In this episode of Motley Fool Answers, The Motley Fool's chief investment officer, Andy Cross, shares his latest thinking on the market. Plus, get more out of your spending with values-based budgeting, and we answer Ken's question on when to take Social Security.

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This video was recorded on September 14, 2021.

Alison Southwick: This is Motley Fool Answers. I'm Alison Southwick and I'm joined, as always, by Robert, not the Bruce, Brokamp, personal finance expert here at The Motley Fool. Hey, Bro. How are you doing?

Robert Brokamp: Not sure exactly what that means, but I'm doing great, Alison. How are you?

Southwick: Oh, I'm good. Well, this week, Motley Fool's chief investment officer, Andy Cross, gives his take on yet another exceptional year for stocks, and we answer a question about when to claim Social Security, if it even still be around by the time you retire. All that and more, on this week's episode of Motley Fool Answers.

Chances are, as an Answers listener, you're probably already much better than the average bear when it comes to budgeting. I mean, you can be listening to a murder podcast right now, but you'll listen to us talk about required minimum distributions for the 11 billionth time, RMDs. Am I right, Bro?

Brokamp: Can't get enough of them, I tell you.

Southwick: I'd rather be listening to a murder podcast. But anyway, the point is, you're probably on top of the concept of budgeting. But have you tried values-based budgeting? It's a way to be more deliberate with your spending so you get the maximum psychological reward. I first heard about it from Joel O'Leary, he's over at Budgets are Sexy and he also blogs over at 5amjoel.com. Joel, along with his wife, were inspired to reevaluate their spending after reading Smart Couples Finish Rich. Values-based budgeting sounds simple enough, determine what you value and then budget your spending so that you're using your money on things that are truly fulfilling for you personally. You know what, it's probably better if I just have Joel explain it to you.

Joel O'Leary: I've always been a good budgeter with my wife in saving and stuff like that. Nothing was ever wrong. However, maybe like three or four years ago, we started to study personal finance a bit more, and we noticed two big things. No. 1 is most people spend a ton of money on things that really don't actually provide them a lot of joy, money seems to just slip away, and a lot of people don't even budget at all. The other thing is when they do spend money on things that they enjoy, they feel really guilty about it. Everything that they spend in their budget, there's this guilt tied to it. My wife and I wanted to change that. We didn't want to do those two things. I want to feel good about the money that I'm spending. I want to feel good about every dollar that I've got is going somewhere that's actually providing value to my life. That's when I came up with the concept and started researching and found value-based budgeting from there.

Southwick: Joel and his wife sat down, pondered what they value personally and compared notes. But if you ask someone what they value, they'll say generic stuff like honesty, hard-work, tacos. But how do you clearly define and almost rank order your own values?

O'Leary: This is the really hard part, and this is why people mostly don't do it. You have to do some soul-searching. You have to do some exercises. Ask yourself some deep questions, and then go a step further and ask why. For my wife and I, I've read this awesome book called Smart Couples Finish Rich, it's by David Bach. Here, a couple of questions that you ask of yourself that will put a lot of value. One is, who do you admire most in this world, and then why do you admire them? Maybe if you were picturing your 70-year-old self, what does that person value most in this world? What are some of their proudest memories? What are some of your proudest moments and why do you feel so proud? Pull out these words, for me, something would be like community, that's a really deep value for me. I want to spend time with people, I like being face to face with them. I like sharing meals together. Those are the types of words that we started to identify and then compare.

Southwick: Now, here's an important part for anyone with a financial partner. How do you find alignment?

O'Leary: It wasn't a complete mismatch, it was more just like some things are a bit of a higher priority to me versus my wife, and I can give you an example. One of them was giving. For me, I like giving stuff. If it was up to me, I'd give away the farm. I love giving away our money. I always grew up giving to church, tithing, stuff like that. For my wife, she really only started earning a lot of money after college, and she's a teacher. Her daytime job is giving herself. But she would never fathom gifting $10,000 in the year. It just wasn't ever part of her budget. For me, it was. How do we compromise on that? Here's what we did. One was I started volunteering on Fridays and it was a way that I could justify reducing the outgiving budget. Instead of giving money away, I could actually do hands-on volunteering. My wife, she really valued community as well, which is kind of like contributing and giving, so we increased our food and alcohol budget so that we can host more parties and share our money and stuff with our friends. It wasn't really a mismatch of our values, it's more about these questions bring up the discussion of how you want to spend your money in life so that you can both get something out of your budget. If you base your budget on someone else's values, you're not going to be happy. It's really important that you and your partner contribute both to this values-based budget.

