Garage Sales are Your Friend

Spring cleaning time is here and I love it! With even the hint of warmer weather and sunshine I get a major itch to simplify my life and clean my spaces from unwanted clutter. Freeing yourself from the over accumulation of “stuff” in your life serves so many positive purposes.

The first advantage of a good spring clean is you take time to sort through everything. Find what works; what needs fixing; what has been outgrown; what you don’t need, want, use, or have space for anymore; and forgotten, yet still loved items. You can then make a plan to deal with it. Get it fixed. Throw it out. Recycle it. Clean it and put it where you can find it and use it. Put it into your “have a garage sale pile.”

The second advantage is you get the opportunity to better organize your life. Put things in their place. Get rid of the things you’ve been storing for who knows how long or for what reason. How much time do we lose and how much stress do we cause ourselves because we cannot find the thing we want buried amongst all the things you don’t want.

The third advantage is it gives you an opportunity to make some money. Garage sale season is approaching and it is the perfect opportunity to clear your space of your no longer loved items while making some cash. If you don’t think you have enough for your own garage sale, get together with a group of friends that also want to free their lives of a few things. You can then take the money you earn and put it into something you actually want like your vacation fund.

The fourth advantage is getting a good look at all the things you have spent your hard earned money on. Do they bring you joy? Do you use them regularly? Or do they just collect dust, take up space, and add to the debt on your credit card? Facing our consumption head on gives us the opportunity to choose to be more conscious in our lives going forward.

The fifth advantage is seeing what you need to replace or figure out what you want to get before garage sale season. If your kids need to get new skates or sporting equipment because they have outgrown it you can keep your eyes open to replace it at garage sales. If you are wanting to try out a new sport or replace worn out equipment this is also a great opportunity for you.

The fifth advantage to a good spring clean is how much lighter and more energized you feel after completing it. You know where your stuff is, you’ve dealt with the clutter, and you made some new, and hopefully healthier, decisions.

I challenge you to tackle the closets, drawers, corners, garages, and storage areas in your home. Find your treasures and find future treasures for others. You’ll be glad you did it.

“I had more clothes than I had closets, more cars than garage space, but no money.”
Sammy Davis Jr.

Shopping is NOT a Sport

Everywhere we go the world is set up to part us with our money. It may only be a few dollars, maybe a few more, but it’s okay. You want this gadget, article of clothing, candy, tool, whatever. We put it in our cart, we add it to the till, we pull out our wallet. Next thing we know our bank account is smaller than we were expecting and our wallet is thinner while our credit card statement is thicker.

We have all been bitten by the impulse purchase. All of us. If you think you are immune, let me ask you one question: “If I were to go to your home and open up your closets, your cupboards, go into your garage, your tool shed would I find anything that you spent your hard earned money on that you used once or NEVER?” If you can honestly say no, then my hat is off to you. If you are like the vast majority of people (myself included) you would find an item or two.

So the million dollar question is how do we minimize our useless spending. And yes, I did call it useless spending. The fact is if it really was something we wanted or needed it would have been used more than once or never. The reality of life is that we will have some pointless spending. It isn’t a bad thing as long as we keep it in check, but it is a big problem if it gets out of control.

Conquering the frivolous shopping problem breaks down into a few steps or options. The first step is to stop looking at shopping as a sport. Unfortunately too many people resort to “Retail Therapy” to deal with emotional issues. This works as well as alcohol, drugs, or junk food for a lot of people. It doesn’t fix the problem it makes it worse because the high wears of quickly and now we are out money. If going on a shopping spree is your way if dealing with the stresses of life find another outlet. Preferably a healthy one like exercising, going for a walk with a friend, or meditation just as some examples.

The second step / option is to put yourself on a cash budget and allow yourself some play money. That way you can still enjoy a little frivolous spending without breaking your budget. In fact if you plan for it, it isn’t wasted money, just a part of your overall plan for financial success.

The third, and most important, step is to ask yourself this questions every time before you spend money on anything, “Do I really want this?” By slowing down and asking yourself this very simple, but extremely powerful, question you put into motion your biggest ally, your brain. Most of our spending is unconscious. We are creatures of habit that operate on auto pilot. By taking the moment to ask ourselves this all important question we move from unconscious to conscious. A lot of the time we will look at the item and decide no, this isn’t going to give me what I really want. I’d rather save for my Hawaii vacation, or pay off my credit card faster, or stick with my diet (candy and coffee are regular “wasted” purchases) or whatever may be a bigger want for you. If you can honestly say, “yes, I do want this” then go for it without guilt.

No one is taking away your right to choose how you spend your money. But we all make much better long term and short term decisions when the best part of us is fully engaged in making our decisions. Now go out and wake up when it comes to how you are investing your hard earned dollars and cents.

“Too many people spend money they haven’t earned to buy things they don’t want to impress people they don’t like.”
Will Smith

Sex and the January Effect!

