Ask Stacy: Should I Sell My Stocks Now?

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This week’s reader question is about fear — namely, the natural fear that arises whenever we place our hard-earned money into investments that can temporarily or permanently go down in value. Here’s the question:

My stocks are tanking along with most everybody else’s, I presume. Talk me out of selling them now. Thanks. — Carlos

Carlos sent this question a few weeks back when the overall stock market was down for the year, and pundits were blanketing the airwaves with dire warnings of a market collapse. As I write this, the market has recovered most of its losses, but his question is still pertinent, because it highlights the inherent fear we all confront when investing in anything other than an insured bank account.

Here’s the deal, Carlos. It’s healthy, and understandable, to become concerned when the market gets scary. But running scared is exactly how people buy at tops and sell at bottoms. So let’s talk about overcoming the natural fear that accompanies investing, as well as other things in life.

Tips to overcome fear

From buying a house to skydiving to asking someone out for a date, fear is not your friend. Here are seven universal principles that will help you keep it to a minimum.

1. Understand what you’re doing

Before asking someone out on a date, if you’re scared, you’ll probably ask a more experienced friend for advice. To increase your odds of success, you might also try to learn what you can about the object of your desire. What do they like to do? Are they already with someone? What kind of relationships have they had in the past?

If you’re going to invest in stocks, invest your time before investing a dime. Talk to someone you know with more experience. Learn what makes markets, and stocks, move up and down. Studying history will help you understand and predict the future.

So will understanding the rules of the game. And one rule of this game is that stocks will go down as well as up.

Here’s a rule that applies to everything from investing to mountain climbing: There’s an inverse relationship between knowledge and fear. The more you know, the less afraid you’ll be.

2. Understand why you’re doing it

With conviction comes courage.

When it comes to seeking out members of the opposite sex, you’ll be most effective when you’re convinced a great relationship is in the offing.

When it comes to investing, you’ll be most effective when you accept that investing in the shares of great American companies has historically been a smart thing to do. And investing when others are running for the hills has proven smarter still. (For proof, look at the stocks I bought five years ago when the market looked exceedingly scary.)

You know the stock market offers more risk than insured bank accounts, so it follows that if it didn’t return more over time, it wouldn’t exist.

I’m convinced a part of my savings belongs in stocks, even though I’m well aware of the risks involved.

3. Don’t overdo it

If you want to reinforce your fear of rejection, ask Halle Berry out for a date.

If you want to scare yourself to death when making investments, invest money you’ll soon need, invest more than makes you comfortable, or put your money in silly, speculative stocks that are more gambling than investing.

Staring at the ceiling at night? This is probably why.

4. Expect some pain

It would be great if every relationship went flawlessly from beginning to end. But we know that’s not the way it goes. Relationships, like the stock market, have their ups and downs.

Fortunately, the potential upside of great relationships, and bull markets, outweighs the potential downside of bad relationships and bear markets. That’s what keeps us in the game.

I’ve got a significant proportion of my net worth in stocks, so I know how it feels when things go south. I’ve also been divorced twice. But the decades I’ve spent as a husband and an investor have taught me to expect the bad with the good.

If it was all wine and roses, anybody could do it.

5. Listen only to your voice, not anyone else’s

If you’ve ever been set up on a blind date through a friend, you know that even those with the best intentions may not produce desired results.

When it comes to both investments and relationships, develop your own voice and listen to it. If you like blondes, date blondes. If you like large cap companies with an expanding presence in emerging markets, buy them.

People trying to steer you in one direction or the other probably don’t know you as well as they think they do. They may also have personal agendas that don’t align with yours.

6. Consider the risk of not taking risk

After my last divorce, I swore I’d never get married again. Twice bitten, thrice shy.

But over time I came to realize that rather than letting the fear of failure control my life, I could choose to learn from my past mistakes and find a better relationship and a happier life. And so I got married again.

So far, so good.

