4 Things That Don't Work (in retirement planning and in life)

There’s lots of stuff in this world that just doesn’t work, and that’s not limited to the financial realm. Here’s four of those things…

Thing That Doesn’t Work #1: Arguing with people about political issues on Facebook

Tell me how many times you’ve had this conversation with someone.

“Hey, so I heard that you switched party affiliations. What caused that change of heart?”

“Well, I’ve been engaged in a debate on Facebook with a girl I went to high school with. Haven’t even seen her in probably 15 years, but she really made me think with her nine-paragraph response to something that I posted the other day. And then when she shared a 2013 article from Politico with me, I decided that now was the time to change my lifelong political ideology.”

Remember all those times you’ve heard somebody say that? Me neither.

Thing That Doesn’t Work #2:  The “Close Door” button on elevators

They almost never work. It’s usually a dummy button.

So what’s going on here? Are the elevator manufacturers going out of their way to install an extra button that gives us the illusion of control?

Not exactly. In fact, the buttons used to work. Then along came the Americans with Disabilities Act and most places decided to disable the buttons to be in compliance with the law. Sure, they could give us some kind of signage to let us know that we’re wasting our time pressing the button, but that seems like a lot of trouble.

Thing That Doesn’t Work #3:  Timing the Market

About once a month, somebody will walk into my office, seemingly for no other reason than to tell me their story of how brilliantly they timed the market in 2000 or 2008 and how they got out at just the right time and avoided the crash.

This is a lot like somebody telling you about their recent trip to Vegas and how much money they made with their new blackjack strategy. Of course, they’re forgetting to tell you about the previous four trips to Vegas where they lost all of their money but just couldn’t stop playing and eventually found themselves pleading “GIVE ME MORE CREDIT” as they were whisked away to a dark room.

Is it possible that you can guess when the crash is coming and get out at just the right time? Sure, it’s possible. Not highly likely, but within the realm of possibility. Then all you have to do is wait for the market to bottom out, then you come galloping back in on your steed and buy everything while it’s deeply discounted and then ride it back to the top.

But that’s the problem with successfully timing the market. You have to be right twice.

You have to not only get out at the right time, you also have to get back in at exactly the right time. And if you miss just a few days of a strong recovery and you get back in too late, you’ll wipe out most of the money that you saved by avoiding the initial downturn.

To illustrate what I mean, here are some fun numbers, that I’ve borrowed (stolen?) from J.P. Morgan.

They did a study on the returns on $10,000 invested in the S&P 500 for 20 years—from January of 1995 through the end of 2014.

If you let the money ride untouched for the full 20 years, your $10,000 would have grown to $65,453. That’s a 9.85% average annual return.

If you remove the gains from only the 10 best trading days during that 20 year period, you now have only $32,665. Half of your gains came during just 10 trading days.

Miss the 40 best days over a 20-year period and you actually have a negative return with your $10,000 now being worth $9,140.

So you can see what happens to a lot of people who successfully time the market and get out before the crash. While they’re on a victory tour around the country club locker room celebrating their investing prowess, the market bounces back before they have a chance to go buy all of their stocks at bargain prices. By the time they re-invest, the market is pretty close to where it was when they got out.

Thing That Doesn’t Work #4:  Pick-up lines

“Hey Mom, how did you meet Dad?”

“Well, I was at this dumpy, crowded bar when this guy accidentally brushes up against me and then says ‘Hey, are you an overdue library book?’ And I look at him with a puzzled look on my face and I say, ‘No, I’m not, in fact, an overdue library book…why do you ask?’ And he says, ‘Because you have FINE written all over you!’ And I blushed and giggled and he grabbed my hand and led me to the dance floor and I knew immediately that I wanted to bear his children.”

Yep, that’s usually how those pick-up lines work out. And they lived happily ever after.