A Pirate’s Defense of Index Investing

I suppose you could call this part three of my supposedly two-part series on stuff I learned from reading Mr. Money Mustache. Irregardless of the general absurdity of the situation, index investing is just what I felt like writing about today.

Of course I realize MMM didn’t invent index investing (that was John Bogle, as far as I know.) But still, I learned about it from him so I thought it only right to give credit. Good form, and all.

Before we really get started I should mention I’m not going to get real technical here, which some of you may appreciate. There are a lot of good resources on the nuts-and-bolts of investing available, so I won’t bother with the details.

Plus, one of the nice things about index investing is that it relies on the economy doing what it tends to do in order to work, not on you being an expert on investing.

I’ll begin today’s discussion with this seemingly irrelevant exchange between Captain Hook and Henry Mills from ABC’s Once Upon A Time:

Hook: Do you know what the secret to winning is?

Henry: Practice?

Hook: Loaded dice.

Henry: That’s cheating.

Hook: Only if you get caught.

Henry: I’m pretty sure it’s cheating either way.

Hook: The point is, you win.

I’ve implicitly promised that these pirate-y bits of advice will work in real life, so obviously I’m not advocating actual cheating. Like on your taxes, for instance.

That kind of cheating is doesn’t work. It’s bad form, for one thing. And in the long-term it is likely to be counterproductive.

But there is something we can learn from this that relates to investing.

Hook is teaching Henry that the best way to win at gambling is not to gamble at all. Because if you know the outcome already (i.e. with loaded dice) you’ll win every time.

This is relevant because investing is essentially gambling. You’re making a bet that the stocks you buy will be worth more in the future, based on little to no first-hand knowledge of the companies you’re buying stocks in.

A lot of people pay someone else to make these bets for them, either through managed mutual funds or a financial advisor. The idea being that these people, through a combination of experience, talent, and necromancy, will be able to predict which stocks will beat the market.

The thing is, almost nobody does well at this in the long-term.

(“But I can think of people who do this!” you say.)

Of course you can. The rare few who have done this inevitably become famous. Because they’re rare. And it may not even have anything to do with them. With a playing field this big, some people will win tremendously just by chance.

People who win the lottery don’t win because they’re good at it. It’s the same with stocks. Most of it is just luck, and sooner or later whoever is picking your stocks is going to lose. Because they’re not Warren Buffet.

Even Warren Buffet (guy who made a vast fortune on the stock market) advocates index investing, because he knows most people are not him. What does that tell you?

So if we can’t rely on ourselves or someone else to beat the market consistently for us, how do we win?

Well, we win by being the market. Basically, you’re betting that in the long-term, the entire economy will do well. Which economy? Whatever you like. You can pick your country, the whole world, or a country with a strong economy like the United States.

Or all of the above, just in case a bomb gets dropped somewhere.

Historically, this bet wins by an average of 7% per year. Some years it goes down, others it goes up. But on average, it tends to go up.

And that’s not all.

Because you’re not paying some hot-shot to pick stocks for you, the fees for index funds are way lower. Less than one percent in a lot of cases, which is let’s say around 2% better than a lot of mutual funds (I have no idea what financial advisors charge but I imagine it’s similar.)

It varies of course, but it’s usually close to that and the principle works either way.

So in order for your stock picker to be better than just buying an index fund and getting on with your life, they have to consistently get returns greater than 9%, forever. (Or 7% plus whatever they charge you.)

That’s a tall order. Pretty much no one can do that.

And as much as I advocate believing in your own “specialness,” make no mistake. That’s not going to be you. Not long-term.

Even if you want to try, is it really worth the effort?

With index investing, you don’t have to be paranoid about every little thing that happens in the stock market. You just sit back, and know that your stocks will go up on average 7% per year regardless of what the talking heads on TV are freaking out about.

Which is nice because, let’s be honest, the stock market is by-and-large irrational.

Supposedly stocks are valued according to how much the company is worth. Or it would be that way if humans were rational creatures. But like the guy from Men in Black says:

A person is smart. People are stupid, panicky, dangerous animals.

