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August, 2005


Many people, certainly including myself, take a long time to acquire the saving/investing habit, or even to get their proverbial toes into financial waters. Surveys have been done to try and figure out why this is. Intellectually, most folks realize at least in a vague way that if they start early things will be a lot easier later on. They know that a young couple saving a relatively small amount each year and investing a portion of their funds to compound the growth can wind up several decades down the road with comparatively immense wealth. Or that folks starting in mid-life can amass a nest egg sufficient to perhaps retire a little early or live a bit more comfortably and securely. Yet, in fact, most of us put it off or simply never begin to regularly put money aside for our futures.

Looking back, in my case the reasons boiled down to distraction, aversion, and procrastination. And these seem to fit with what the studies indicate for other folks too. I was distracted by all the interesting and seemingly all-important decisions to be made in early adulthood (having to do with education, vocation, relationships, beliefs, creative endeavors, travels, lifestyle, politics, pastimes, "finding myself," and on and on).

I did not like, and to an extent even feared, all aspects of business or personal finance. I might have come to this attitude on my own, anyway, but was partly led to it by a father who saw himself as the financial expert and liked to push too much for others to do things exactly as he had done. Sons, particularly if first-born, tend to resist such pressure as they are acquiring their own sea legs for life's ocean of experience.

In addition, though he certainly meant well, Dad thought he was a good teacher and could make the simplest matter into a pedantic lecture. How we were to straighten a bucket of rusty nails, to save him a few pennies, for instance, could become an hour-long lecture. But when he got into an issue he felt was terribly significant, like investing, he might drone on for hours at a time and, correctly or not, make things seem so complicated they could not help but be intimidating for his captive audience of novice youngsters. Through my twenties and thirties, then, I felt sure that, if I ever tried my hand at this scary investing business, I was doomed to fail.

In view of the first two reasons for my not getting started with saving or investing, the third is hardly a surprise. I just kept finding excuses for putting off decisions that seemed to threaten my peace of mind, at least, and perhaps the cozy, at least minimally adequate, standard of living I was building up. Any money I might save or invest was money I could not spend on enjoyable movies, dates, cars, meals out, down payments on houses, graduate courses, travels, books, etc. And since there was every chance I would just easily blow the money if I tried to invest it, why take the risk?

Besides, the little bit of extra cash I eventually found I had available seemed hardly enough to make any difference, even if I were lucky in my choice of investments. And what if I should need that amount in the next year or so, all too likely as I was for a time in a succession of school and work endeavors?

For others, perhaps more settled or stable than I was in my youth, there are often issues of apparently more immediate, expensive concern, like maternity medical costs, child care, a second auto, home furnishing or improvements, trips to visit one's primary family or in-laws who may live across-country (or even out of the country), a burgeoning family budget, maybe going back to school to hopefully be able to start a better career, and so on. It can seem endless. Too many times, one's estimate of the total costs of things can be low.

Divorce also occurs these days a little more often than not and, aside from all its other, more personal stresses, it can wreak havoc with meeting one's financial goals.

When all is said and done, perhaps the wonder, then, is that sooner or later a goodly number of us do buckle down and begin to put money aside for our future needs.

The news, though, is favorable at that point, for, while it is true that most of the advantages of investing are available to those who start quite early, there can be benefits whenever a person commences putting one financial foot in front of the other along the investing journey.

I have often thought what is needed is a mandatory, or at least totally pain-free, method of adding to and growing a nest egg. If not a set of controversial, government mandated "private accounts," maybe we ought to have some automatic saving/investing plan required to be established for us by our employers (and for which the self-employed would also be responsible), with a certain percentage of one's earnings going off the top to fulfill this requirement before we even see our paychecks. We could opt out, but only by making definite decisions to do so and after being counseled on the risks of winding up with too little set aside when we might wish to retire.

But short of something like that, we shall need to find ways ourselves to make the opportunity to save and invest as routine and rewarding as possible. Later on, the advantages will probably seem obvious, but at first, as in my case, there can be all sorts of rationalizations for not jumping over that hurdle, however low to the ground it is actually set.

When just starting out, how about giving ourselves not just figurative pats on the back but actual rewards for jobs well done when we have taken each of a few fairly simple steps to begin an investment program?

Personally, I very much like meals at nice restaurants. So, sometimes when I know I'll be doing something that initially I regard as not very fun, afterward I'll make a point of taking Val and me, and just myself if she is busy, out to eat at one of several favorite eateries.

Others will have their own ways to reinforce positive financial behavior. Be creative, but be sure the rewards, whether M&Ms, meals, nice swims in a cool pool, new dresses or pairs of slacks, additions to one's prized collection of baseball cards, a movie you've been wanting to see, or whatever it is for you, do not break a fragile budget or an already strained belt, and yet are truly seen as worthwhile "goodies," that encourage your best ongoing investing behaviors.