A perplexing phenomenon for money managers and academics alike is the so-called “January effect.”  Also known as the small-cap effect it generally refers to the fact that January tends to be a pretty good month for the stocks of smaller companies.  Despite efforts to come up with an explanation – window dressing by institutional investors, tax-loss selling and so forth – there seems to be no rational reason for the superior performance of these smaller company stocks early in every new year.  Before devling into my own radical theory, is this a real or mythical phenomenon?

Personally, I’ve bet on this phenomenon over many years – loading up the mutual funds I’ve managed with smaller companies during December that I considered inexpensive (their share prices were beaten up for any number of reasons).  The strong January investment performance would often put my portfolio in the top rankings for several months into the new year.  Always good for business.  I’d also encourage clients to buy our specialty fund that concentrated on smaller growth companies in early January, and hold it for a few months to capture the excess return.  It simply worked.

Experiencing or just believing in the effect is one thing, but does the data support the myth?  There are many studies confirming the anomaly.  I found the adjacent chart illustrating that in in January the smallest publicly traded companies indeed do better than the bigger companies.

“From 1926 through 2002, the smallest 10% of all stocks (or “10th decile”) beat the 1st decile stocks by an average of 9.35 percentage points in the month of January.”

Despite repeated efforts to explain why there is a January Effect, everyone agrees that it still remains pretty much a mystery.  Academics refer to such patterns as ‘anomalies.’  My own belief is that there are many instances when statistical observations are better explained by human behavior rather than analytics.

Ever notice that most babies are born in August and September?  Biologically speaking, this would suggest that our species do tend to act somewhat differently nine months prior to these births every year.  During the festive season there’s a whole lot of warm and fuzzy feelings that seem to influence our behavior.  In some cultures there’s a surge in indulgences – food and wine for instance – and for a brief couple of months stress and fear are reduced signficantly.  How do we respond?

Clearly we are inclined to be more intimate.  Couples (if you’ve been married for awhile you’ll understand this) successfully avoid romantic activity for most of the year; bored with their partners or simply turned off by their annoying habits and personality flaws.  Suddenly during the holidays we set aside our grievances and become more tolerant. Those quirks might even seem endearing for a brief period.  Perhaps in the northern hemisphere humans are genetically engineered to seek warmth and comfort during the colder winter months?

 Consider these cold hard facts:

  • We are more than willing to be intimate (hence the birthrate 9 months later) despite the risks – being asked to do more chores and the inevitable burden of an increased level of conversation.
  • During these months we spend recklessly on family and friends who don’t need the consumer items and in some cases don’t deserve them.
  • People drink more alcohol than they should and eat food that is bad for them.

Why wouldn’t the perennial change in our emotional makeup also have an impact on our investment decisions?  My theory is that once a year risk aversion takes a brief backseat in our psyche – and while our hearts and wallets are open why not take some free-spirited risk in the stock market?  Collectively hoping for a big score in those smaller company stocks that occasionally pay big, we all dive in together and cause their prices to rise.

The evidence of humanity’s willingness to take on more risk in the bedroom during the holidays becomes evident nine months later.  And it should come as no surprise that the financial consequences of investment decisions made in a fit of euphoria during the holiday season also show up by September of most every year also.  September is pretty much always the worst month for those stocks bought earlier in the year – small and large companies alike.

I certainly hope you had a good laugh reading my theory explaining the mysterious January effect.  In my opinion it is certainly as good as the explanations you’ll read in the media.  Truth is there is much we’ll never understand about so-called ‘anomalies’ whether they occur in financial markets or in human behavior.  Simply knowing they do occur however can be a powerful tool when making one’s own investment decisions.  Come to think about it, just knowing about some behavioral anomalies might also help when it comes to family planning.

Best wishes to you for a Happy Holiday!

Malvin Spooner.

 

 

Invest like you shop and your savings won’t drop!

Huge lineups of shoppers looking for deals on Black Friday and the massive retail sales that occur the weeks after Christmas are testimony to the ability of people to shop wisely.  I know many families that defer buying expensive gifts (for their kids but especially for themselves) until after the Christmas holiday in order to save hundreds of dollars.  So why are people so bad at investing their money?

A recent study by Blackrock, the largest money management firm in the world, confirmed what all of us know already:  The average investor sucks at investing.  Despite the fact that the skills and emotional fortitude necessary for successful shopping are pretty much applicable to the task of investing one’s money, it seems the average person just won’t use these abilities when making important investment decisions.

According the the American Research Group Inc., the average shopper plans to spend $854 on gifts this year. Let’s assume it will be the same next year and the next.  Virtually everyone realizes that since they’ll be spending the money anyway, shopping smartly and getting all gifts at perhaps a 20% lower price leaves them better off.  Wealthier in our example by more than $500 after three shopping seasons in fact!

But when it comes to buying investments, investors prefer to pay a premium.  What proof do I have?  Many years of observation, but the results speak for themselves.

The average investor managed to earn less than virtually all asset classes at his disposal earned over ten years according to the Blackrock study.  To be perfectly honest, I’m surprised the average investor did so well.

