I'm more convinced than ever that Mark Twain was correct when he decided that he was more interested in the return of his money than the return on his money.
Recently we discussed how often people in their 60s and 70s say that their primary residence of over 30 years was their best investment. This belief exists despite the fact that home values barely kept pace with inflation. How can this be, given that during the same time period average annual returns in various stock market indexes ranged from 8% to 13%?
The answer is: Because for most people, it was the only investment that didn't lose money!
While the same outcome may not apply to housing in recent years, the principle still applies to investing in general. Most of us are chasing the highest return, because that's what investing is all about, right?
But the experience of many people has been that the well-intentioned search for the best investment actually cost them money. They bought at the peak and sold at the bottom, and their overall returns ended up being meager. I suspect lots of these people would gladly trade their actual experience over the last decade or more with simply having their money returned to them.
So, what if the key to investment success is to start by making sure that you don't lose money? Could it be that accepting a lower rate of return might result in having more money than continuing the wild goose chase of this magical 10% we hear that the stock market delivers over time?
Part of the problem is that we focus on the wrong thing, like finding the very best investment or beating a particular stock market benchmark. Both are a wild goose chase. Having the money for a dignified retirement, however, is not. By setting real financial goals, we can quit chasing investment performance and focus instead on creating a plan for the future that makes sense.
Once a plan is in place, it may very well be that the best thing we can do with our investments is to simply not lose money and take the time and energy we were spending in the chase and focus on those things that we have more control over. Things like finding creative ways to earn or save more, or just enjoying the one life we have to live.
A version of this post appeared previously at The New York Times.
Carl Richards is a financial planner and the director of investor education for the BAM ALLIANCE, a community of more than 130 independent wealth management firms throughout the United States. Visit Behavior Gap for more of Carl's sketches and writings.
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