Adaptation Devaluation: Why A U2 Concert Is Better Than A New Couch

My favorite discovery in the field of behavioral economics confirms what we already knew deep down, even if it contradicts “common sense”–that experiences are more valuable than stuff. I recently put this finding to the test:

Concert of a Lifetime

“You’re crazy.”

Those were my wife’s words when I called her from the road, rushing to discuss what I termed “the concert of a lifetime.”

I’d just learned that living legends U2 were touring in support of the 30th anniversary of their most celebrated album, “The Joshua Tree.”  

(Photo by Andrew Chin/Getty Images)

The greatest live band of a generation playing the soundtrack of my youth from start to finish.

Andrea was on board with going to the show–she’s a big fan, too. But what invited her claim of insanity was my insistence that we take the whole family to Seattle to see the show. We live in Charleston. South Carolina.

But the Seattle show promised to be superior to almost all others along the route. In the Emerald City, the Emerald Isle’s most melodic export would be supported by Mumford and Sons as the opening act, playing only the first three West Coast stops.  

The two best live bands performing in one of the world’s greatest cities in a single concert.  

(In case you’re wondering, music is not subjective, but objective. These are all facts.)

I insisted that we had a moral obligation to go as a family–assuring my wife that it would result in a lifelong memory soon to be deemed priceless.

Reality Check

Now, we’re a family of four (and a half) with two boys–13 and 11–in youth sports (and an adorable puppy). One could argue that every piece of furniture in our home is a candidate for replacement.    

If you are in–or remember–or tried to forget–this phase of life, you know that, regardless of your income, every dollar seems to be pledged even before it is earned. Even when you’re occasionally surprised by a surplus inflow, it feels like the money has already been spent (if it hasn’t) on the necessity du jour.  

Experiences > Stuff

But a mathematical fact remains: There are only two ways to dispose of our money–on experiences or stuff. Even if we save, invest or give, we’re just deferring when and where the money will be spent on experiences or stuff.   

Our eyes tell us that stuff is worth more because we can see it.  

But our hearts know what has now been proven in numerous studies–that we derive more joy from [insert experience] than by purchasing a [product of comparable price].

For our family, going to see Mumford and U2 in Seattle was simply more valuable than something like … replacing the battered couch, maybe the bedroom furniture.

WHY?

But why?  It’s not necessarily because it’s obvious from the start. Initially, the experience worth $X gives about the same amount of joy as the stuff worth $X. But as we adapt to the stuff, as it literally depreciates in value, our joy in its utilization also decreases. Or as Cornell psychologist Dr. Thomas Gilovich puts it, “One of the enemies of happiness is adaptation.”

But while stuff devalues, the recently elapsed experience can actually increase in value.  “Even if it was negative in the moment,” writes James Hamblin in the The Atlantic, “it becomes positive after the fact. That’s a lot harder to do with material purchases because they’re right there in front of you.”

Furthermore, those material purchases aren’t only in front of you. They’re in front of lots of people who have the same thing–or better. My black four-door Jeep was awesome until my buddy pulled up–right behind me–in his black four-door Moab-edition Jeep (with the top down and the doors off).  

The intangible nature of experience means that no one has the exact same one. Meanwhile, having shared experiences compounds their value further, as diverse recollections tend to open our eyes to elements we didn’t catch the first time around.   

Sadly, despite the conviction in our collective gut and the studies that prove it’s right, “People do not accurately forecast the economic benefits of experiential purchases.

Where the Streets Have No Name

By now, you know what happened, right? Yes, my loving wife succumbed to my outlandish pledge that “this will be the best memory we’ve ever had as a family!” We scraped together all the respective rewards points and discretionary dollars we could muster, ordered the tickets, booked the flights and reserved the room.

We fought through jet lag to enjoy hiking in a blizzard on Mt. Ranier, having coffee at the first-ever Starbucks, enjoying breakfast overlooking a bustling Pike Place Market, going up the Space Needle and down the Great Wheel, taking in a comedy show at a vintage theater near University of Washington, running to catch the ferry to Bainbridge Island for lunch and–the best part–watching my boys’ eyes light up as the prelude to “Where the Streets Have No Name” rumbled through our bellies.  

On the plane ride home–gloriously exhausted–my wife turned to me and said, “You were right. It was worth it. But you’re still crazy.”

She’s right. About all of it.

The 10 Email Commandments You’re Breaking Every Day

Do you live in fear of your email inbox? It is such an effective tool for information exchange that it can render us completely ineffective in our attempts to control it.

I fear that I’m going to miss the proverbial wheat because of all the darn chaff overstuffing my inbox. You, too?

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Well, apparently we’re in good company. As a student of behavioral economics and finance, my ears always perk up when behavioral economist Dan Ariely has something to say. He struggled so much with  managing the daily email harvest that he decided to create two apps, one that helps people send him better emails and another that helps him prioritize the emails he receives.

