With every movie, TV show, and magazine feature focusing on the big stock market windfalls and crashes, it’s easy to feel like investing is a crapshoot. If you’re not an expert, or exceptionally lucky, you haven’t got a chance of spending your dream retirement painting watercolours in a cottage on Vancouver Island, right?
Actually, there are millions of stories of people who made solid investments, earned steady returns, and cemented their financial future. They’re less sexy, sure, but these kinds of stories make up the vast majority of real people’s experiences with investing — they also offer the best learning opportunities for first-timers.
We spoke to three investment experts to hear about their “best investment ever,” and share the lessons it taught them about the world of money.
Financial Planner and Money Coach
What got you interested in investing as a career?
I’m a financial planner, not an investment advisor, so I don’t tell clients exactly what to buy and sell. What I am interested in is understanding their motivations and behaviours, and what causes people to make wise or unwise decisions with their investments.
So then personally, what’s been your best performing investment?
I was a computer nerd back in the 90s, and in university I invested in this company called ETI Technologies. At the time, there were only a few companies who made 3D computer chips. ETI was a Canadian company, and I knew some people who worked there, so I was confident it was solid. In the handful of years that I owned the stock, I think it quadrupled.
The lesson I took away from it is to buy what you know, and what you’re interested in, because you do have to pay attention to the details of your investments to understand the landscape they’re operating in. If you’re genuinely interested in the industry, you’re much more likely to pay attention and make better choices.
Is this the advice you now give your clients?
Well the flip side of that, especially for young investors, is that it’s important not to confuse getting lucky with being good. Actually, my most valuable investing lesson was a miserable failure. This was at the height of the dotcom boom, and I invested in this company called Free Markets. It just had its IPO [initial public offering] and was valued at $50 US a share. I put $50,000 into it, and this was just after I graduated. After I bought it, people started digging deeper and realized, “Hey, this company doesn’t have any revenue.” It had a great idea and a lot of hype, but not much the way of actual fundamentals. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
People will tell you to wait out these drops, that you should ride out the turmoil. But that’s only true if you’re dealing with a company that’s fundamentally solid. As this company went down and down, I think I lost around 90 percent of my money. It certainly hurt, but it taught me a valuable lesson, and I’m glad it happened when I was young. Now, I don’t buy new companies, or companies that aren’t generally profitable.
Financial Blogger at UrbanDepartures.com
How’d you get into investing?
My wife and I wanted to get our finances in place so that we could get back to the things that we cared about. We’re all busy enough with work and everything else that competes for our attention. So we tried to create investment systems that would let us focus on what’s important for us, like spending time with our kids or traveling.
We’re DIY investors, so the best investment for us was to take that time to become educated in how to best use our money. I read books from the experts who are way smarter than me, who do this full-time. Everyone from Warren Buffett to multiple Nobel prize-winning folks in economics. And they all said the same thing: Index investing [where you invest in an entire stock market or industry] was the best way to build wealth over time. There’s folks out there that say you can do it in as little as an hour a year. That resonated with us, since it frees up all the time for other things.
What did you learn?
To take a little step back. Investing is about more than just where to stash your hard-earned money, it’s where to spend your time and energy. I look at personal finance as an obligation, it’s just something you have to figure out. It can get in the way sometimes, but it’s so fundamental to your well being, and you have to get it in order for everything else to fall in place.
Senior Financial Planning Advisor, Assante Capital Management Ltd.
Halifax, Nova Scotia
What’s your best investment?
It would have to be putting $200 into a mutual fund back in 1988. It didn’t double its value, so I can’t boast of my great spider sense in choosing it. In fact, I doubt I could remember the name of the fund today.
What made it so great?
Because it was my first. I was 22, working full-time, and supporting myself and my future husband who was a full-time student. Money was tight, and tucking something away for retirement seemed like a luxury. But I knew the value of money, and I’d been taught early in my life that saving money was the goal and the amount being saved was secondary.
This has been one of the greatest lessons I can pass on as a Financial Advisor. The habit and discipline of saving is the reward, and if you learn that one lesson, wealth will follow.
Is that what happened with the mutual fund?
The $200 has grown into much more. It turned into a lifelong habit of saving money. Even when our children were younger, and our mortgage payments increased after we bought a bigger house, saving was built into our budget. Now our children are in university and we want to travel more, but still, saving money for retirement is a line item. A good habit is hard to break.