What Felix Baumgartner Taught Us About Financial Planning

Executive Summary: Don’t bet your financial (or life) plan on a space jump.

What does space jumping have in common with leveraged Exchange Traded Funds[i]Jumping from the edge of space without a craft and leveraged ETFs are both gambles.

But maybe you don’t jump from space or own leveraged ETFs, or even drink Red Bull, for that matter.  You’re not a gambler—you’re good to go, right?  Not so fast.  There are numerous other ways that we gamble with our finances and our futures—consciously and subconsciously—and the truth is that owning a couple leveraged ETFs is more like the equivalent of a bungee jump, not a space jump.  You may be space jumping without even knowing it.

I will _______ when _______.

In the realm of personal finance, passive apathy is often one of the greatest risks you can take.  It comes in the form of your version of this sentence: I will _______ when _______.

  • “I will save for the future when I get closer to it.”
  • “I will pay my debt off when I get my next raise.”
  • “I will find a job I enjoy when I go back to school.”
  • “I will give when I get more.”
  • “I will get married when I find the perfect person.”
  • “I will have kids when I feel like I’m ready.”

Procrastination of this variety is especially dangerous because of the preeminent power of the commodity of time and the compounding nature of opportunity cost, or the price of lost opportunity.

With the weight of a comfortable retirement now resting almost entirely on our shoulders for future generations, the cost of waiting to save is only increasing.  You’ve heard of Jack and Jill?  They share a birthday.  Jill starts saving $10,000 per year at the age of 20 and stops after 10 years.  Jack decides to wait until he’s 30 to start saving, but does so for 20 years.  They each earn an annual average of 8%.  Who has more at the age of 50?  Jill invested half as much money, but has $675,212 to Jack’s $457,619 by allowing time to do its work.  And while waiting to save or pay down debt can have an indelible mark on your balance sheet, passive perfectionism can cause us to falter in some of life’s even more pressing personal decisions.

Swinging for homers

Gambles of omission can be devastating, but are often not as traumatic as the failed “all-in” bet.  Maybe you find yourself behind in life and money because of your “I will _______ when _______” procrastination, and now you feel the pressure to make up for lost time.  “I need to take more risk in my portfolio because I’m behind,” is a self-deceptive phrase I’ve heard from too many.  Aggression out of necessity rarely rewards.

But those who only swing for the fences in life have a tendency to endure suffering greater than the embarrassment of a strike-out.  Either we hit a couple home runs early and develop a sense of entitlement, only to suffer a stretch of reality that forever embitters; or we strive so hard to control and overpower that even the joy of success is overwhelmed by the sting of wounded ego.  Or, most devastating, a string of unimpeded successes creates a false sense of omnipotence leading Icarus ever closer to the sun, only to have his waxen wings melted.

Human Flight Vs. Wisdom

One of the coolest videos you will ever see, aside from Baumgartner skydiving from the solar system, is Jeb Corliss “Grinding The Crack.”  This dude jumps off of mountains—to very cool music—in nothing but a flying squirrel suit.  On a subsequent flight, he admittedly got a little cocky and caught a chunk of granite flying 120 miles per hour from the waist down.  Miraculously, he lived to tell the story and even walk, but it could be argued that he took things a little too far.

Calculated risks and inspired, informed steps of faith are life-giving opportunities to grow our net worth and self worth—even when we fail.  But while gambling with your very life or livelihood may earn you a Red Bull endorsement or millions of views on YouTube, it may also steal your opportunity to enjoy any of it.  It is my hope that guys like Corliss and Baumgartner have the opportunity to tell the stories of their fantastical exploits to their grandkids, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

 “Wealth gained hastily will dwindle, but whoever gathers little by little will increase it.”

Proverbs 13:11 (ESV)

[i] ETF = Exchange Traded Fund.  These are mutual fund-like investing instruments that trade on an exchange like a stock.  They most often mirror market indices.  Leveraged ETFs are built on derivatives (like options) and are designed to move up (and down) at double or triple the rate of the index being followed.  Because of the unpredictability of the underlying base, leveraged ETFs often don’t even correctly mirror the index they claim to hug, only further increasing their risk.