Taking ownership of your finances is a prerequisite to being an independent adult. But as surveys and studies have shown, young people today seem to struggle with this transition more than previous generations. That's partly due to the economic reality of coming of age during a global recession. But many millennials also lack the basic financial knowledge to make smart long-term money decisions.
Bobbi Rebell wants to change that. The long-time business journalist is out with a new book to guide people on that road to monetary adulthood. Her How to Be a Financial Grownup uses famous leaders and successful entrepreneurs to break financial milestones down into anecdotes and short lessons. The role models she names in the book range from businesswoman Ivanka Trump to Morningstar CEO Joe Mansueto to personal finance guru Tony Robbins.
Money talked with Rebell about her book, what makes a financial grownup, and her advice for becoming one. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Money: Less than a quarter of people ages 23 to 34 demonstrate basic financial knowledge, according to a PWC study you cite. What's standing in the way of better financial literacy?
Rebell: What we can do as a society is start talking about it more and integrating it into our school system. For example, only 17 states now require high schoolers to take basic financial literacy courses. So we need to start talking more about getting to children younger and making it part of our curriculum in schools, and part of our daily conversations. Sometimes money is this taboo that we don’t talk enough about. We need to talk about it, address it, and be proactive about taking action and learning about it.
Q. What was your financial grownup moment?
A. My own financial grownup moment is actually the decision that I made at age 23 to buy real estate. It was really scary because the market was actually going down at the time, so people weren’t buying. But it still worked out mathematically that it’d be less money than paying rent because we know how expensive Manhattan is. What I learned—and this goes for stocks, too—was when you buy some things that are less expensive, sometimes that's a really scary decision, but still the best decision, so I plunged into the New York real estate market. I bought my studio apartment and learned all about mortgages and different loan products. I was able to live there for a few years, move out, flip it, change up a few apartments, and now I live in a family size apartment in Manhattan, and I was able to really create my own financial freedom by owning this property now as an adult.
Q. There’s one part of the book where you describe an action as “downright immature.” What's an example of that?
A. It’s very immature to not think about retirement no matter what age you are. There’s never too young an age to start saving, and even if you have other responsibilities—like paying off student debt or saving up for a home, whatever it may be—you should always be putting some money toward retirement, especially if you work at a corporation and can get matching funds. It’s downright immature to think you are too young to be thinking about retirement.
Q. You write that marriage is the biggest financial decision you can make, and you refer to getting "financially naked." What is that all about?
A. Getting financially naked is essential to any successful relationship, whether you’re married or not. If you’re going to be merging your finances, you need to know what’s going on and you need to be fully honest. There are countless stories of people who get married not knowing exactly what their spouse makes or exactly how much money they have. People think it’s too personal, but it’s really not if you’re thinking about getting married. What could be more personal than that? But people do, and they hide credit card debt or student loan debt.
Hopefully you’ll marry the person anyway, but at least know what’s going on and make a decision together about how you’ll tackle that debt or reach a goal you have together. Whatever it may be, you need to be on the same page when you get married.
Q. My favorite role model story was Stephen Adler’s tale about running from bank to bank to find the best deal on his IRA. Can you tell readers what he learned?
A. Yes, one of the wonderful stories in this is from my boss, Stephen Adler, who is the editor in chief at Reuters, and he tells a story that effectively says he was spending so much time getting every little detail about making an investment decision that he was neglecting his career. He was overthinking it. The most important thing is just to get started. Especially today, there are index funds. There are also robo-advisers. There’s Betterment. There’s Wealthfront. There’s Gold Bean, which is a great place to get started. [Those are all places] where you can learn about basic investing. You can always come back later and refine your strategy, but if you don’t get started you’re going to be behind.
Q. What’s the best money advice you’ve gotten?
A. A really good piece of advice is not to put all your eggs in one basket, to always diversity in all areas of your life. That applies to investing, but also when it comes to your career. Always have a different skill set. If you’re a reporter, you should be able to do video, you should be able to do print, you should be able to write a book. I’ve always tried to diversify my skill set and I think that will carry people far. Do different things but always be true to yourself. Have it make sense, but always be learning. Always be increasing your skill set.
Q. Part of the purpose of your book is to promote financial literacy. What can people do to support that goal?
A. One way to help us spread the word is to join in our efforts to fund teacher projects for financial literacy on Donorschoose.org. I’ve partnered with one of my role models, Elliot Weissbluth of HighTower, to fund a Donorschoose campaign. Anyone who buys the book can email the receipt to us at email@example.com and we will send you a gift code for the Amazon price of the book when we started the campaign (which was $18). Then you can go right to DonorsChoose.com/financialgrownup and donate that money to a financial literacy classroom project.