A Colossal Waste of Time

An email came in tonight with the subject line “You’re my Rukeyser.” It’s a lovely email, filled with life lessons. I wanted to share it, and not just because it paints us in a good light.

I’m a 56 year old college professor who grew up watching Louis Rukeyser on Wall Street Week with my Dad every Friday evening. Now I listen to you two. I can’t believe the amount of outstanding content you produce, and I wanted to thank you for your contributions.

I’m a LONG time reader of Ben’s work, and have come to appreciate Michael’s more free-wheeling approach too. (This made me laugh)

I thought an outstanding point in a recent “listener mailbag” was about the difference between “reading” through historical data and “living” through historical data. There’s no substitute for experience.

I’ve been an active investor since I was in graduate school, and I tell my students today that the mistakes I made managing a $3k portfolio have helped me now that it is many times that. But what I tell my children is different – buy target date funds and never look at the balances.

Yes, it’s a hobby, but when I think of the mistakes I’ve made:

Selling Nvidia in 2008 to pay off my house

Failing to execute on Apple at $17 because I thought it would go lower

Panic selling in March 2020

They aren’t balanced out by the successes I’ve had. Every major purchase (my house, my cars, vacations, etc.) I buy with cash from the profits from stock sales. This makes them “free” – literally – everything I own is because someone was wrong and sold me a security that increased in value. That gives me some comfort, but in the end, I wish that I had just put everything into Vanguard funds instead of reading about nanotechnology stocks, FOREX trading, crypto, and every other investment fad since 1989. It’s been a colossal waste of time.

But you two aren’t wasting your time (or mine). Your insights, humor, and friendship are infectious, and I look forward to hearing (and reading) your insights into markets and life.

Thank you for the hours of joy you’ve provided me and the rest of your readers and listeners. You two never discuss “bond ghouls” or where the elves see the market going, but you’re my Rukeysers – trusted voices in every market environment.

Wow. This is why I love doing the podcast. Hanging out with Ben is great, but feedback like this, really, it’s hard to put into words. It feels good to know that we can be a calming voice during the depths of a crisis, and entertainment when things aren’t so dire.

The reason I shared this email, and again the praise doesn’t hurt, is because I want to talk about that line, “It’s been a colossal waste of time.”

I think I know what this person means; had he just used a couple of index funds, he would have come out financially ahead of where he is today. There’s no doubt, that for most people, most of the investments you make today will be better served in an index fund. When viewed through a financial lens, then sure, most of the earnings calls you listen to will be a waste of time. Most of the articles you read won’t provide you with any real insight. Most of the charts you go through will provide a false sense of security. But does that really mean it’s all a waste? All of it?

The thing that really interests me, which I’ve written about before, is who gets to decide what’s a good use of your time? You today, or you in the future? Does regret later in life supersede how you felt at the time? And this is where my brain starts to hurt; Sure, you’re the same person, but you’re a different version of yourself. And again, I ask, which version gets the final say? My kneejerk reaction is to favor our older self. But you only got wiser and a better perspective on things because of the mistakes you made along the way.

This email made me think about how I’m spending my time. I’m not a great example because a lot of what I’m doing is in service to the podcast. Like, would I trade stocks and buy NFTs if I wasn’t sharing it on the show? Hard to say with certainty, but probably not.

It’s likely that I’ll look back at this point of my life with financial regret. Why don’t I just put all my money in index funds and do literally anything else with my time? Because I enjoy it. It’s fun. I may not be maximizing my money, but that’s never been my primary motivation. I should point out that I’m eating my financial vegetables. I max out my 401(k), I auto contribute to various accounts. I can afford to speculate with a small portion of my money.

Time is the most precious resource on earth. It must be protected at all costs. So I understand where this listener is coming from, and I might agree with him when I’m his age, but right now, I don’t view this as a waste of time. A waste of money, perhaps, but not a waste of time. Maybe I grow out of it, and if and when I change my mind, I will change my habits. But until then, I’m going to stay overweight today.

*Basically all my money in the stock market is in index funds. I don’t trade stocks in any meaningful size, re Zillow, Peloton, Robinhood, you get the point.