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Step 5: Avoid the Biggest Mistake Investors Make

We're about to share with you the secret to avoiding a $10 billion investing mistake. It's not more money, a higher IQ, or superb market timing. It's mind control.

The way we're wired -- our natural inclinations to seek more information, look for patterns, compare options, and even flee to safety -- is great at keeping us out of harm's way. But these same emotional tendencies are also our biggest liability when we're in investing mode. In other words, your brain is to blame for all those boneheaded money mistakes.

Just ask uber-investor Warren Buffett. The chairman of Berkshire Hathaway openly admits that a short in his analytical circuitry -- his "thumb-sucking" reluctance (Buffett's words) in the 1980s to pick up more shares of Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT  ) because of a one-eighth of a point uptick in the stock price -- cost him $10 billion in potential profits over time. And this is from a guy who has famously said, "Success in investing doesn't correlate with IQ ... what you need is the temperament to control the urges that get other people into trouble in investing."

In other words, the Oracle of Omaha made a $10 billion investing blunder because his emotional brain got in the way.

2 traits you must have to be great
And now, the information you've been waiting for: the secret ingredients to investing success, regardless of education, investing styles, or golf handicaps: Timeline and temperament.

Timeline: As we mentioned in Step 4, investing in stocks requires a minimum five-year time horizon. Think of it like sending some of your money on vacation while your other money takes care of the more immediate chores, like paying for car repairs, a house, or a kid's college tuition.

But, at the risk of sounding like a country and western song, it can be hard to be a long-term investor in a short-term world -- which brings us to the second secret ingredient for investing greatness.

Temperament: Successful investors have the ability to remain calm and levelheaded when everyone around them is freaking out. That mindset makes the difference between investors who consistently outperform the market and investors who get lucky for a while. Wal-Mart foible aside, Warren Buffett says this is the key to his success. When a group of business-school students asked Buffett why so few have been able to replicate his investing success, his reply was simple: "The reason gets down to temperament."

Money, IQ points, and lucky socks are no help when your investment is down 50%. But if you can keep your emotions in check and ignore the noise, you'll be able to hang on (even back up the truck and load up) rather than selling out at the worst times. If you look back at history and study how investing fortunes were made, you'll find it wasn't by jumping in and out of stocks based on fear and greed, but by buying great businesses and investing in them over the long haul.

Hop off the emotional roller coaster
To cultivate a good temperament -- one that focuses on the long term, not the short term, and ignores the crowd in favor of a well-thought-out strategy -- channel Steve McQueen (or whomever is the cool dude/dame du jour). Build resistance to the emotional triggers that lead to bad investment decisions. Here are a few exercises we regularly do to keep our cool:

  1. Memorize this affirmation: "I am an investor; I am not a speculator." All together now: "I am an investor; I am not a speculator." As investors, we:
  • Buy stock in solid businesses. We expect to be rewarded over time through share price appreciation, dividends, or share repurchases.
  • Don't time the market. And we certainly don't speculate when we buy stocks. Speculation is what Wall Street traders do.
  • Focus on the value of the businesses we invest in. We try not to fixate on the day-to-day movements in stock prices.
  • Buy to hold. We buy stocks with the intention of holding them for long haul. (That said, we are willing to sell for reasons we outline in Step 10.)

We recognize that believing your affirmation is sometimes easier than living it. To avoid behaving like a speculator …

  1. Tune out the noise: Put down the newspaper, turn off CNBC, and stop clicking that. And that. And, yes, that too. None of it is doing you any good.

Fixating on the market's minute-to-minute news won't help you make your next brilliant financial move. At best, all the hours, days, and weeks spent soaking in sensational stories will yield a few timely bon mots to toss off at the next office happy hour. Mostly, though, it's all noise, and it's costing you a serious amount of sound sleep -- and maybe even some actual money.

  1. Spread out your risk: In order to get some quality Zs, you need a solid asset-allocation plan -- meaning a portfolio with a bunch of investments that don't always move in the same direction. You need to diversify. (We'll get into the details of diversification in Step 8.)

Putting an assortment of eggs in various baskets isn't the only way to spread your risk. You can also avoid the risk of investing in a company at exactly the wrong time. Say you're interested in buying shares of Scruffy's Chicken Shack (ticker: BUKBUK), but you just don't know when to pull the trigger. The answer? Take a bunch of shots!

Practically speaking, you do this through dollar-cost averaging -- accumulating shares in a stock over time by investing a certain dollar amount regularly, through up and down periods. So every month for three months you purchase $500 of Scruffy stock regardless of the stock price. The beauty of this system is that when the stock slumps, you're buying more, and when it's pricier, you're buying less.

"Buying in thirds" is another way to average in to an investment: Simply divide the total dollar amount you want to devote to a particular investment by three, and pick three different points in time to add to your position.

  1. Stay strong, think long! For Fools, investing success is not measured in minutes, months, or even a year or two: We pick our investments for their long-term potential. So resist the urge to act all the time. Make decisions with a cool head after letting new information sink in. Sometimes the best action to take is no action at all.
  1. Distract yourself with something useful: If you're going to obsess about your investments, use your time productively and review your investment philosophy and process. For example, pick any investment that's interrupting your sleep. Write down why you bought the business in the first place. Ask yourself: Has any of that fundamentally changed? This exercise underscores that short-term ups and downs in the stock market have little relevance to winning long-term investments and wealth generation.

