I was saddened to hear of Yogi Berra’s passing last week. One of the great quotes attributed to him is “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.” I’ve always thought this quote applied well to personal finance, where the academic expected behavior could differ significantly from the choices people make in real life.
The fact is that we all use our feelings, intuition, and past experience to make our decisions as much, or more, than we rely on logic, research, or an open-minded examination of evidence and data. Many academics take the view that any behavioral deviation from the theoretically optimal decision will lead to poor outcomes. And while that is definitely the case in many situations, my observation as a practitioner is that even the most successful individuals are not immune from this “irrational” behavior.
My point is that when theory and practice do deviate, there can still be good outcomes, in fact, sometimes even improved outcomes. Here are six ways you can use behavioral concepts to improve your financial situation. In theory, these won’t help. In practice, they will.
- The 15-year mortgage. In theory, you can make more in stocks than the interest cost of a mortgage, so you should get an interest-only loan and never pay it off. Home values generally appreciate over the long-term, and there is no additional benefit to having equity in your home. Although this is theoretically correct, I suggest that home buyers get a 15-year mortgage instead of a 30-year or interest only note. The reason that the 15-year mortgage benefits buyers is that it will force you to buy a lower priced home to be able to afford the higher monthly payment. If you start your house hunt with a 15-year mortgage in mind, it might mean looking for a $300,000 home instead of a $350,000 home. The lower cost home will have lower property taxes, insurance, utilities, and other costs. More of your monthly payment will go towards principal with the shorter loan, so you will build equity faster, which is very valuable if you should need to move after five or ten years. Having a higher monthly mortgage payment will also force you to save more. By that I mean that if you had a payment that was $500 less, you probably would not save an additional $500 a month; you’d probably save only a small part of this, maybe $100 or $200 a month, and increase your spending by $300 or $400.
- Set up your 401(k) contributions as a percentage. People are shockingly lazy with their 401(k) accounts. Many never change funds, and even more never change their contribution level. If you set up a $100 contribution per pay period, chances are good that five years later you are still contributing $100. If, on the other hand, you established a 10% contribution, your dollars contributed would have increased with your raises, promotions, and bonuses. If you can, increase your percentage contribution every year until you make the maximum allowable contribution, $18,000 for 2015.
- Make it automatic. We are creatures of habit and momentum and will seldom change established our course. If you give someone $100,000 to invest, they will agonize over the fund choices and try to time their purchases. If the market goes down, they’ll bail out and blame the fund or the manager or something else. It’s better to set your investing on auto-pilot, invest every month into your 401(k), IRA, 529 college savings plan, or other investment vehicle. And then do what is natural for most of us: nothing. Keep investing when the market goes down. Stick with a basic, diversified allocation. That’s why people who have a created a $100,000 account by investing $1000 a month are more likely to stay on course than the investor who puts in a lump sum. Already have your investing on cruise control? Take the next step and make your rebalancing automatic, too!
- Pay cash for cars. In theory, there’s nothing wrong with financing or leasing cars. However, if you get in the habit of paying cash for cars it will change your behavior for the better. It is incredibly painful to write a $35,000 check for a vehicle. If you pay cash for cars, it will force you to keep your current car for longer while you save for the next one. It will make you consider a used car or a lower cost vehicle. And it will be a strong incentive to keep your next vehicle for a very long time. Cars are often our second largest expense after housing. Most cars lose 50% of their value in five years, so would you prefer to lose half of $75,000 or half of $30,000? People don’t think this way when all they know is their monthly payment. When you pay cash for a car, you start to think like an owner and not a renter.
- Do less research. One of the mental biases facing investors is overconfidence; the more research we do, the more we believe we can predict the outcome of our investing choices. This can lead to people being overweight in their company stock, getting in and out of the market, or making large sector bets. These choices often lead to increased risk taking and quite often to long-term under performance. We’re also likely to suffer from “confirmation bias”, where we cherry pick the data or articles which corroborate our existing point of view and ignore any contradictory evidence. Overconfidence and confirmation bias don’t just affect individual investors, they are significant challenges for professional fund managers. Since the majority of professional managers cannot beat the index, I don’t hold much optimism that an individual can do better. So, cancel your subscription to the Wall Street Journal, turn off CNBC, and buy an index fund.
- Use “mental accounting” to your advantage. Money is fungible, meaning $1 is $1 regardless of where it is located. However, people like to divide their money into buckets for retirement, saving, spending, emergency funds, college, vacation, or whatever. In theory, this is meaningless, you’d be equally well off with just one account invested appropriately for your risk tolerance. Even though Academics would like to banish mental accounting, people are enamored with their buckets. While you should look at all your holdings as being slices of one pie, you can use mental accounting to your advantage. You are less likely to touch money when it is in a dedicated account. For example, if you put money in a savings account for emergencies, you may later be tempted to spend that money on a vacation or other splurge. If you instead put that money into a Roth IRA, you’d be much less likely to touch it. But if you did have an emergency, you could access the principal from your Roth, tax-free. The other benefit of buckets is that it may force you to do more saving when you have specific dollar goals for retirement, college, or other purposes. Then if you need to plan for a vacation, you know you will have to do additional saving and cannot touch the buckets allocated for other goals.
Use behavior to your advantage by making sure your choices are helping you get closer to achieving your goals. Investing can be simple; it’s people who choose to make it complicated. Stick to the basics and stay focused on saving and diversification. I’m not sure we can ever completely remove behavioral biases from our decision making process, but the more we are aware of those biases, the easier it is to step back and recognize what exactly is driving our choices.