YOU MENTION to a colleague that longtime smokers shorten their life expectancy by an average of 10 years. Your colleague responds by talking about his grandmother who smoked a pack every day until she died at age 98. We all know that the statistic should trump the anecdote. But on the conversational scoreboard, it’s one point for both sides—and, three weeks later, you can’t help but recall the grandmother’s story.
The same thing happens with personal finance all the time.
It’s often a struggle to get people to agree on how best to analyze key financial questions. What rate of return should we use when weighing whether it’s better to claim Social Security retirement benefits early or late? Should we consider the leverage provided by a mortgage—as well as the interest cost incurred—when assessing the pros and cons of homeownership? What time period should we use when judging the effectiveness of different investment strategies?
But even if we can agree on such issues, the anecdotal riposte is almost always a killer:
That said, it strikes me that investment discussions—as well as debates over money and happiness—tend to be a tad more thoughtful than other financial arguments. During our lifetime, each of us might own just three or four homes, and we only get to claim Social Security once. Result: We simply don’t have many data points to consider, unless we make a serious effort to research the issue.
By contrast, over our lives, we might make hundreds and perhaps thousands of investment decisions. True, we may fall into various behavioral traps, conveniently forgetting our losers, blaming our bad investments on others and assuming our winners have fared better than they really have. But often, the weight of our many mediocre investment decisions eventually sinks in—and (you were expecting me to say this) the logic of indexing proves irresistible. The $1.6 trillion flowing into U.S. stock index funds over the past decade—and the $1.3 trillion flowing out of actively managed funds—are a testament to that.
Similarly, during the course of our lives, we make thousands of consumer purchases—and the cumulative disappointments take their toll and we gradually become less convinced that money can reliably buy happiness. That’s why we tend to make smarter use of our dollars as we grow older. The young assume that the next possession will bring long-lasting happiness. The old know that the happiness from the latest shopping spree will likely prove fleeting—which is why they shun possessions and instead focus on buying experiences, especially experiences enjoyed with friends and family.