(Sorry, couldn’t find a quote from an actual pirate for this.)

Hence every stock market bubble and financial crisis ever.

It’s also why for about the last two years or so, I can tell when Donald Trump has done something just by looking at what my stocks are doing.

Oh look, lots of red. Government shutdown, ah I see.

What does that have to do with the long-term prospects of the companies my index funds are made of? Nothing. At all.

But it does make a nice buying opportunity. Yay, the stocks are on sale!

I also don’t have to worry about buying the stocks of a company that goes belly-up. Because I’m betting on the whole economy, which is a really safe bet.

Now that may not technically be cheating, but the point is…you win.

What This Pirate Learned From MMM: Part Two

This is the second blog post inspired by MMM. I feel like the issue we’re going to discuss today is going to come up in a lot of posts, but really it’s so important that it deserves a blog post of it’s own.

As I said in the last post, pirates rebel against the powers that be. And the powers that be are usually out to trick you out of your hard-earned loot. We do not allow this.

Why do we care so much about this when said powers are giving you nice stuff that everyone agrees is cool?

Firstly, because as I discussed in my last post, spending your life indulging in comforts will make you a weak landlubber.

And secondly, more importantly, throwing away your loot on stuff you don’t need makes you dependent. On your employer, on banks, and on the insane ups-and-downs of the economy.

If you depend on your employer to keep you in your cushy lifestyle, you pretty much have to take whatever crap they throw at you.

And that’s only if the economy doesn’t decide to go haywire, and take your job away entirely. In which case depending on your debt situation the banks can do fun stuff to you too.

Jack Sparrow does not let the East India Trading Company push him around, and you shouldn’t be beholden to the corporations in your life either.

(Fortunately we haven’t gotten to the point where Wal-Mart and Amazon are going around imprisoning and executing the Financial Independence crowd.)

Now now do we do this exactly?

Well, to explain that properly would take a lot more than one blog post (see MMM’s entire blog), but I’ll attempt to get you started.

They Are Lying to You

Marketing is bullcrap, and we’re all eating it. No, you are not immune to advertising (literally everyone thinks they are.)

You’re not, okay?

The Starbucks “experience” is not worth the markup.

(Actually any markup is not worth it. If it’s cheaper somewhere else, buy it there. If that means waiting a while, deal with it.)

You do not need to buy chocolate because it is Valentine’s day.

You can leave that “omg I must have it” thing you just saw in the store, and your life will go on unchanged. Conversely, whatever you buy will not change your life.

The truth is, if you actually need something, you will know about it before an advertiser tells you that you need it.

So if you see something in a store and just “have” to have it, then you have been lied to.

So that’s the bad news. The good news is all the awesome stuff that happens when you rebel against the evil corporations and stop giving them all your money.

Let me give you myself as an example. Now, some of you may not be in a situation comparable to mine, but unless you can honestly say that you don’t spend any money on stuff you don’t need, or that there aren’t people in situations like yours (I’m thinking of kids, etc) who live on less than you and are perfectly happy, then my point is still valid.

I just graduated not too long ago. I don’t make very much, relatively speaking.

Yet, despite that and annoying housing costs and my student loans, I still manage to sock away a sizable chunk of money every month.

I’ve been working full time less than two years, but if I lost my job right now, I would just be annoyed.

(I mean, I’m sure I would freak out.)

But financially, it would just be a setback. With some small adjustments, I’m pretty sure I could manage a year even without a severance package, unemployment insurance, or going into debt.

If unexpected expenses come up, such as the vacation opportunity I mentioned in another post, I don’t bat an eye.

(I just delayed buying a couch, because I don’t need a couch. In fact, I’m rethinking the whole idea of buying a living room set while I still need a job, because I’m perfectly happy without one.)

Since beginning my entry into the adult workforce, I have never worried about money. In fact I’ve made it a goal of mine that if I ever do end up having to worry about money, it won’t be for lack of effort on my part.

