Most of us have friends who have either made money from a successful trade or tell you about a fantastic investment they are considering. It is easy to get greedy in such circumstances; we all want to get in on the trade, we want to make a quick buck.
The flipside is that nobody tells you about their poor investments. You never hear about when they listened to a friend and subsequently lost a lot of money.
Why don't people go to a financial advisor? Is it because they only have "get rich slow" schemes involving diversified (boring) portfolios with less volatility? Or is it that they give you few "cases" to talk about and make you less exciting than your friend who goes on and on about what a successful investor she is with her recent ten-bagger?
Or is it because the advisor peers into your assets and liabilities, your dreams, your age, your income and discusses your risk appetite? Are they prying into your privacy? Just like a doctor or lawyer would do?
Sit still to get ahead
The fundamental challenge we all have is to spend within our means and invest to build financial security. Let us look at the data to see who does best. Fidelity, one of the world's largest wealth managers, examined its investor base with hundreds of thousands of accounts. It found that the only cohort to earn more than inactive investors (had they forgotten their accounts?) were dead. Fidelity also found that women earned on average 0.4% more than men per year but the key message is clear:
Compounding is your friend and long-term investors are the most successful.
We – both you and me – favour immediate excitement and pleasure over deferred gratification. And the longer it takes to get the reward, the more difficult it is to wait. Research shows that in addition to better financial returns, those who can delay immediate gratification also enjoy academic success, physical and psychological health, and social competence.
What are we doing wrong?
Three common traits prevent us from achieving our financial goals:
1. We buy and sell at the wrong times
Investors generally buy high and sell low; it is human nature to be our most optimistic following a period of positive returns and vice versa. However, by chasing past winners and selling past losers we can destroy performance. According to the Dalbar Institute 2018 report, the average equity fund investor earned on average 1.7% less than the S&P 500 every year since 1998 due to mistimed purchases and sales.
2. We are too short-term and can't resist the urge to "do something"
In our daily lives action is generally rewarded more than inaction, but when it comes to investing doing nothing is often better than doing something. If we see that the market has fallen sharply it is tempting to sell and minimise further losses. However, this is usually the worst time to sell as we miss the inevitable rebound. A curious fact about the S&P 500 index: Not being invested on the five days with the highest gains in the 20 years between 1998 and 2017 left the investor with a 45% lower return.
3. We panic or stress over media headlines
The rubber hits the road during volatile times. While headline writers are currently fretting over inflation fears, Chinese defaults and stock market corrections, the best investors stay calm and often make their best investments during periods of volatility or market falls. Just as in 2008 or 2011, buying equity funds monthly gave a handsome return, while those who panicked both sold and bought too late.
How can we fix it?
There are so-called cognitive strategies that can boost our "delay ability" involving distraction (look away) and reduce our attraction to the stimulus of temptation. Age and gender play a role – the older you are, the better you become and women are more likely to delay rewards than men – but everyone can learn the art of deferral to boost financial returns.
However, the easiest way to avoid this inclination is to get advice. An advisor will help you make a plan to best reach your financial goals. They will also help you stick to it during times of market volatility and you will learn to:
- Avoid market timing, maybe by investing in a monthly savings plan
- Take comfort in owning what you buy for 10 years
- Make decisions based on your investment goals rather than financial media coverage
Investing in equities has been one of history's greatest wealth creation machines but it comes with a few caveats; think long-term, stay calm (don't look at your portfolio too often) and get good advice. Not only will you probably have fewer chest pains to worry your neighbour about but you're likely to also enjoy much better financial health!
 Carducci, Bernardo J. (2009). "Basic Processes of Mischel's Cognitive-Affective Perspective: Delay of Gratification and Conditions of Behavioral Consistency". The Psychology of Personality: Viewpoints, Research, and Applications. John Wiley and Sons. pp. 443–4.
 Mischel, Walter; Shoda, Yichi; Rodriguez, Monica L. (1992). "Delay of Gratification in Children". In Lowenstein, George; Elster, Jon (eds.). Choice Over Time. Russell Sage Foundation. pp. 147–64. ISBN 978-0-87154-558-9.
 Tobin, Renée M.; Graziano, William G. (2009). "Delay of Gratification: A Review of Fifty Years of Regulation Research". In Hoyle, Rick H. (ed.). Handbook of Personality and Self-Regulation. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 47–63. ISBN 978-1-4443-1812-8.