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.
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