Will I be able to retire as early as I hope (before 40, preferably)? I don’t know. But I won’t end up with a handful of mud, either.

I’m not saying this to brag (except maybe a little.) My intent is to describe the freedom that comes from controlling your own money, and intentionally deciding what your priorities are in where you put it.

If people thought about it, I really don’t think they would decide that another bag of clothes, or a weekly Starbucks habit, was more important to them than financial freedom.

And a pirate’s life ultimately is about freedom. That, and developing the skills and savvy necessary to achieve it.

What This Pirate Learned From Mr. Money Mustache: Part One

My next two blog posts will be about the single most useful blog I have ever come across.

In fact, it has been so useful, and came in such fortuitous timing that I can only credit the event to Providence. I was just about to graduate, get a job, and move out.

So while it didn’t neccesarily immediately change my life (it’s a personal finance blog, and I had no income to speak of) it certainly changed the trajectory of my life.

As I’ve mentioned briefly in other posts, I knew what I wanted out of life at the time, but I didn’t have the tools.

MMM gave me those tools.

I’ve had to break down this discussion into two parts. First, a discussion of what MMM calls “badassity,” and then another on not being what MMM calls a “consumer sucka,” and the financial independance that tends to follow.

Granted, this isn’t a personal finance blog, but you can’t have a proper pirate lifestyle blog if you don’t talk about the proper management of treasure.

Being a pirate is about rebelling against the powers that be, not about allowing said powers to bilk you out of your hard-earned loot. I mean, really.

And Now For Our Actual Topic…

Pirates Are Not Wusses

The premise here is two-fold. One: occasional, voluntary discomfort is good for you. And two: if you don’t like something, either do something about it or learn to live with it. No whining allowed.

Our first principle comes up frequently throughout the MMM blog, but especially in his discussion of hedonic adaption.

Basically, the idea is that pampering yourself makes you weaker. Physically, mentally, and often financially as well.

Going for a run when its chilly involves discomfort, but you come out of it invigorated and in better physical and mental health.

Cooking for yourself involves acquiring new skills, and might cut into the time you spend staring at a screen. But you’ll end up eating healthier, saving money, and gain confidence from having learned said new skills.

Forgoing HD or 3D, or choosing a smaller screen, might mean you notice differences in video quality…for maybe even a whole five minutes. But the money you save won’t go away.

Unless of course you waste it on something else.

At home, I watch stuff on my little laptop. When I go back to the family home to visit, I watch stuff on my parent’s HD TV. And yes, I notice the difference. But I stop noticing really, really quickly.

Just like you stop noticing your movie is 3D after a few minutes. That’s called hedonic adaption.

How powerful is this? A study on the subject found that the happiness level of a lottery winner, and a parapalegic had returned to normal six months after the events that changed their lives.

Humans are incredibly adaptable, and a good pirate uses this knowledge to maximize their enjoyment of life, and allocate resources to places that really matter.

When you upgrade comfort, you’re paying for something you won’t even notice after a while. Is that really worth it?

Things like skills, confidence, health, money in the bank. That’s what will last.

Now to our second point. A pirate’s life is a mixed bag, and some of it you won’t like so much.

(I should mention here that I am writing this as a person who hasn’t dealt with a lot of hardship compared to a lot of people. Therefore, dial up the amount of empathy and compassion you read into these words as suits your personal circumstances.)

As I said before, you can do one of two things. You can decide that, while a given situation is not what you’d prefer, but changing that situation would take resources away from areas you feel more strongly about.

This is why I still don’t have a car, a pet, a living room set, or a queen-sized bed, or a whole host of other things.

Or, you can decide that your situation is unacceptable and push your mental, financial etc resources into changing said situation.

Whiners (or in MMMspeak “complainypants”) can walk the plank.

If you’ve decided to do something about your situation, feel free to snarl, growl and make as much of a fuss as you like about it. The key is to keep your energy going in a direction that means something.

In sum, pirates do not sit on their rear ends feeling like lazy slugs and complaining about things in their lives that they could change.

Pirates get stuff done.