This inspired some colleagues and me to ask: “What are the ways that we might be contributing to the chaff in the inboxes of our business associates and friends?”

What are the often unspoken rules of good email etiquette? Here’s what we came up with…

The 10 Commandments of Business Email:

1. Thou shalt not gratuitously “cc.”

You’re on it–they know.  

2. Thou shalt not needlessly reply all.

In addition to cluttering the inboxes of the needlessly cc’d (see above), avoiding the “reply all” button will also reduce the probability that you’ll fire off one of those unintended, embarrassing emails in which you roast someone you forgot to exclude on the thread. Which leads to…

3. Thou shalt not write anything in an email you wouldn’t want to be on the front page of The New York Times.

Two words: paper trail. This will also help ensure your prospective run for public office won’t be derailed.

4. Thou shalt not reply solely with “Thanks.”

Let’s just collectively agree to assume everyone is thankful, thereby eliminating 3-5% of all emails.

5. Thou shalt not bury the main point of your correspondence deep within the body, instead accomplishing as much as possible with the subject line.

Heck, see if you can limit the email to subject line only. And instead of beginning with any smalltalk, get right to the point and save the pleasantries until the end.

6. Thou shalt not forward lengthy email exchanges to a new audience with the direction, “See below.”

Now they have to read your email–and five to six others! Start a new email that summarizes and then ask your question.

7. Thou shalt not follow up an email within two hours asking, “Didst thou receive my email?”

“Such a thing is an abomination unto productivity,” says time management author Laura Vanderkam.

8. Thou shalt minimize the number of topics, questions or themes to as few as possible (preferably one).

You’re more likely to get answers to all of your questions if you only ask one.

9. Thou shalt limit the body of one’s email to five sentences.

This will help ensure you don’t receive the dreaded “TLDR” (too long; didn’t read) response.

10. Thou shalt indicate whether a response is necessary and, if so, a desired response time.

And “if the desired response is less than four hours, thou shalt pick up the phone and call instead,” says Vanderkam.

There’s no judgement here. We’ve all sinned and fallen short on every one of these commandments–and likely will again!  

Of course, there are even some exceptions to some of these rules, but just imagine how much cleaner all of our inboxes would be if we’d follow these commandments.  

For more, take a look at the following resources:

Oh, and by the way–of course I want to read YOUR email. That’s the whole point! Check out my new Shortwhale page.

PARENTS: Don’t Sacrifice Yourselves On The Altar Of Your Children’s Education

Parents have sacrificed their financial futures on the altar of their children’s education. Fueled by easy federal money and self-interested colleges, the result is a student loan crisis that appears already to be eclipsing the catastrophic proportions of mortgage indebtedness leading up to the financial collapse of 2008.

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Please allow me to disclaim a few things:  

  • I’m not anti-education. In fact, I valued my college education so much that I went back to teach at my alma mater, Towson University, for seven years.
  • I believe that a college education is a) inherently valuable, b) an enhancer of career prospects and c) fertile ground for unforgettable life experiences beyond the classroom.  
  • I’m a parent. I’ve encouraged my two sons, 13 and 11, to strive for a college education, and I’ve also offered to share in the financial burden.
  • I’m not a prognosticator. Therefore, I’m not predicting an imminent crisis akin to the Great Recession, led by student loan defaults. Crystal balls don’t work, and anyone who claims to have one is selling something.

I’m also not a conspiracy theorist, but the facts, according to a new Wall Street Journal article, are indisputable:

  • Overall student debt—with over 42 million loans outstanding—is north of $1.3 trillion.
  • Roughly 40% of borrowers had credit scores below the subprime threshold of 620. Subprime mortgages peaked at nearly 20% of mortgage originations in 2006.
  • The vast majority of the loans were originated by the federal government and cannot be eliminated, even in bankruptcy.
  • As of September 2015, 11% of borrowers had gone at least a year without making a payment on a Parent Plus loan. That exceeds the default rate on U.S. mortgages at the peak of the housing crisis.
  • A new generation of retirees is now having to reduce their tax refunds and Social Security benefits in order to pay delinquent loans.

Parent Plus loans, by the way, are those that parents take out to cover tuition and living expenses typically after kids have maxed out their student debt allowance, ensuring that both the apple and the tree are sufficiently indebted.  

Interestingly enough, all the way back in 2011, the Obama administration placed tighter restrictions on Parent Plus loans due to concern that unqualified borrowers were loading up on unsecured debt. But schools put up a fight (successfully), suggesting that such limits impaired students’ ability to get an education.

And this is where we get a glimpse of the fundamental problem: Education has been deemed invaluable—at any price.

Yes, college can be very expensive. The cost of college education has risen well above inflation for decades, resulting in apparent absurdity. (Really, you’re telling me that the collective benefits of any college experience are worth $65,000—per year? Really?)

