From the Editor


Financial Lessons From Downton Abbey

Janet Bodnar

You need skills to manage your financial resources because so much of the responsibility is on you.



As a fan of Downton Abbey, I’ve been trying to figure out a way to squeeze a financial lesson from the hit PBS series into this column. Perhaps I could critique his lordship’s folly in betting the ranch (or, in his case, the estate) on a Canadian railroad that went bust. No, too obvious. Maybe I could comment on Cousin Matthew’s good fortune in inheriting not one but two good-size fortunes. Nope, too farfetched.

But Cousin Matthew did recently come to the rescue when he told Lady Mary why he, a middle-class lawyer, wanted to run the estate as if it were a business: “The middle classes have their virtues, and husbandry is one.” Husbandry is defined as the careful management of domestic resources—or, as my son Peter put it in more modern terms, “You need skills.” In today’s world, you need skills to manage your financial resources because so much of the responsibility is on you. “We have gone through the equivalent of an industrial revolution in finance, and we’re not going back,” says Annamaria Lusardi, director of the Global Center for Financial Literacy (see Financial Literacy: Does It Work?).

In that vein, April has again been designated Financial Literacy Month. Just what are the skills you need to be financially literate? In a survey of parents and educators by the Family Financial Network, respondents said that access to unbiased, trustworthy financial information is a top concern. Asked to list the issues about which consumers need to be educated, respondents most often mentioned "saving and investing," followed by "building net worth." What is the biggest challenge leaders face in providing effective financial education? "Making it easy to understand."

All of which led me to conclude that when it comes to building financial skills, you're holding the ultimate tool in your hands. Unbiased, trustworthy advice? We've been providing it since 1947. Saving and investing? See our cover story, in which senior editor Anne Kates Smith tells disenchanted investors how to rekindle their relationship with the stock market. Easy to understand? See our helpful article about boosting your paycheck by adjusting your tax withholding; our accompanying tax-withholding calculator makes it even easier.

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Start with the kids. Those are adult concerns. How do we raise financially literate children? “You need to start small and build on it,” says Lusardi. As someone who writes about kids and money, I have my own ideas about what they need to know before they leave home:

* How to manage a cash allowance.
* How to manage a checking account with a debit card.
* How to save for a goal.
* How to compare prices.
* How small amounts saved when you’re young can grow into big piles of money (see the calculator at Moneychimp.com).
* How long it takes to pay off credit card debt (use the calculator at Moneychimp.com).

Kids also need to know that they shouldn’t count on making their fortune by winning the lottery or inheriting a windfall. That only happens on Downton Abbey.

P.S. Planning for Alzheimer’s is a must-read for anyone who is concerned about coping financially with this disease.



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