If you don't already have one, start a watch list so you can keep up with the companies that pique your interest. (We'll show you how to spot great businesses in Step 6.) Add your list to a portfolio tracker so that all the company news will be in one place.

When preparation meets opportunity, that's when great investments are made.

Action: Get in touch with your inner investor. Do you know your time horizon and tolerance for risk and loss? Do you want to research stocks? In other words, what color is your investing parachute?

Take this eight-question quiz to tap into your inner investor. It will help identify your natural inclinations, and guide you to investing strategies that are best suited for your temperament.


Read/Post Comments (15) | Recommend This Article (403)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On December 15, 2009, at 7:48 PM, wibrock1947 wrote:

    I've been a member of the "fools" organization for over three months, wish I had read this article when or before I first joined. As an apprentise I've not only shown my foolishness but made my broker a ton of money by not staying my watch. In-&-Out is not the way to make money. In fact all the money I've made was paid to my broker.

    Heed what's been said here, make your purchase and stay with it. Do not second guess yourself or allow someone or something to talk you out of your common sense decissions.

  • Report this Comment On September 11, 2010, at 2:39 AM, kcurley3 wrote:

    What a great article on investing. Thanks Kevin

  • Report this Comment On September 14, 2010, at 5:56 PM, SkidRowYourBoat wrote:

    Nicely written. Dollar cost averaging is awesome. 2009 was an awesome buying year! I pat myself on the back looking at what I amassed for the last 5 years. Realize greed creates fear and fear creates loss. Having a system to put your money away every month is a great way to forget about the greed and the fear. Woot!

  • Report this Comment On October 26, 2010, at 1:20 PM, dissolved wrote:

    I had to go digging for more information on that Warren Buffett blunder, because the way it was written, it sounded like he lost $10 billion because he paid 1/8th point more for Wal-Mart. This seemed to be contrary to the typical Foolish anecdote; and indeed I misunderstood the story. Warren Buffett apparently never bought those additional shares of Wal-Mart, so that $10 billion lost potential profit was due to not investing money he could have.

  • Report this Comment On December 28, 2010, at 3:54 AM, Gr8Writer wrote:

    "at the risk of sounding like a country and western song, it can be hard to be a long-term investor in a short-term world"

    LOL! That reminds me of another country and western song: She Think's My Portfolio's Sexy :-)

    Seriously though, another affirmation one can use -- and one that I use myself is "Investing is a marathon; not a sprint"

  • Report this Comment On February 18, 2011, at 3:28 PM, mountain8 wrote:

    Anybody that works for a commission is more interested in HIS income, than your own solid investment choices.

    Don't believe ANYONE, even TMF. Do your own research, make up your own mind, buy what YOU determine to be a good buy. Everyone else is just offering an opinion (read "educated guess:).

    However, I believe TMF's opinions are pretty much 10x better than the next guy but that doesn't relieve you of your responsibility to make your own choices on your own opinions from your own research. TMF is a starting place. Don't make it your only place.

  • Report this Comment On June 28, 2011, at 11:49 AM, jweissman wrote:

    Not well -written regarding Buffet's mistake.

  • Report this Comment On August 11, 2011, at 11:35 PM, foolsabuba wrote:

    Definition of temperament from Wikipedia: "In psychology, temperament refers to those aspects of an individual's personality, such as introversion or extroversion, that are often regarded as innate rather than learned." So, if temperament is innate, how can you "cultivate a good temperament"?

  • Report this Comment On August 12, 2011, at 10:44 AM, CNQFool wrote:

    I don't really understand why you guys are misunderstanding the comments regarding Buffet.

    with a couple words removed it says "His reluctance to pick up more shares of wal-mart cost him 1.8 Billion over the years"

    Unless the articles been edited since you guys read it I don't understand the confusion?

  • Report this Comment On April 18, 2012, at 3:19 PM, kemjem wrote:

    This advice is priceless and extremely sound. I've not even gotten half way through and I'm "foolishly impressed".

  • Report this Comment On January 25, 2014, at 10:31 PM, Shades wrote:

    A lot of what the fools say is simple guidance. For example, I quit using brokers once I starting giving mines advice. I changed discount brokerage to one recommended as a less expensive dealer. I always invest with 5 year terms in mind. Lastly, I always use dollar cost averaging. My point is, TMF is on point and builds confidence when they recommend doing something I had already done of planned to do. Thanks Fool.

  • Report this Comment On February 21, 2014, at 4:39 AM, Teejay wrote:

    I do not have a clue about investing but I am learning and willing to learn - in my old age.

    I value these responses and the article. Thanks

  • Report this Comment On February 21, 2014, at 4:42 AM, Teejay wrote:

    Love the discussion posts. I do not have a clue about investing but I am learning and willing to learn - in my old age.

    I value these responses and the article. Thanks

  • Report this Comment On March 01, 2014, at 11:52 PM, Heidikitty wrote:

    AMEN Teejay. I think it is never to late to learn and if we make mistakes now and then just consider it a fee for further education.

  • Report this Comment On March 28, 2014, at 10:04 AM, MJOnMyWay wrote:

    I just subscribed to TMF and all I can say is I am so glad I did. If only I'd looked into this years ago but everything in life has it's season and this is mine now.

    I so look forward to learning about investing. I've never done this and am brand new. I was taught as a child by a very well meaning mom that stocks were too risky, it was only for the rich.

    Learning all of this however is empowering. TMF makes it easier for someone such as myself to see that anything is possible with the right information and guidance. Thank you.

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