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.
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?
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.
1. 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,
“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,
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?
HOW DO OUR financial habits stack up? Academics Cristian Badarinza, John Y. Campbell and Tarun Ramadorai compared U.S. households with those of 12 other developed nations. Here are nine highlights:
Almost 50% of U.S. households are invested in the stock market, versus 34% in Finland, 25% in Spain, 24% in Germany and 23% in France.
Defined contribution retirement plans—think 401(k) plans and their ilk—are widespread in Australia, the U.K. and U.S., but are far rarer in continental Europe.
YOU WOULDN’T WANT to spend your entire life in the 0% tax bracket, but it’s a nice place to visit. Got stocks or stock funds in your taxable account? If you sell them in the right year, you could realize capital gains of almost $100,000 and perhaps more—and pay a 0% federal capital gains rate.
I was reminded of this loophole as I was flipping through Phil DeMuth’s latest book, The Overtaxed Investor,
I HAVE NEVER BEEN to Japan and can’t claim any special knowledge of the country—and yet lately it’s been much on my mind. Japan is today’s poster child not only for wretched long-run stock market performance, but also for what happens to economic growth when the workforce contracts. Still, Japan’s troubles make me an even bigger advocate of investing abroad. Below, I explain why.
Never Going Back
In late 2008 and early 2009,
THINK ABOUT the bad stuff that didn’t happen. Very few of us will have a year when we crash the car, our home burns down, our employer goes belly up and our big bet on a single stock goes way down. Yet all of these things could happen, which is why we buy auto and homeowner’s insurance, keep an emergency reserve and avoid big bets on a single stock.
Sound sensible? There are two great dangers.
IF YOU WANT to feel short, stand next to somebody tall. Want to feel badly about your portfolio? Compare it to the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index.
Over the five years through March 31, the S&P 500 notched an annualized total return of 11.6%, versus 7.2% for the Russell 2000 index of smaller U.S. stocks, 2.3% for MSCI’s Europe, Australasia and Far East index and a loss of -4.1% a year for MSCI’s Emerging Markets index.
ASK NOT WHAT the markets can do for you. Ask what you can do for your portfolio.
After 15 turbulent months for stocks, many folks feel they’re at the mercy of the financial markets. But in truth, we’re far from powerless. We may not be able to control the direction of share prices. But here are seven crucial financial levers over which we have a lot of control:
1. We can figure out how much cash we’ll need from our portfolio over the next five years,
CONFRONTED BY a complicated financial world, the temptation is to fall back on rules of thumb. But are these rules any good? Here are five of the most popular:
1. Save 10% every year. There are two knocks on this rule of thumb. First, the 10% of pretax income is the sum you’re meant to save for retirement—which means those who have other goals, like buying a house and paying for a child’s college education,