I have a confession to make. I have a nasty habit of letting things pile up around me, and then ignoring the piles sometimes for months at a time. It can take an emergency, like a lit match, for me to clean up the papers off my desk. And because of that, I'm extremely grateful to have found an investing style that rewards quirkiness, a touch of eccentricity, and inactivity!
Now, I'm always trying to talk people I know into getting Foolish -- into saving and investing their money. It's so logical that I sometimes can't control myself. (Do you have this problem around your friends, Fool?) Luckily, I haven't lost any friends yet, but I have noticed that consistently their initial reaction is to go bug-eyed and look away. I get the feeling they think I'm suggesting they lead a mountain-climbing expedition in Kenya. It's foreign, difficult, dangerous -- and, they think, unnecessary.
It is The Unknown -- emboldened for effect.
Although it's difficult at first, I've actually met with great success eventually. I've now gotten it down to a few examples that clearly illustrate to them that investing isn't some mysterious activity isolated from the rest of life. It's central to it. We make investments every week, every day. Most of us just weren't trained to think of them that way. It takes a little Folly (and a kick in the duff) to make us see the rewards and the fun of the entire process -- whether we're squeezing another $500 away from a car dealer, turning the screws on our banker by eliminating credit card debt once and for all, or buying Dell Computer (Nasdaq: DELL) and watching it rise 50%... and then another 50%... and so on, and so on....
I usually start with a reminder to them that not all investments revolve directly around money. A college education is a long-term investment in knowledge. Just like with stocks, there's a certain amount of judgment involved. You have to choose a major, which includes some risk. The music degree you want so much may not get you a job. If you try for physics, you may flunk out. A career in accounting might give you a nervous breakdown within 10 years (sorry, Phil).
So, you make the best choices you can; you invest your time and effort and money into the process; and you accept that it may take awhile to see the ultimate payoff. Invariably, the people who get the least out of college are those who were never taught to look at life as a series of investment decisions -- in this case, an investment of time and energy, as much as money. Unless you made the mistake of paying to go to Brown University (sorry, Tom).
Farming is another investment activity that folks can visualize. A farmer puts seeds through a process that eventually results in more seeds. She makes judgment calls about which fields to plant, when, and with what crop. And there are plenty of risks: drought, storms, pests, fungus -- each of which can reduce the yields or even completely destroy the crop.
But when it's a known risk, and for veteran farmers most risks are, it can be reduced by diversifying among a few different fields and a variety of crops. The risk can further be hedged through purchasing insurance policies or keeping grain in reserve to replant. Too much hedging can kill all the profit, though -- so the farmer measures and cuts, cuts and measures. And that farmer's growing familiarity with the whole process, with the specific fields being planted, the types of plants in them, and the range of options to deal with known problems, gives her the power to garner greater reward from the same amount of effort as the years pass.
I go on (and my friends even begin to listen) and remind them that a lot of investments don't involve money at all. A diet and exercise program is an investment of time and effort in physical well-being. Parents make an investment in the future when they spend time with their children. They can even make smart investments by opening a custodial account and giving their kids more say in how it's managed as they head into adolescence. And how about giving blood -- an invisible investment for the donor, but the dividend is someone's life.
Put more succinctly, all investments involve delaying the gratification of today for far greater rewards tomorrow. It's like getting up and swinging a tennis racket every morning for an hour -- only to win the local tournament with your mother a decade hence. Now, I grant my listeners that the only reason to invest is if you believe there'll be a great payoff down the road. I don't expect them to take much interest in learning and hard work simply for the sake of hard work and learning. Sounds a bit like a prison camp to me (or a really bad class in high school) -- and I don't see them committing any crime to deserve that.
They want greater reward tomorrow for their prudence today -- and giving them a taste of that is critical to bringing them into even the most Foolish process.
Of course, there are no guarantees of anything. There's the risk and uncertainty of being hit by a meteor in five minutes. But clearly the worst investment decision of this century has been not to invest. When it comes to money, the losses are evident at either extreme -- both for those who've chosen to take early rewards rather than invest and for those who've dropped their core savings into a passbook account at the local branch. They both missed the wide-open middle groove: methodical savings and careful long-term investment. It's sad, because I know they could've gotten it with a little training.
Investing is a mind-set and takes some work, but I'm convinced it's one that the majority of people on this earth can enjoy. We invest every time we stop ourselves from spending money on movie tickets (or the $14.95 at the theater for a chocolate bar and a Sprite), and instead plink that money into a brokerage account. To be honest, for me, researching stocks and managing a portfolio to maximize returns is the easy part. It's the discipline of saving I'm still working on.
Foolishly, I wrote this report as a note to myself!