how to make yourself an expert

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I know I’ve said this before, but I’ve never had any debt in my life other than a mortgage and a one-time, ill-advised car loan that I paid off three years early. I have taken advantage of “0% down until 2011” types of offers, but I’ve always taken the money needed to pay for the item, set it aside and treated it as if it was already spent. I just don’t do debt.

Would you seek advice from a guy who’s been skinny his whole life – about dieting? I guess you might. Plenty of people are “experts” in things they’ve never experienced. It’s not a prerequisite for dieticians to be a formerly obese person. Conversely, a formerly obese person might not be the best person to ask about dieting. For all you know, they got a gastric band and lost weight without ever learning self-discipline.

Would you take ‘get out of debt’ advice from someone who’s never been in debt? Or career advice from someone who’s always been a career coach and never actually held down a job? Can someone actually be a high school guidance counselor if they’ve never been anything but a high school guidance counselor?

I’d like to think I’m an expert in quite a few things. The guys on CNBC and writing at the Wall Street Journal might also like you to think they are experts. Maybe they are. Maybe I am. I have never taken a course in personal finance. Maybe they haven’t, either. Certification helps – CPA, JD, etc. – but often we assume people are experts because of the way they talk, or dress or because other people tell us they are. But let’s assume we’re talking about “real” experts – people who do understand a particular subject.

Why are experts smarter than we are? They aren’t. They spent more time on a subject, studied more, worked harder or even just experienced something sooner than we did. I can give advice on getting out of debt but I’ve never done it myself. I can talk about the procedures anyone needs to take to get out of debt: stop incurring new debt, spend less than you earn, start paying down the debts and then (optionally) learn how to earn more. Can I talk about the psychology of ‘getting out of debt?’ Freezing the credit cards or cutting them up seems almost childish to me, but I realize that to many people it’s a moment of victory, of success. Someone who’s been thin all their lives might look at my advice on weight loss and think “sheesh, why didn’t he just put down the damn Doritos before he got so fat?” It’s not that easy.

Finding an expert therefore becomes a struggle. In money, should you trust Dave Ramsey, Robert Kiyosaki or Suze Orman, very successful people who are, in part, trying to make money off their advice? Should you trust bloggers, who trudge along the same streets as you? Or CNBC reporters who entertain while they analyze? The ability to trust is different from person to person. By nature, I’m cynical and tend not to trust. By profession (auditor), I tend not to trust.

The lesson: the only expert in your own life is you. If you are lucky, you have trusted advisors without agendas who want to help you: spouses, relatives, friends, teachers or colleagues. At the end of the day, though, don’t assume that someone who isn’t in your shoes can tell you how to lose weight or succeed at work or get out of debt. Take some responsibility for making yourself into an expert.

photo by alancleaver_2000