Are you financially secure? And by that I mean:
- Are you in control of your day-to-day, month-to-month finances?
- Could you absorb an unexpected financial shock?
- Are you on track to meet your financial goals?
- Do you have the freedom to make choices that allow you to enjoy life?
These factors come from a report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The CFPB generated 1,600 pages of transcripts documenting interviews with personal finance whizzes -- both professionals and everyday people. It aimed to answer a simple question: What helps a person obtain a high level of financial security?
Most of us don't qualify
To be clear, a minority of the population has achieved this state of financial zen. According to a recent Bankrate survey, 62% of Americans don't have enough cash savings to cover a single unexpected bill such as a $500 car repair or a $1,000 visit to the emergency room. That shocking result agrees with government statistics. The Federal Reserve last year found that more than 50% of Americans couldn't fund a $400 emergency expense out of savings. The same survey found that roughly 60% don't have a rainy-day stash sufficient to cover at least three months of expense.
But among the fraction of people who are financially secure, the CFPB found four personality traits that seemed to turn up over and over in its research. These characteristics correlate strongly to mastery over personal finance.
1. Internal compass: This means your frame of reference when judging your results is inwardly focused, rather than outwardly focused. In other words, you do things your way. Financially secure people in the report used terms like "having my own yardstick" as a tool to counter the self-defeating impulse to "keep up with the Joneses."
An internal frame of reference has major benefits such as keeping your spending low in the face of social pressures and clever marketing pitches. It's also a huge asset in stock market investing, allowing you to ignore the world's opinions while concentrating on your long-term results.
2. Perseverance: Financially fit people exhibit plenty of drive, which helps them keep marching toward their goals despite the inevitable setbacks. Hard work is a key aspect of this trait, as it leads to more opportunities to advance in the workplace. And in an important way, financial security is the natural result of an almost continuous effort to prioritize needs over wants, pay bills on time, avoid debt, and carefully manage risk.
3. Emotional control: Emotions play a huge role in the way people manage their money. According to the report, financially secure people demonstrate unusual control over a key emotion: short-term impulses. In the words of interviewees, they're "future oriented" and have a strong "propensity to plan." It's hard to deny yourself immediate pleasure for the prospect of bigger gains down the road. But that ability is critical to financial security -- and also to success in the stock market. Legendary investor Warren Buffett puts it this way: "Investing is forgoing consumption now in order to have the ability to consume more at a later date."
4. Confidence: If you believe that you're in control of your finances -- that it's really up to you to meet your spending and savings goals -- then you have what the CFPB calls "financial self-efficacy." People with this outlook are more likely to act on their financial knowledge -- say, by starting a business or investing in the stock market. And likely due to their hard-won success at managing their finances, these folks have loads of confidence in their abilities. That self-esteem feeds a virtuous cycle of prudent risk-taking and continued progress toward saving and spending goals.
The good news for those of us who don't currently have all of these traits is that it's never too late to strengthen our financial muscles. Things like behaving frugally, focusing on the future, and prioritizing needs over wants are learned skills. And like any skill, they simply take practice to master. The reward of growing financial security is worth the effort.