Over the 30-plus years I’ve been investing in stocks, when market crashes and recessions hit, I mostly stood on the sidelines, too afraid to invest.

This past recession, I learned from my mistakes and invested a huge chunk of my savings into quality stocks. I also bought a rental house.

So far, so good. As I write this, those two decisions have increased my net worth by about $200,000.

While there’s always a risk of losing money by investing in stocks, real estate or anything else that changes in value, there’s a greater risk in not doing so. You’re unlikely to retire rich, or even adequately funded, if you earn an average income and are willing to invest only in guaranteed rates of return.

In short, be it love or money, you won’t get a hit from the dugout.

7. Think long term

If you’re going to invest only in short-term relationships, it’s unlikely you’ll end up emotionally satisfied.

If you’re trying to invest short term, you might as well head to Vegas where you can at least drink free.

When I bought General Electric for less than $10 a share in 2009, I didn’t expect it to go up right away. But since it’s one of the biggest companies on the planet, I knew it wouldn’t go bankrupt, and I assumed that sometime before I died it would come back. In fact, had the market continued to tank and GE continued to fall with it, I was prepared to buy more.

Whether it’s a soul mate or a stock, if you choose quality and exercise patience, it will almost certainly pay off.

Live like you’re going to die tomorrow, but invest like you’re going to live forever.

Bottom line: What I say doesn’t matter

Carlos started this post by saying, “My stocks are tanking … . Talk me out of selling them now.”

Not my job, Carlos. You may have crappy stocks, in which case you should sell them now. But if you’ve invested properly and a 5 percent market correction has you on the ropes, my advice is either to get out of stocks entirely or use the tips above and man up.

Got a money-related question you’d like answered?

You can ask a question simply by hitting “reply” to our email newsletter. If you’re not subscribed, fix that right now by clicking here.

The questions I’m likeliest to answer are those that will interest other readers. In other words, don’t ask for super-specific advice that applies only to you. And if I don’t get to your question, promise not to hate me. I do my best, but I get a lot more questions than I have time to answer.

Got any words of wisdom you can offer for this week’s question? Share your knowledge and experiences on our Facebook page.

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Comments & discussion

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  • WasJustThinking

    I’ve been wanting to say this for quite a while now…….. well, today is the day. I think this is a great website. The info you post is always useful. Thanks!
    About Carlos……… you need to take as much emotion out of investing as possible. One way to do that is to not invest money you can’t afford to lose. If you feel a lot of fear, you are too heavily invested. Get the right proportion of your net worth invested and you will take a lot of the fear out of investing…….. take the fear out of investing and your decisions will be much more rational ………. be patient, and listen only to those who are truly accomplished investors with ONLY intelligent things to say……. Warren Buffet is a great example ……… he has been dispensing some really good advice

  • grandmaguest

    One other suggestions to a great article (thanks Stacy) for Carlos is perhaps he might want to consider mutual funds instead of stocks if he is that nervous. But before any switching I would suggest to study up on the different mutual funds, especially “no load” funds and companies.
    I’m not that good on individual stocks (they make me too nervous) so I have stuck with mutual funds over the last 30 or so years and done what I think is quite well for someone who didn’t make a lot of money….would have loved to be considered middle class. And when the market went down…like you…I considered my funds to be “on sale” and bought more. Although I never, ever spent money that was needed for my daily and monthly expenses! When I first started out, I would save money in a savings account for months until I had enough to either open a fund or to add to a fund. Probably 90% of mine are in IRA’s …..mostly Roths….the best thing since sliced bread I think! I just wish they would have been around when I was first starting to invest.
    In fact I did well enough over the years that my adult kids (and son-in-law) have asked for my advice on investing in their retirement accounts. I even helped start a Roth for my (now adult) grandson and have helped him with advice on his retirement funds. I’m happy to say that all of them are doing well. Ah, the magic of starting early and thinking long term!!!
    While I may never be what most consider wealthy, I am certainly comfortable in my retirement. And isn’t that what we are all seeking?