The Psychology of Money - Timeless Lessons on Wealth, Greed, and Happiness

Morgan Housel

April 15, 2021

It doesn’t need to be more complicated than that for us. I like it simple. One of my deeply held investing beliefs is that there is little correlation between investment effort and investment results. The reason is because the world is driven by tails—a few variables account for the majority of returns. No matter how hard you try at investing you won’t do well if you miss the two or three things that move the needle in your strategy. The reverse is true. Simple investment strategies can work great as long as they capture the few things that are important to that strategy’s success. My investing strategy doesn’t rely on picking the right sector, or timing the next recession. It relies on a high savings rate, patience, and optimism that the global economy will create value over the next several decades. I spend virtually all of my investing effort thinking about those three things—especially the first two, which I can control. I’ve

April 15, 2021

don’t know how I did as a stock picker. Did I beat the market? I’m not sure. Like most who try, I didn’t keep a good score.

April 15, 2021

Every investor should pick a strategy that has the highest odds of successfully meeting their goals. And I think for most investors, dollar-cost averaging into a low-cost index fund will provide the highest odds of long-term success.

April 15, 2021

We own our house without a mortgage, which is the worst financial decision we’ve ever made but the best money decision we’ve ever made. Mortgage interest rates were absurdly low when we bought our house. Any rational advisor would recommend taking advantage of cheap money and investing extra savings in higher-return assets, like stocks. But our goal isn’t to be coldly rational; just psychologically reasonable.

April 15, 2021

achieving some level of independence does not rely on earning a doctor’s income. It’s mostly a matter of keeping your expectations in check and living below your means. Independence, at any income level, is driven by your savings rate. And past a certain level of income your savings rate is driven by your ability to keep your lifestyle expectations from running away.

April 15, 2021

Half of all U.S. mutual fund portfolio managers do not invest a cent of their own money in their funds, according to Morningstar.⁶⁹ This might seem atrocious, and surely the statistic uncovers some hypocrisy.

April 15, 2021

Less ego, more wealth. Saving money is the gap between your ego and your income, and wealth is what you don’t see. So wealth is created by suppressing what you could buy today in order to have more stuff or more options in the future. No matter how much you earn, you will never build wealth unless you can put a lid on how much fun you can have with your money right now, today.

April 14, 2021

We all want the complicated world we live in to make sense. So we tell ourselves stories to fill in the gaps of what are effectively blind spots. What these stories do to us financially can be both fascinating and terrifying.

April 14, 2021

The bigger the gap between what you want to be true and what you need to be true to have an acceptable outcome, the more you are protecting yourself from falling victim to an appealing financial fiction. When

April 14, 2021

take Bernie Madoff. In hindsight his Ponzi scheme should have been obvious. He reported returns that never varied, they were audited by a relatively unknown accounting firm, and he refused to release much information on how the returns were achieved. Yet Madoff raised billions of dollars from some of the most sophisticated investors in the world. He told a good story, and people wanted to believe it.

April 14, 2021

There are many things in life that we think are true because we desperately want them to be true.

April 13, 2021

Pessimism just sounds smarter and more plausible than optimism. Tell someone that everything will be great and they’re likely to either shrug you off or offer a skeptical eye. Tell someone they’re in danger and you have their undivided attention.

April 13, 2021

A takeaway here is that few things matter more with money than understanding your own time horizon and not being persuaded by the actions and behaviors of people playing different games than you are.

April 09, 2021

It’s hard to grasp that other investors have different goals than we do, because an anchor of psychology is not realizing that rational people can see the world through a different lens than your own. Rising prices persuade all investors in ways the best marketers envy. They are a drug that can turn value-conscious investors into dewy-eyed optimists, detached from their own reality by the actions of someone playing a different game than they are.

April 09, 2021

Bubbles form when the momentum of short-term returns attracts enough money that the makeup of investors shifts from mostly long term to mostly short term. That process feeds on itself. As traders push up short-term returns, they attract even more traders. Before long—and it often doesn’t take long—the dominant market price-setters with the most authority are those with shorter time horizons. Bubbles aren’t so much about valuations rising. That’s just a symptom of something else: time horizons shrinking as more short-term traders enter the playing field. It’s

