My Superpower

David Johnson

NOW THAT I’M RETIRED, I have more time to reflect on the larger shape of my life—a tendency that’s lately been strengthened by the fairly common impulse to ponder what to accomplish in the new year.

The disturbing truth: An objective assessment of my life suggests I’m pretty boring. Of course, I’d long known that most other people were boring. But until recently, I hadn’t realized I was one of them.

I also didn’t realize that my capacity to enjoy what looked from the outside like a boring life is, in fact, my financial superpower. A minor superpower maybe, but it’s mine.

My boring life has been full of boring middle-class acts. I worked. I raised kids. I steadily but unspectacularly saved for my kids’ college education, saved for a vague and distant thing called retirement, saved for nearer-term costs.

Decisions to save sound like they require discipline. But in my case, they involved a few upfront choices, and then a long period where I was too lazy and boring to do anything different. I find it easier to be lazy than disciplined.

My investment decisions were also boring. I would decide how much to save and then dump most of it in diversified mutual funds. Most long-term savings were automatic and tax-advantaged. I didn’t think too much about them on a daily basis.

My theory of long-term investing is also boring. It comes in three parts.

First, everyone who has bet against the capacity of the U.S. economy to grow in the long run has lost that bet. It’s been a losing bet for 250 years. The same is true for long-term global growth. There’s only a small chance that some apocalypse will occur in my lifetime that will change that and, if something that catastrophic does happen, I don’t think my portfolio balance is going to be uppermost in my mind.

Second, long-term growth in the economy is correlated with long-term growth in publicly traded companies. I have no idea which companies will grow the most or which will fail, but a diversified mix of such companies will always get more valuable over long investment time horizons.

Third, I’m too boring to outperform the market, but it seems to me I don’t have to beat the market. In fact, the development of transparency in financial markets in my lifetime, along with easier access to those markets for small investors and innovations such as low-fee index funds, have made my lifetime a very good time to be boring. Bet on a diversified portfolio, hold on for a while and you win. It’s easier than working for a living and you don’t have to be smart or exciting.

One day, after a few decades of being boring—but sooner than I’d imagined—I realized with some surprise that I could retire if I wanted. I wish I could say that all of this was because I had a highly paid skill that earned me a substantially higher-than-average salary. But no, the most I ever earned was about $65,000 a year. My happy financial outcomes have mostly resulted from the accident of enjoying a boring life over a long period of time.

Having enough to retire isn’t just a matter of boring saving and investing; the other side of the coin is spending. Here again, being boring helps. I like to read. I like to write. I like to garden. I like to cook. I like to fish, hike and camp. Most important, I like to hang out with my family.

Anyone watching me do these things would be bored silly, but these activities bring me satisfaction and, at their core, are surprisingly inexpensive. Your list won’t be my list. But you do need to know what your list is. In your quest to be boring, consider the possibility that the purpose of money is not to buy toys, but rather to use money as a lever to make your life and that of others better.

I firmly believe that people should spend as much of their limited time as they can doing what brings them deep satisfaction. Don’t worry about what other people want. Pretend you’re a good person, and look to what you—as well as others you care about—need to lead an even better life.

No, you won’t be able to surrender to hedonism or get rid of all unpleasant tasks. The boring truth is, to do what you want, you have to spend some time doing things you don’t like. Nobody likes going to the dentist, for example, but life is better if your teeth don’t rot and fall out of your head.

To pursue the important, you need to have at least some money. For most of us, that means we have to spend a fair chunk of our life working. Figuring out how to use the money we get from work in service of the important, rather than the trivial, is a critical step. Budgeting, though boring, is vital in this process.

Most of us think budgeting mainly involves staring at unpleasant numbers that tell us we can’t have things we want. There is a bit of that. But a critical part of “doing a budget” should involve making a list of the things, people and actions we most value. Next make a list of how we actually spend not just our money, but also our time. Then see how much of our time is spent on what’s important to us.

If, like the vast majority of us, you find the two lists don’t match up very well, change your life for the boring. And for the better.

David Johnson retired in 2021 from editing hunting and fishing magazines. He spends his time reading, cooking, gardening, fishing, freelancing and hanging out with his family in Oregon. David’s previous article was What Is Retirement?

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