Southwick: Values-based budgeting isn't about spending less, it's about getting more value, emotionally and psychologically from your money, and sometimes, that means spending more in some categories.

O'Leary: Value-based budgeting, you've got to have a little bit of a mindset shift. I think most people go into budgeting with the sole goal of reducing how much they spend in each category, but value-based budgeting isn't about just reducing cost, it's about cutting money in the areas that provide no value and increasing in the areas that do provide value. What I was surprised at, some of these categories at the end, they came out with a healthier budget and I feel great about it versus feeling bad and always trying to spend less.

Southwick: Bro, how about you? Picture it, the 70-year-old you. What are the most important things in an old Bro's life?

Brokamp: Funny you asked that question because my wife and I just celebrated our 22-year anniversary. Way back in 2000, actually, my wife worked at The Fool too, and we wrote an article about a financial manifesto for couples and we laid out our financial goals. As we were sitting around this weekend, we realized we hit all of them. Our goals were to have kids, where we had two, adopted one. Buy a house, got that. My wife got her PhD, she had to put it on hold, but just this summer, she got her PhD so I'm now married to Dr. Brokamp. As long as everything goes according to plan, our retirement plan is safe. We were thinking, like, what's next? What are we going to do for the next 10 years, 20 years? What are our next financial goals? I think what it came down to for us is, what are we going to do to give back? We want to do more with our financial resources to help people but also with our time. I don't see myself ever being fully retired. I don't know what I would do with myself, so we both agreed that volunteer work and diverting some of our money toward networking will be a big part of what our 70s and 80s are going to look like. That's our vision. What about you, Alison?

Southwick: Well, I'm obviously not as aged as you are, Bro, and I still have some of those financial goals to still tackle. But, I mean, it's tough for me because I want to be a part of a community that's accomplishing good things, which I feel like I am just being an employee at The Motley Fool. I travel. I want to travel. I want to do something creative. I want to feel valuable. I don't want to golf all day, and that's fine if that's what you want to do. I don't know, it's a tough question. See, Bro, it's hard.

If you're struggling like me to figure out what you even basically value in life outside of tacos, you can read Joel's article over at Budgets Are Sexy and again, he also blogs over at 5amjoel.com

[...]

Brokamp: So far it's turning out to be another good year for investors. As on Sept. 10, the S&P 500 has returned 20% in 2021. The good returns have come with little turmoil. The largest pullback so far this year has been 4% and there have been just three trading days when the S&P 500 was down 2% or more. In fact, since 2010, the S&P 500 has lost money in just one calendar year and that was a modest 4.4% decline in 2018. Of course, the market plummeted by more than 30% in the spring of last year during the pandemic panic, but it rebounded and managed to earn 18% for all of 2020, which is really just remarkable. Does these string of exceptional returns mean we're in a bubble, or will this golden age of investing continue? Here to offer his stake is Andy Cross, the Chief Investment Officer here at The Motley Fool, and the sixth longest-serving employee at the company coming up on 25 years of Foolishness. Andy, welcome back to Motley Fool Answers.

Andy Cross: Hey, thanks Bro, thanks for having me. It's always great to be back.

Brokamp: I laid out some stats about how good times have been. Let's start with asking, what are your general thoughts about investing nowadays?

Cross: Well, it has been an incredible rebound after just a draconian drop in 2020 when COVID started and the markets fell 35% or so, almost literally overnight. You don't see that. Then very much like, Robert, if you bounce -- those who play that bouncy ball game at the beach or on a trampoline, you bounce a ball and a very high angle, it's going to return at a very high angle and that's what we saw in the markets when they came roaring back. I think the past few months, we've seen this extraordinary continued movement into markets for lots of different reasons and really driving into the big parts of the market. When I'm talking about the market, I'm talking about the S&P 500 as I know that that's mostly what you referred to as well, which has been driven a lot by large-cap technology stocks which had just a wonderful run here in the last few months really, for very long, but have really driven the market. Because Robert, if you look at the S&P 500 Equal Weight Index, it's actually outperformed the general market over the last year and that's mostly because earlier in the year, a lot of this cyclical stocks had a really nice performance and those have leveled off and the technologies talks have carried the day higher. That's still slightly beating the market from the beginning of the year. You've seen the markets have this really nice, robust performance based on growth expectations and low-interest rates and the fact that there are so few alternatives out there. You just look at bond yields. You look at even global equities.

