Decisions and outcomes are not necessarily related. One can make a good decision that results in a bad outcome, but this does not mean the decision itself was bad. This can be represented by a simple table:

Good OutcomeBad Outcome
Good Decision
Bad Decision

Here are a few examples that come to mind:

Good OutcomeBad Outcome
Good DecisionEating a salad and not getting sick
Planning for retirement and being able to retiring early
Eating a salad contaminated with E. coli
Investing a lump sum in an index fund on the Friday before Black Monday

Bad DecisionBuying a lotto ticket and winning big
Driving drunk without incident
Speculating in BitCoin and losing
Driving drunk and causing an accident

We know that investing a lump sum now is better than dollar-cost averaging your way into stocks or timing the market by attempting to “buy the dip” (e.g., Williams & Bacon, 1993; Panyagometh & Zhu, 2016). Although lump-sum investing is the preferable decision, there is a nontrivial probability of an inferior outcome as compared to investing at a later time. If a bad outcome occurs, it is more salient than had a good outcome of equal magnitude occurred. However, this should basically be chalked up to bad luck. A bad outcome does not mean a bad decision was made.

Separating decisions from outcomes goes against our nature. It is contrary to human psychology. In her 2018 book, Thinking in Bets, poker champion Annie Duke calls the human prediction to judge decisions by the resultant outcomes “resulting.” Resulting is akin to confusing causation for correlation in science.

Making a bet where the odds are in your favor is a good decision, even if you lose. With more and more such bets, a result commensurate with the prudence of the decision approaches inevitability. In the stock market, you can think of each trading day as a bet, with these bets stacking up over time. Below, probabilities from Bloomberg data, compiled by Vanguard, show the probability of positive returns for S&P 500 investment time frames within the selected dates (1/04/1988 to 2/16/2018).

S&P 500 investment during 1/04/1988–2/16/2018Probability of positive return
One day.54
One week.58
One month.64
One year.83
Ten years.91

Although start and end points matter, the pattern has been shown to hold even over the duration of the stock market’s history, including the Great Depression. Above, we see the probabilities of positive returns averaged across all day, week, month, year, and 10-year periods within a 30-year range. A 54% chance of positive returns on any particular day increases to a 91% chance of positive returns during any particular 10-year period within the 30-year period sampled.

Of course, this data nevertheless shows a 9% chance of losing money in a 10-year span. However, if you are unlucky enough to have invested the bulk of your money at an unfortunate time, this does not mean your decision was bad—just that you happened to have a bad outcome. It takes longer than 10 years for the probability of positive returns to approach inevitability—more like 30 years. Time will tell whether the recent market peak on September 20, 2018 will require months, years, or more than a decade to overcome.

The financial industry is built on confounding decisions with outcomes. A hedge fund manager is said to be “hot,” endowed with stock-picking genius, if his speculations pay off in a given year. Even for investors who were lucky enough to pick him, their decision was certainly bad; picking a low-cost index-tracking mutual fund and sticking with it for many years is a better decision. The speculator’s success is based on chance and luck, not skill. The speculator’s decisions are always bad, although their outcomes may be good, for a time. Eventually, good luck will inevitably run out, leading to underperformance of the index-tracking mutual fund, or worse, a spectacular capital wipeout à la Enron or Bernie Madoff.

We must all take a step back to carefully consider whether a good outcome was actually the result of a good decision, and whether a bad outcome resulted from a bad decision, or from a good decision that should be repeated despite a bad outcome occurring this particular time. On the whole, as a series of good decisions lengthens, good outcomes become inevitable, and as a series of bad decisions lengthens, bad outcomes become inevitable. In making such determinations, our psychology and the limited information available may work against us.

As a financial researcher and aspiring financial educator, I’ve been thinking at length about the principles behind good financial teaching. These five ideas are by no means new or original. However, they are research-supported and not yet mainstream.

1. Behavior Under Management

Know when the student is not ready.

This is straight from Andy Hart’s podcast and conference, with support from a wealth of research in behavioral psychology, economics, and personal finance. Emotion, perception, knowledge, and experience all play an important role in why people make bad financial decisions.

It is widely accepted that younger people should be fully invested in stocks, because their time horizon is long. As they get older, volatility and profits should both be suppressed by divesting stocks into safer, less profitable assets such as bonds. However, young people commonly freak out when there is a bear market, selling their investments and even losing part of their principal. This is traumatic and may result in them never investing in stocks again, which is a worse outcome than if they had invested later in life with greater knowledge, experience, and resilience.

It is not fair to a student to advise an objectively superior course of action when it will lead to financial ruin because the student is not ready.

