by Sarah Eadie

How to Teach Yourself About Money When You’re Not Even Sure Where to Start

Man sitting alone at a desk as the sun shines in through the window

One of the most important skills required to be a functioning adult is how to use money: when to be frugal, when to splurge on the opportunity of a lifetime, where to put it so that it grows over time.

If managing your own financial life sounds intimidating, don’t worry. Unlike school, with its set curriculum and rigorous pacing, you have the time and space to do it right.


Spending and saving more wisely is only half the battle

Becoming more financially literate impacts you on three levels: your present, your future, and your access to opportunities:

The present: We’re most acutely aware of the importance money intelligence plays in the present. The way we feel every time we log in to our bank account or think about whether we have enough money to afford something reminds us of our relationship to our money, and whether it’s good or bad.

The future: Many of us also experience strong feelings when we think about our financial futures. We wonder whether we have enough money for a house, to put our loved ones through school, or retire comfortably.

Access to opportunities: Financial literacy also opens doors. Studies have shown that financial advisers disclose better information and a wider variety of options to their more informed customers. Less informed customers aren’t as likely to receive the same quality of information.

Let that sink in for a second. By taking the time to get smarter about your money, not only are you dissolving some of your money-related anxiety, you’re also improving your ability to increase your wealth in the future.

So how do you, you know, actually do that? Here are some ideas on where to start.

Make these changes to expand your financial intelligence

Change usually arises from conflict. There are moments of discomfort and lack of control that encourage new feelings and experiences that are more pleasant.

Becoming financially literate is no different.

These conflicts can be minor, like the pang of anxiety we feel when our friend talks about her 401(k) contribution. Or they can be catastrophic, like frantically calling in favors to avoid getting evicted.

When those things happen, you have the power to make a change. After the problem has been dealt with and the feelings have subsided, here are some ways to work through the discomfort productively.

Figure out your personal pain points

If you set out to become knowledgeable about “all things money-related,” you’d get burnt out. When you get started on becoming more financially literate, begin with one manageable issue.

It can be helpful to put your problem in writing or talk it through with a trusted friend so that you have a real handle on what’s wrong.

Pro tip: If you’re reeling from a general sense of money-related anxiety, think big and general. The two most common personal finance concerns among U.S. adults are:

  • Not having enough money for retirement
  • Not having enough money in an emergency fund

Plus, the majority of folks surveyed say that paying down their student loans has impacted their lives positively in some way—primarily how much they’ve been able to put in their retirement and emergency funds!

By digging deep into just one of these big three—student loans, retirement, and savings—you can feel confident that you’re striding in the right direction. Rather than pinching pennies to make tiny changes, you’ll be tackling a major issue head-on.

Surround yourself with success stories

Tap your personal network or online communities to find people who have successfully tackled your particular money problems. Talk to them about your issues and dig into exactly how they solved theirs.

Don’t stop at surface-level tactics. These are helpful, but in order to be truly successful, it’s important to understand these people’s motivation and mindset.

Then, do your best to find ways you can apply their collective knowledge to your problem, even if their attitudes or specific situations are different than yours.

Skim the best literature

Don’t just buy one book. Go to the library and check out the three to five top-rated books about the topic you’re digging into. Read books recommended by your support network. Read the most popular blogs and message boards about the issue you’re tackling.

Reading broadly like this will help you develop foundational knowledge about these topics and uncover any additional unknowns or places where you may need to dig deeper.

Outline a plan

The first time I read a personal finance book, I got really disheartened. There were so many elements of the book that I couldn’t act on because I simply didn’t have enough money.

If you’re running into similar problems, divide the advice you get from your books into things you can do today and things you’ll want to do in the future. Many of the most famous personal finance books divide their advice into progressive steps for you, but it can be helpful to build out a plan yourself to absorb all of the information you’ve been reading.

Pro tip: While making a list makes us feel more in control, it’s not a replacement for action. If you find you have a lot of items on your “do it later” list, set a recurring calendar reminder to review your list every three to six months. This helps keep you accountable.


Get to work feeling better

As you begin to take these steps, be sure to congratulate yourself. You’re taking control of your financial situation. As you start to grow your financial intelligence, when you feel the pangs of anxiety in your stomach, it’s much easier to calm them knowing that you’ve outlined a plan and you’re following through.

But this is just the first step. Research shows that financial literacy doesn’t have a super-unified definition because there are several steps to the process of becoming financially literate.

For now, focus on expanding your financial awareness. When you’re ready to take the next step, check out our post on the stages of financial literacy.

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