BUT, college doesn’t have to be outrageously expensive.

A student who commutes to a community college for two years and then transfers to State U for the final two years can get an undergraduate degree from a reputable university for the same cost as a single semester on campus at an elite private school.

With $1.3 trillion in school loan debt, a lot of water has already flowed under the collegiate bridge, but I’ll speak to those parents and students who’ve yet to burden themselves:

To parents:  

Sacrificing yourself financially for the sake of writing your children a blank check for education isn’t generous—it’s actually selfish. It would be much less expensive for a young adult to pay off a reasonable college loan than to bail out his or her parents who’ve run out of money in retirement and have health care bills piling up.  

As they instruct on the airplane, you have to take care of yourself before you can take care of those who depend on you. Your long-term financial security (including your retirement) is a priority over your children’s education—for both of your sakes. And there are few opportunities more ripe for teaching our children financial and life wisdom than the discussions regarding college.  

(If you’re looking for some guidance, here’s my “Non-Conformist’s 4-Step Education Savings Plan.”)

To students:

Please don’t take advantage of your parents. They love you, and they desperately want to see you succeed in life. But if you let them take on loans so you can party your way to a diploma, it could literally ruin them financially.

And if you’re like many who are navigating this decision on your own, please realize that the mystique of the college experience loses its luster very quickly if you’re buried in student loan debt. College truly is a value proposition, so try to restrict your total student loan debt to no more than you expect to make in your first year’s salary.  

Then you’ll be able to enjoy employing your education without being stalked by its cost.

The Antidote for Stock Market Hysteria

Just for fun, Google the words “market pullback.” There are over 2.2 million results–most of them market predictions–and the first page of results is dominated by calls for an imminent market reversal that the simple desk calendar has already proven false. 

However, despite their worthlessness, market predictions remain as predictable as market opens and closes. (And I predict no end in sight.)

But why?

First, there’s a clear profit motive. Apparent urgency leads to activity, and activity is still how most of the financial services industry makes its money.  

“Bullish predictions encourage investors to pour fresh money into the markets, helping asset management companies to enjoy rising profits,” the New York Times reported, noting that the Wall Street forecaster’s consensus since 2000 has averaged a 9.5% increase each year. They accidentally got it (almost) right in 2016, but in 2008, the consensus prognostication missed the mark by 49 percentage points (an outcome that makes your local weatherman seem like a harbinger of accuracy)!  

But not everyone’s positive either. My colleague and the co-author of the new book “Your Complete Guide To Factor-Based Investing,” Larry Swedroe, analyzed Marc Faber’s perpetually cataclysmic proclamations and rendered the good doctor “without a clue.”  

Top 5 Books To Put The ‘Personal’ Into Your Finances This New Year

Originally in ForbesBecause personal finance is more personal than it is finance, just about every step we take in our personal development aids us in financial planning, and vice versa.

top-5It is in better understanding ourselves that even the most confounding financial decisions are made simple. Therefore, it’s entirely possible for a seemingly non-financial book to have a meaningful impact on your financial life, while the reverse is also true.

Consider, then, this list of my choices for the top five (mostly) recent books that can improve your life, work and financial serenity in 2017:

5) The Whole 30: The Official 30-Day Guide To Total Health And Food Freedom is not your typical diet book. I don’t do those. But I am fascinated by various “life hacks,” small behavioral changes we can make in our diet, exercise and sleep patterns that make life more livable.

American Pension Crisis: How We Got Here

Originally in ForbesMy adopted home of Charleston might have been ranked the “Best City in the World,” but the state of South Carolina is earning a less distinguished label as a harbinger of the country’s worst pension crises. And yes, that’s crises—plural—because U.S. state and local government pensions have “unfunded liabilities” estimated at more than $5 trillion and funding ratios of just 39%.

What does that mean, exactly?

When a company or government pledges to pay its long-term employees a portion of their salary in retirement—a pension—the entity estimates how much it (and its employees) will need to set aside in order to make those payments in the future. An underfunded pension is one that simply doesn’t have sufficient funds to make its promised future payments.

Corporate pensions in the United States are in trouble, with the top 25 underfunded plans in the S&P 500 alone accounting for more than $225 billion in underfunding at the end of 2015. But states and municipalities are in even worse shape. This week, the Charleston-based Post and Courier estimated that South Carolina’s shortfall alone was at $24.1 billion, more than triple the state’s annual budget!

How did we get here?

There are two glaring reasons: poor investment decisions and greedy assumptions.

Why I’m Hoping The Trump Administration Doesn’t Kill The DOL Fiduciary Rule

Originally in ForbesAdvisors to President-elect Donald Trump have been vocal about rescinding the Department of Labor’s new fiduciary rule, introduced earlier this year to protect retirement savers from advice that isn’t fully in their best interests. The rule has already been under fire from the securities industry, and lack of presidential support could spell its ultimate demise.

