One of the best fringe benefits of writing for The Motley Fool is feedback. Many of us have a sick fascination with the angry email that comes our way whenever we criticize a stock. It's like staring at a car wreck. You don't want to see it, yet you cannot look away. But the real gems are the messages that shout, "Amen, brother," and not just because some poor clod out there happens to agree with your opinion on some equity, but because it makes you realize that someone out there is living a better, more fulfilled life because of what you do.
I got one of these messages recently from the better half of a couple of Fools in Sterling, Ill. (Heck, let's just call them the Sterlings.) For those of you who've never experienced rural Illinois via I-88, the Sterling/Rock Falls metro area is the stop you cannot afford to pass. (Really, you'll starve and be praying and clenching by the time you reach the next rest stop.) Hang a right at Route 40, and don't blink or you'll miss most of town. Pull into Culver's for a butterburger and frozen custard. It's on your right, next to the Wal-Mart
To judge by appearances, there's not a ton going on in this little farmland town. It's the last place you'd expect to find fervent stock investors, yet that describes the Sterlings pretty well. Actually, Mrs. Sterling's bookkeeping habits do an even better job of relating her passion. As she describes it,
"On Friday, I was off work and got caught up on entering all the buy, sell, and dividend information into Microsoft
It's not about the stocks (completely)
As Mrs. Sterling goes on to explain, she began investing just before the big tech bubble burst. Her continued enthusiasm for stocks makes her unique -- to put it mildly -- because many first-time stockhands who stepped in on the top floor in 2000 got off in the basement a few months later and never came back.
But what's more striking is the way that the very act of stock shopping has refocused the Sterlings' entire financial frame of mind.
"Because I like to invest and learn about investing, we have become more frugal shoppers, learned to live way below our means (who knew?), and found all kinds of stray, formerly wasted dollars to stash in the investment accounts. The amazing, mind-blowing thing to me is how much I've been able to find lying around in the ole budget to invest in stocks! ... $20 here, a birthday check there, a tax return in May or June, a refund or rebate elsewhere.... We saved on not having to pay for school lunches x2 kids all summer...."
I hope you can excuse the choice of words, but the Sterlings appear to suffer from a few very serious, but Foolish, addictions. Their afflictions are simple for me to understand, since my wife and I suffer from the same outlandish needs.
Four Foolish addictions
These addictions are:
- Becoming a control freak
- Jonesing for knowledge
- Embracing your inner skinflint
It might seem odd to describe these financial habits as addictions, but I stick by the characterization for a couple of reasons. First, the opposing alternatives that are the norms in American life do indeed seem to be addictions in the fullest sense of the word. Shifting the burden of our financial well-being to others, sticking our heads in the sand, spending like drunken sailors, and refusing to plan for tomorrow have reached epidemic levels in our country. The best person to count on for a personal fix is you and you alone.
Luckily, it's easy enough to choose your financial addictions. In a few short years, I went from a terminal debtor to a flush and happy individual investor. I suffer from stock withdrawal -- a real, physical sensation in my gut -- during those rare months when I can't find a company that looks cheap or when the inhabitants of Casa Jayson can't manage to squirrel away an extra few hundred bucks to buy the stuff on our watch list.
A brief description of the Foolish addictions:
Becoming a control freak, at least as it regards your financial future, is the first Foolish addiction. It's the baby step that sends you down the path.
If you rely, as does most of the crowd, on financial planners and mutual-fund managers, you're effectively isolated from ultimate responsibility for your financial goals. You make a few, vague choices up front about "risk tolerance" and other spongy notions, but if things go well, you won't know why, and when things go badly, hey, there's someone to blame. This anesthetized approach to money management might be OK for some folks -- maybe those who already have enough -- but it's not likely to excite you or make you want to take a more active role in your financial future.
The addictive thing about looking for individual stocks is that you are free from the whims of the herd, and the gains you make are yours to savor. The entire economy can be going to heck in a handbasket, and the stock market can wander aimlessly, yet there will be companies that outrun the averages to astounding degrees. Take a look at something like Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick Marvel Enterprises
Jonesing for knowledge is the second Foolish addiction, and it comes quite naturally in the footsteps of the first. That's because once you've decided to invest for yourself, you'll need to root around for companies that are worth your cash. With thousands of firms to choose from, you'll need somewhere to start. Screening for values among blue-chip companies you know is a good bet. Learning how to value them is another.
Once you get comfortable investing in certain types of stocks, you'll always be looking at what the other guy is doing. No shame in mastering another part of the game. Learn about cash conversion and free cash flow. Learn about return on equity. Heck, learn about ignoring all that and finding Rule Breakers.
Embracing your inner skinflint is probably the easiest of the Foolish addictions to unleash. Once you've become accustomed to combing through financial statements to find companies that are getting the most mileage with their -- I mean, your -- dollars, it's pretty natural for you to begin paying more attention to your own spending as well.
Do you really need the premium cereal? How about recovering the old futon in lieu of splurging on a new couch, or grabbing an older TV on eBay
As with any addiction, your newfound need to skimp will begin to permeate your thinking and manifest itself in subtler schemes: living closer to work, carrying a thermos full of home brew instead of buying $5 worth of Starbucks
Squirrel-headedness is easy to emulate. Learn from the example of the bushy-tailed nut hoarders, and contribute regularly to your future stash. If you don't trust rodents -- after all, acorns don't compound -- consider that Foolish commentators from Ben Franklin to Ben Stein have all said that the most important decision you can make is to save for the future. I'd argue that it's much more important than your stock picks, especially when you're just starting out.
In the beginning, the amount of money you save will probably dwarf the amount you actually earn on your investments. For instance, a $25,000 stock portfolio earning a respectable 10% in a year will appreciate only $2,500. That's barely more than a couple hundred bucks per month.
A pair of young skinflints can easily match that amount by watching what they spend and shuttering away the windfalls before temptation snatches them away. At our house, it's not uncommon for one of us to simply zap a wad of cash from the checking account into the savings stash or the investment portfolio (thank you, Internet brokers) even before the other has noticed it existed. Most likely, it will never be missed. And that's why saving, like picking good stocks, gets so addictive: Money in the bank means peace of mind, and there's nothing more hypnotic than watching the balances grow. The surest way to see the numbers rise is to keep stuffing in the money.
The bottom line
Stock investing can make your life better in more ways than one. By reconfiguring your thinking, setting future-oriented goals, and becoming addicted to healthy financial habits, you'll profit down the road, even if your individual picks don't always pan out. As Mrs. Sterling -- who started us off -- concluded, "We were 'poor' when we got married 5 years ago, but then we began to learn about investing in stocks. We're not rich by any stretch of the imagination, but we're certainly better off."
If you want to earn while you learn, Foolish newsletters like Hidden Gems , Inside Value , and Rule Breakers feature stock picks and meaningful community discussions to help you sharpen your skills. A trial is free.
Seth Jayson started at the bottom, so he knows what it's like. At the time of publication, he owned shares of Marvel Enterprises, but no other company mentioned. View his stock holdings and Fool profile here. Fool rules are here.