For the most part, the U.S. has been the place to invest in capital. You've seen a lot of people rush into the markets, individuals, and lots of institutions continue to plow money in the market. That's a little bit of background on what I'm seeing. Now going forward, historically you look at data, the market's performance over the short periods and they are really driven by valuations. Valuations are really at very high levels relative to earnings, relative to sales growth, relative to so many metrics, dividends and all that stuff. Going forward, that's going to be a big driver, especially as we think about the macro indicators with COVID and with interest rates, you're going to see some more volatility weeks. Robert, as you said, to kick off the show, it's been an exceptionally calm period, and I don't expect that to stick around. We will see more ramped up volatility over the next six months and investors have to be ready for that. Longer-term over the next, say, five years, which is the perspective I like to take as an investor, I still see stocks as opportunities, but we just can't expect the same similar returns we've seen over the last five years.

Brokamp: Put some numbers on what you said about valuation and the cyclically adjusted P/E ratio, otherwise known as the CAPE, at 38, second-highest rating of all time, highest being 44 during the peak of the dot-com bubble, yielding the S&P 500, 1.3%, lowest it's ever been except again during the dot-com days. Then there is the market cap-to-GDP ratio, also known as the Buffett indicators since Warren Buffett said in 2001, that's "Probably the best single measure of where valuation stands at any given moment." It's currently at an all-time high. We're at these high valuations. The market keeps going up. The market's been considered highly valued for a few years. I can understand why some people ask, does valuation really even matter anymore?

Cross: Yeah, it still matters, Robert, I think. Again, if you look over stocks in general over shorter periods of time valuation really is a big driver. Price earnings, multiple price of sales, all those valuation metrics that we like to look at. Over shorter periods it tends to matter much more along with momentum are also big drivers and factors. Then perhaps exogenous factors like what we saw in COVID or other experiences that we've seen over the last 25 years in investing here at The Motley Fool. Longer period of time though, Robert, it really comes down to sales and earnings growth is a continued big driver by the way, interest rates obviously being so low has been a big driver. It sends plowed money into the stocks looking for returns because bond yields are so low at this point. Valuations matter in the short period. Longer periods, much more around sales and earnings growth. If you look at the earnings growth for the S&P 500 over the last year or so, you've just seen this exceptional growth rebounding off the terrible 2020 period we had. This quarter, sorry, the third quarter and the fourth quarter, you are still going to see probably 20% earnings growth in the S&P 500 stocks.

With those earnings growth, that's a lot of excitement. Now I think what we're seeing is that there are some questions about the sustainability of that going into 2022. There's questions about whether we're not having as many surprises. Investors love surprises, especially momentum traders. They love surprises when companies or the markets tend to outperform expectations. You see that due to a lot of stock returns at various points. We're starting to see those surprises start to lessen the Citigroup economic surprise indicator's at a two-year low or so. I mean, they've been steadily going down, so we're not seeing as many surprises coming up. I think some investors are starting to get a little bit nervous about that as rightly so. Again, I think valuations do matter for the equity returns going forward. The earnings, the market sales at a 20 times earnings multiple, give or take a point or two and from an earnings yield, if you reverse that to compare it against bond yields, that's about four, 4.5% yield, Robert. That's OK.

Historically, that's still a little bit more expensive, but again, relative to a 1.3% yield on a 10-year treasury note, it trumps that. Again, from the comparison perspective, stock still seems relatively cheap. It's just that we're just not going to see the calm markets that we've seen from a market perspective like we've seen since the rebound because stocks really have pretty much for the most part gone straight up and we just won't see that over the next six to 12 months, we're going to see a lot more volatility into the markets.

