Recently, I had the distinct privilege to join Sheinelle Jones on the Today show, discussing some rapid-fire personal finance issues in Simple Money style. Is now a good time to buy stocks? Is it a good time to buy, sell, refinance or renovate a home? We even discussed a version of the Simple Money Portfolio and my top two picks for cash flow apps that can improve your financial situation. Click HERE or on the image below to view the segment.
The movement of markets is so incredibly complicated that even the world’s most skilled portfolio managers struggle mightily to “beat the market” over the long-term. Building a strong portfolio, therefore, must be similarly (and singularly) complex, right? Wrong. While portfolio architecture and management is not easy, here is a seven-step process that makes it surprisingly simple:
Step 1: Know thyself.
This ancient Greek wisdom is where we must begin, because personal finance is more personal than it is finance. Investing is complex because we are complex. Therefore, we must understand ourselves before we try to understand the markets. This means honestly gauging your time horizon and the returns necessary to meet your goals, but it’s especially important that you understand your willingness to take risk in the markets. You must take the gut-check test.
Step 2: Understand investing.
It’s true that you shouldn’t invest in something you don’t understand, because when times get tough you’re more likely to part with even the best investment strategy if you don’t sufficiently comprehend the logic behind it. My colleague, author Larry Swedroe, says in his unmistakable New York accent, “You oughta be able to explain your investment strategy to a fifth grader.” You should be familiar with the compressed history of “the market” and work to become conversant in the foremost systematic, academic approach to market investing—Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT).
Step 3: Design your portfolio.
Once we’ve acquainted ourselves with, well, ourselves (as well as the fundamentals of markets and investing) it’s time to build our portfolio. I’ve created a simple starting point for investors that synthesizes the essentials of MPT—by diversifying across a broad cross section of equity asset classes, favoring those that have historically outperformed—and a basic understanding of behavioral finance—by reducing portfolio volatility through the anchor of conservative fixed income. Refer back to Step 1 to determine if this balance of stocks and bonds is appropriate, or if it should be calibrated more aggressively (by increasing the allocation to stocks) or conservatively (by increasing the bond allocation).
Step 4: Implement your portfolio.
Ok, now you’ve got the knowledge and the plan, but all of that is worthless if you don’t actually translate it into action. Because we have no control over market fluctuations, we must focus on controlling the factors that we can. Chief among these is the cost of investing. I recommend avoiding commission-sold mutual funds and “actively” managed funds with higher internal expense ratios, favoring instead no-load, “passive” or indexed funds in your corporate retirement plans, self-managed accounts and accounts under the stewardship of a financial advisor.
Step 5: Monitor—but don’t micro-manage—your portfolio.
You want to be cognizant of what’s happening in your portfolio but not obsessed about it, because paying too much attention to your portfolio usually works against you. Yes, certain actions may be advisable when markets move—see Step 6—but making major changes midstream typically hurts more than it helps. And if you absolutely must, when it’s appropriate, “get out of the market,” click HERE.
Step 6: Rebalance your portfolio.
Especially in times of significant market volatility, the inevitable question arises: “So, I’m just supposed to sit here and watch my portfolio get clobbered?” No, you need not sit idly by. If the market has moved enough that you’re getting a nervous feeling in your gut, chances are good that your portfolio is out of balance. In such cases, it’s entirely appropriate to bring your portfolio allocation back to its starting point through the act of rebalancing. While rebalancing has not necessarily been proven to “make you more money over time,” it does help reduce overall portfolio volatility.
Step 7: Fund your portfolio.
Too often, we seek to blame others—perhaps a spouse, investment managers or even the markets—for having too little in our portfolios. But while any (or all) of those parties may share in the blame, don’t forget that we—YOU—are the primary determinant of your investment success through the contributions you make. How your portfolio is structured absolutely is important (and that’s the focus of this article) but the biggest factor for success in investing is not the nuance of your portfolio management style, but your willingness to persistently save a meaningful portion of your hard-earned income. This ensures you can recreate your income at some point in the future when you’re unwilling or unable to do so.
I love finding financial wisdom in unlikely places, like in art and music. These opportunities are more abundant than you might expect. For instance, the punk-Americana outfit, The Avett Brothers, dedicated an entire tune, aptly titled “Ill With Want,” to the scourge of greed and Mumford & Sons taught us that “where you invest your love, you invest your life.”
The newest melodic metaphor to catch my ear comes from singer-songwriter Jason Isbell. He expresses his appreciation for having work in the title track of his newest album, “Something More Than Free,” but it’s the pair of questions he poses in another song, “The Life You Chose,” that really got me thinking.
“Are you living the life you chose? Are you living the life that chose you?” asks Isbell.
I fear it is the latter for many, if not most, of us. Perhaps we are stuck living a life that has grown into a web of circumstances driven more by external compulsions than autonomous impulsions. For too many, life is lived at the behest of someone else’s priorities and goals, in pursuit of someone else’s calling.
Then Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein applied the lessons of behavioral economics to everyday life with their book Nudge. The duo nudged so successfully that in recent years, their prescriptions have been put to work in corporate retirement plans—and even public policy—on a global scale.
