It wasn't that long ago that we suffered through a period of time in the stock market that has come to be known as "The Lost Decade." The 10-year period between the start of January 2000 and the end of December 2009 was one of the worst for stock market performance, ever.
Yet even during those dark times, one very straightforward strategy would have allowed you to just about break even -- or perhaps even make a few bucks along the way. All you would have had to do is dollar-cost average into the low-cost market-tracking SPDR S&P 500 (NYSE: SPY ) ETF and reinvest the dividends you received. That's one of the simplest ways to invest, and that strategy -- or one essentially equivalent to it -- is very often available in 401(k)s and other retirement accounts.
Although those returns were lousy, both in absolute terms and when compared to the market's long-run average, there's one strategy that it certainly beat: not investing at all.
The act that matters most
When all is said and done, doing what it takes to invest in the first place matters at least as much as the actual returns you get on your invested cash. There are several reasons for this. Perhaps the most obvious is that if you never put any money away at all, no rate of compounding will get that goose egg to ever be anything but a goose egg.
But on another, more subtle level, the act of investing itself matters because making the commitment to do it well requires the rest of your financial house to be in order. You need to be in control of your debts and have enough cash coming in not only to pay your bills, but also to put some away for your future. In essence, investing takes discipline -- the exact same type of discipline that will help you manage whatever sized nest egg you do manage to amass over your investing career.
Your potential $1 million payout from "lousy" investing
A typical working career may last in the neighborhood of 45 years. Having and keeping a consistent investing plan throughout that journey may seem like a daunting task, especially if we suffer through many more of those "Lost Decades." Still, as the table below shows, the reward at the end of the 45-year process may well be over $1 million, even while earning consistently lousy 2% annualized returns:
-1% Annual Returns
0% Annual Returns
1% Annual Returns
2% Annual Returns
Source: Author's calculations.
Granted, to reach the bottom line of that table, you'd have to contribute the maximum allowable $17,000 to your 401(k) throughout your career. Still, the $1 million nest egg at the end is an incredibly impressive result for only managing 2% annualized returns. No matter how challenging it may seem to sock away more than $1,400 a month, note what happens on that top line. If you don't invest at all, when it comes time to retire, you won't have any nest egg to tide you through your not-so-golden years.
The joys of lousy investing
Once you realize how important making the commitment to invest is, getting past the fear of investing poorly is much easier. You can much more objectively look at every investment you have made as either a place to earn or a place to learn. For instance, I view my investment in industrial and financial titan General Electric (NYSE: GE ) as one of the best investments I've ever made. It was a good investment because of what I've learned from it, in spite of the lousy returns I've received along the way.
Indeed, the principles I learned from that GE investment -- looking for a strong balance sheet and a well-covered and rising dividend -- have yielded far more successful investments than failures over the years. When coupled with the third key lesson from that investment -- prudent diversification -- the experience formed the foundation of an investing strategy that looks capable of withstanding the test of time. Not bad for an investment with objectively lousy returns.
Often, investing does work out
Of course, not all investments turn out poorly, and in fact some wind up doing quite well. Over the course of an entire career, the combination of lousy and great investments in the context of an overall solid strategy could very likely exceed that 2% annual return level. But if you're planning for lousy returns and wind up with better ones, you'll end at a much better place. Yet no matter what your ultimate returns, it's having the foundation and the dedication to invest that matters most.
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