Wrong Approach

Dennis Friedman

I WORKED FOR MORE than 30 years in manufacturing, poring over data and paying attention to every detail that would impact production. As a project manager, I was responsible for making sure hardware was delivered on time, with no cost overruns or quality issues.

If we weren’t meeting deadlines or spending too much money, I was required to report these problems to upper management. They would ask me three questions: “What are you going to do about it? When will it get fixed? Oh, by the way, you aren’t going to make us late in delivering the hardware to our customer. You understand that?”

Working in that type of environment, you quickly learn to be proactive. You need to stay on top of things and try to prevent matters from going wrong. When they did, you’d better have a plan to fix it.

I thought, if I can manage millions of dollars of hardware going through the factory, I can surely manage my investment portfolio—so I used the same approach. When the stock market would turn down and my portfolio started to lose gobs of money, I would ask myself, “What I’m going to do about it? How am I going to fix it?”

My on-the-job training would then kick in and I would pore over financial data, trying to find the right investments to get my portfolio back on track. Over the years, I was in and out of more than 40 different mutual funds or exchange-traded funds (ETFs), 12 different fund families and countless individual stocks. I was a walking encyclopedia when it came to mutual funds, ETFs and stocks.

I created elaborate excel spreadsheets, replete with formulas, to give me detailed information about my investment portfolio. I updated these spreadsheets every day. If my portfolio wasn’t performing as I thought it should, I would make investment changes.

If I couldn’t find the right fix, I would just exit the market entirely. There would be months when I would be completely out of the market. I would then turn my attention to current events, looking for anything that would be an indicator to get back in.

When I look back, what did I learn that could be helpful to everyday investors?

  1. You really only need two funds for the stock portion of your portfolio: a total U.S. stock market index fund and a total international stock market index fund. This gives you broad diversification with low expenses. More important, it takes away one of the biggest risks of investing: underperforming the stock market.
  2. You should never try to time the stock market, by jumping in and out of stocks. Almost all of the stock market’s gain is concentrated in relatively few trading days. Missing out on those days can have a terrible impact on your portfolio’s performance.
  3. The best investment vehicle is a mutual fund. Unless there’s a big difference in annual expenses, choose a mutual fund over an ETF. An ETF trades like a stock, so you can buy and sell throughout the trading day. That’s when you get into trouble. You need to slow down the investment process, so you don’t make an emotional knee-jerk decision. That’s why I prefer mutual funds. The price of a mutual fund is set at the close of each trading day. It gives you more time to think about what you’re about to do.
  4. You can overcome most investment mistakes. Look at me: I made many mistakes and still met my main financial goal of retiring early.
  5. The two most important things you can do: Start investing early and be a good saver. That’s what rescued me from all my investment mistakes.

Today, I’m retired. I no longer have to answer questions about manufacturing problems. I also no longer pore over truckloads of financial data. Instead, I turned my portfolio over to a financial advisor. I’m out of the investing business. My job now is to spend the money.

Dennis Friedman retired from Boeing Satellite Systems after a 30-year career in manufacturing. Born in Ohio, Dennis is a California transplant with a bachelor’s degree in history and an MBA. A self-described “humble investor,” he likes reading historical novels and about personal finance. His previous articles include Before You LeaveLighten the Load and Better to Be Rich? Follow Dennis on Twitter @DMFrie.

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