As someone who has worked on both the fiduciary and non-fiduciary sides of the industry, I think revoking the rule is a bad, even dangerous, move. My rationale for such a position starts with my experience, early in my career, at one of the nation’s largest insurance companies.

“Look, you can set up your business any way you see fit after you’re successful. But right now? With a young family? You need to put yourself and your family first, and that means selling A-share mutual funds,” said my sales manager.

In other words, you must put your interests ahead of your clients’.

Fiduciaries are required to put their clients' interests ahead of their own.

Fiduciaries are required to put their clients’ interests ahead of their own.

As a brand new financial advisor, I was having a heart-to-heart with my supervisor after laying out my plan for creating a fee-based business within the agency, which would have meant recurring revenue for the firm but apparently in much smaller increments than were preferable.

“A-share mutual funds” are a variety with some of the largest up-front commissions—for both the salesperson and the company they represent. Variable annuities were even better, generating more of a “front-end load.” Whole life insurance was the pinnacle of up-front commissions.

In the newbie bullpen, we were encouraged to sell in various and sundry ways. The general agent in charge of the Baltimore metro area—the self-proclaimed “big dog”—was, indeed, a large man. A former starting lineman for a recognizable college football team, I’m quite sure that he routinely watched the classic Alec Baldwin “motivational speech” from Glengarry Glen Ross (turn the speakers down if you’re at work or children are nearby).


I recently discussed this topic on the Nightly Business Report (at the 9:05 mark)


My favorite anecdote from that time, though, was my general agent’s big fish story: “When you get a big fish on the hook, I want you to set a noon lunch meeting at the Oregon Grille.” (The Oregon Grille is an excellent restaurant north of Baltimore in pastoral horse country, where most of us had never dined.) “Go to the restaurant 30 minutes early and introduce yourself to the maître d’. Let him know that you’ll be returning shortly to the restaurant with a guest, and that you’d like to be referred to by name.”

What The Stock Market Wants This Election, And What You Should Do In Your Portfolio

Originally in ForbesWe’ll know soon enough who America chooses as its next president, but the market has already voted.

Who does the stock market “want” to win?

Hillary Clinton. This isn’t a partisan statement, but simply a statement of fact. election-2016There may be several indicators to which we could point, but the glaring one is this: When the FBI announced last Friday that a new slew of emails had been discovered that could impact its investigation and shed further negative light on Clinton’s handling of classified emails, the market sold off. Period.

But why? Is the market more Democrat than Republican?
No. In fact, you may recall the George Bush/Al Gore recount in 2000, when the market seemed to cheer in Bush’s favor. But what the market really doesn’t like is unpredictability, and it has asserted its opinion that Donald Trump is a more unpredictable candidate than Clinton.

You Won’t Get Fooled Again: Understanding the Availability Heuristic in Investing

Originally in ForbesYou’re no fool. But let’s imagine for a second that a major public figure said something—something false—over and over (and over) again. Regardless of its questionable veracity, is there a chance you’d be more likely to believe the proclamation simply because you’ve heard it often and recently?

Like it or not, the answer is an emphatic “Yes.”

You and I are more likely to believe something is true when it’s readily available—that is, when we’ve heard it frequently and, especially, when we’ve heard it lately. This phenomenon is dubbed the “availability heuristic,” and even though it was discovered and named (by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman) more than 40 years ago, it likely hasn’t caught on in the broader public awareness because its title includes the word “heuristic.”
Nonetheless, the availability heuristic’s power to persuade is not lost on marketers, salespeople, lobbyists and politicians. They use it on us all the time. But let’s explore the errant biases in investing, in particular, that while readily available often lead to sub-optimal outcomes.

Active vs. Passive

The debate rages (and no doubt will continue to do so) over whether active stock pickers are able to beat their respective benchmark indices. The implications seem simple: If fee-charging money managers aren’t persistently outperforming their benchmarks, we likely should not be paying them for underperformance, right?

What A 12-Year-Old Ukulele Player Teaches Us About Authenticity In Our Work

I don’t watch reality television contests, because as a rule, the best participants rarely participate and when they do, they almost never win. Whether the over-commercialized, profit-over-art system is to blame—or the television audience, or both—I’d rather not suffer the invariable disappointment of an unjust outcome. But quite randomly, a 12-year-old ukulele player named Grace VanderWaal, inspired me to break my own boycott.

On our way to another channel, my family stumbled on America’s Got Talent a few months ago just in time to see one of my favorite instruments—the ukulele—adorning the neck of a diminutive blond girl. “Wait a second,” I said.

She’s clearly overwhelmed just to be there. “It’s crazy,” she says, as her voice cracks in response to the judges’ welcome.