CHICAGO — I had an uncle whose lifetime financial goal was to amass $1 million to leave to his children.
A farmer, he was frugal by nature; in his 70s, he finally reached his goal. Rather than celebrating his wealth, be turned into the poorest, stingiest man I’ve ever known.
Every purchase — along with any downturn in the markets — re-crossed the goal line to the negative, making the loss much bigger in his head than it was in his life. The declines had no impact on his ability to live out his days in comfort — they didn’t impact his ability to afford whatever he could want or need — but had a massive effect on his mental health and ability to enjoy his financial accomplishments.
The potential for falling short of his goal made him more uptight and anxious than ever about money.
I’ve been thinking about him a lot of late, as the market has gone through a miserable start to the year.
With stocks off significantly and bonds losing ground too, I worry that many people share my late uncle’s mindset. They’re watching portfolios lose ground, backtracking across significant mile markers and getting scared.
It’s emotional but understandable. Most investors hate losses more than they enjoy wins, but they anchor their minds on the peaks, meaning that every time they see a new record high for their account value, they internalize the high-water mark.
Rather than seeing the years of gains and progress that built their holdings to a good number, they see any drop from a peak as leaving them on a bad number.
Those profits are made on paper not set in stone, but that doesn’t reduce the sense of loss as a portfolio backslides.
The impact is compounded now by rising prices and high inflation. It couples the sense of loss with a feeling like things will never be affordable again and stepping backward from a portfolio mile marker can feel like driving at high speed in the wrong direction.
It’s incredibly hard to combat.
“Telling people to do nothing to respond to these conditions — because they are better off staying on the course they set for themselves — is unsatisfying when they have anchored themselves to the highest balance level and don’t want to let go,” says Christine Benz, director of personal finance and retirement planning for Morningstar. “Nothing will really make them feel better until they return to that peak.”
While falling from a peak tends to make a decline feel fast and precipitous, investors need to keep perspective.
I could trot out old chestnuts about feeling good about how far you’ve come, but they are cold comfort when the stock market is entering bear-market territory.
Experts at the Morningstar Investment Conference in Chicago this past week were quick to come up with portfolio solutions about ways to invest in this storm, but had nothing but “hang in there” to offer investors who are tensing up.
It may be the right advice, but it’s not helpful when everything feels wrong.
Nervous investors instead should consider a few other factors:
How did you set your goal or target?
A lot of people are like my uncle. He never did any analysis of his needs — in fact, his goal was aimed at passing on wealth to his kids — it was just in reaching a big number.
You don’t save and invest because it lets you achieve a number, you achieve a number because you have been saving and investing to have peace of mind that you can live comfortably.
Are losses and setbacks significant in your life, or just to your target?
I spoke recently with a young investor who had hoped to amass $50,000 in savings by the time he turned 25. He was upset that the market’s downturn was going to leave him short.
That’s disappointing, but the money he saved and invested has him way ahead of his peers.
Falling short of a goal is much less important than having made the effort and coming close.
If your portfolio remains healthy and on pace to reach your long-term goals and needs, where it’s at now and what it has done for you lately aren’t that important.
Is this a temporary setback or a true loss?
I’m not immune to this thinking; the last time I checked my portfolio, it had fallen under a round number that is meaningful to me as a target, because it’s where I hoped to be when I reached age 65.
That’s disappointing, but I don’t hit that life milestone for five more years, so the decline isn’t stopping me from reaching my key financial-planning targets.
Time horizon matters when it comes to your goals. While a retiree might feel current conditions more acutely than the young guy with the bent for savings, that doesn’t mean the situation is dire.
Most people would be pretty happy to be facing my uncle’s situation. Even falling short of the number — which he didn’t in the end — he still would have been wealthy by most standards and set for life based on his own lifestyle. He had everything he wanted except for the number.
Do you really feel differently about your investments?
We are happy when the market gains 15% and miserable when it loses 15%. It’s the same movement, but no one complains about volatility when it works in our favor.
If your portfolio wasn’t too volatile or scary on the way to achieving the level you’ve got locked in your head as a peak, a downturn shouldn’t scare you.
“Make your decisions based on the market, not emotion,” says Benz. “Focus on what your money can do for you, not on achieving a certain target. These aren’t comfortable times, but unless you are looking at them thinking that there has been a regime change in thinking — that the market is different and changed forever — don’t let your emotions get the best of you.”