I love to learn. That’s part of what makes me who I am. And so I spend large chunks of time pursuing passions like astronomy and Spanish…and investing. Sometimes I’m asked if I have a method for picking up new skills and new knowledge. “Not really,” I say. “I just try to keep an open mind and to absorb as much information as possible.”

As you’ve probably noticed around here, I try to never say “THIS IS THE WAY THINGS ARE!”. Sure, at any give time I have a set of beliefs — I currently believe index funds are the best investment for me (and many others), for example — but I’m never so locked into any given belief that I’m unwilling to change my mind.

So, I continue to explore opposing viewpoints. I listen to new ideas. And, every once in a while, one of these new ideas will stick, will change the way I think. That’s the way I learn.

Passive investing — with an open mind
For me, one of the best ways to learn about money is by listening to others who have been successful. I’ve found it profitable to seek out mentors, for instance. Plus, I like to gather with groups of like-minded folks to share ideas. So, once or twice a year, I attend the meeting of a local investment group — the Diehards.

I’ve written about the Diehards a couple of times before (2008, 2010). This is a report on the most recent meeting.

Note: For those of you who aren’t familiar, Diehards (also called Bogleheads) are fans of indexed mutual funds — funds that track the movement of stock market indexes — as popularized by John Bogle, the founder and retired CEO of The Vanguard Group. These Diehards discuss investing in the Bogleheads investment forum. From my experience, they’re friendly, smart, and knowledgeable people.

As followers of John Bogle, you might expect most of these folks to be passive investors, but that’s just not the case. Many of these folks are actually active investors (though everyone seems to make decisions informed by the principles of passive investing). This group has a wide variety of approaches to investing based on their own goals, risk tolerance, and opinions about the economy. But each person comes to these meetings ready to learn more about investing, and to share their stories.

Keeping a level head
Most members of the group are retired. I’m not. I feel like this gives me an advantage. I’m able to pick the brains of people who are twenty or thirty years older than I am. For instance, every meeting I learn something new from Bruce about preferred stock.

Bruce teaches in the financial planning program at a local university. He’s a vocal advocate of preferred stocks, which are a sort of hybrid between bonds and common stocks. “I don’t need capital appreciation,” he says. “I want capital preservation. And income.” It’s all Greek to me, but it’s also intriguing. Now I want to learn more about preferreds. (To find out more about preferred stocks, check out Quantum OnlineI’m going to!)

At this meeting, I sat next to a woman named Kris (just like my wife). At the last meeting I attended, she stressed the importance of always being a saver. At this meeting, Kris said she no longer worries about market downturns. “I’ve been investing since 1968,” she said. “I’ve been through this three or four times now, depending on how you count. I don’t like when the market drops, but I also know that if I wait five years, then things will be fine.”

Loren, too, tries to keep an even keel when it comes to investing. “I don’t try to make my rebalancing too accurate,” he said. “I’ve never been sure what the right balance is in the first place!”

Andy says that he does his best to follow the investment mantra “buy low, sell high”. “When something’s down, I buy it,” he told us. “It’s hard — it goes against human nature — but I do it. I try to stay broadly diversified.”

This led the discussion back to Harry Browne’s permanent portfolio. There are many ways to approach safe, steady investing, but Brown has some specific recommendations for his own Permanent Portfolio:

  • 25% in U.S. stocks, to provide a strong return during times of prosperity.
  • 25% in long-term U.S. Treasury bonds, which do well during prosperity and during deflation.
  • 25% in cash in order to hedge against periods of “tight money” or recession.
  • 25% in precious metals (gold, specifically) in order to provide protection during periods of inflation.

Because this asset allocation is diversified, the entire portfolio performs well under most circumstances. One of our members practices this investment philosophy, and has done well with it. He actually hopes to write a book providing a modern update of the technique.

Near the end of the meeting, Bruce pointed out that a recent article in the Journal of Financial Planning once again showed the terrible, terrible drag of expenses on the returns of the average investor. (You can read the article here.)

Strength in numbers
It’s certainly possible to learn about investing from books and blogs and magazines. But I think meeting and exchanging ideas with other people adds a new dimension to the subject. That’s why I think meetings like this are invaluable. They’re a chance to exchange ideas with fellow investors, and to profit from their success and mistakes.

I highly recommend finding a similar group in your area. There’s no need to be intimidated. It’s fine to show up and just listen if you feel like you don’t have anything to contribute. I feel lost a lot of the time, but the more often I do things like this, the less lost I become.