Two Barriers on the Road to Wealth
By Nilus Mattive
Have you ever been driving on the road when traffic suddenly comes to a halt? You sit there wondering what the heck is going on up ahead for ten or fifteen minutes. Then, suddenly, things start moving again and you realize that the hold-up was caused by merging traffic and a couple of yahoos who decided to wait until the last possible second to move over into the proper lane.
Why do people consistently do things like this? Why do they wait until the last possible moment to move over, even when there were ten signs warning them to do so for the last five miles?
I lump them into two categories:
The first group wants to eke out every last possible foot before they merge, thinking they’re going to time it perfectly. Never mind that it rarely happens and they end up sitting in gridlock with everyone else. It’s not about the end result — it’s about the thrill of going for an extra advantage.
The second — and larger — group is simply not paying attention. Maybe they’re talking on their phones, shaving, or eating burgers. Whatever the reason, they don’t even see the signs in the first place. They’re blindly following the car ahead of them.
None of this is news to you, I’m sure. If you’ve driven on a U.S. highway, you’ve seen these people in action over and over again. But I bring it up today because these very same psychological mistakes can prevent us from successfully building wealth.
Let’s start with the proverbial portfolio lane changers…
There’s nothing wrong with trying to actively manage your portfolio. In fact, I think you’re right to stay on top of your finances day in and day out.
However, I don’t think you’re going to get ahead by shifting out of an investment every time it slows down a little bit.
Not only will commissions — and possibly taxes — put a serious drag on your performance, but you face very stiff odds of regularly outperforming, too.
As a real world example, I’d point to my portfolio in Dividend Superstars. Some of our positions were initiated in the summer and fall of 2007…right as the market was beginning to crack. And during the March lows, they had fallen substantially (though a lot less than the broad market).
However, their fundamental businesses hadn’t changed. The dividend income was still flowing. There was no reason to abandon ship, in my opinion…so I told my subscribers to continue holding.
Today, the shares have recovered quite nicely. And once you factor in the dividend income, they have really outperformed their benchmarks.
Had we jumped in and out, we would have run the risk of getting whipsawed over and over again.
So my message is this: If you’re already paying attention to the market “signs,” and adjusting accordingly…great! Just don’t overdo it. Major shifts should be undertaken only after much consideration.
Meanwhile, inertia can be even more damaging to your ability to consistently build wealth!
I was recently at the Salvation Army to donate some items. As you’d expect, I asked for a donation form so I could write off these donations on my tax return.
That’s a logical thing to do, right? I mean, who wouldn’t take the two minutes to fill out a simple piece of paper for the chance to keep some more of their hard-earned dollars away from Uncle Sam!
Well, the answer is “a lot of people,” apparently.
I say that because as I was filling out my form, another guy next to me grabbed a form and asked me some basic questions about how it worked.
I explained that it was pretty simple. You just wrote down what you were donating and took your copy home with you. An accompanying piece of paper would tell you how much your items were realistically worth for deduction purposes.
He started to write down a word or two…then said something like, “Who am I kidding? This isn’t worth it!” He crumpled up the paper and walked away. And he wasn’t alone. I saw plenty of folks who just dropped stuff off and left.
Look, if you’re just giving a couple t-shirts, I understand — it’s not worth the hassle. But I’m talking about people who were giving chairs, tables, and many other big items.
My point is this: Nearly everyone knows that donating to a charity is tax deductible. Yet not everyone will take even one very easy step to ensure that they reap the financial benefit of doing so.
Yet if you want to build and maintain wealth you have to not only think about money matters on a regular basis, but also have the discipline to follow through on your plans!
Consider retirement planning, one of my favorite subjects…
It’s no secret that contributing to a 401(k) plan makes sense for most workers. There are upfront tax advantages. Many companies toss in “free” money in the form of matched contributions. And it’s pretty clear that the traditional retirement anchors such as pensions and Social Security aren’t necessarily going to be there the way they were in prior years.
Yet according to mutual fund behemoth Vanguard, only 60% of workers eligible for 401(k) plans chose to participate in 2008.
Sure, you could argue that the other 40% had a better use for their money. Or that the recession crunched their finances to the point where contributions weren’t possible.
But, Vanguard also found that 84% of workers in 401(k) plans with automatic enrollment participated.
That 24-percentage-point difference tells me that, for a lot of workers, the sheer “hassle” of filling out a simple form is too much of a burden. They’d rather miss out on all the great advantages of participation than do a couple minutes worth of work. It has nothing to do with their financial situations at all.
Want prosperity? Just follow the rules of the road!
Since you read Money and Markets, I know you’re already pretty serious about building — and maintaining — your wealth. You’re already very disciplined. And I’m positive that you know a heck of a lot more about financial matters than most other investors out there.
But I also know that we all change lanes a little too frequently, or fail to heed warnings along the road from time to time. So it’s nice to get a gentle reminder that little steps DO pay off down the line. And that it is indeed possible to obsess over your portfolio a little too much.
Remember, all the knowledge in the world doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t use it properly.
So continue to do what you’re doing, and always keep an eye on places in your financial life that you could improve. Here are just four areas off the top of my head:
Taxes: Whether it’s taking the time to fill out a donation form, or enrolling in a tax-sheltered retirement plan, there are plenty of ways to lower your tax bill.
Asset allocation: Periodically revisit your portfolio and make sure you’re happy with how much money you’ve got invested in stocks, bonds, commodities and so on. The percentages should jibe with your age, your risk tolerance, and your overall opinion of where the world economy is heading.
Specific investments: Don’t stick with winners or losers just because. Make sure their stories are still sound…and their purpose in your overall portfolio is still valid.
Your budget: I’ve discussed this in detail before, but it really pays to keep track of what you’re making and what you’re spending. I think you’ll find that there’s always another way to put a little extra money away for a rainy day. And as many Americans are now discovering, getting thriftier can actually be enjoyable!
Heck, at least think about these things the next time you’re stuck in traffic. Because we all have the tools and potential to build wealth consistently. It just takes a little planning and a lot of patience.
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