Brokamp: Yeah, I know what you said earlier in terms of people keeping their expectations lower. Aswath Damodaran and the professor from NYU said on CNBC last week that people should expect the S&P 500 to return 6% a year on average over the next decade. That gets back to valuation, but also earnings yields, but even that, even if you layer in 6%, it's still better than what you're going to get from cash or bonds over the next decade, which is why people feel like they just have to stick with stocks.

Cross: Yeah, those returns, and if we get 6%, actually, I was at 6% maybe a couple of months ago. That's actually I think would be pretty decent. Of course, inflation is going to start picking up. The return on yield and that return from bonds, sorry, stocks tend to outperform during inflationary periods because businesses have more pricing power, certainly more than bonds that have that fixed coupon. If we get that return, it's going to come with a lot more volatility than maybe, perhaps in bonds and obviously certainly more than cash, but the returns are definitely going to still be higher. From the TINA acronym, there is no alternative.

That's a lot of people are seeing in the markets. Imagine even just retirees, whether it's in dividend stocks or just markets can compete with inflation expectations which are creeping up. Rightly so again, we're starting to see that show up in our conference calls and in the numbers, and businesses talking a lot more about rising costs. I was listening and reading the Sherwin-Williams conference call from a little bit ago, the paint manufacturer and retailer, and they were just talking about having to offset costs. They're just seeing more and more cost inputs and how they are going to start to offset that with their price increases, and that's going to start filtering through or already has to the consumer. We're going to see in those inflation, the expectations start to creep up. Again, worse for bond returns. Stocks have the ability to maybe ride that out a little bit more. Again, what does that mean for valuations?

That starts to put your market higher, because again, there is no other alternative. Now, I think we will start seeing international markets starting to be more attractive to investors, we already have seen a little bit of that. There's an international bent to this to start to diversify your portfolio into some global, either equities or funds that maybe you didn't look at before because the U.S. was so attractive from the rebound from COVID.

Brokamp: We talked about cash and bonds, that's one way to manage risks, taking some chips off the table, so to speak. But you can also manage risk within your stock portfolio, for example, by owning enough stocks. In the past, The Fool didn't really have an official take on that. Some of our services recommended at least 15 stocks, but it wasn't really a key Foolish principle. However, lately, we've upped that number to 25 and we're making more of an effort to promote that as a minimum number. What's been behind that push?

Cross: Well, a lot of it's data, Robert. Again, thinking about five-year periods, which is what we want investors to really think about. When we say investors, we're talking about those who are investing in the markets looking to build wealth over a long-term periods, whether it's in a taxable account where those gains can grow relatively tax-deferred because you're not churning the account or you're going to a taxable account. Thinking long-term perspective because businesses sometimes take a long time for the market to show up in the value of that business, but looking at our data historically, as we are looking at our Stock Advisor data, which is our longest-serving service, started by Tom and David back in 2002, so it's been around for many, many years. We looked over the historical data, those recommendations, and we found that the more stocks you held and for longer periods of time, your likelihood historically of making money or a return on your investment is quite high.

Now, that's not too surprising, Robert, because I think as you know, and we've talked about before, if you look at the five-year periods or even longer, the S&P 500 again, going over rolling periods, really monthly periods of five years, the S&P 500 has made money 87.5% of the time. That still means there's 12.5% of the time it didn't make money, so you didn't have a return. Of course, if you push that out to 10 years, that number drops to 6% of the time we don't make money. If you go over longer periods, 15 and 20 years, it's almost 100% of the time historically, you've made money in stocks. Again, the longer period, the more likelihood of making money. That's been a big driver and we look at our Stock Advisor data and we think it's a little bit better by investing in stocks that we've had in the Stock Advisor who make money. That's been a big realization for us and just an encouraging of talking to our members and investors that listen, if you're looking to generate a return in investing and think about it from a business-focused perspective, building out a portfolio of 25 stocks, not 500, just even just 25 stocks, aim to get there 25 stocks and hold for five years, your likelihood of making money on those stocks is quite good.

Brokamp: Over the past decade-plus, almost all types of stocks have done well, but some types have definitely done much better. U.S. over international, as you mentioned earlier, growth of our value to a lesser extent, large over small. For the past few years, many folks, myself included just said, well, this can't continue, but it still does. There was a brief period toward the end of last year and the beginning of this year where it changed, but over the last few months, it's gone back to the way it was. Do you pay much attention to such things, or are you focused just on finding great companies and you don't worry too much about these asset class trends?

