Financial Stacking: A Modern American Burden

Illustration of bicycle cart overloaded with financial boxes

By Brent Neiser, CFP®, NEFE Senior Director of Strategic Programs and Alliances

If you are reading this, you probably already know something about financial prioritization. But put yourself in the shoes of the average American consumer: You are inundated with headlines, commercials, ads and social media posts telling you what you “should” and “must” do to get your finances in order. You are chastised for not saving, warned that you are underfunding your retirement and blamed for not teaching your children about money. It’s enough to leave anyone feeling overwhelmed and paralyzed. Where do you begin to unpack this mental burden?

Unpack Your Financial Stack

Americans have a weight problem (no, not that weight problem). It is the ever-growing stack of financial to-do’s cluttering their minds, triggering their emotions, battling for their attention and eroding their sense of well-being.

Myriad choices, opportunities and expectations generated by the financial services industry, media, advertisements, experts, employers — and even family and friends — create an amassment of jumbled priorities that often leads to inaction, frustration and despair.

At the same time, the way we manage our financial lives has shifted away from paper to the cloud. This transition to a more virtual world has made it harder to get our heads around the various obligations and opportunities we face, especially when information is flowing at us from all directions, both online and in real life.

Without a process to externalize these choices, the constant noise (the flood of emails, the pressure to buy this product, open this account, add to that account, etc.), stack up in a person’s mind, potentially heaping on stress, adding mental weight and causing paralysis. This is the person’s “financial stack.”

It is a vicious cycle, because the more we let the stack build, the more that emotional burden fuels regret over missed opportunities, disappointment over misplaced confidence, and lack of motivation. Just as in the paper days, if we don’t make intentional time to sort, purge and organize our mental financial stack, we easily can be overwhelmed.

Now, more than ever, consumers need to learn how to tune out the noise and analyze, assess and prioritize their financial choices in order to set a realistic road map to their goals. Not only will the financial weight drop off, but financial muscle memory will develop to improve well-being and efficiency. The stack may never vanish completely, but it certainly can be managed.

Illustration of bicycle cart emptied of financial boxes

Seldom are consumers guided to slow down decision making, or taught how to align their life situation and financial goals with appropriate products and services. Financial planners and coaches can help, but in this era of individual responsibility and information overload, consumers need to develop their own mechanisms for managing their financial stacks and discerning which information is worthy of their attention.

Financial education, especially targeted to goals and decisions that the consumer feels pressured to make right now, can help relieve the burden. Consumers can lighten their financial stacks by seeking out educational opportunities — whether it is taking a class or workshop, reading books or blogs, or exploring trustworthy online resources.

The financial capability field can help by letting consumers know that they are not alone in feeling overwhelmed. Their financial stacks can get lighter and more manageable through focus, prioritization and discernment.

As we manage our financial stacks, the weight of excessive choice and decision lifts. The future seems clearer. Situational awareness grows. Recalibrating and, most importantly, learning and honing financial judgment through experience provides direction and lessens financial fatigue.

Five steps to tackle your financial stack

See the full September-October 2016 Digest or download the PDF.


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