A colleague recently sent me a link to Gwen Ifill’s Wake Forest commencement speech from a few years ago where she explained the difference between skeptics and cynics. “Cynics think they know the answers already and they stop listening. Skeptics always have more questions to ask but are willing to be persuaded to the honesty of an alternative point of view.”

I have noticed that we claim to be skeptics when we are really cynics. Here is a test: Who won the recent government shutdown fight, the Republicans or the Democrats? If you answered either, I suggest you are a cynic. Other than sports and elections, there are not many areas where we either win or lose.

Most of the time, especially when it comes to financial planning, a skeptical view is helpful. Here are some cynical statements that could use some skepticism:

Debt is bad. Really? In general, borrowing on a credit card is not an optimum strategy, but sometimes you may have to do it. If you are a recent college graduate, you may need to charge an interview outfit. If you recently lost your job, you may need to use credit to tide you over. Using credit isn’t right or wrong, but having authority over how you spend is what is important. Be skeptical about borrowing, but understand that there may be times where you have few options.

My partner spends too much. Blanket statements are the hallmark of the cynic. What does that comment mean? It may mean that you don’t place the same value on the things that your partner does. It may mean that you feel like you haven’t fully developed a savings or investment strategy. It may mean that your partner is a prolific spender. Your partner may think you are a tightwad. Most likely you are both right and both wrong. The conversation should be about developing shared values rather than making proclamations. Maybe the partner who spends has created lifelong experiences. Maybe the more frugal partner has helped create options for retirement. Be skeptical of your judgments and your relationship will improve.

Do what you love and the money will follow. How so? Explore whether you love something enough that money is not as important. See if you can at least do what you love outside of work. Pursuing what you love can be a worthy objective, but often you have to be willing to compromise in other areas.

I think it is usually better to ask than tell. Feel free to question that.

Spend your life wisely.


Ross Levin is the CEO & founder of Accredited Investors Wealth Management in Edina.