If I asked you to make a list of your biggest financial mistakes, what would be on it? Overspending today and not saving for tomorrow? Taking on too much debt? Pulling your money out of a down market, or being guilty of too much hubris when the market was up? Investing in that “sure thing” that wasn’t so sure after all?
No, I’m not psychic. (If I were, I’d most certainly have beaten the market into the ground years ago!) The sad truth is that everyone can add at least one of those mistakes to their list at one time or another. Why? Because so many of the most common mistakes stem from the fact that we are hardwired for financial failure. And hardwiring is extremely tough to fight.
Jonathan Clements does a great job explaining this phenomenon in his most recent book, How to Think About Money. I covered Clements’s Steps 1 and 2 in my blog posts Money really can buy happiness and How long do you plan to live (and are you planning for it?), and while those steps were certainly important, Step 3, Rewire Your Brain, deals with issues I see my clients struggle with every day.The good news according to Clements (and I wholeheartedly agree) is that it is possible to be more sensible about how we manage our money, but changing that wiring takes great mental strength. Rewiring does not mean you need to be smarter or more educated than anyone else—you just need to stay focused on the right things at the right time. Here are four things you can start doing today to start to change your thought patterns and truly begin to think differently about money:
- Save like crazy. It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? But unfortunately, our brains aren’t nearly as rational as we’d like to think. Many people lack the self-control not to overspend, so they take on too much debt. My friend Lydia was always one of the most “fabulous” people I knew. She always had the best clothes, the cutest shoes, and the fanciest car. But Lydia was a victim of her own fabulousness. While she was dressing to impress, she wasn’t saving enough for retirement. Now in her late 60s, she has to continue to work—not by choice, but by necessity. In contrast, there’s the story of Carol Sue Snowden, a librarian who lived modestly and then made headlines for gifting the library where she worked over a million dollars in her will. As Clements says, “Growing wealthy is ridiculously simple, but it isn’t easy.” It requires saving early, saving often, and focusing on becoming wealthy tomorrow—not appearing wealthy today.
- Embrace humility. Are you a victim of the Lake Wobegon Effect? In Garrison Keillor’s fictional town of Lake Wobegon, “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” The Lake Wobegon effect is the tendency to overestimate your capabilities and see yourself as better than others, and it’s a common affliction. The antidote? Embrace humility—and require anyone managing your money to do the same. Because when it comes to investing, average is good! But our hardwired brains want so badly to be above average that we feel a need to beat the market, or we hire someone who says they can beat it for us. But historically, active investors lag the market indexes. That means that “buying and holding” almost always wins in the end. While your neighbor may be bursting with the news of an approach that helped him beat today’s market, you can bet he’ll be quiet as a mouse when his returns fall behind. “The meek may not inherit the earth,” says Clements, “but they are far much more likely retire in comfort.”
- Find value. If you find it difficult to ignore fluctuations in the market, you’re not alone. It can be a challenge to turn off that voice in your head that starts making noise when the market dips. Remember this: your goal is to seek long-term value in your portfolio. Ultimately, the market is efficient (really!), and that efficiency makes it extremely difficult for anyone—even the most seasoned money managers—to beat the market over the long term. Focus on investments that are poised to deliver value, and then stay put. (For more on how to win this battle with your brain, see my blog post Market volatility making you crazy? 5 tips to managing your emotions.)
- Stay grounded. When the market does bounce around (and considerable bounces are inevitable), think like a smart shopper: when the market is down, the companies who offer stock haven’t fundamentally changed, which means their stock is on sale! Avoid mental errors such as over-confidence, loss-avoidance, anchoring, confirmation bias, and more. Stay focused on the long term, secure in the knowledge that market prices of securities will fluctuate, often wildly, in the short term. Over decades, the trajectory has always been up. By staying grounded in the knowledge that you own shares in real businesses whose value is derived from dividend yields and earnings growth, you will achieve the investment success to which you are entitled.
It’s natural: every time you think about money, your hard-wired, reptilian brain tells you that your very survival is threatened. But in this case, following your instincts may be the very worst thing you can do, leading to financial mistakes that can truly threaten your future. It requires great mental effort to save, stay humble, find value, and stay grounded, but by challenging your thought patterns, you can train yourself to think differently about money and help drive your own success. And if you need help with the rewiring, give me a call. I’m here to help!