference between a financial advisor and a coach? The traditional financial advisor will sell you a (very expensive) dinner that you may not like, while a financial coach will teach you how to cook meals that suit you and your budget, so that you eat well every night.
Studies support the long-term impact of financial coaching. An independent evaluation of a government-supported financial literacy program in Massachusetts found that the initiative produced an average benefit of $10,345 per participant, as well as sustained credit score improvements and declines in debt. And the cost to the government? Only $276 per participant. Another study found that three years after a financial education program was implemented in Georgia, Idaho and Texas, all three states saw increased credit scores and lower debt delinquency rates.
For most people, financial coaching can help with one or more of the following three areas:
- Habits: There are common rules of thumb that apply to most people. For example, it’s important make sure your expenses are less than your income. While this sounds easy, it’s hard to do when faced with daily temptation in the form of clothes, gadgets, restaurants, and the like. Your coach can help you see how to improve your habits so that you keep more of your income without sacrificing happiness.
- Goals: A coach can help you to set meaningful long-term goals and also short-term goals that get you there. So, paying off your student debt within five years may require you to set aside $1,000 every month. Doing this might involve tough decisions, such as not buying a car. Your coach can help you think through the choices and uncover new options—such as buying a used car and saving an average of $11,000—as you work together toward reaching your goals.
- Knowledge: With personal finance, a little knowledge goes a long way. For example, there are tax-advantaged accounts that essentially pay you to save for retirement. Also, understanding the basics of stocks and bonds is extremely helpful when starting to invest. Similarly, first-time homebuyers should educate themselves before making one of the biggest financial decisions of their lives.
I have a financial coach myself who helps me pay less in taxes (legally) without countless hours of online research. Just as a personal trainer can help people to improve their physical shape, coaching can help clients achieve financial wellness.