Practical analysis for investment professionals
09 May 2018

Three Investing Lessons from My Mom

As an investment adviser, I seek to help clients protect and grow their wealth. My purpose is simple — to help people lead happier and more prosperous lives.

For nearly 20 years, I’ve given a lot of advice. I’ve also relied on a lot of advice — from fellow wealth managers, college professors, friends, mentors, and board members, to name a few.

But some of the best investment advice I’ve ever received has come from an unlikely source — my mother.

“Your father and I know nothing about money.”

My mother would have turned 73 last month. She never finished college or pursued a career outside the home until after my two brothers and I were grown. Instead, she spent the better part of her life in a remote Central Oregon mountain community, raising three sons with my father on his potter’s wages.

My parents’ life was simple and uncomplicated, so you can imagine my mother’s surprise when her middle son decided to pursue a career in finance. It was always with a mix of pride and puzzlement that she would scratch her head, smile at me, and say, “But your father and I know nothing about money.”

While my mother’s view toward money was simple — it can’t buy you happiness, but it can put food on the table and a roof over your head — it was her outlook on life that shaped my thoughts on investing.

1. Plan for the Unexpected

My mom was always prepared — and she’d make sure we were, too.

When we’d head out the door for school, she’d holler after us to take a rain jacket. If we were going skiing, she’d insist we take an extra pair of gloves.

Sometimes she overdid it. When our family embarked on a three-month, cross-country bicycle trip, she packed so much gear that we had to mail 90 pounds of it back home before we hit Idaho.

“Just in case,” she would always say. It never hurts to be prepared. The same is true in investing.

Consider bonds. Today, many investors shun them because of low yields and the likelihood of interest rate hikes. But safe bonds have historically been the most effective hedge against swift and unexpected stock market losses.

During the Great Depression, for example, when a dollar invested in small company stocks withered to just 10 cents, US Treasury bonds gained 20%. In 2008, these safe bonds again offered unparalleled protection, delivering an 11% return while the S&P 500 Index lost nearly 40%.

For all their perceived baggage, safe bonds can help prevent a terrible year from turning into a disaster.

Similarly, while recent market performance would seem to validate an “America First” approach to investing, investors discouraged by the underperformance of international stocks over the past 10 years would do well to remember a different decade in the not-too-distant past.

From 2000 to 2009, US stocks actually lost money. International stock returns during that “lost decade” were not only positive, but quite attractive in international small and emerging markets.

No one knows if US stocks will outperform tomorrow, or if last year’s international performance will continue. But we do know that both have positive, long-term expected returns. So, it’s probably a good idea to pack them both in your portfolio.

Just in case.

2. Get Comfortable with Losing

As much as my mother prepared for the unexpected, she knew there would be challenges along the way.

An avid tennis player, my mother spent her late 50s earning her teaching certification, coaching juniors, and competing in amateur tournaments herself.

Before she coached others, though, she helped me realize my own dream of becoming a world-ranked player. Through the extreme highs and lows of my own tennis journey, she taught me you can play your best and still lose.

Even for elite pros, she would say, winning every match is impossible. She reminded me that over the course of a career in which he won eight Grand Slam titles, tennis legend Andre Agassi lost 24% of his singles matches.

In much the same way, temporary losses should be a part of every investor’s expectation. On a calendar-year basis, a balanced stock and bond portfolio has declined in value 24% of the time, too.

And for all its benefits, diversification may not even spare us from pain and regret. That’s because every year, a diversified portfolio is guaranteed to contain winners and losers. Owning temporary underperformers, even outright losers, is built into the definition of diversification.

To give up when these expected losses occur would result in the greatest pain of all — failure to realize our goals and dreams.

3. Enjoy the Journey

From a young age, my mother instilled in me a sense of adventure.

When I was 13 — two years after the cross-country bicycle trip — we moved to Mexico for a year to soak up the wonders of living in a foreign country. We drove down to Baja, towing a trailer loaded with our trusty bikes and windsurf gear, not knowing exactly where we’d end up.

It was 1987, and our family of five lived on $1,000 per month sent to us via Western Union. I remember that special year with my family like it was yesterday, and it remains a powerful reminder that happiness is more than money.

Research validates what my mom knew all along: Happiness has very little to do with the size of your nest egg. It’s about the quality of your experiences and maintaining close relationships with family and friends — lessons my mom taught us by example.

Another driver of happiness? Finding a new activity or challenge. The key is to find something you’re passionate about and truly immerse yourself in it. Taking up competitive tennis late in life didn’t make my mom a Grand Slam champion, but it did earn her the title of Pacific Northwest’s Senior Women’s Player of the Year. More importantly, she was the beneficiary of many enriching experiences and countless friendships fostered through her love of tennis.

Happiness, she would say, is in the journey itself.

Words to Live By

Plan for the unexpected. Get comfortable with losing. Enjoy the journey. These lessons have shaped my approach to investing and influenced my advice to clients.

My mother’s advice will no doubt continue guiding my work in the future — not a bad legacy for someone who professed to know nothing about money.

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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.

Image courtesy of Dougal Williams, CFA

About the Author(s)
Dougal Williams, CFA

Dougal Williams, CFA, is chief investment officer of Vista Capital Partners in Portland, Oregon. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Oregon, with honors, with a B.A. in Economics and Spanish. Williams is a former board president and current member of CFA Society Portland.

2 thoughts on “Three Investing Lessons from My Mom”

  1. Brooks C. Sackett says:

    Excellent, appreciative article Dougal!
    Thank you!

  2. thang says:

    yes, i agree that out of 10 year of winning, we are ready to loose for 2 years. be ready for this case to be happy . we can still be happy because finally we win.

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