I wanted to do something slightly different this month and publish a speech I recently gave to a group of brilliant young people in Edinburgh. They all participated in the UK-wide Money for Life Challenge, where they were given grants worth £500 to come up with money management projects that would benefit the local community. The most effective schemes in Scotland were shortlisted for the regional final, which took place at the Hub in Edinburgh. At the end of an insightful and very fun afternoon, the competition’s judges picked two groups to represent Scotland at the national final in London later this month. I was very flattered to be asked to speak at this event and share my thoughts on why money awareness is a crucial step towards fulfilment and comfort in life. Enjoy.
Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. First of all, may I offer my sincere congratulations to all of you who have given this challenging proposal your thought, energy and time over the past year. I hope – and indeed, I’m confident – that today’s events will be fitting recognition of all the hard work you’ve put in. Perhaps not blood, but sweat and tears must surely have been shed!
Further to that, let me start by adding a possibly controversial note to the proceedings, and assure you that the total value of this competition does NOT lie in the fact that it is……a COMPETITION.
That might seem like an odd thing to say, given that you have all made a huge effort to come down here today, travelling from all four corners of the country, to present your fantastic ideas to us, and we have just finished the unenviable task of choosing schemes worthy of recognition from an extremely strong shortlist. You might ask yourself just how hard can it be, but at times, I wished I was on your side of the door during the deliberation process. You are the ones who have just finished a long, satisfying journey and can feel immensely proud of your achievements. We have just dropped in at the end, and we had to choose between projects, all of which have been a resounding success, starting from truly ingenious ideas and carried out with commitment, discipline and real class. Yes, the possibility of winning will have been a really useful motivation for you all, something to spur you on when the going got tough. And hopefully, it will have been an invaluable preparation going forward for what we know is a very tough jobs market out there, which can all too often feel like one gigantic competition.
But nobody, I hope, will come away from today feeling that the outcome of the ceremony will determine whether your project has been a personal triumph or not. Because it has. Today presents a priceless opportunity to market yourselves to a much wider audience than ever possible before. You have already made a strong impression on everyone here with your eye-catching stalls, and there’ll be a chance to network with movers and shakers later on, one I urge you to grab with both hands.
So don’t forget – you’re all members of a highly select group now. You’re the ones who had the guts to take this up and see it through. What this competition has done for your employment and entrepreneurial prospects can hardly be put into words. Whether it’s a company or small firm you want to work for in the future, or a financial backer you may seek for a business idea, they can’t fail to be impressed by your experience in having superb brainwaves, working in teams, drawing up plans, promoting products and drumming up interest among the public. It’s all music to their ears.
But furthermore, through this competition, you’ve also all just been admitted into a privileged elite – those in society who have really grasped the key to survival. These folks don’t necessarily have fancy jobs or come from a wealthy background. In fact, it could be because of, not in spite of, those reasons that they’ve come to understand what really matters. Before I go on to explain why these people have the upper hand in life, let’s pause and ask a question.
How many of you really thought about money management before you entered this challenge? ……
There’s no shame in admitting that it never crossed your mind before you had to sit down and come up with a plan for this competition. Because when I was your age, I was exactly the same. I still obsess about the same things that you guys love – fashion, music, cinema – although somebody near your age told me the other day that I must be way too old to know who Harry Styles is. We’ll let that one slide.
When we’re young, we mostly focus on how we SPEND money. Indeed we’re encouraged to think that way by companies advertising their products. I never stopped to seriously question where all the cash came from, and how hard people have to work for it – not until I left education and was more or less told “You’re on your own now, kid.”
For some children, growing up in a home that’s constantly feeling the pinch, or more seriously on the poverty line, can make them aware of how much money – or the lack of it – affects lives. But many might go through their school days, even having lessons in personal finance, and not be guaranteed to come out at the other end much the wiser. Indeed, I’ve seen numerous examples of young people who just can’t get their head round the concept of budgeting, forget to save what they can, and get into a right muddle with debt, even though they’re perfectly aware that smarter money management would enhance their lives no end. Why is this?
Maybe it’s because being in charge of your own personal balance sheet can seem like such a faraway prospect right now. It certainly did to me when I was younger. Perhaps there’s a lack of dedicated, engaging coverage of personal finance issues that young people can access. It’s one reason I set up a blog and began writing about this stuff for young people online. But there isn’t exactly a huge swathe of similar websites out there that are on the side of young people, or indeed written by someone going through the same things that you are.
Maybe all this bad news about the economy is causing people to give up on the idea that they can lead secure lives, and have enough money for the things they want and need. How much can we possibly affect our own financial destiny, when we always see depressing stories in the media about youth unemployment, the difficulties of buying a home, and the sheer cost of everyday goods?
Right now, there isn’t a whole lot we can do to change that harsh reality out there, though making your voice heard – and, when the time comes, making your vote count – is crucial.
