Wall Street Story

Jonathan Clements

WE’RE A NATION DIVIDED, two camps clinging fervently to their own unshakeable beliefs and baffled at the nonsense that the other camp accepts as truth.

Yes, you guessed it: We’re talking about money management. Let’s call the two camps the Sharks and the Jets. What divides them? Here are seven fault lines:

1. Get Rich vs. Meet Goals. The Jets have one overriding goal—they want to make heaps of money—and they’ll hop any investment train that can get them there. Last year, they were buying tech stocks. This year, they’ve hitched their fortunes to a market-timing newsletter. Next year? It all depends what’s hot.

By contrast, the Sharks are focused less on getting rich, and more on amassing enough to meet various goals, such as retirement, a house down payment and college for the kids. They’re a sensible lot. Maybe even a little boring.

2. More vs. Enough. The Jets are certain that the more money they have, the better their lives will be. The Sharks are less certain, figuring more would be nice, but also sensing that money isn’t everything, and that the overarching goal is to avoid financial worries and have enough to lead the life they want.

3. Opportunists vs. Planners. The Jets are serial investors, buying one promising investment after another, without much thought to how these investments fit together in a portfolio. The Sharks take a more methodical approach: They start by figuring out what sort of investment mix makes sense, given their goals, stomach for risk and what’s happening in their broader financial life. They then buy investments to fill each slot in their target portfolio.

4. Aim for the Stars vs. Avoid the Gutter. A quick way to get rich is to bet everything on a few stocks. Unfortunately, it’s also a quick way to get poor. The Jets like their chances.

The Sharks don’t. They know investing is always risky. But they don’t want to take more risk than is absolutely necessary, so they avoid big bets on individual stocks and instead own a globally diversified portfolio.

5. I’m Smart vs. They’re Probably Smarter. The Jets are a self-confident lot, figuring that—with hard work and some street savvy—they can outpace the market averages. The Sharks have seen the statistics showing how badly active managers perform, they’ve taken a close look at their own performance—and they aren’t at all confident.

Result: The Sharks are happy to buy index funds and match the market’s performance. Instead of trying to pick winners, they get their kicks from cutting investment costs, minimizing taxes and regularly rebalancing their portfolio.

6. Investing vs. Personal Finance. The Jets focus almost exclusively on investing. That’s where the big money is to be made—and where the excitement is to be had. Other than a soft spot for rental real estate, their mental energy is devoted to hot stocks and star fund managers.

The Sharks, meanwhile, know investing is just one part of the financial game. They also spend time managing their debts, finding ways to save more, buying the right insurance and planning their estate.

7. It’ll Work Out vs. Nothing Left to Chance. The Jets know they probably ought to sock away more money. But they figure that, one way or another, they’ll get their debts paid off and have plenty for retirement.

The Sharks are more uptight. They do everything possible to stack the odds in their favor: They save diligently, minimize taxes, hold down investment costs, diversify broadly, pick their insurance policies carefully and take on debt cautiously.

Almost all of HumbleDollar’s readers will, of course, count themselves among the Sharks. We’re befuddled by the Jets’ world and they’re scornful of ours. But fear not: There’s no need for a gang war. Time will reveal who’s right—not that there’s any doubt about the outcome.

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