April 09, 2021

Bubbles form when the momentum of short-term returns attracts enough money that the makeup of investors shifts from mostly long term to mostly short term. That process feeds on itself. As traders push up short-term returns, they attract even more traders. Before long—and it often doesn’t take long—the dominant market price-setters with the most authority are those with shorter time horizons. Bubbles aren’t so much about valuations rising. That’s just a symptom of something else: time horizons shrinking as more short-term traders enter the playing field. It’s common to say the dot-com bubble was a time of irrational optimism about the future. But one of the most common headlines of that era was announcing record trading volume, which is what happens when investors are buying and selling in a single day. Investors—particularly the ones setting prices—were not thinking about the next 20 years. The average mutual fund had 120% annual turnover in 1999, meaning they were, at most, thinking about the next eight months. So were the individual investors who bought those mutual funds. Maggie Mahar wrote in her book Bull! By the mid-nineties, the press had replaced annual scorecards with reports that appeared every three months. The change spurred investors to chase performance, rushing to buy the funds at the top of the charts, just when they were most expensive. This was the era of day trading, short-term option contracts, and up-to-the minute market commentary.

April 09, 2021

The volatility/uncertainty fee—the price of returns—is the cost of admission to get returns greater than low-fee parks like cash and bonds.

April 09, 2021

sounds trivial, but thinking of market volatility as a fee rather than a fine is an important part of developing the kind of mindset that lets you stick around long enough for investing gains to work in your favor.

April 09, 2021

Morningstar once looked at the performance of tactical mutual funds, whose strategy is to switch between stocks and bonds at opportune times, capturing market returns with lower downside risk.⁵⁰ They want the returns without paying the price. The study focused on the mid-2010 through late 2011 period, when U.S. stock markets went wild on fears of a new recession and the S&P 500 declined more than 20%. This is the exact kind of environment the tactical funds are supposed to work in. It was their moment to shine. There were, by Morningstar’s count, 112 tactical mutual funds during this period. Only nine had better risk-adjusted returns than a simple 60/40 stock-bond fund. Less than a quarter of the tactical funds had smaller maximum drawdowns than the leave-it-alone index. Morningstar wrote: “With a few exceptions, [tactical funds] gained less, were more volatile, or were subject to just as much downside risk” as the hands-off fund.

April 09, 2021

There were, by Morningstar’s count, 112 tactical mutual funds during this period. Only nine had better risk-adjusted returns than a simple 60/40 stock-bond fund. Less than a quarter of the tactical funds had smaller maximum drawdowns than the leave-it-alone index. Morningstar wrote: “With a few exceptions, [tactical funds] gained less, were more volatile, or were subject to just as much downside risk” as the hands-off fund.

April 09, 2021

Many people in investing choose the third option. Like a car thief—though well-meaning and law-abiding—they form tricks and strategies to get the return without paying the price. They trade in and out. They attempt to sell before the next recession and buy before the next boom. Most investors with even a little experience know that volatility is real and common. Many then take what seems like the next logical step: trying to avoid it.

April 09, 2021

Like everything else worthwhile, successful investing demands a price. But its currency is not dollars and cents. It’s volatility, fear, doubt, uncertainty, and regret—all of which are easy to overlook until you’re dealing with them in real time.

April 09, 2021

Sunk costs—anchoring decisions to past efforts that can’t be refunded—are a devil in a world where people change over time. They make our future selves prisoners to our past, different, selves. It’s the equivalent of a stranger making major life decisions for you.

April 09, 2021

Compounding works best when you can give a plan years or decades to grow. This is true for not only savings but careers and relationships. Endurance is key. And when you consider our tendency to change who we are over time, balance at every point in your life becomes a strategy to avoid future regret and encourage endurance.

April 09, 2021

An underpinning of psychology is that people are poor forecasters of their future selves.

April 09, 2021

the most important part of every plan is planning on your plan not going according to plan.

April 09, 2021

A good rule of thumb for a lot of things in life is that everything that can break will eventually break. So if many things rely on one thing working, and that thing breaks, you are counting the days to catastrophe. That’s a single point of failure.

April 09, 2021

“The best way to achieve felicity is to aim low,” says Charlie Munger. Wonderful.

April 07, 2021

Room for error lets you endure a range of potential outcomes, and endurance lets you stick around long enough to let the odds of benefiting from a low-probability outcome fall in your favor. The biggest gains occur infrequently, either because they don’t happen often or because they take time to compound. So the person with enough room for error in part of their strategy (cash) to let them endure hardship in another (stocks) has an edge over the person who gets wiped out, game over, insert more tokens, when they’re wrong.

April 07, 2021

Benjamin Graham is known for his concept of margin of safety. He wrote about it extensively and in mathematical detail. But my favorite summary of the theory came when he mentioned in an interview that “the purpose of the margin of safety is to render the forecast unnecessary.”

