Rethink, Retool, Recharge

Somewhere along the way we lost the ability to think for ourselves. What the heck happened? We have succumbed to the pundits of twenty-four hour news and non-stop financial commentary. We have so many “experts” yelling at us so often that we have fallen victim to the cruelest and most insidious of diseases: We lost our common sense. In the chaos of all the noise, we have replaced our better wisdom for that of others. Even though we really do know better we were lulled into believing by the people we thought we could trust, that “this time it’s different.” We were told that this was the “new economy” where the laws of economics and the markets no longer apply because the market will never and can never fall. We should have known better. I guess French author, historian, and philosopher Voltaire was correct when he said, “Common sense is not so common.”

How often in the last decade and a half have we contracted this-time-is-different-itis? First we were convinced it didn’t matter that these new companies were worthless; they were dot-coms and they were supposed to be the future. There was no risk—just reward. Aided by new technologies, we were led to believe that we were all traders, and we jumped in with both feet. We bid up the value of these shares and reveled in this new game we were playing. No longer just doctors, lawyers, plumbers, or auto mechanics, we were players in the market! Why not swing for the fences with our retirement savings? There will always be plenty of time and the market cannot go down.

Then it did.

Fast forward a few short years and things are beginning to look up. The housing market is taking off. It is now possible for anyone, regardless of income or savings, to purchase the house of their dreams. People who couldn’t qualify for a mortgage on a bungalow a few years before are now purchasing a McMansion. “If the bank says we can afford it then I guess we can.” We knew better but everyone was doing it. For those that owned houses this latest mania provided us with more equity than we thought possible in a short time. Why not take advantage of the “free money” and build the pool, put on the addition, buy the fancy car or boat or vacation home? We were keeping up with the Joneses and enjoying our new wealth.  Things would all work out since the housing market could never go down.

Then it did.

At the same time we were pouring back into the market. Our newfound wealth from our homes made us feel rich. Once again we listened to the experts. It was now impossible not to listen; new technology meant they were everywhere, all the time. We thought we were smarter this time. We were told by talking babies and television personalities how easy it is to trade financial instruments, even from our cell phones. They told us we can take control of our finances with their tools allowing us to successfully trade anything, anytime, anywhere. Did we really think hanging off the side of a mountain, as one commercial was to demonstrate, was a great place to make a financial decision? We followed the herd and poured our hard earned dollars into oil and other commodities. We trusted in these new fund managers that promised huge returns with little risk. This time was surely different; we had technology on our side. We ignored all the signs because we were told it could never happen again.

Then it did.

Here we sit, bruised and battered. Perhaps at no time other than the Great Depression have we felt so uncertain about our financial futures. The double-digit returns that we thought had become normal hardly make up for the double-digit losses that have become all too common. To make matters worse, the risk to our financial futures seems to be increasing. We are faced with an ever-increasing debt crisis at the local and national level, an unemployment situation that doesn’t seem to be getting much better, uncertainty surrounding Social Security and Medicare, and rising healthcare costs. The list goes on. Is it any wonder that in the 2010 Reclaiming the Future study conducted by Allianz Life Insurance, a survey of boomers ages 44 to 75, 61 percent responded that they fear running out of money in retirement more than they fear death! The fear was even greater for those ages 44 to 49, married with dependents, where 82% feared running out of money more than death.

All of this probably comes as no surprise. Just look in the eyes of your friends, neighbors, and people you meet on the street. You can see the stress the “Great Recession” has put on them. Many people are just trying to get through the month. How can they worry about retirement? If this is the “new normal” that we have all been hearing about, what are we to do?

Enough is enough! Isn’t it about time we regained control of our future from those that couldn’t care less about it? Isn’t it time we turned off the noise and got back to the tried-and-true basics of reasoning and common sense? It’s time to Rethink, Retool and Recharge!

We must rethink our long-held beliefs about the market. Over time our investment philosophies have been swayed by the daily “noise” we can’t escape. The old adages about risk and return need to be analyzed to determine if they are financial laws or just market myths. Just as important, we must take a good look at the approach and methods we are using to manage our money to see if they are appropriate for attaining our financial goals. We must rethink every product, investment, method and assumption contained in our financial plans, assuming we have one.

We must retool our efforts with this new knowledge and the financial products and investments that are part of a financial plan which is actually achievable. We must have a plan—a roadmap to our financial goals—that is developed to be achievable, measurable, and understandable under varying market conditions. This plan will be our guidepost when the markets go crazy. It will allow us to stay on course through the rollercoaster ride that is the market.

You see, once upon a time people actually saved money. Instead of hoping for double digit market returns or betting on the next hot stock tip they actually saved. They spent less than they made. They saved. They purchased homes that they could actually afford, when they could afford them, and, you guessed it, they saved! It was a slow, steady process that was made possible by living within one’s means and following a plan.

Only after we rethink everything and retool ourselves for the financial task ahead will we be ready to follow our plan and trust our better judgment and common sense.  If there is one thing that we can learn from the market, it’s that the next mania or crisis is right around the corner. Following this process will allow us to recharge our future and safely achieve our financial goals even in the face of the most volatile markets.