There's nothing like a little "grist for the mill" to spark an intelligent conversation about money. This year, to make it more interesting, we'll be so bold as to talk about "money and relationships" -- the extent to which managing both money and relationships fruitfully share some common skill sets.
First, there's the fundamental human condition that prompts us to do what we feel like doing and then pick whatever rationale we need to support our decision. People physically attracted to each other will ignore, at least for a while, some personality traits that could become first tedious and then insufferable.
With money, it's likely we all have said at some point, "How could I have been such an idiot?" It's far better to make wrong decisions with money than with relationships, however, because we can always say, "It's only money." By comparison, when did we ever hear anyone say, "Oh well, it was only a relationship?"
The challenge with money management is that we have had some experience of a big gain on some portion of what we invested -- or, more commonly, we've seen a big gain take place on an investment that we thought about but couldn't bring ourselves to "pull the trigger" on and invest.
This time around, we won't let that happen again. Statistically, we need to find only three reasons from past experience that would prompt us to decide in favor of a decision. If there are 10 other reasons that would dissuade us from taking action, we just ignore them.
The magnitude of a long-shot reward overwhelms what would be the overall slight probability that this decision will lead to a successful outcome.
Look at Prince Charles and Camilla. He went off to the British Navy without making a commitment, so she went off and married someone else. Next time out, he wasn't going to make that mistake again. The rest is history, with its element of disaster, but we make irrational decisions all the time when it comes to managing what's important.
For young adults, making productive financial decisions can be an acid test for developing decisionmaking abilities. Dollars and cents in real time offer one of the purest expressions for developing patience, the long view and keeping score.
The past five years of stock market results offer a pleasant reinforcement of some of the basic rules of finance. Most of us have seen our investment account double during this time as markets have averaged more than 12 percent. Money at 10 percent, the historical stock market average, will double in 7.2 years. Watching money grow like this is intoxicating.
If a young person can start contributing as much as $500 per month into a 401(k) plan, it will cost only about $350 in take-home pay. Why so little? Because one-third of the $500 is money that otherwise would have disappeared in taxes. In just five years, earning an annual 10 percent return, a person will have accumulated about $40,000. If five years seems like a long time, just think about how fast those five years of college went by.
With regard to relationships, my mother always told me that I should try to meet someone with a nice "personality." Thirty-five years ago, I finally did, but not without some previous misguided decisions regarding those "long-shot" possibilities.
About the same time, I started making some informed investment decisions that have responded well to patience and a full dose of reflection. For one of the most inspirational books on this subject, I recommend (for the second time in a month) Jason Zweig's "Your Money and Your Brain." Your children will love it. And, "it's not just about money."