2. Educate in Arithmetic and Statistics

When the odds are in your favor, it’s only “gambling” if the consequences are disastrous.

Recent evidence suggests that mathematical education may be more important than financial education. The ability to perform mental computations is important, as well as skill with picturing compound interest and percentages. Understanding risk and reward over time is critical. Anyone with a complete understanding of gambling mathematics should know that as you gamble more, you get closer and closer to a guaranteed loss of money.

Investing in the whole global stock market, on the other hand, is neither speculation nor gambling because the odds are in your favor and the consequences of loss are temporary. Although the market declines in about 25% of given calendar years, over longer spans it almost surely increases from the starting point.

Insurance companies make money because they pay out less money than they take in. On average, the odds are in their favor. For any one individual or family, however, the consequences of losing the bet are disastrous. This is why it is wise to purchase health insurance, term life insurance, auto insurance, et cetera. You are insuring against uncommon yet disastrous events. Nonetheless, these disastrous events are much more likely to occur than winning a large lottery jackpot. On the other hand, purchasing insurance against minor losses, like a SquareTrade warranty or collision insurance on a car, is only necessary if these items are critical to you and you do not have the funds to replace them.

3. Make Choices Simpler

Don’t do business with businesses that put bad choices on the table. (Unless you are beating them at their own game.)

People often ask why one should pick Vanguard over Fidelity, Charles Schwab, or another firm for directing their investments. Although Fidelity and Schwab do offer low-cost index funds and arguably offer superior customer service, they are also determined to sell you on products and services that are very bad for your financial health, such as actively managed investments with high management fees.

It is an unpleasant and cognitively taxing experience to be required to repeatedly decline detrimental options. The extended warranties that are sold at the checkout counter at Best Buy are an awful deal. Likewise for trip “insurance” from your airline and GoDaddy’s upsells of inferior hosting services and over-priced options when all you want to purchase is a simple Internet domain name. It is bad enough when a business puts bad choices on the table; aggressive sales tactics are the coup de grâce.

This is why a hard rule of using cash instead of plastic is effective and beneficial for most consumers. The exception is if you are a “travel hacker” beating the credit card issuers at their own game. If you have to ask, you’re not a travel hacker. Simplifying the equation by avoiding the potential for making bad choices is worth losing a few benefits that are, by comparison, small. In some industries, all the major players violate this rule. However, when there an alternate option is available, it should usually be preferred (e.g., Vanguard, cash or debit cards instead of credit cards, etc.).

4. Inculcate a Habit of Inquiry

The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

There is plenty of information available easily via web search. For example, you can easily learn about investing, retirement accounts, or strategies for convincing your bank to waive an overdraft fee by searching Google. However, many people are not in the habit of seeking information nor asking for special consideration from a lender, bank, et cetera. There are differences between how subject-matter experts and novices seek information; novices may not know where to begin, and are typically unfamiliar with the jargon of personal finance, insurance, taxes, credit cards, mortgages, student loans, credit-reporting bureaus, and more. Therefore, it is unfair to blame them for failing to seek out information. Instead, we should educate them in the basics and encourage them to build a habit of inquiry, so they less likely to be shortchanged in their financial dealings.

In addition to educating others, we should lobby for laws and regulations that compel employers and financial institutions to conduct business in ways that do not unfairly disadvantage the non-wealthy (e.g., comprehension rules), and advocate for prosocial behaviors among employers, financial institutions, corporations, and governments that benefit the poor. For instance, it is unfair that many government benefits are not received by the most needy, due to being difficult to claim.

5. Focus on Long-Term Lifestyle Strategy

But, give tactical advice when appropriate.

Reducing bills, increasing income, and changing one’s habits is important. There are many forums and other websites about living frugally. In some ways this overlaps with Item 4; for example, one can save quite a bit on a car, phone or cable bill, rent, or terms of debt service by inquiring with sellers, service providers, landlords, and lenders. Responsible financial educators should encourage learners to (a) reduce expenses as a way of life (e.g., smaller living space, more roommates, no dining out, etc.), (b) focus on significantly increasing income by leveraging education, skills, et cetera, and (c) eliminate debts, save, and invest.

Financial education appears to be more effective when it either focuses on norms and general principles or is given tactically (i.e., “just-in-time“). The best time to tell someone how to write a check is immediately before they need to write a check. Financial advisers can serve as financial educators by offering key information and advice soon before significant financial events such as shopping for a house and mortgage. On the other hand, if this advice is offered many months or years in advance, it is neither remembered nor followed.

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