Once having made the decision to go ahead, it seems best, at least at first, to keep things simple. One day, after I had for years been thinking I really should start to invest, my brother, John, was visiting and happened to have with him a Xerox copy of a financial magazine page listing no-load or low-load mutual funds that had shown good performance. I remember being amazed to see that each of about 20 such funds in the past ten years had turned a $2000 initial investment (the limit then for IRA accounts) into $8091 or even much more, while a $10,000 investment would have become $40,456 or better, an average compound increase, after all fees, of 15% or above. (And that was back when $40,000 was a lot of money!) The thought that by simply having scrimped a little and saved enough for such a first-time investment a decade earlier could have made me that much richer today finally turned the tide and convinced me it was time I took the plunge. I surely did not want, ten years later, again to be feeling the sense of a missed opportunity I had then. I could quickly calculate too that if I had started with $10,000 ten years before, kept it invested, and the return over the next decade were similar, I might have had at least $163,665 by ten years ahead.

So, I took my first step on the investment road by calling the toll-free number shown by the magazine for the Fidelity Magellan Fund. A few days later, I had received their prospectus and application, read most of the former, filled in the latter, sent it in with my check, and now was just waiting for the riches to pour in. Ha, ha. Well, it was not quite THAT simple, of course, but at least this was a beginning. Then, each year I added to my account with Fidelity.

Today, it is still just as easy as that to begin one's own investment plan. The only difference is that there are more choices among the mutual funds, exchange traded funds, hedge funds, or stocks. But it does not need to be at all overwhelming. One can weed quickly through the thousands of alternatives by first selecting only the mutual funds, and then, among them, only those with low expenses and no or low commissions (no load or low load funds). Among those that remain, look only at the ones with the best ten-year returns, and/or at index funds, and/or at the so-called "one-stop" or "all-in-one" funds.

While I personally prefer either the very well managed, low cost funds with the best decade or longer records or the index funds, for the person who seeks ultra simplicity in his or her investing activity, the kind of person who "has a life" and does not want to devote more than a few minutes a year to investing, it can be hard to beat the one-stop mutual fund alternative.

The best of these funds do it all for you, manage your money by investing it in carefully selected stocks or bonds or cash equivalents, allocate it for you according to your preferred risk to reward style (aggressive, moderate, or conservative investor) or age (younger, middle-aged, or older), periodically rebalance your assets within the fund, send you (or reinvest) your dividends, calculate your cost basis, and do it all with both little overall charge and the simplicity of having to deal with ONLY one investment, which can be a big headache reducer at tax time or when keeping track of one's (otherwise perhaps voluminous) financial records.

If this appeals, here are some one-stop, generally low cost, mutual fund series for your consideration. These probably will not offer as good performance as high-flying aggressive growth mutual funds in bull markets or even as equity index funds in an up and down market cycle, but, on the other hand, those choices do not take into account needed diversification. And with the one-stop fund you won't have to be deciding at any particular time how much to have in equities, how much in short-term assets, or how much in bonds. Nor will you need to be meeting with your broker every few weeks, months, or years or paying him or her commissions. ALL that is taken care of for you. One of the funds in these series may be ideal for the person who is just starting out at investing (or someone who has managed assets for years but now wants to kick back, relax, and let someone else do the investment driving). He or she may later want to branch out to other financial vehicles, hire a financial planner or consultant, etc. But it is not essential to do so. One could simply keep investing any extra resources in the single, one-stop fund, so long as the company and its record, costs, or fund policies still seem to meet one's needs. (If at any point they do not, one can exchange the one-stop for a then more preferred fund.)

Fund CompanyOne-Stop Mutual Fund SeriesPhone Number
FidelityAsset Manager1-800-544-6666
FidelityRetirement Freedom Funds1-800-544-6666
T. Rowe PricePersonal Strategy1-800-225-5132
T. Rowe PriceRetirement Funds1-800-225-5132
VanguardTarget Retirement Funds1-877-662-7447

(For more information on each fund and how it may fit with your needs, call the toll-free numbers indicated.)


Best to Keep a Simple Portfolio. Humberto Cruz in Sun-Sentinel

One Fund is All You Need. Jane Bryant Quinn in Newsweek; February 28, 2005

(Many thanks to Evelyn and Julia for providing articles that helped inspire and inform this essay.)


Larry is not a professional. Don't take him seriously!

Actually, the investment article provided here is for general information only and should not be considered as professional advice, a solicitation to buy or sell any security, or the Word of God. Investors are encouraged to do their own research while considering their personal goals and circumstances, or consult their own professional financial advisors, before making investment decisions. Neither Larry nor LARVALBUG will be liable for any losses sustained by any visitor to this site.

(Disclosure statement: Larry and Val have holdings in some of the suggested assets but do not "make a market" in any of them and do not derive any direct benefit from recommending them, except perhaps for a bit of smug self-satisfaction.)

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