Friday, April 30, 1999

Vegas Payoff

by Bob Bobala (

Last month, my wife and I took a short trip to Las Vegas -- more for sentimental reasons than for gambling. It was my wife's 30th birthday and some friends of ours joined us as we took excursions into Nevada, Utah, and Arizona, visiting such sites as Zion and Bryce National Parks, Lake Mead, and the Hoover Dam.

Visiting this part of the country is a must for any Fool who's never done so. Driving through the deserts, canyons, and mountains, and seeing the dramatic changes in landscape and climate affords one a greater sense of how intensely the world continues to evolve. Over geologic time, new mountains will rise and turn to dust long after we're gone, long after the foundations we started by the fortunes we've made in the stock market are gone. For better or for worse, out West it's a lot easier to see how temporary we humans are.

Which I suppose is why 30 million people visit Las Vegas each year hoping to hit the jackpot. We only have so much time on the planet to get rich and live the high life. As Fools, we're an incredibly patient lot, with enough faith to believe the statistics that show after 30 years of saving and investing judiciously we can live that good life.

Of course, tell my wife that she'll have to wait until she's 60 to achieve financial independence and she exhibits an understandable amount of discomfort. We want our dream house now. So, pull the lever on the slot machine and give it a whirl.

In the casinos, loose change is clanking everywhere, but the jingle of slot machines has me focused more on immediate needs than dreams of retiring tomorrow: If I hit the jackpot on the quarter slots, I'd have enough laundry money to last me for an entire year. And for now, that would be enough -- no more scavenging for quarters!

Alas, I didn't hit the quarter jackpot. A friend of ours did win 900 nickels, though. Just what does one do with 900 nickels? (Don't tax your brain -- it's 45 bucks.) Not much, though it takes a heck of a lot of time to cash out -- not to mention the racket it causes and the attention it draws. There's a certain amount of fantasy and jealousy involved when you watch your friend gather up 900 nickels. First, you wish they were yours. Second, you wish they were dollar bills.

But the sick thing is, I didn't have fantasies of hitting the jackpot so I could pay for our trip, or buy us all a swanky dinner, or blow it on anything else. I fantasized about winning money because if I did I would have more to invest long term in the stock market. That's a wild and Foolish illness to have.

Without a big Vegas payoff, we'll have to continue to invest a little bit at a time. It's easy to get impatient; it's tempting to put all our money on one hot Internet stock and roll the dice. Driving along the Vegas Strip, with its blazing lights and monstrous monuments of man's excess, one can get swept away searching for that same instant gratification.

But drive 30 minutes out of town and you'll stand in relatively new mountains, stretching ever upward with a life expectancy of a couple of eons more than the brand-spanking new Bellagio casino and resort on the Strip. One gains an uneasy sense of mortality and the insignificance of his nest egg and stock portfolio.

That's humbling, but it's uplifting at the same time. Sometimes it's a little too easy to spend our lives racing for that elusive big payoff. You don't have to pull the lever on a slot machine, but once in a while you have to pull over and enjoy the vistas. After all, in a few hundred million years the landscape will be vastly different -- and there'll be no trace of you ever passing through it.

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