Cross: It's mostly the latter, Robert, I'm mostly focused on those great businesses around the globe. It doesn't just have to be in the U.S., and whether they are small-cap or large-cap, I'm trying to find those exceptional businesses run by smart, principled people, preferably with decent ownership stakes, but businesses that can stand the test of time. If I am going to invest in them for say, five years, that their business, they're offering solutions, they're in growing markets or serving growing markets, they're offering products that their customers continue to use and want to use more of, that's how I most of our time, and I think most of the investors who work on our team spend their time thinking about. That doesn't mean it's not important, and when I look at, say, my 401(k), which has a couple of different funds in there, I do think about just the balance of those. I use that more as an opportunity to balance between maybe international or maybe different parts of the market like I did shift into and add some small-cap exposure into my 401(k) earlier this year or late last year. One of the times over the past 12 months just to get some more exposure widely to small-cap investing, because again, most of the stocks that I was focused on studying or buying were more large-cap companies because that's where we have seen most of the opportunity. I think from that perspective you can use the balance investing approach across different vehicles, stocks, funds, mutual funds, ETFs to diversify your portfolio, but on a stock-by-stock basis, still focus on those great businesses.

Brokamp: What are you excited about in the world of investing these days? What has got you the most interested?

Cross: Well, I think the continued shift of technology is just really important. There are great tech-focused companies out there. I like to find companies that are really benefiting from technology, that are utilizing technology, even though they might be offering solutions that tend to not be technology-driven. Companies that are selling those tech services and SaaS companies, software-as-a-service or whatever it might be, but companies that are utilizing technology and it's a fun place to focus. It still is mostly U.S., I still see most of the growth, even though valuations in the U.S. are at relatively elevated levels, I still see the potential for sales and earnings growth, to long-term to be the drivers of growth, I still focus on the U.S. markets. Not so much on the fixed income market, of course, I just think that the yield there is going to be tough to find. Certainly don't ignore dividends. If you can find those dividend-paying companies that have the sustainable returns, you might not have outstanding outsize returns that you might own by owning some more aggressive growth companies, but it tends to temper down volatility. Studies show that dividends tend to temper down volatility, or they're a little less volatile, and you have some consistent cash flows coming in, and that's a nice thing to have in your portfolio. Again, when the markets going forward, I think are just going to be far more volatile over the next 12 months than they were in the last 12.

Brokamp: Let's have our final question here. Our official purpose here at The Motley Fool is to make the world smarter, happier, and richer. Let's say you're named America's money czar. What's one thing you change about our financial system that would increase people's chances of becoming smarter, happier, and/or richer?

Cross: Robert, I really wrestled with this because I don't like to mandate things too much. But I just think the teaching of Foolish investing is still so nascent. Even though we have millions of millions of people coming to visit our website every day and we have just loads of members that we're trying to serve, there are still just so many people who don't really understand Foolish investing. What I'm trying to teach my daughters, I have two young daughters, trying to teach them about investing. It's about businesses, and it's about long-term perspective, and owning lots of different businesses that over the next five to 10 years, either they or others will continue to use more and more of in buying stocks. By the way, when you buy that stock, you are a part owner. I hear my kids using terms now. We are part owners of Netflix. We are part owners of Roblox. Like, there's just little thinking around that. I want everybody to think like that, Robert. I don't care who you are.

I want you to be able to understand that and think about that. There's been so much great drive of investing interest in capital put in by individual investors over the last 12 months, which is fantastic. I want them to make sure they are thinking about business investing the right way. To answer your question, very long-winded, if I could mandate some Foolish investing education, probably at the high school level or even earlier, maybe junior high, somehow start to have them understand business focus investing, and long-term perspective and how that is valuable. By the way, to understand the volatility that comes with that. If we can start to package that, if I can wait for my magic one, that's what I would want to do.

Brokamp: That sounds excellent. You have my vote, by the way.

Cross: Well, thank you. If I'm running for office, you and my mom might be the only ones.

Brokamp: And your daughters of course.

Cross: They don't know how to vote yet.

Brokamp: Our guest today has been Andy Cross, the chief investment officer here at The Motley Fool. Andy, thanks for joining us once again.