When I spoke to Thaler to discuss his newest book, Misbehaving, a series of stories documenting the rise of behavioral economics, he told me that he has a message for those who seek to employ his methods:
“Nudge, for good.”
And why does he say that?
“It was totally worth it.” In this case, “it” referred to a Vitamix blender that a friend recently had purchased. He wasn’t the first. Indeed, I don’t know anyone who has purchased a Vitamix blender and didn’t share my friend’s effusive sentiment, even after spending between $429 and $719 (for the new line of G-Series models). For a blender.
But despite my appreciation for these friends and their opinions, I can’t help but notice their errors in judgment, explained by behavioral science, that, if followed, could lead to an unwise purchase for you or me.
To be clear, it’s not their purchase of the blender that I’m questioning. Rather, it’s their insistence that said purchase is a universal must. Worth, you see, is relative. What is “worth it” for you may not be “worth it” for me. Ultimately, determining the worthiness of your next purchase depends on many factors, but chief among them are 1) the joy you receive from using the product, 2) your personal cash flow, 3) how much you will use the product, and 4) the cost of available alternatives.
Anthony Anderson is a funny dude. The Emmy-nominated actor has been making people laugh on television and in film for 20 years. But now he’s bringing his sense of humor to a surprisingly unfunny topic—the need for life insurance.
The big question I had for him was: Why? Why, with your career exploding and recent Emmy nomination (for lead actor in the show Black-ish), are you investing time and effort to be the spokesperson for Life Insurance Awareness Month?
“I know firsthand from friends and other family members who’ve never had a policy, who’ve never thought about having a policy. And then all of a sudden someone passes in their family and they don’t know what to do,” Anderson told me.
Fair enough. Many people aren’t even aware of the need for life insurance, and that lack of education is a big concern for Anderson, and a major driver of his dedication to public awareness. But as we continued our conversation, it shifted focus. What it seemed to begin revealing were some of the tragically comic, ridiculous reasons that many people choose not to buy life insurance. Here are the Top 5:
5) I’ve got more important things to insure.
“People insure their flat screen televisions, they insure their cars, they insure jewelry, but they don’t insure themselves,” says Anderson with a chuckle. He’s also evidently frustrated by this reality. “If it weren’t for themselves, they would have none of those things to insure.”
A friend of mine had a lifelong dream of opening up a coffee shop and was willing to put a highly successful career on the line to pursue it. Fortunately, he was presented with an amazing opportunity to test-drive his grass-is-greener ideal, and the results might surprise you and offer guidance that you can apply to your next big decision.
Dave had it all planned out, even down to the lighting and indie musicians that would be playing on Thursday nights in his vision of the perfect coffeehouse.
Then he got an opportunity that most of us don’t have before we make the plunge: He got to learn the ropes working at the best café in Chicago. He immersed himself in coffee culture for a week of training that was nothing short of blissful. Then, he got a chance to put it to work for another few weeks.
His findings? In an average eight-hour day, he got to interact with customers and craft their coffee concoctions for approximately 20 minutes. The remaining seven hours and 40 minutes were spent with dirty dishes. Lots of dirty dishes.
What the heck is recency bias?
Recency bias is basically the tendency to think that trends and patterns we observe in the recent past will continue in the future.
It causes us to unhelpfully overweight our most recent memories and experiences when making investment decisions. We expect that an event is more likely to happen next because it just occurred, or less likely to happen because it hasn’t occurred for some time.
This bias can be a particular problem for investors in financial markets, where mindful forgetfulness amid an around-the-clock media machine is more important today than ever before.
Try thinking about it this way. In the high-visibility and media-saturated arena of pro sports, every gifted athlete knows that the key to success can be found in two short words: “next play.”
The most compelling findings regarding financial decision-making are found not in spreadsheets, but in science. A blend of psychology, biology and economics, much of the research on this topic has been around for years. Its application in mainstream personal finance, however, is barely evident. Perhaps a simple analogy will help you begin employing this wisdom in money and life: The Rider and the Elephant.
First, a little background.
Systems 1 and 2
Daniel Kahneman’s tour de force, Thinking, Fast and Slow, leveraged his decades of research with Amos Tversky into practical insight. Most notably, it introduced the broader world to “System 1” and “System 2,” two processors within our brains that send and receive information quite differently.
System 1 is “fast, intuitive, and emotional” while System 2 is “slower, more deliberative, and more logical.” The big punch line is that even though we’d prefer to make important financial decisions with the more rational System 2, System 1 is more often the proverbial decider.
Many other authors have built compelling insights on this scientific foundation. They offer alternative angles and analogies, but I believe the most comprehendible comes from Jonathan Haidt.
He certainly isn’t obtuse, and he wasn’t being patronizing or condescending. It was a legitimate question that accurately reflects the underlying perception held by most people in any demographic–that budgeting is for those just scraping by and young people just getting started. A tedious chore reserved for those lacking the means to do otherwise. A humble state from which most of us hope to graduate.
But this is a misconception. In truth, the budgeting process can help people at every stage of life and every income level articulate and align their deeply held values with their financial priorities, which is the first step on the path to integrating money and life. However, there is more to be gained from the discipline of budgeting (at least in terms of raw dollars) for those of means. Better said, there is less to be lost by families who earn especially high incomes.