WHAT EXPLAINS America’s miserably low savings rate? There’s no shortage of suspects. You could finger our lack of self-control, as well as our tendency to favor today’s spending and shortchange tomorrow’s goals. You can cite seven decades of post-war prosperity, which has made Americans confident they can weather financial storms, despite skimpy savings and hefty debts. You could blame rising aspirations amid increasing income inequality, which have left low-income families spending ever more as they seek to keep up with the Joneses.
I PROMISE to behave better tomorrow. What happens when tomorrow becomes today? All bets are off.
Our broken promises might involve money, such as committing to spend less, save more and pay down debt. Or they might involve some other aspect of our life, such as committing to eat healthier, exercise more and drink less.
All this highlights our irrationality. We may not be experts in nutrition, physical education and money management. But we have a pretty good idea of how we ought to behave.
WALL STREET’S inhabitants have many unpleasant qualities: greed, arrogance, disdain for customers, inflated self-importance, a sense of entitlement. But all this is made worse by another unappealing trait: They’re so damn prickly.
The degree of prickliness is closely correlated with the outrageousness of the fees they charge. I saw this again and again during my decades as a financial journalist. I can’t recall an index-fund manager ever throwing a king-size snit, and it was rare that I got a nasty letter or email from a fee-only financial planner.
INVESTORS ARE HUMANS, TOO. In the rest of our life, we readily acknowledge that emotions play a huge role. But when handling money, we insist we’re entirely rational. Really? Here are 10 headscratchers that suggest otherwise:
Why do we concede that the car sitting out in the rain is a depreciating asset, and yet we’re convinced that the house sitting in the rain is a great investment?
Why do people, who are so optimistic about everything else,
IF YOUR GOAL is lower investment costs, the financial world has never been friendlier. Let’s say you want to buy the broad U.S. stock market. You can choose between a Schwab exchange-traded index fund that charges 0.03% of assets per year, an iShares ETF that levies 0.03% or a Vanguard mutual fund that costs 0.05%.
Those expense ratios are truly astonishing: If you had $100,000 to invest in the broad U.S. market, your annual fund expenses would be just $30 or $50.
WHEN I WAS AT CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY in the early 1980s, there was a popular joke, “What’s left of Cambridge economics? The answer: Absolutely nothing—there’s nothing to the left of Cambridge economics.” At a time when monetarism and supply side economics were on the rise in the U.S., Cambridge economics professors seemed more interested in exploring how to make Karl Marx relevant to the modern world. It was a quixotic quest—and seemed even more quixotic after the Berlin Wall’s collapse conclusively proved that Marx in practice wasn’t terribly popular.
MONEY ISN’T AN END in itself. Rather, it’s a means to other ends. But what ends? Some people have a good handle on what they want from their financial life. But for others, it’s a lifelong struggle. They purchase endless possessions that bring only fleeting pleasure. They pursue goals that they belatedly discover aren’t all that important to them. Result: money worries, excessive spending, mountains of debt and fierce family arguments.
How can we avoid this mess?
TODAY’S FINANCIAL ADVICE: JUST SAY NO. You can probably think of instances when an individual ought to ignore one or two of the suggestions below. Still, I’d argue that—if most folks followed these rules—they’d be far better off financially. Want a brighter financial future? Here are 51 things you shouldn’t do:
Don’t buy cash-value life insurance.
Don’t envy hedge fund investors.
Don’t write frequent checks against bond funds held in a taxable account.
Don’t carry a credit card balance.
PEOPLE LOVE to talk about themselves. Today’s subject: me. Over my three decades of investing, I have tried to cultivate three traits. In other circumstances, none would be especially endearing. But as an investor, they’re my best friends.
I’m clueless. Occasionally, I forget how ignorant I am. I might convince myself that I know where interest rates are headed or that I’ve found a stock market sector that’s truly undervalued. Fortunately, after 30 years of investing,
“ONLY BORROW to buy things that’ll appreciate in value.” This was a popular piece of financial wisdom in the 1980s, when I started writing about personal finance. But I can’t recall anyone saying it in recent years. Does that mean this wisdom is no longer wise?
Financial habits have obviously changed. I might make just a single cash machine withdrawal each month, because I put almost every expenditure on my two credit cards, which I use to buy groceries,
1. You’re so well diversified that you always own at least one disappointing investment.
2. Your livelihood isn’t riding on both your paycheck and your employer’s stock.
3. If the stock market’s performance over the next five years was miserable, you wouldn’t be.
4. You can remember the last time you rebalanced.
5. You have no clue how your investments will perform, but a great handle on how much they’ll cost you.
6. You don’t have any hot stocks to boast about.
TOO MUCH CHOICE can be paralyzing. This is the reason many 401(k) plans have winnowed the list of funds they offer: Thanks to the smaller selection, participants are less likely to feel overwhelmed—and more likely to make an investment decision, rather than leaving their cash to languish in the plan’s money market fund.
I think this is a good strategy for other areas of our finances. For instance, you may make smarter investment decisions if you limit your choice by,
RESTAURANT MEALS are my biggest discretionary expense. Want me as one of your customers? Here are my seven rules for restaurants:
If I made a reservation, don’t make me wait 10 minutes for a table.
Dim the goddamn lights. I look better in the dark. So does your restaurant.
Never sell a wine I can find in the liquor store. It’s one thing to suspect you’ve marked up the bottle by 300%. It’s another thing to know with absolute certainty.
THIS WEEKEND, I have been clearing out old computer files that contain half-baked column ideas that never saw the light of day. One such file contained jokes that brokers tell about everyday investors.
My goal was to illustrate the disdain with which Wall Street views its clients. Indeed, I can’t think of another business that is so scornful of its customers, regularly belittling their intelligence and viewing them not as clients to be helped but as sheep to be shorn.
IF THERE’S MONEY you’ll need to spend in the next 12 months, you don’t want to put it at risk, so savings accounts, money market funds and similar cash investments are the only prudent choice. But as your time horizon lengthens, holding cash becomes less and less appealing. The reason: Your money’s purchasing power is pretty much guaranteed to shrink, once inflation and taxes take their toll.
Got cash in your long-term investment portfolio?