Cross: Robert, Rick, thanks so much. It's been great.

[...]

Southwick: It's time for Answers answers. This week's question comes from Ken. "The guest on your August 31st episode said that claiming Social Security at age 67 or 68 maximizes lifetime benefits. Is that good advice for those near, or at that age who aren't yet claiming without considering health status? Our advisors insist that I wait till 70 to claim based on the 8% increase for each year of delaying as they do with all of their clients who don't need the extra income for day-to-day expenses. This will also impact spousal survivor benefits. If, like in our situation, one spouse made significantly more than the other while working. Am I missing something?

Brokamp: Well, we get a few questions along these lines, so I thought we'd address this question. Our guest, just for those who don't remember, was Dr. Geoffrey Sanzenbacher at the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. He was providing a very general number based on some studies that you could find on the center's website. But a lot of factors go into the decision of when to claim our security. One of the biggest is life expectancy. That's difficult to predict, of course, but for those with health issues that strongly suggests that they won't outlive the averages, then taking it sooner might make sense. However, for those with longer life expectancies, delaying might be the better option. This includes women, people with college educations, people with above-average wealth, all characteristics associated with living longer. Ken does bring up another important factor and that is if you're married, when you claim could affect how much your spouse receives if you die first, it depends on the differential between the two spouses' lifetime earnings. If they're close, it's not so important. But if, as in Ken's case, one spouse was the primary breadwinner then it certainly makes sense for the primary breadwinner to delay, especially if it's likely that she or he will pass away first. The surviving spouse will then get the deceased spouse's benefit.

Really, one of the best ways to determine the best strategy for you is to use some online tools because they break your choices down to actual dollars based on your primary insurance amount, which is how much you'd receive at your full retirement age. The first step is to actually know your primary insurance amount, which you can get by signing up for a my Social Security account at Social Security's website. Once you have it, checkout some tools. One free tool is opensocialsecurity.com, developed by Mike Piper who is a CPA, and a financial writer in St. Louis. That's free. Another is maximizemysocialsecurity.com, which costs $40. It was co-developed by Laurence Kotlikoff, economics professor at Boston university. He is a bit of a character. He actually ran for president in 2016, but he is a smart dude, PhD from Harvard regularly writes about social security. Then a third option is socialsecurityadvisors.com. It costs $25-$125 depending on whether you want to talk to an expert.

For married couples, the results will often recommend that lower-earning spouses claim their benefits early. The higher-earning spouse delays to their late 60s or at 70. But your situation may be different. It's important to remember that a tool can't accommodate all the factors including whether someone just needs the money. This brings me to an email from a listener who said that she's 63, had planned to delay to age 66, but her 70 year old husband very sadly has been diagnosed with brain cancer, and they've been told that he has less than a year to live. She's asked whether she should take social security now because they need the money. I think that probably makes sense because when her husband passes away, she will receive his stepped up benefit. Really, this all leads me back to the advice that I regularly offer and that is everyone who's within a few years of retirement should see a fee-only financial planner to make sure they have all their bases covered. They can incorporate all the non-financial factors into their plan because it's really not just all about the numbers. The planner will have access to software that can determine the optimal social security claiming age, which brings us back to Ken's question.

If Ken has a qualified financial planner, who he trusts, who has analyzed the situation, and determined that 70 is his optimal claiming age, then he should probably go with it. I will close here by highlighting one reason some people do claim early, and that is they're afraid Social Security is going to run out of money. They feel like they need to get the benefits now while they can. The program's definitely in trouble.The Social Security trustees released their latest report a couple of weeks ago, and the date that the Social Security trust funds will be depleted has been moved up a year thanks to the COVID crisis. However, I don't think that's a reason to claim early for those who are in their 60s. I think those who are nearly and already retired are going to be fine. It's the rest of us, however, that probably need to count on reduced benefits. Like when I use a retirement calculator, I assume I will get 50%-75% of my currently protracted benefits. I hope I get 100%, but given the program's finances, and the lack of political will to fix this while we can, I just don't think that's a safe assumption.

Southwick: Well, that's the show. It's edited securely by Rick Engdahl. Our email is answers@fool.com. For Robert Brokamp, I'm Alison Southwick. Stay Foolish, everybody.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.