April 07, 2021

The further back in history you look, the more general your takeaways should be. General things like people’s relationship to greed and fear, how they behave under stress, and how they respond to incentives tend to be stable in time. The history of money is useful for that kind of stuff. But specific trends, specific trades, specific sectors, specific causal relationships about markets, and what people should do with their money are always an example of evolution in progress. Historians are not prophets.

April 06, 2021

There are few financial variables more correlated to performance than commitment to a strategy during its lean years—both the amount of performance and the odds of capturing it over a given period of time. The historical odds of making money in U.S. markets are 50/50 over one-day periods, 68% in one-year periods, 88% in 10-year periods, and (so far) 100% in 20-year periods. Anything that keeps you in the game has a quantifiable advantage.

April 06, 2021

rational investor makes decisions based on numeric facts. A reasonable investor makes them in a conference room surrounded by co-workers you want to think highly of you, with a spouse you don’t want to let down, or judged against the silly but realistic competitors that are your brother-in-law, your neighbor, and your own personal doubts. Investing has a social component that’s often ignored when viewed through a strictly financial lens.

April 05, 2021

When you define savings as the gap between your ego and your income you realize why many people with decent incomes save so little. It’s a daily struggle against instincts to extend your peacock feathers to their outermost limits and keep up with others doing the same.

April 05, 2021

Exercise is like being rich. You think, “I did the work and I now deserve to treat myself to a big meal.” Wealth is turning down that treat meal and actually burning net calories. It’s hard, and requires self-control. But it creates a gap between what you could do and what you choose to do that accrues to you over time. The problem for many of us is that it is easy to find rich role models. It’s harder to find wealthy ones because by definition their success is more hidden.

April 05, 2021

But wealth is hidden. It’s income not spent. Wealth is an option not yet taken to buy something later. Its value lies in offering you options, flexibility, and growth to one day purchase more stuff than you could right now.

April 05, 2021

The only way to be wealthy is to not spend the money that you do have. It’s not just the only way to accumulate wealth; it’s the very definition of wealth.

April 05, 2021

the truth is that wealth is what you don’t see. Wealth is the nice cars not purchased. The diamonds not bought. The watches not worn, the clothes forgone and the first-class upgrade declined. Wealth is financial assets that haven’t yet been converted into the stuff you see.

April 05, 2021

Humility, kindness, and empathy will bring you more respect than horsepower ever will.

April 05, 2021

“You might think you want an expensive car, a fancy watch, and a huge house. But I’m telling you, you don’t. What you want is respect and admiration from other people, and you think having expensive stuff will bring it. It almost never does—especially from the people you want to respect and admire you.”

April 05, 2021

What they did value were things like quality friendships, being part of something bigger than themselves, and spending quality, unstructured time with their children. “Your kids don’t want your money (or what your money buys) anywhere near as much as they want you. Specifically, they want you with them,” Pillemer writes. Take it from those who have lived through everything: Controlling your time is the highest dividend money pays.

April 05, 2021

In his book 30 Lessons for Living, gerontologist Karl Pillemer interviewed a thousand elderly Americans looking for the most important lessons they learned from decades of life experience. He wrote: No one—not a single person out of a thousand—said that to be happy you should try to work as hard as you can to make money to buy the things you want. No one—not a single person—said it’s important to be at least as wealthy as the people around you, and if you have more than they do it’s real success. No one—not a single person—said you should choose your work based on your desired future earning power.

April 05, 2021

People like to feel like they’re in control—in the drivers’ seat. When we try to get them to do something, they feel disempowered. Rather than feeling like they made the choice, they feel like we made it for them. So they say no or do something else, even when they might have originally been happy to go along.²⁵

April 05, 2021

Having a strong sense of controlling one’s life is a more dependable predictor of positive feelings of wellbeing than any of the objective conditions of life we have considered. More than your salary. More than the size of your house. More than the prestige of your job. Control over doing what you want, when you want to, with the people you want to, is the broadest lifestyle variable that makes people happy.

April 05, 2021

The highest form of wealth is the ability to wake up every morning and say, “I can do whatever I want today.” People want to become wealthier to make them happier. Happiness is a complicated subject because everyone’s different. But if there’s a common denominator in happiness—a universal fuel of joy—it’s that people want to control their lives. The ability to do what you want, when you want, with who you want, for as long as you want, is priceless. It is the highest dividend money pays.

