Sometimes I borrow ideas from other disciplines that I feel compelled to use in my own writing. I find myself, writing about medicine, reading the advice of professors of literature, writers and poets. On other occasions, I had asked questions such as: What can doctors learn from symphony orchestras or NASCAR racing teams? So recently, because I’ve written a lot about food, I decided to explore how personal finance experts think. After all, I thought, diet is all about numbers, about calories in and calories out, about balancing income and outgoings—just a matter of arithmetic, just like in personal finance. Or is it really?
I directed my attention to the book “The Fact Sheet: 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 specializing in politics, economics, and American life. She has written for The Washington Post and has authored or co-authored three books; The plug is one of them; another is “The Employee Handbook for Finding and Managing Workplace Romance.” 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 a card. “If you pay for someone to [financial] tips,” Pollack said, “…you’re probably getting the wrong advice because the right advice is so simple.”
Can medical advice, or more specifically dietary advice, fit on a card? I quickly compiled an oversimplified but probably useful list of rules: don’t smoke; Avoid excess alcohol; Do not take medication unless prescribed by a doctor; Eat healthy; Exercise plenty but safely; Do not engage in any activity that requires a helmet; and Call your mother twice a week. I’ll give you some simple dietary advice later.
The idea of simplifying financial advice, or any other advice, is very appealing. In a world of complexity, who wouldn’t appreciate blissful simplicity? On the other hand, I reminded myself, oversimplification could be dangerous. Ignore the complexities of life or disregard the advice of professionals and you could 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 investment 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 securities. 4. Save 20% of your money (this number, 20%, was on the original sheet, but in the book it was reduced to 10%). And 5. Pay off your credit card in full each month. The list includes four other items and fits on one index card.
Certainly, most of the items on the sheet are familiar to anyone interested in personal finance and are available, free of charge, on most financial websites. So is there any value in reading the book or hanging the map by magnet on your refrigerator door? I wonder, if I were to write the equivalent set of rules, but about diet, wouldn’t my diet index card also state the obvious? Wouldn’t that be completely redundant?
The answer in my mind is clear. For a select few, there is a world of expert advice: personal coaches, accountants, financial advisers and lawyers who promise a future of material comfort. Psychologists, doctors and personal trainers who create a future of harmony, good health and well-being. But for many 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 urgently need simple, short, and good enough answers.
Yes, I’m talking about dietary advice that can fit on a card. But before I give you my diet index card, I need to tell you a bit about the chemistry and arithmetic of weight loss, or, in other words, when someone loses weight, where going fat? I will tell you more about it in my next column.
Dr. Shahar Madjar, MD, MBA, is a doctor specializing in urology.