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BAM Intelligence

Financial Prescriptions Shouldn’t Be Taken Lightly

Imagine you’re walking down the street. A woman approaches and hands you a small piece of paper. You glance down and realize it’s a prescription. “Well,” you think to yourself, “she was wearing a white coat, so she’s probably a doctor.”

You then walk into a drugstore where other people wearing white coats are standing behind a counter. They take your piece of paper and ask you to sign a release form that promises you won’t sue if you die. You grab your white bag and head out the door thinking, “I’m so glad that woman gave me a prescription.”

That’s crazy! We’d never do or think this in real life — with one small exception.

We accept random prescriptions for our financial lives all the time. While people may not be walking up to us on the street, the sources of this advice are no less random. From sound bites on TV to headlines on the Internet, we chase after the latest financial prescriptions, desperately seeking answers to our money problems.

The advice often appears legitimate, even well intentioned. But there’s zero context to help us weigh whether it’s right for us. Plus, what sounds like a good idea one week may be contradicted by another prescription the next.

So why are we so willing to follow a different standard of care with our financial health? Why don’t we pursue a diagnosis first? I believe we’re scared.

If we slow down or stop to ask questions, we may discover some uncomfortable truths. We may discover that we don’t really understand our current financial reality. We may discover some serious underlying problems, like that neglected student loan we hoped would just disappear. We may discover we need more than a cookie-cutter solution for our particular set of financial issues.

Any one of these outcomes can feel really scary. So we don’t slow down, and we convince ourselves that eventually we’ll stumble onto the right prescription.

But that’s not going happen.

We need a real diagnosis for what ails us if we want good financial health. A good diagnosis depends in large part on asking a lot of questions, including:

■Why is money important to us?

■What best describes our current reality?

■Where do we want to go?

■How do we think we’ll get there?

The answers may prove surprising. But we can’t begin to know what we need to do financially without them.

Our financial lives deserve the same level of attention and care as our physical bodies. We expect doctors to ask us questions and diagnose before prescribing. We’d be shocked if they just handed us a prescription without asking questions. We need to set the same expectations for the people we look to for financial advice. A random prescription isn’t enough.

This commentary originally appeared April 14 on NYTimes.com

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© 2015, The BAM ALLIANCE

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Carl Richards is the creator of the weekly Sketch Guy column in The New York Times and is a columnist for Morningstar Advisor. Carl has also been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Financial Planning, Marketplace Money, The Leonard Lopate Show, Oprah.com and Forbes.com. His simple but meaningful sketches served as the foundation for his first book, “The Behavior Gap: Simple Ways to Stop Doing Dumb Things with Money.”

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