Making sense out of challenging world
Sometimes I borrow from other disciplines ideas I feel compelled to use in my own writing. I find myself, while writing about medicine, reading the advice of professors of literature, writers and poets.
On other occasions, I had asked questions like, What can doctors learn from symphonic orchestras, or from NASCAR race-driving teams? So recently, because I have been writing a lot about diet, I decided to explore the way personal finance experts think. After all, I thought, diet is about numbers, calories consumed and calories expended, a balance of income and expenses–a matter of simple arithmetic just like in personal finance. Or is it really?
I directed my attention to the book “The Index Card: Why Personal Finance Doesn’t Have to Be Complicated” written by Helaine Olen and Harold Pollack and published in 2016.
Helaine Olen is an opinion columnist focusing on politics, economics, and American life. She has been writing for The Washington Post, and has authored, or co-authored three books; “The Index Card” is one of them; another is “The Employee Handbook for Finding–and managing–Romance on the Job.” Harold Pollack is a professor at the University of Chicago whose research has focused on public health and health policy.
“The Index Card” is based on the idea that the best financial advice for most people would fit on an Index Card. “If you’re paying for someone for [financial] advice,” Pollack said, ” … you’re probably getting the wrong advice because the correct advice is so straightforward.”
Can medical advice, or more specifically, diet advice, fit on an index card? I quickly compiled an over-simplified, yet probably helpful, list of rules: Don’t smoke; Avoid excessive alcohol; Don’t do drugs unless prescribed by a physician; Eat healthy; Exercise plenty but safely; Don’t engage in any activity that calls for a helmet; and Call your mom twice a week. I will give you some straightforward diet advice later.
The idea of simplifying financial advice, or any advice, is highly attractive. In a world of complexity, who wouldn’t welcome blissful simplicity? On the other hand, I reminded myself, oversimplification could be dangerous. Ignore the intricacies of life, or fail to heed the advice of professionals, and you may find yourself in trouble.
Some of the advice in The Index Card is about saving and some is about investing the money you have saved and avoiding unnecessary investing fees and taxes. Here are some examples: 1. Max your 401k or equivalent employee contribution. 2. Buy inexpensive, well diversified mutual funds such as Vanguard Target 20XX funds. 3. Never buy or sell individual security. 4. Save 20% of your money (this number, 20%, appeared on the original index card, but in the book, it was reduced to 10%). And 5. Pay your credit card in full every month. The list includes four other items, and it does fit on an index card.
Admittedly, most of the items on the index card are familiar to anyone interested in personal finance and are available, for free, on most financial websites. Is there value, then, in reading the book, or in magnet-clipping the card onto the door of your refrigerator? I ask myself, if I were to write the equivalent set of rules, but on the subject of diet, wouldn’t my Diet Index Card also state the obvious? Wouldn’t it be completely redundant?
The answer in my mind is clear. For the privileged few, there is a world of expert advice: Personal coaches, accountants, financial advisors, and lawyers who promise a future of material comfort. Psychologists, physicians, and personal trainers who create a future of harmony, good health, and well being.
But for a great number of people, life is a series of challenges in a confusing world. For these people, questions such as how to earn more, save enough, invest wisely are in dire need for simple, short, good-enough answers.
Yes, I am talking about diet advice that can fit on an index card. But before I give you my Diet Index Card, I need to tell you a bit about the chemistry and arithmetics of weight loss, or, in other words, When somebody loses weight, where does the fat go? I will tell you more in my next column.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Shahar Madjar is a urologist at Aspirus and the author of “Is Life Too Long? Essays about Life, Death and Other Trivial Matters.” Contact him at email@example.com.