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The secret to investing when stock markets are falling

Catching up with some of my favourite financial blogs (no, Monevator.com is not an island!), I’ve noticed a sour note on those that follow the net worth of the author (e.g. My 1st Million at 33 and Accumulating Money).

I admire these writers for putting their cojones on the line so publicly. My thoughts certainly shouldn’t be construed as a criticism of their efforts.

However, there’s a reason why I don’t track my personal net worth on Monevator.com, and it’s being demonstrated by the depressed tone that many personal finance blogs as the market falls.

The trouble with tracking your net worth

When things are going well, as they did for several years up until the end of the 2007, blogs tracking personal net worth seem heroic. Booming stock markets and rising property prices see an ambitious target drawing nearer month by month. £500,000 no longer seems a distant dream, and £1million looks feasible.

However when markets or property prices fall, progress towards your goal is cut short. And there’s a particular problem when your goal is a net worth figure:

  • You cannot control the price the market puts on your stocks or your home

If you’re a financial blogger tracking your net worth, you may be doing just what you did last month or last year – saving hard, earning well, and giving us a ringside seat – but suddenly the results don’t look so good. This can be dispiriting, and I’d be concerned it could turn me off investing altogether.

My approach: focus on goals and targets I can control

Goals are crucial, but they have to be attainable for you to keep working towards them. Attainable means controllable. Have a target of a million in the back of your mind if you want (I do occasionally add up the value of all my investments), but in the meantime focus on stuff that you can achieve.

Controllable goals include:

  • Saving 15% of your salary
  • Reducing your monthly shopping bill by 20%
  • Doubling your income over the next five years

These are all financial goals you have some ability to move towards achieving – it’s up to you to save more, find cheaper groceries, or boost your career. The price of groceries may rise or fall, or you may find it hard to get a raise, but that’s nothing compared to being at the mercy of uncontrollable fluctuations in stock markets.

With stocks and shares, we hope our investments will go up over time, but in the short-term they can plunge, as this bear market has repeatedly proved. It’s out of our control.

Good longer-term targets might be:

  • A monthly income target from your investments. (I recently wrote how replacing your salary with investment income could be a good long-term goal). Income from a basket of dividend paying blue chip shares and bonds is much steadier than the same portfolio’s capital value
  • Maxing out your tax-saving investment plans each year. (For instance, I think in the UK anyone with sufficient earnings should try to use their annual £7,000 ISA allowance.)

Create your own targets that suit your situation, but I’d suggest concentrating on things you can do, like saving more, not things that will be done to you, like the particular return from the markets in any year. Like this you focus on what’s achievable by you now, not on how generous the stock market may be feeling.

Ironically, it’s a better time to buy shares for income than a year ago. You can get 10%-25% more dividend income from a basket of leading shares than at the peak of summer 2007. In the long-term, markets (shares and property) will bounce back, and this bear market will likely be seen as a great buying opportunity rather than a time for apocalyptic hand-ringing.

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{ 5 comments… add one }
  • 1 Dividends4Life February 27, 2008, 1:26 am

    Excellent article and spot on! I have refused to publicly track my net worth because so much of it is tied up in my company’s stock (401k, options, etc.) it goes up and down and i have no control over it. I plan to include your article in my weekly carnival review this Friday.

    Best Wishes,
    D4L

  • 2 The Investor February 28, 2008, 4:09 am

    Thanks for the kind words D4L. (Your site is timing out for me at the moment, btw?)

  • 3 Four Pillars March 1, 2008, 6:22 am

    I couldn’t agree more – if you don’t have much in the way of assets, then net worth is a good proxy for debt, so if those are going down then that can be pretty motivating. If you have a house, stocks etc then the valuations are out of your control.

    Mike

  • 4 jeflin August 17, 2008, 3:38 am

    Being too ambitious with investment will backfire badly in a bad market.

    I agree that setting realistic and achievable goals like saving 15% of our salary and reducing the monthly shopping bill by 20% are the first steps towards financial freedom.

  • 5 MoneyEnergy April 23, 2009, 1:34 am

    Nice idea, focusing on the goals/numbers you can control. I also agree with your other post about needing to focus on cashflow rather than networth. All you have to replace is your paycheck. This is my first time on your site – great to see more of a UK perspective in the pf blogosphere!

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