Great lessons from great men

Because I write a personal finance blog, I read a lot of books about money. I'll be honest: they're usually pretty boring. Sure, they can tell you how to invest in bonds or how to find the latest loophole in the tax code. But most of them lack a certain something: the human element.

Over the years, I've found that it's fun to read a different kind of money book in my spare time. I've discovered the joy of classic biographies and success manuals, especially those written by (or about) wealthy and/or successful men. When I read about Benjamin Franklin or Booker T. Washington or J.C. Penney, I learn a lot — not just about money, but about how to be a better person.

Here are some of the most important lessons that these books, written by and about great men of years gone by, have taught me.

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More about...Psychology

What is a robo-advisor? An introduction to automated investment tools

One of the joys of writing a money blog like Get Rich Slowly is the continuing self-education. I'm always reading and learning about personal finance. A lot of the times -- as in the past month -- this education is about esoteric topics. I'm currently diving deep into the history of personal finance, a subject that's interesting to me but admittedly not of much practical use in the modern world. (Today in the mail, I got a book about advertising and the use of credit during the 1920s. How's that for esoteric?)

But sometimes, this self-education does have practical uses, and it's stuff that I can share with you folks so that you too can become better educated.

For instance, I have a huge blind spot when it comes to so-called "robo-advisors". When I stopped writing here in 2012, robo-advisors existed but they hadn't yet become a Big Deal. By the time I re-purchased this site in 2017, things had changed. Robo-advisors had become a major force in the investment industry -- and I was clueless about what they were.

I've remained (mostly) clueless for almost three years now. I have a general idea of what robo-advisors are and how they operate, but only in the broadest sense. During our weekly planning call on Monday, I mentioned this blind spot to my business partner, Tom.

"You should write about robo-advisors," Tom said. "If you don't know what they are, I'll bet there are plenty of readers who don't know either. Do some research, write it up, and then everybody benefits."

Tom is a smart man.

Here then is my research into the world of robo-advisors. What are they? How do they work? And who should use them? Let's find out.

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More about...Investing

“Saving rate” vs. “savings rate” — What’s the difference?

Those who know me well will tell you that I'm something of a pedant. I'm not proud of it.

Left to my own devices, I'm one of those who'd go around correcting everybody's grammar. It grates on my nerves when people mangle their usage of "me" and "I", for instance. (It's never okay to say, "She gave that to my wife and I." And you can't make "I" possessive: "My wife and I's house is big." Blarg!)

That said, I've learned to let things go in my old age.

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More about...Money Basics

GRS Insider #92: Racism is not a political issue. Racism is a MORAL issue.

Yesterday, as I do most Fridays, I sent the GRS Insider to folks who subscribe to the Get Rich Slowly email list.

The email was unusual. It was more like a blog post than a simple summary of recent articles. I've had several people request a version they can share with other people, so -- this one time only -- I've created a stand-alone web version.

Parts of this have been edited slightly to account for the transition from email to web.

If you've been reading me for any length of time — or if you know me in person — you know that I hate conflict. I hate hate hate it. Some people seem to thrive on it. Not me. I shirk from it.

This is one reason I've steadfastly kept my financial writing politically neutral. I don't want conflict.

It helps that I'm neither liberal nor conservative. I'm some strange mix of the two. But mostly it's because I think financial advice is important for everyone regardless of political persuasion. It's rare that I take a stand on something political.

Because of who I am and what I believe, Get Rich Slowly will never become a political platform. (It'll touch on politics occasionally, but politics will never be a driving force at the site.)

That said, I'm mad as hell about not only the recent bout of racism in the U.S., but also the long history of racism that underpins our society. Something's gotta give. The current protests are 100% justified and they're not acts of terrorism. They're a call for action. What sort of action? I have no idea. I don't have solutions. But the problem is plain as day and it must be addressed. We, as a nation, must — at long last — deal with our history instead of sweeping it under the rug.

