Written by: Corey Janoff
This blog post originally appeared on our previous blog website, FinancialClarityBlog.com on April 4, 2017. It has since been revised and updated.
In meeting and working with hundreds of people over the past decade plus, I have learned to identify pretty quickly which ones will be financially successful and which ones might struggle to reach their financial goals. There are always people who surprise me, but for the most part I am pretty accurate with my intuition. I define financial success as being able to live comfortably and reach your (realistic) financial goals within the time frame you want to reach them. Financial independence is realizing that dream. This post will outline some of the common traits that most financially successful people possess.
I’ll admit, I haven’t done any formal research or scientific studies to confirm my beliefs. These are merely my observations from getting an in-depth look at people’s personal finances and helping guide them on their path towards financial independence. So if you are looking at ways to improve your financial well-being, start by practicing the following behaviors.
They Live Below Their Means
A common financial tip that is thrown around is that people should live within their means. I’m taking it one step further and telling you that the most financially successful people live below their means. Just because the bank says you qualify for a $1 million mortgage doesn’t mean you should purchase the $1 million house. People that structure their fixed expenses so that they have a lot of wiggle room in their budget are the ones most likely to reach their long-term goals.
Surprises come up from time to time. Repairs are needed on the house. An illness in the family. Unexpected medical expenses. A loss of job. The dog needs a $5,000 surgery and then some expensive medications. The list goes on. People that have an emergency reserve and flexibility in their budget are able to handle these unplanned expenses in life.
I have one client couple that is in retirement now and they are so conscious of their budget that we have to encourage them to spend more money. They currently live comfortably on Social Security and a small pension from the state where one of them worked for years. And they are completely content and happy! When they are forced to take their required minimum distributions (RMD’s) from their retirement accounts each year, they often write a check for the same amount for us to deposit into their other investment accounts. We had to fight them in the past to try to get them to spend their RMD money on a fun vacation or something. Keeping expenses to a minimum is so engrained in their souls to the point where they are still saving for their future while they are in retirement! You don’t need to take things to this extreme, but you get the idea. If you spend considerably less than you bring in each month, that will give you a lot of financial freedom.
Financially Successful People Listen and are Coachable
This might be a trait exclusive to clients that work with a financial advisor, because I am sure there are many people out there that manage their own finances without the guidance of a professional and do just fine. From the people I meet directly with though, the ones that do the best financially actually listen to what I say and follow my recommendations. Similar to the way people looking to improve their physical fitness will follow the tips of a personal trainer, or people looking to improve their health will listen to the recommendations of their doctor. The ones that seem to struggle to reach their financial goals either don’t listen, or completely disregard the advice.
People that meet with a financial advisor can be broken down into two categories:
- Those that are eager to learn and willing to follow the advisor’s guidance.
- Those that are merely looking for affirmation that what they are doing is correct.
I have met with countless people who will ask me a question, I’ll give them an answer, then they will argue with my answer and give all these reasons to justify why they are doing things a certain way. No you shouldn’t buy the Tesla when you only make $75,000/year. The purchase price of your car shouldn’t equal your income. I don’t care if you are single with no kids, have minimal expenses and you expect your income to rise consistently in the coming years. I understand you can sell it if your situation changes, but once you get used to driving a Tesla, you are not going to want to downgrade to the Nissan Leaf or even further to the Hyundai accent. What are your coworkers going to say when you roll up to work in something less prestigious? Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
Aversion to Debt
This one is pretty straightforward. The most financially successful clients I have are the ones that keep their debts to a minimum and pay the ones they have off faster than required. This doesn’t mean you have to be debt free or avoid debts completely. Most of my clients have (or have had at some point) a mortgage, student loans, business loans, car loans, etc.
Before taking out a debt though, they make sure the payments will be affordable (living below means) and the interest rate is reasonable. They also avoid the short-term, high interest rate debts like personal loans or credit cards. So when they want to do to the home remodel, they don’t take out a loan to pay for it – they save up enough money in their savings account to cover the full cost.
They Are Committed to Saving
Whether it is saving for retirement, college for the children, or a home down payment, when they outline a goal they want to reach, they commit themselves to saving enough to reach that goal. This also coincides with living below your means and is a key ingredient to achieving financial independence. If you live below your means, you have an ability to save for your other goals in life. Rather than spending money left over each month/year, financially successful people save it and invest it instead.
A general guideline I have brought up before is that most people should aim to save at least 20% of their income for retirement. I've done the math enough times to conclude that if you start diligently saving for retirement in your early 30's, that should put you on a healthy track to be able to retire in your early to mid-60's. No guarantees of course, and that's why it's important to review your progress towards your goals from time to time and adjust things if necessary along the way.
They are Always Looking for Deals
This may not be a mandatory trait, but it you are constantly looking for deals, it probably means you are very cost conscious and make prudent financial decisions. Buy your plane tickets when the airline has a sale. See if the store will price match Amazon. Pretend like you are still in college and seek out the $0.75 Taco Tuesday and $2 off drinks for a fun date night.
I know one guy who is in his 60’s that is always looking for ways to save money (even though he earns a nice income and lives below his means). When he and his wife go out to dinner, it is often during happy hour. The local grocery store has a senior discount on Tuesdays – guess who only does his grocery shopping on Tuesdays!? When he buys something at a store, he will often scan the ads and coupons that arrive in the mail that week to see if another store has the same product for less. If he does find a better price elsewhere, he will drive back to the store he bought it at and ask them to give him a credit for the difference. After you factor in the time consumed and money spent on gas to go back to the store, he probably isn’t saving much at all, but it’s that mentality that leads to financial freedom.
They Are Organized
You don’t need to have detailed spreadsheets that track absolutely everything, but you should be able to know where to find important financial documents. If you need to look up an account, know the website to go to and your username and password. If you have to write all these things down somewhere to keep track of them, then do it.
The most financially successful clients I have are the ones that are able to quickly retrieve information when I ask them for it. If I ask for a breakdown of their student loans, they know where to find it. If I ask for a summary of their investment holdings in their retirement plan at work, they can easily get that to me.
The people that struggle financially are often unorganized. They don’t know how to find certain information pertinent to their financial situation and after a few minutes of trying, they give up. When they can’t look up said information, it's challenging to accomplish the mission of coming up with a plan to reach their financial goals.
You won’t believe how many people I have met with that are completely oblivious to what is going on with their finances. I met one particular resident physician who thought she had $200,000 of student loans. After a couple of years of meeting on and off, she entered practice and learned to her surprise that she actually had $400,000 of student loans! She had a second loan servicing provider that she was totally unaware of.
I commonly will find that people are not invested the best way they could be in their workplace retirement plans. They are either paying unnecessary fees, or in an investment that is inappropriate for the time horizon they have. If you know how to log into your retirement plan at work, I can help you! If you don’t know how to access it, ask HR for guidance!
These are some of many traits that financially successful people possess. This doesn’t mean you have to exude all of these qualities if you want to reach your financial goals and of course there are exceptions to every rule. However, if you have most of these attributes, you are probably on the right track to financial success!