This is a guest post from John S. John is the founder of Frugal Rules, a dad, a husband and a veteran of the financial services industry. He’s passionate about helping people learn from his mistakes so that they can enjoy the freedom that comes from living frugally. Follow him on Twitter.
For four and a half years I dragged myself dutifully to a job I was not ideally suited for. I lived for weekends when I could spend time with my wife and three young children. Shortly after our youngest son was born, I left that job to start my own business. One year later, I don’t regret my decision. I don’t miss the four-by-four-foot cubicle I was confined to either (or the timed bathroom breaks, but that is another tale for another time). What I do miss are the stories.
What I learned talking to average investors every day for four years
Every day, I spoke with average investors, most of whom had absolutely no idea what they were doing with their money. I was a licensed stockbroker and as much as I wanted to point them in the direction of wise financial dealings, I was hamstrung to give them guidance. I could only direct them to my company’s products, which ultimately was one of the key reasons why I left that job. As I packed up a shoebox full of things my last day in the office, I made a mental note to carry with me the lessons I’d learned from the many everyday investors I spoke with and share them with others when it made sense to. Today, I’d like to share three stories that encapsulate the good, the bad and the ugly of what I saw from average investors during my time in the financial services center of a Fortune 1000 company.
The Good: Matt has $300k in his account
I took about 80 to 100 calls a day; once a month I spoke with someone who knew what he was doing with his investment account. Take “Matt,” for example. At only 27 years old, Matt already had $320,000 in his account. He was enjoying a very decent rate of return of about 10 percent per year on his equity investments, even during the lean recession years and the times when the major indices were rising and falling more times in a day than a yo-yo in the hands of a cub scout. Matt wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth. From what he told me, he went to college, worked hard at a good-paying job and lived frugally. With no student loans, he was able to invest 50 percent of what he made each year. His portfolio was diversified and he kept a close eye on it. He made good investment choices that paid off for him with nice gains. Matt started with $50,000 and in five short years had turned it into more than $300k.
Matt taught me to stick to my investment strategy. Seeing his success reminded me to stick with my investing plan and passionately pursue my financial goals. Unfortunately, Matt was not the typical investor.
The Bad: Glenda wants to know why we don’t sell her penny stock
“Glenda” and other investors like her called me multiple times daily absolutely livid, wanting to know why they couldn’t purchase 10,000 shares of XYZ penny stock through our online trading portal. “You made me miss out on $1 million!” they’d scream. I’d tell Glenda that we didn’t offer the particular stock she was interested in because it didn’t pass our review board, but my explanation fell on deaf ears. Investors like Glenda are in the “bad” category because they look at investing in the stock market like playing the lottery. They hope that by purchasing 100k shares of the Amazing Electrical Spatula Company at .001 cents per share, the stock will rise to $10 per share and they’ll be able to retire to the French Riviera.
Glenda taught me that there’s a place for taking risk in investing but not banking your retirement savings on the equity equivalent of a scratch-off lottery ticket.
The Ugly: Anthony thinks five families run the world
Maybe it was the perceived anonymity of the phone (I guess callers didn’t realize that I could see all the details of their account, including their name and address, on my computer screen) but I regularly spoke to people who believed that five families controlled everything in the world. It wasn’t uncommon for callers to blame entire groups of people for the flash crash of 2010 or even their own financial woes. Some investors would use derogatory terms and hurl racial epithets toward others, and I had to politely, quietly listen since I was representing my employer and not myself. Then, some investors were just downright unbalanced when it came to investing. I’ll never forget the caller who passionately pleaded with me to invest in solar-powered jets, proclaiming them as both the wave and goldmine of the future.
Crazy callers like this one taught me to keep a firm grip on reality when it comes to investing my money. From them, I learned the importance of not letting emotion sway my investing decisions, one of the hardest disciplines to master. So, while I don’t miss my old day job, I do miss the people I spoke with, mostly because they remind me just how little most of us know about investing and how well-served many of us would be by a little financial literacy.
Do you have a story to share about a crackpot investor or a wise individual who’s pointed you in the direction of success?
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