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.
Does market volatility tempt you to question your investment strategy, even if it’s well thought out and carefully implemented?
Does it weaken your resolve to resist the sky-is-falling siren song heard so frequently in the financial media, or the sales pitch du jour?
Having the right investment strategy is important—really important—and surely contributes to long-term success in building wealth. But no matter how superlative your strategy, it’s your willingness to stick with it that ultimately will help you meet your financial goals.
When it comes to investing, rely on long-term wisdom
When it comes to the market’s peaks and troughs, investors often don’t react as rationally as they might think. In fact, in times of extreme volatility or poor performance, emotions threaten to commandeer our common sense and warp our memory.
It’s called “recency bias.”
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.
“Greece is a tiny player in global capital markets. Its default is 100% certain,” says Larry Swedroe, Director of Research for The BAM ALLIANCE and the author of 14 books on investing, including his most recent, The Incredible Shrinking Alpha, co-authored with Andrew Berkin.
“The only question is how much and what they default on,” Swedroe continues. “But with a GNP that is similar to Rhode Island’s, Greece’s default should have little to no impact on the world’s economy, at least not directly.”
So why is everyone so worried?
Because raging forest fires are kindled from a single, tiny spark. “Greece’s default could trigger a broader contagion, like a run on Portuguese banks or a lack of confidence in the ECU, that may have wider ranging implications for larger economies,” says Swedroe, my colleague.
“You don’t really do this stuff—do you?” The question came from a major network anchor after the camera stopped rolling. The topic was budgeting.
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.
Like the Blue Jays’ Daniel Norris, a good financial planner is true to him- or herself.
“Stop asking questions, Maurer, and do what I tell you to do,” said the general agent for the Baltimore region of a major life insurance company.
“I made over a million dollars last year!”
“I buy a new Cadillac every two years — cash on the barrelhead.”
I was told how to dress: Dark suits, white shirts, and “power ties” that weren’t too busy. Light blue shirts were allowed on Wednesdays. Never wear sweat pants, even to the gym. Enter and exit the gym in a suit. Your hair should never touch your ears or your neck. Facial hair was strictly forbidden. Jeans, outlawed.
“Level is dedicated to rewriting the financial rulebook to create a secure future for the next generation.” That’s budgeting app Level Money’s stated mission, which can be found on their website’s “About Us” page. But even as lofty as that objective sounds, co-founder and CEO Jake Fuentes says the company’s sights are set even higher.
“Basic everyday money management,” he suggests, could be “the first step toward changing—or creating—the next generation’s banking structure.”
An app that hopes to change the way the next generation banks? I’m listening.
Most people avoid budgeting because they consider it an exercise in repressive tedium. But it doesn’t have to be. By applying the science of motivation, economic evidence and the art of creativity, the apparent boredom of budgeting and saving can be remade into part a life-giving financial rhythm.
In his book, Drive, Daniel Pink teaches us that most institutions still use outdated science to motivate. Known as the “carrot-and-stick” approach, Pink demonstrates that the archaic addiction many organizations have to extrinsic motivation is far less effective than intrinsic motivation, which comes from within. The most successful resolutions are those autonomously motivated. In short, the word could is more effective than the overused should.
So, please hear this: Only budget if you want to, on your terms. It’s up to you.
April is National Financial Literacy Month, and while I would never argue against financial literacy, I have a fundamental problem with the moniker. Who, after all, would willingly step forward and proudly announce themselves illiterate—at anything?
Unfortunately, I believe that’s what fully embracing the financial literacy movement requires. It positions financial educators as the Dickenses of currency and those who struggle with money as the collective Oliver Twist. Yes, it’s unfortunately true that too many Americans lack optimal—and perhaps even sufficient—personal financial education. But a sweeping declaration that labels the majority of the country financially illiterate does little to advance the cause. And it may even slow the progress we seek.