April 05, 2021

There is the old pilot quip that their jobs are “hours and hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.” It’s the same in investing. Your success as an investor will be determined by how you respond to punctuated moments of terror, not the years spent on cruise control.

April 05, 2021

Napoleon’s definition of a military genius was, “The man who can do the average thing when all those around him are going crazy.” It’s the same in investing.

April 05, 2021

It produced some of the biggest films of the 1980s and 1990s, including the first three Rambo films, Terminator 2, Basic Instinct, and Total Recall. Carolco went public in 1987. It was a huge success, churning out hit after hit. It did half a billion dollars in revenue in 1991, commanding a market cap of $400 million—big money back then, especially for a film studio. And then it failed. The blockbusters stopped, a few big-budget projects flopped, and by the mid-1990s Carolco was history. It went bankrupt in 1996. Stock goes to zero, have a nice day. A catastrophic loss. And one that 4 in 10 public companies experience over time. Carolco’s story is not worth telling because it’s unique, but because it’s common. Here’s the most important part of this story: The Russell 3000 has increased more than 73-fold since 1980. That is a spectacular return. That is success.

April 05, 2021

J.P. Morgan Asset Management once published the distribution of returns for the Russell 3000 Index—a big, broad, collection of public companies—since 1980.²¹ Forty percent of all Russell 3000 stock components lost at least 70% of their value and never recovered over this period. Effectively all of the index’s overall returns came from 7% of component companies that outperformed by at least two standard deviations.

April 05, 2021

“The great investors bought vast quantities of art,” the firm writes.¹⁹ “A subset of the collections turned out to be great investments, and they were held for a sufficiently long period of time to allow the portfolio return to converge upon the return of the best elements in the portfolio. That’s all that happens.” The great art dealers operated like index funds. They bought everything they could. And they bought it in portfolios, not individual pieces they happened to like. Then they sat and waited for a few winners to emerge.

April 05, 2021

No one wants to hold cash during a bull market. They want to own assets that go up a lot. You look and feel conservative holding cash during a bull market, because you become acutely aware of how much return you’re giving up by not owning the good stuff. Say cash earns 1% and stocks return 10% a year. That 9% gap will gnaw at you every day. But if that cash prevents you from having to sell your stocks during a bear market, the actual return you earned on that cash is not 1% a year—it could be many multiples of that, because preventing one desperate, ill-timed stock sale can do more for your lifetime returns than picking dozens of big-time winners.

April 05, 2021

We can spend years trying to figure out how Buffett achieved his investment returns: how he found the best companies, the cheapest stocks, the best managers. That’s hard. Less hard but equally important is pointing out what he didn’t do. He didn’t get carried away with debt. He didn’t panic and sell during the 14 recessions he’s lived through. He didn’t sully his business reputation. He didn’t attach himself to one strategy, one world view, or one passing trend. He didn’t rely on others’ money (managing investments through a public company meant investors couldn’t withdraw their capital). He didn’t burn himself out and quit or retire.

April 05, 2021

Not “growth” or “brains” or “insight.” The ability to stick around for a long time, without wiping out or being forced to give up, is what makes the biggest difference. This should be the cornerstone of your strategy, whether it’s in investing or your career or a business you own.

April 04, 2021

The big takeaway from ice ages is that you don’t need tremendous force to create tremendous results. If something compounds—if a little growth serves as the fuel for future growth—a small starting base can lead to results so extraordinary they seem to defy logic. It can be so logic-defying that you underestimate what’s possible, where growth comes from, and what it can lead to. And

April 03, 2021

Modern capitalism is a pro at two things: generating wealth and generating envy. Perhaps they go hand in hand; wanting to surpass your peers can be the fuel of hard work. But life isn’t any fun without a sense of enough. Happiness, as it’s said, is just results minus expectations.

April 03, 2021

To make money they didn’t have and didn’t need, they risked what they did have and did need. And that’s foolish. It is just plain foolish. If you risk something that is important to you for something that is unimportant to you, it just does not make any sense.

April 03, 2021

At a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island, Kurt Vonnegut informs his pal, Joseph Heller, that their host, a hedge fund manager, had made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his wildly popular novel Catch-22 over its whole history. Heller responds, “Yes, but I have something he will never have … enough.”

April 03, 2021

Bill Gates once said, “Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.”

April 03, 2021

The line between “inspiringly bold” and “foolishly reckless” can be a millimeter thick and only visible with hindsight. Risk and luck are doppelgangers.

