Pick the brains of the most “financially fit” Americans, then dissect their good habits.

That’s the premise of a new study from Florida State University, where researchers identified the common traits of everyday folks with high levels of financial well-being.

The results? Surprisingly, some very basic habits, says Dr. David Eccles, a psychology professor and research scientist at Florida State’s Learning Systems Institute. He boils them down to the “Simple 6”: Talk money with your partner, get advice from employers, work out what you’ll need, forecast what you’ll have, save more and owe less.

Q: How is it that a British Ph.D. is studying how good or bad Americans are at saving and/or investing?

A: I came over the week after 9/11 on one of the first aircraft flying out of (London). My first job was at the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition they work in artificial intelligence on tools that help people do their jobs better. It’s a big area of research in the military and in corporations: trying to preserve experts’ knowledge in a way that novices can access it, even after the person is gone or retired It’s called “knowledge elicitation and preservation.”

Q: And that led to studying personal finances?

A: The common thread is skill acquisition. (After coming to Florida State), we began a study on financial fitness. If we can find people who are successful and are knowledgeable about their own finances, we can instill that knowledge — through workshops and resources on the Web — and help (others) get better at personal financial success.

Q: How’d you identity these financially savvy Americans whose habits are so laudable?

A: We had a sample of households who were very similar: married, average age 55, all had children, all owned a home, no bankruptcies, no divorces, all within 10 years max from retirement. The salaries ranged from $30,000 to $200,000, but the average was about $120,000 combined for husband and wife within each group of our best/worst performers we had incomes in the low/middle/high ranges.

Q: Some of the “Simple 6” habits you identified are pretty basic: maximizing savings, minimizing debt, for instance.

A: They’re not astounding. They don’t pass what we in academia call the “grandmother test”: You tell your grandmother the results of your two-year study and she says, “I could have told you that.” The best households aren’t using any sophisticated investing strategies but they’ve (adopted) some good basic habits.

Such as: “Ask your employer.” Most financially fit households were ones where the wives, in particular, had sought out information from their employer. At the risk of sounding sexist, husbands historically have assumed control for finding out how to manage finances, how to set up a retirement account.

But we found our “upper group” was definitely marked by equality: both partners trying to manage and understand their personal finances. Q: What’s the biggest single obstacle to Americans saving for retirement?

A: It’s too far in the future if you’re young and right now, our conventional spending patterns are not aligned with what we earn. Buying lunch out every day is normal; bringing it is slumming. That’s a huge amount of money (spent on eating out) each month.

Q: The recession has spooked a lot of people away from their savings strategies, especially for retirement. How do you motivate people to try again?

A: In a country that expects individuals to take care of their retirement assets and figure out how mortgages work It behooves us to provide good resources to figure out how to do these things. From your 20s to your 50s, that’s the age where you can do the most to set yourself up to be financially stable.


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