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Keeping It Simple

David Gartland

“I NEVER MEMORIZE anything I can look up.” Albert Einstein, it seems, said this or something similar. I first heard the quote in my freshman physics class. The teacher asked a student to recite a formula. The student’s response: “I never memorize anything I can look up.”

I’ve adopted the same philosophy. My wife loves to point out that I don’t remember the names of streets in our neighborhood. But I don’t need to know them. I don’t live on those streets. I never provide directions to anyone who wants to go down those streets. Why fill my brain with unnecessary facts?

We humans make decisions on a daily basis that require remembering certain facts: your name, address, Social Security number, mother’s maiden name. You could look these up, but it’s more efficient to memorize them since they’re required on a frequent basis.

But what about other facts? I have a terrible memory. I know this, and it doesn’t bother me. I write down the facts that I think I’ll need, and I know where to find them. Consider my cell phone, which I keep in my car. I don’t remember the number, but I can look it up when I need it.

While president, Barack Obama owned only blue and gray business suits, so he wouldn’t have to give much thought to what he’d wear on any given day and hence make yet another decision. I understand this logic.

Many people are familiar with KISS, short for keep it simple, stupid. Keeping things simple means my days are simpler—and there’s less chance that I or my wife will make mistakes.

For instance, I use the same mutual fund for my Roth account as my wife uses. My theory is that, when I die and my wife consolidates our accounts, she’ll consolidate my Roth with hers, and not make the mistake of mixing traditional IRA dollars with Roth dollars and thus pay unnecessary taxes. Let’s hope my plan works.

My wife and I have all our retirement monies with the same mutual fund company. As with my Roth, I have just one mutual fund in my traditional IRA. I like simple and, again, I believe it’ll be easier for my wife after I die.

We also use just one brick-and-mortar bank and one online bank for our joint accounts. That’s it. We could have more, but why? If I thought I was brilliant in moving money around, I’d invest more time in making financial moves.

But instead, I invest my time in trying to understand where I might trip up. Buying or selling usually involves trading costs, so fewer trades mean fewer costs. Maybe I’m leaving money on the table, but at least I’m not losing money. That’s more important to me than trying to make more.

I have a degree in mathematics, but I’m lousy at arithmetic. If I want to be sure I’m correct when I add or subtract, I need to use a calculator. I know this. I have the tool to get the job done. It’s simple and cheap, I know where to find it—and, when I need math answers, it allows me to look them up. Simple.

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