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More about...Uncategorized, Relationships

Who invented the index fund? A brief (true) history of index funds

Pop quiz! If I asked you, "Who invented the index fund?" what would your answer be? I'll bet most of you don't know and don't care. But those who do care would probably answer, "John Bogle, founder of The Vanguard Group." And that's what I would have answered too until a few weeks ago.

But, it turns out, this answer is false.

Yes, Bogle founded the first publicly-available index fund. And yes, Bogle is responsible for popularizing and promoting index funds as the "common sense" investment answer for the average person. For this, he deserves much praise.

But Bogle did not invent index funds. In fact, for a long time he was opposed to the very idea of them!

John Bogle did not invent index funds

Recently, while writing the investing lesson for my upcoming Audible course about the basics of financial independence, I found myself deep down a rabbit hole. What started as a simple Google search to verify that Bogle was indeed the creator of index funds led me to a "secret history" of which I'd been completely unaware.

In this article, I've done my best to assemble the bits and pieces I discovered while tracking down the origins of index funds. I'm sure I've made some mistakes here. (If you spot an error or know of additional info that should be included, drop me a line.)

Here then, is a brief history of index funds.

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More about...Investing

What’s the best long-term investment?

What's the best long-term investment? Because you're a money nerd (and a GRS reader), I hope your answer to this question was, "Stocks!" If the future is anything like the past, that's the correct answer. History has shown that stocks are the best long-term investment -- and by a wide margin.

Unfortunately, most Americans believe otherwise.

As a part of its annual Economy and Personal Finance survey (conducted during the first two weeks of April), Gallup News asked 1017 American adults, "Which of the following do you think is the best long-term investment: bonds, real estate, savings accounts or CDs, stocks or mutual funds, or gold?"

Here's how people answered:

  • 35% of respondents said that real estate is the best-long term investment
  • 21% said that stocks or mutual funds are the best long-term investment
  • 17% said that savings accounts or certificates of deposit are the best long-term investment
  • 16% said gold is the best long-term investment
  • 8% said bonds are the best long-term investment

Americans' views on the best long-term investment

While acknowledging that past results are no guarantee of future performance -- let's take a look at why I think Americans haven't got a clue when it comes to figuring out the best long-term investment strategy.

The Rate of Return on Everything

The August 2019 issue of The Quarterly Journal of Economics included a paper entitled "The Rate of Return on Everything, 1870-2015". Over an astounding 74 pages of discussion, the authors attempt to analyze the long-term (145-year) rate of return on a variety of assets around the world.

The paper examines four popular investment vehicles:

  • Bills, by which the authors mean Treasury bills, are short-term government bonds. At present, these are a good proxy for the rates you can earn with a high-yield savings account. (I don't think this is always the case, though.)
  • Bonds, which in this case refers to ten-year government bonds (such as a 10-year Treasury note).
  • Equity, which is another way to describe common stock. Here, the authors are measuring overall stock market performance.
  • Housing, including rental properties.

We'll look at each of these in greater detail in a moment (and we'll look at gold too), but for now let's look at this paper's overall findings. While the authors looked at data for many countries, I'm only going to share results for the U.S. The following table shows the rates of return for these different asset classes over three different time periods. (Remember that, for our purposes, Bills are a stand-in for savings accounts.)

Long-term returns on certain asset classes

From this table, it's clear that equities (i.e., stocks) have been the highest return investments over long periods of time. Nothing else comes close. (Outside the U.S., this isn't always true.)

Now, while stocks provide the best long-term returns, they also come with the greatest volatility. Here's a a chart (Figure VII) from the paper that shows just how crazy the ride with stocks can be. (Also note how closely equities and real estate tracked each other until the Great Depression.)

Equity returns vs. real-estate returns

It's this volatility that scares so many people away from the stock market. They're afraid that a sharp decline can come at any time. And that's true. But what's also true is that a prolonged bull market can occur at anytime, as we experienced from March 2009 to February 2020! If you're a long-term investor, you don't give a fig about short-term market movement.

Let's dive deeper into the long-term investment returns provided by the asset classes in the Gallup poll: real estate, stocks, savings accounts, gold, and bonds.

