Investing Should Be Boring

August 27th, 2015 by Potato

Stamp collecting is pretty much the definition of boring. Yet stamps are useful things that enable exciting mail to happen. Most people just care that they can put a stamp on an envelope and a birthday card or letter will show up in someone else’s mailbox a few days later. So if we had some big national collective worry that not enough people were getting birthday cards, I don’t think we’d start by trying to get people excited about stamps in and of themselves — we’d just want to get people using them. And to stretch the metaphor, we may see people using high-priced couriers and worry that they’re not getting value for money. Maybe FedEx comes right to your door, but for just a bit of effort to walk down to the post office and source an envelope yourself, you could get your mailing done a lot cheaper.

Because you read the post title, you know this is turning into a stretched analogy to investing.

A few months ago a writer for the Globe contacted me for a short interview1 around the premise of how to make investing more exciting.

I think investments and the whole process of investing are — to most people — pretty boring. And that’s a good thing: investing should be boring. No one’s going to text their friends about putting their money in a diversified, balanced portfolio with reasonable fees and deciding on a level of professional advice that they think they need and is appropriate and delivers value. It’s like watching a kettle of water boil or paint dry or grass grow, except instead of a few minutes, hours, or days to see some action you’re talking decades for your investments to do their job for you. It’s beyond the scope of our every-day sense of scale. Fortunately, with index funds and automatic purchases the boredom doesn’t have to be noticeable, either: you can do some reading and come up with a basic plan over a weekend or two, and then your plan only takes a few minutes or hours per year to maintain — the boring investing stuff can become a background process — so you can get on with your life and do all the fun, exciting stuff you want to do.

And then that’s ultimately what the point of investing is: to help you meet your goals. Watching your child graduate from university, that’s exciting — and having the resources to help pay for your child’s post-secondary education helps make that happen. Clocking out at your job for the last time and knowing you’ll have the money to enjoy a comfortable, stress-free retirement, that’s exciting — and signing up for a company RRSP match and investing some savings yourself can help make that happen. Having an emergency fund to act as a cushion so you’re not constantly stressed out about your financial situation… ok, well that one isn’t terribly exciting, either, but it’s nice and a lot better than the alternative.

Putting money away and investing it — using your RESP, RRSP, and TFSA — will help get you to those exciting goals, but that part of it is dull dull dull2. And that last point about having an emergency fund for security so you know that if your furnace breaks down you can handle it speaks to the other side of the coin for not trying too hard to solve the problem of your investments being boring: they should help remove stress from the rest of your life, not add to it. There are some weeks where boring would be just fantastic.

So rather than trying to shift the way you view investments from boring and stressful to some form of exciting, I think they should be boring — complete with all the wonderful things that being boring brings.

As for getting motivated enough to take that first step towards investing, instead of gamifying investing or finding some way to make it feel exciting, instead I suggest asking yourself what are some things you’d like your investments to do for you? What are some of your dreams or goals that your investments may help you realize?

For me, I like to view my investments as a great pool of potential, all the future stuff I will want and need, just gestating and developing. Somewhere in there is the seed of the new car I’m planning to get in about 8-10 years when my current one (now 5 years old) is ready to be replaced — it’s maybe got vestigial gills and a tail, but it’s starting to take shape. There’s all the stuff I’m going to have in retirement, which are little more than blastocytes out there in this stretched metaphor, but the seeds have been sown, and I’ll just have to wait to see how they develop.

1. Given the time that’s passed, I suppose it’s safe to say that that interview is never going to see the light of day and I’m not scooping anyone by sharing some of what I said.
2. Well, for most people. Some of us, like stamp collectors and baseball fans, are totally engrossed in this activity which to outsiders is totally boring.

Directory of Fee-Only Planners and Coaches

August 17th, 2015 by Potato

I’ve talked about fee-for-service planners before, and how I think it’s how the financial advice industry should evolve — it’s a model that removes many conflicts of interest from the relationship, and maximizes transparency. I’ve even said that as a heuristic for finding an advisor it’s not a bad one, especially as at this point only a few have opted to go down that road.

So it was great when MoneySense created a directory of fee-only planners. ‎I linked to it a lot, it’s included in the book as a valuable resource, and lots of other people liked having it available, too.

They’ve now scrapped the list and are starting something new where they will not just provide a list of planners and what some might see as implicit approval, but also give them ‎an explicit seal of approval. The new process involves a hefty application fee, which will help pay for the magazine to do a survey of past clients, but will mean many fee-only planners will not choose to pay for inclusion so the list will be less inclusive. $2500 is a big fee for a directory listing, so the MS version of the directory is likely to become substantially smaller, and likely skewed towards the most expensive advisors.

I think there’s a lot of value in a free and open directory of fee-only planners.