I’m not sure about how the study was conducted.  If everyone that participated had a home and kept all their money in a checking account….the result wouldn’t be very surprising would it?  Let’s assume that the sample was comprised of real “investors.”  Some with homes and minimal savings, but others actively investing serious money in both bonds and stocks. Where would they be going wrong?

It’s hard to imagine retail investors trading aggressively in the bond market, but assuredly a significant amount of their long term savings could include fixed income securities.  It’s equally difficult to conceive that the lion’s share of their savings might be in gold or oil.  Likely, the average investor does include stocks in his retirement savings and participates actively in decisions.  He/she would either use an adviser to implement asset allocation decisions or occasionally channel money into or out of funds.

Consider one proxy for stocks, the S&P 500 Index over roughly the same time frame as the study.  It’s certainly been a rollercoaster, but a simple buy and hold strategy would have contributed nicely to the average investor’s nestegg.  In my opinion the only way the average investor could have done so poorly is by losing money making poor investment calls along the way.

Generally, folks wait until the stock market has climbed quite a long way upward before committing their own money – see the “Buy” indicators on the graph?  This decision is made based on the past performance charts and tables that are promoted ad nauseum by the investment industry when the rates of return earned by their funds have been excellent.

Even though past performance means nothing, for some reason impressive historical returns awaken the greed in all of us, just like an extremely large lottery jackpot suddenly inspires many more people to go out and buy lottery tickets.

Unfortunately, great historical performance is very often followed by lousy market environments – evidenced clearly by the graph of the S&P 500 Index over the ten year period.  As anxious as people are are to pile into a market that has been rewarding (after-the-fact), they are just as eager to get out of a losing situation that leaves them feeling they’ve been suckered.  The average investor sells at the worst possible time.  A few of these buy high/sell low episondes is sufficient to reduce the overall return he/she has earned in other assets like bonds or the family home.

Put another way, the shopper in you is always on the lookout for discounts while the investor is more than happy to pay a premium to the list price.  Greediness completely overides any bargain-hunting intuition.

Back to our shopping example.  Imagine that you can shop wisely and get gifts at prices 20% below list.  But also imagine that you and your family can use those gifts for a time and then sell them at a 20% premium to list.  Crazy?  You can actually do this with your investment portfolio.  Apply those shopping skills to your savings and you’ll be surprised how much better off you can be.

 

 

 

Malvin Spooner.

 

 

 

 

 

Teaching Kids How to Make Healthy Financial Choices

Every parent wants their children to grow up to be financially responsible. They want them to be able to look after themselves, achieve the Canadian dream of homeownership and financial security. The big question that the parent’s have is not what, but HOW? Unfortunately financial responsibility and literacy is not something that is taught in school. It is a task that falls under the area of parenting.

Children and adults learn best when they actually get to deal with things themselves. The same is true for learning about money. I am a huge supporter of giving children an allowance and teaching them to divide it into five categories: Financial Freedom, Education, Long Term Savings for Spending, Charity, Gifts, and Play. If a child is not given parameters to work within they will spend everything, have very little if anything to show for it, and learn nothing in the process.

My nine year old daughter gets an allowance of $12 a week. To make it simple for her to understand we give her six twoonies. I have used paying her her allowance as an opportunity to teach her about money and fractions for years. Now she is in Grade Four and has a very good grasp the concepts that are now being taught to her in math.

Princess likes to ask me about the jars and we spend time discussing their different purposes. Investing is a bit above her nine year old comprehension right now, but she is curious about the concept. I have explained to her that each dollar is a money seed and her job is to plant the money seed in such a way that it can grow and produce lots of fruit. The education jar is used to buy books of her choosing from the Scholastic Flyer she gets at school, but Mommy does make suggestions. The charity jar is for things like putting money in the Christmas kettle manned by the Salvation Army at Christmas, putting it in the plate at church, or giving to the fundraising drives they have at her school. For Long Term Savings for Spending she is saving to buy a game for her Nintendo DS. The Gift jar is used to buy birthday and Christmas presents for her friends and family. The last jar is her play jar and every month she gets to take her money out, put it in her very own purse, and go shopping with Mommy. Her last purchase was a flowering plant for her room. If she wants to buy candy or trinkets at the dollar store I do not interfere. It is her money to do with however she chooses.

Whenever she is deciding to spend the money in any of her jars, I make her physically count out the money and hand it over. I ask her questions like, “Do you want to spend all of this money on this one thing or in this one place?” Kids can be impulsive, so we need to help them slow down a bit and think through their actions. We are not giving them the answers, but helping them figure out what questions they need to ask themselves.

Children are much smarter than we sometimes give them credit for. By providing them with the opportunity to make decisions, ask questions, and deal with financial consequences they learn to make better decisions. The earlier you start teaching them the better, but whatever age they are take the opportunity to help them grow into financially responsible adults.

“The more your kids feel the allowance is fair, the more likely they’ll think before they spend. Giving your child the experience of spending his own money is empowering.”
Jim Gallo