It was the Indian legend Gandhi who said “Be the change you want to see in the world”, and I find that inspiring. So if you want your town and country to be a more comfortable and prosperous place in the future, it can’t do any harm to aspire to be more comfortable and prosperous yourself– right here and now! And I think this competition has shown just how much control you really have over your financial situation.
It’s obvious none of us are born with an innate sense of money management. People may think they are “useless” with money but it isn’t a personality trait. Okay, some people have a mathematical brain or have always had good willpower. Others may be better organised or more cautious than others. Good for them. All these characteristics do help, but I’m personally not lucky enough to have been born with all of them, particularly the mathematical brain, and it doesn’t mean those of us may struggle with these things should give up and go home. Much of what we need to know is down to some simple rules and basic common sense. And, in my case, a working calculator.
We acquire attitudes to money as we grow up, taking note of what we see around us, often unconsciously, and then applying it to our adult lives. And that means we can re-think our behaviour if it is no longer working for us, or could get us into trouble further down the line. But the sooner we start questioning how we make financial decisions, the better.
But you guys have cause to celebrate, because you ‘get it’. You are now in that privileged elite, the people I described as having the real “upper hand” in life, who have become engaged with money management. So what have you, and I, really learned about money management since we woke up and realised its value? Well, I’ll quickly tell you how it’s changed my life and hopefully my experiences won’t be a million miles away from yours.
Number one – it doesn’t mean cutting back the whole time. In the past, I wouldn’t see my friends as much as I would have liked to because I was scared, irrationally, about spending money. Since starting my blog, I’ve realised we should all be able to make up our minds whether little, or even big luxuries are genuinely worth it. One of the schemes entered into the competition rightly made me question whether buying a skinny latte mocha syrup macchiato frappachino with chocolate flakes on top every day was genuinely a good use of money. Of course, for some people, that insanely complicated cup of coffee really helps get through the day and it’s an area they’re not prepared to economise on. That’s their right and we all totally respect that. The point is that people should, ideally, have their financial house in order to be able to make that decision rationally.
Number two – we no longer have to judge the quality of our lives based on what possessions we have. I now spend more time cultivating the things I do have rather than pining for the things I don’t. We have to decide what’s ultimately good for us, even if we reach the conclusion that those things are cheap or free, as we strive to create and afford that meaningful life.
Number three – being thrifty doesn’t necessarily mean rifling through rubbish bins and skips. It’s also about buying things that last, something even the Royal Family practices when Kate Middleton steps out in dresses and shoes she’s worn numerous times before. It’s about being creative with what we have, as one of the ‘upcycling’ schemes entered into the competition demonstrated, to give things a whole new lease of life.
Number four – high cost doesn’t always equate to high quality. As Dolly Parton once said, “it costs a lot of money to look this cheap”. I now know from experience that rummaging about in charity shops can result in finding an amazing vintage Armani dress. A number of you have highlighted the benefits of looking away from big brands, particularly when out shopping for food, and getting a better deal on economy or just more bog-standard products. I’ve also come to realise that you don’t have to head to the nearest rooftop, get out a loudspeaker and tell everyone how much your food, clothes and everything else costs. A lot of the time, people will never be able to tell, much less care about it.
Number five – being good with money has highly positive effects on other areas in our lives. It might give our health a boost, as proved in the schemes you came up with that incentivised people to quit smoking and get out in the fresh air. Or it might encourage you to be more sociable and enterprising in your community, which was the outcome of all the schemes we saw. You never know – it may even lead you to your real calling in life. It certainly opened up a whole new career path for someone stood on this stage right now.
I could go on and on, but you’ve probably heard enough of my thoughts to last a lifetime! So let me end, ladies and gentlemen, by telling you the most important conclusion I’ve reached, and one I hope the exceptional young people here today will agree with.
Being savvy takes practice. Practice every day of your lives, because it might not come naturally and at times, it certainly won’t come easily. I said earlier on, if you can remember that far back, that one reason I started the blog was to provide a source of information and solidarity for young people. But another reason was a purely selfish one, I’m afraid. It helped me practice how to be good with money at a time when I was more or less starting from scratch. I wrote and researched my blogs every week, honing them until I thought I’d got the topics down pat. And I’m still practising every day of my life, even though I’m now establishing myself as a financial writer, and I’m getting much better every time.
After quoting Gandhi and Dolly Parton I’m going to finish with Aristotle! The Greek philosopher said 2000 years ago that you learn ‘virtues’, which he believed consisted of things like courage, and self-control, through doing them. Well, if Aristotle was around today, looking at the unprecedented and complex financial pressures we face, I dare say he would add financial shrewdness to that list of virtues. And for that reason, I think he would have been as proud as we all are of these canny young Scots, who have certainly made me feel deeply honoured to be here this afternoon. Thank you very much.