April 03, 2021

We similarly think Mark Zuckerberg is a genius

April 03, 2021

We similarly think Mark Zuckerberg is a genius

April 03, 2021

John D. Rockefeller is similar. His frequent circumventing of the law—a judge once called his company “no better than a common thief”—is often portrayed by historians as cunning business smarts. Maybe it was. But when does the narrative shift from, “You didn’t let outdated laws get in the way of innovation,” to “You committed a crime?” Or how little would the story have to shift for the narrative to have turned from “Rockefeller was a genius, try to learn from his successes,” to “Rockefeller was a criminal, try to learn from his business failures.” Very little. “What do I care about the law?” Vanderbilt once said. “Ain’t I got the power?” He did, and it worked. But it’s easy to imagine those being the last words of a story with a very different outcome. The line between bold and reckless can be thin. When we don’t give risk and luck their proper billing it’s often invisible.

April 03, 2021

The cover of Forbes magazine does not celebrate poor investors who made good decisions but happened to experience the unfortunate side of risk. But it almost certainly celebrates rich investors who made OK or even reckless decisions and happened to get lucky. Both flipped the same coin that happened to land on a different side.

April 03, 2021

Say I buy a stock, and five years later it’s gone nowhere. It’s possible that I made a bad decision by buying it in the first place. It’s also possible that I made a good decision that had an 80% chance of making money, and I just happened to end up on the side of the unfortunate 20%. How do I know which is which? Did I make a mistake, or did I just experience the reality of risk?

April 03, 2021

Bill Gates experienced one in a million luck by ending up at Lakeside. Kent Evans experienced one in a million risk by never getting to finish what he and Gates set out to achieve. The same force, the same magnitude, working in opposite directions.

April 03, 2021

Gates is staggeringly smart, even more hardworking, and as a teenager had a vision for computers that even most seasoned computer executives couldn’t grasp. He also had a one in a million head start by going to school at Lakeside.

April 03, 2021

We all do crazy stuff with money, because we’re all relatively new to this game and what looks crazy to you might make sense to me. But no one is crazy—we all make decisions based on our own unique experiences that seem to make sense to us in a given moment.

April 03, 2021

The lowest-income households in the U.S. on average spend $412 a year on lotto tickets, four times the amount of those in the highest income groups. Forty percent of Americans cannot come up with $400 in an emergency. Which is to say: Those buying $400 in lottery tickets are by and large the same people who say they couldn’t come up with $400 in an emergency. They are blowing their safety nets on something with a one-in-millions chance of hitting it big.

April 03, 2021

Every decision people make with money is justified by taking the information they have at the moment and plugging it into their unique mental model of how the world works.

April 01, 2021

The economists wrote: “Our findings suggest that individual investors’ willingness to bear risk depends on personal history.” Not intelligence, or education, or sophistication. Just the dumb

April 01, 2021

I can read about what it was like to lose everything during the Great Depression. But I don’t have the emotional scars of those who actually experienced it. And the person who lived through it can’t fathom why someone like me could come across as complacent about things like owning stocks. We see the world through a different lens.

April 01, 2021

People from different generations, raised by different parents who earned different incomes and held different values, in different parts of the world, born into different economies, experiencing different job markets with different incentives and different degrees of luck, learn very different lessons.

April 01, 2021

To grasp why people bury themselves in debt you don’t need to study interest rates; you need to study the history of greed, insecurity, and optimism. To get why investors sell out at the bottom of a bear market you don’t need to study the math of expected future returns; you need to think about the agony of looking at your family and wondering if your investments are imperiling their future.

April 01, 2021

Through collective trial and error over the years we learned how to become better farmers, skilled plumbers, and advanced chemists. But has trial and error taught us to become better with our personal finances? Are we less likely to bury ourselves in debt? More likely to save for a rainy day? Prepare for retirement? Have realistic views about what money does, and doesn’t do, to our happiness?

April 01, 2021

I call this soft skill the psychology of money. The aim of this book is to use short stories to convince you that soft skills are more important than the technical side of money. I’ll do this in a way that will help everyone—from Read to Fuscone and everyone in between—make better financial decisions.

April 01, 2021

Read saved what little he could and invested it in blue chip stocks.

April 01, 2021

My favorite Wikipedia entry begins: “Ronald James Read was an American philanthropist, investor, janitor, and gas station attendant.”

April 01, 2021

A genius who loses control of their emotions can be a financial disaster. The opposite is also true. Ordinary folks with no financial education can be wealthy if they have a handful of behavioral skills that have nothing to do with formal measures of intelligence.