So I’m going to create my own directory of fee-for-service planners. This will be a more buyer-beware type of directory. It will have no seal of approval, and use free tools and a minimum of volunteer effort (so forgive the barebones look). The only requirement for an advisor to get listed is to fill in the intake survey and have the appropriate business model (i.e. primarily fee-for-service). Those caveats out of the way, I think it will also be hugely useful to the community and capture a lot more planners and coaches than a closed directory with a high entry fee.

The directory is a simple Google Docs spreadsheet and there is also a sidebar link for the directory that more plainly introduces it than this post — please link to that version of the post and directory.

The intake form for advisors/planners/coaches to use is here.

Caveats: the important caveat is that this is meant to be an open listing and these are not recommendations. I don’t have the resources to vet any of these listings. I’ve mentioned a few more on the permalink.

Through the rest of this week I will start contacting the advisors that I know of to start filling out the form and adding themselves, so expect the directory to be a bit barren for the first little bit.

Thanks, and I hope you all find it helpful!

Where’s Potato Been?

August 16th, 2015 by Potato

You may have noticed that the blog is even quieter than normal the past few weeks. To start with there’s the subject of the last two posts: my cat dying didn’t put me in much of a mood to write. Then last week my desktop computer died (hard disk failure), so I’ve been spending the past few days trying to rebuild it and recover some data.

First of course the public service message: back your stuff up. I’ve been very lax about backing up the last little while, and it’s biting me now. My last full system image is from December 2014 — eight months ago!! I have a partial backup of some important folders from June. Thankfully that means I won’t have to repeat all my year-end bookkeeping and taxes, but it still sucks that I’ve lost two months’ worth of work (plus eight months of whatever files weren’t important enough to include in the partial backup — things like media and saved games). I’ve been trying to think of what’s been lost and thankfully can’t come up with much. I know I totally reorganized my book business accounting excel file just last week to make it easier to track unit sales (before I was only tracking revenue and expenses), but given how much time I’ve spent on recovery at this point it’s just easier to re-do the work (and that was open at the time my drive blew up so I guess it’s gone for good).

I was greatly let down by the windows restore tools — my backup boot CD wasn’t able to restore windows, refresh windows, or reinstall windows. The drive had somehow become locked and many of the files were supposedly corrupt in the recovery command prompt environment, but I could still see the directory listings which gave me hope for recovery. So I popped in another hard drive and restored my December backup image (the one I thought I made in April — not much better — was unreadable) so I could boot to windows and see what was going on. I hooked up the original system drive as a secondary drive and fired up the computer. Before I knew what was happening, Windows was running chkdsk on the damaged drive, which wiped out most of the directory structure that I was able to see before. Ugh. Then I wasn’t able to access any of the contents because I wasn’t the “owner” of the folders. When I tried to take ownership the system bluescreened and I was back to the command prompt from the recovery CD. There was a very brief “if you don’t want chkdsk to run, press any key in 1 second” message, which is not enough time to actually hit the key. Given that I’m pretty sure chkdsk made my life more difficult here, I have to recommend that if you’re trying to repair a drive that you find a way to disable auto-chkdsk on startup.

So, days later now, I have a system that thinks it’s December 2014, with some of my files from the June backup. I still wanted to see if a more advanced recovery tool could pull anything from the borked drive, so I googled around and tried a few.

Pandora Recovery was able to scan the drive for document files (.doc, .xls, etc.), and found a lot of files and fragments of files. However, it was a lot of work to sort through the results — the original filenames and creation dates were gone, so Pandora created names based on header information (e.g. file creator). That let me cut out a few to search through, but I was still left with hundreds of documents to open and see what they were. I ended up finding a few invoices that I would need to rebuild my accounting spreadsheet, but no accounting spreadsheet. Most of the documents appeared multiple times, likely an artifact of how Windows saves a new version behind-the-scenes (or in some cases, an artifact of how I’ll go back to a website and re-download a document rather than try to find it in my recent downloads folder).

So I moved on to Recuva. This tool didn’t turn up as many potentially recoverable documents, but what it did pull out of the damaged drive had original filenames and dates modified, which greatly helped me exclude the ones I didn’t need to check in detail (for instance, anything before 2014 would already be on my xmas backup image — I was mostly hunting for recently completed documents). This helped turn up one other document file missed by Pandora (though I can’t say whether Pandora missed it, or if I missed it because the meta information wasn’t helpful), as well as some email files (eml) that Pandora doesn’t seem to check for.

It’s a few days later now and I still am not yet up and running on my desktop. I figured I would take advantage of this “opportunity” to upgrade to a solid-state drive as my boot drive, so I’ve got some more work to do on that (which I was hoping to finish tonight but looks like I will likely be offline until Wednesday).

To get the blog back on track, I have an exciting post coming up for tomorrow.