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More about...Investing

All that glitters: Why I’m not investing in gold

Over the past month, I've read a lot of articles about the virtues of investing in gold. Especially in Facebook forums, there's a lot of talk about how gold makes a great long-term investment. (Fortunately, I haven't seen any comments like this in the GRS community on Facebook.)

Whenever the economy gets turbulent, the goldbugs come out in force. They shout from the hilltops that the world is doomed and that the only safe haven is gold. And I'll admit, their arguments can sound pretty convincing.

When I started this site in 2006, I felt unqualified to comment on gold. I hadn't read much about it, and I didn't feel educated enough to offer an opinion. That's changed.

Now, after fifteen years of reading and writing about money, I know enough about economic history and I know enough about gold as an investment to have what I believe is a (somewhat) educated response to this subject. And that response is this: Gold makes a lousy long-term investment.

Today, let's have a discussion about the pros and cons of investing in gold while using my own opinion as a starting point. (And note that this article contains my opinion. It's backed up by some facts, but it's still my opinion. Don't take everything that follows as gospel.)

Put simply: I'm not a fan of precious metals. I have 0% of my investment dollars in gold and silver, and I expect that to hold true for the foreseeable future. It's my opinion that gold is a bad investment right now. Let me explain my reasoning.

Before we dive into the meat of this article, it's important to understand that I'm not an economist, and I'm not a gold expert. But for the past fifteen years, I've made a career out of personal finance, and gold is one tiny part of that subject. The core of this article was originally published here on 10 May 2011, the last time the goldbugs were out in force. This update contains substantial revisions. Also, please note that many of the comments on this article are from its original publication in 2011.

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More about...Investing, Economics

How to get started with difficult tasks

Yesterday in the /r/financialindependence community on Reddit, /u/mkengland asked a seemingly innocent question:

What made you stop planning/researching financial independence and actually start?

Was there a tipping point for you where you finally felt ready to start your FI journey? What made you finally take the plunge, open that first IRA/brokerage account/etc., and throw your money into the market?

[...]

I'm waffling over details, though...and can't seem to just DO IT.

This question seems innocuous, right? Yet, I've been thinking about it for the past 24 hours.

I hear questions like this relatively often. People want to know how to get started with saving and investing. Or with debt reduction. Or they want to know how to get started with budgeting. And, in fact, it's the sort of question I had too back when I started my own journey away from debt and toward financial freedom. It all seems so overwhelming! Where do you begin?

Trust me, I know how easy it is to over-complicate things. My ex-wife used to call me Overanalytical Man due to my superhuman ability to overthink even the simplest subject. Although I do this less often (and less severely) than I used to, it's still a problem that plagues me.

Today, let's talk about what I've learned about how to get started with difficult tasks.

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More about...Psychology

Which financial apps, products, and services should we review?

Every Monday morning, Tom and I have a Zoom call to discuss the coming week's priorities for this site. For the past couple of months, we've been focused on behind-the-scenes stuff as we prepared to launch the redesign. (That, and I was working on my course for Audible.) Now that the redesign is (mostly) finished, we've begun talking about content. What sorts of articles do we want to write in coming weeks?

"You know," Tom said this morning, "it wouldn't kill you to write about the financial tools you use. You love your credit card, right? And you use Personal Capital? If you were to write about this stuff, we could make more money."

As I've mentioned many times, Get Rich Slowly earns little compared to other sites its size -- especially other financial sites its size. Expected earnings for GRS are probably on the order of $20,000 per month; we bring in about $5000. (And right now, because of the coronavirus, our revenue is lower than this even.)

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More about...Administration

Please don’t adjust your dials.

Hey, friends. Some good news!

First up, I finished my "intro to FIRE" course course for Audible and turned in the manuscript. Once the script is approved, I'll head to the recording studio. Not sure about any projected release date, but we're moving along.

At the same time, it looks like development on the brand-new Get Rich Slowly site design is done. Well, mostly so. There are still a handful of tweaks we'd like to make — but we'd like to do them after the new site is public. To that end, we intend to push the new design live in the next 24 hours or so. This shouldn't cause any hassles...but you never know. Continue reading...

More about...Administration