Here, I will seek to define several common personal finance terms that are often conflated and misunderstood.

Financial Literacy: There is no consensus definition of financial literacy, but I would say it is mainly concerned with having financial knowledge. However, personal finance is an eclectic field; having a high level of financial literacy requires knowledge in other areas, such as behavioral economics, psychology, information literacy, law, and even nutrition. Although financial literacy is usually correlated with good financial practices, this is not a given; one can easily have expertise but fail to apply it, or succumb to believing they are exceptional and can earn more in the stock market than others, or miraculously avoid a probable, deleterious outcome.

Financial Capability: I would define this as financial literacy combined with demonstrated financial competence, which hinges on consistently making good financial decisions, given one’s available choices and opportunities. What constitutes a “good” financial decision is not always clear, but we can often put items in rank order. For example, taking a payday loan is objectively worse than taking a credit card cash advance, because payday loans have far higher interest rates. One can have financial capability but not be able to do much with it—for instance, marginalized peoples and those in adverse situations. Conversely, privileged people may squander a portion of their privilege due to low financial capability. To be financial capable, one must not only make good financial decisions but also know why their decisions are good, and why they selected them over alternative courses of action. Such expertise should result in repeated beneficent decision-making, whereas someone of low financial capability might make a good choice by chance, but is unlikely to reliably do so.

Gambling: Many people conflate gambling and investing, but they are not the same thing. I define gambling as an act or series of acts where you are more likely to lose money than not, meaning that your expected returns are negative. However, there is an exception for insurance that insures against unmanageable losses, including losses that may potentially be unlimited (e.g., health insurance). Obviously, insurance companies have to come out ahead overall, but insurance is worthwhile to insure against unlikely but highly deleterious financial events. Returning to the element of likelihood, any student of statistics knows that if you gamble $1 with a 49% probability of coming away with $2 but a 51% probability of coming away with zero, your odds of making money are close to 50:50. But, if you keep making this bet again and again, your probability of losing money overall gets closer and closer to 100%. This is how lotteries and casinos produce guaranteed profits. When you invest in a broad swath of the stock market (e.g., an S&P 500 index fund), your probability of making money on any one trading day is about 54%. However, in a given year, it is about 83%, and in a given 10-year span, it is about 91%. Assuming you don’t need the money for a long time, this is investing, not gambling. However, if you try to pick stocks or put all your money in your company’s stock, your expected return might be negative, and there is a large risk of catastrophic loss. This is gambling. A kinder word is speculating, but it is certainly not investing.

Speculating: If you pick individual stocks or even entire market sectors, you are basically speculating. Buying gold, silver, oil, or corn futures is speculation. Buying BitCoin is speculation. These assets don’t have a solid track record of producing real returns (after adjusting for inflation). Modern portfolio theory tells us that holding uncorrelated (diversified) assets can be advantageous, so it makes sense to have gold—but not more than a small percentage of your assets. Speculation is often better than gambling, but certainly worse (as a decision) than investing. Although you might have fantastic results from speculating, this just means you had the unlikely fortune of making a bad decision that resulted in a good outcome. However, if this inflates your ego, it can easily lead to future misfortunes!

Investing: Over time, investing results in a probability of real returns that approaches 100%. As Vanguard mentions, for an S&P 500 index fund, which consists of 500 of the largest U.S. public companies invested proportionate to the companies’ market valuations, your probability of positive returns on any given day is 54%, but in ten years it is 91% (based on 1988–2018 data, but others have shown similar results even going back 100+ years). Besides the stock market, one can be successful at investing in real estate, or even one’s education, as those with more education tend to be more happy and successful in life, including financial success. Of course, there is presently a student loan “crisis” going on, and it is important to avoid high-cost tuition and housing expenses while also finishing your degree. On another note, investments must have a high probability of succeeding within a reasonable timeframe, and what is investing for one person could be gambling for another based on how soon they need the money (e.g., older people should have “safer” investments meaning less risk of short- and medium-term losses and lower expected returns).

I will follow this up with a Part 2 in the near future.

About Author:

I am an Education Ph.D. candidate (Instructional Design & Technology track) and technology instructor at University of Central Florida, Age 27. I have been keenly interested in personal finance for many years and want to improve the financial knowledge and behavior of others.


Two comments

  1. Great article. The topic on speculation stood out the most. I never really looked at Bitcoin as being speculation until now. It seemed like a great thing to get into because the masses were flocking to it but what is it actually attached to? Food for thought, huh!

    Thanks for sharing!

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