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Financial Lessons From Country Music

Trace Adkins plays guitar in front of a USO banner
Trace Adkins performing at Ramstein Air Base, June 2016.
Photo by Airman 1st Class Joshua Magbanua, courtesy the U.S. Air Force.

Most people’s minds wander far from financial planning when they turn on their favorite music, but not mine. As a financial planner living in Austin, Texas, the “Live Music Capital of the World,” I tune in for financial lessons when I listen to music.

Here are a few lessons I’ve taken from some of my favorite country songs.

1. Take Advantage Of Favorable Circumstances. When I saw Artie Hemphill and The Iron Horse Band perform in Nashville, their cover of “Makin’ Hay” first sparked my realization that country music contains pearls of financial wisdom.

The song proclaims, “Makin’ hay while the sun is shining/ Leap of faith, got to take that chance/Miracles have their own sense of timing/Got to be ready to make hay/While the sun is shining.”

While the song is about romance, the lessons apply to personal finance too. People should focus on making as much “hay” as possible in their peak earning years. For most people, this will be in their 40s and 50s, but others, like entertainers or sports stars, may experience an earlier or briefer peak. Saving and investing when you are at the top of your career will make the rest of life more comfortable.

Another important takeaway from this song is that your portfolio has “got to be ready to make hay” at all times. People often try to sell stocks when they have a premonition that the market may drop, planning to buy back in before the market recovers. Unfortunately, even professional investors fail to time the market successfully. Missing just a few of the best days in the market leads to substantially lower annual returns. Because the days with large positive return have “their own sense of timing”, it’s best to maintain a long-term asset allocation that fits your risk profile rather than your stock market weather forecast.

2. Be Wary Of Over-The-Top Promises. George Strait’s hit “Ocean Front Property” includes the lines, “I got some oceanfront property in Arizona/from my front porch you can see the sea./I got some oceanfront property in Arizona./If you’ll buy that I’ll throw the Golden Gate in free.” The lines are meant to emphasize the other claims he makes in the song are also tongue-in-cheek.

While Strait’s con would be easy for most people to catch, real-life investment scams are often harder to spot. Studies have shown that people’s ability to make good financial decisions declines sharply in their 70s and 80s, so retirees are even more susceptible to being taken advantage of than younger investors.

Investors should also be wary of sales manipulation. A salesperson’s job is to sell you a product, not to do what is in your best interest. Because many people lack the ability or inclination to delve into the fine print of a deal, it is important to have a trusted adviser who is held to a fiduciary standard to act in your best interest. Be especially careful with decisions that involve large sums of money or locking into a deal for several years.

3. Not Everything Goes According To Plan. Fans of country music know there is no shortage of songs about breakups. Trace Adkins’ irreverent song “Marry for Money,” starts out like many of them, detailing the breakdown of a past relationship built on love. But Adkins decides to pursue a different course for his second marriage. He sings, “And I learned a lesson I won't be forgetting/Next time around/I’m gonna marry for money.” Adkins’ sentiments might be in the minority, but they are a reminder that some people out there do marry for money. More often marriages are entered into with only love in mind, but something goes wrong after the fact and splitting finances becomes a problem. Since both of these possibilities exist, couples should consider prenuptial agreements and other planning before marriage.

4. Setbacks Can Ultimately Turn Out For The Best. Luke Bryan’s “Rain Is a Good Thing” is all about maintaining perspective. The song reminds city-dwellers that the rain they complain about makes farmers celebrate. Days that may seem bad on the surface are essential for future growth. This is also true where money is concerned. As long as you invest on a long time horizon, you can – and should – remind yourself that market pullbacks are natural and create buying opportunities.

5. Be Prepared For The Unexpected. Tim McGraw’s “Live Like You Were Dying” tells the story of man in his 40s who receives a potentially terminal diagnosis and uses the opportunity to evaluate his remaining time. The lyrics include “bucket list” items like skydiving, but also talk about the importance of taking the time to be a good husband, father and friend.

The advice to live life to the fullest because you never know when your time will be up is hardly new, whether coming from me or McGraw. But the song serves as a reminder that we may have less time than we think. Properly preparing for your own, potentially unexpected death can be unpleasant but is necessary. A complete will, sufficient life insurance and other estate planning basics give you peace of mind, even if you don’t yet need to “live like you were dying.”

6a. There’s More To Life than Money. As a financial planner, I constantly outline and analyze the financial aspects of decisions facing my clients. However, often the most important factors in a decision are not financial. It seems like the whole country genre emphasizes this fact.

Zac Brown Band’s “Chicken Fried” celebrates the simple pleasures of good food, loved ones and, of course, music. “It’s funny how it’s the little things in life that mean the most;/Not where you live, what you drive or the price tag on your clothes./There's no dollar sign on a peace of mind, this I've come to know.” Dierks Bentley’s “Free and Easy (Down the Road I Go)” shares a similar message, reminding the listener you “can’t take it with you when you go.” And Montgomery Gentry’s “Something to Be Proud Of” encourages the listener: “You don’t need to make a million/just be thankful to be workin’. /If you’re doing what you’re able/and putting food there on the table/and providing for the family that you love/that’s something to be proud of.”

Much of country music centers on the true joy that comes from family, friends and being content with what you have. How much you need to save for retirement and how much you can spend during your lifetime depend, in part, on your values and your expectations. Maximizing wealth is not always the right answer to any financial question.

6b. Money Isn’t Everything, But Can Help With Some Things. I’ll leave you with a thought from Chris Janson’s “Buy Me a Boat:” “Money can’t buy everything. /Well, maybe so. /But it can buy me a boat.”

While I can’t, in good conscience, suggest you rely on country music alone for all your financial planning advice, your playlist can help keep you on the right track if you listen to the right songs. What financial lesson have you learned from a song?

Client Service Manager Benjamin C. Sullivan, who is based in our Austin, Texas office, contributed several chapters to our firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55, including Chapter 13, “Federal Income Tax,” and Chapter 16, “Investment Psychology.”

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3 Responses to "Financial Lessons From Country Music"

  • P. Miller
    February 24, 2017 - 10:50 am

    Not a country song, but I’ve tried to live by the Rolling Stones credo:

    You can’t always get what you want /
    But if you try sometimes well you might find /
    You get what you need

    It reminds me to work hard and to focus not on what I missed out on, but rather understand that I’m getting what I really need.

    I’ve succeeded better than I thought I might have, so I also think about Confederate Railroad singing

    Yeah, life’s just fine for me an’ my honey
    We’re happy just bein’ white trash with money

    • Brenda Rogers
      February 28, 2017 - 6:18 pm

      It’s amazing how we all think about our futures and the fact that keeping something back for a rainy dies apply and a good investment is always with it and being smart about living and loving is wise. But, no one knows what tomorrow holds so enjoy life at its fullest and live with all you have.

  • Pat Rogers
    March 23, 2017 - 1:56 pm

    I always knew that Austin would change you Ben. Do you have your own band yet?