“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley (oft go astray),” quoted from a Robert Burns poem, is often used to describe the futility of making detailed plans when our ability to execute said plans is uncertain.
Market volatility can certainly trigger behavioral responses that are detrimental to our financial plans. Sometimes we just tap out of our plans in frustration, “I just can’t save for retirement. I have too much debt. My investments are under-performing.” And when plans go awry to unfortunate events, we lament, “I should’ve seen that coming.”
The self-help financial press does little to lift our enthusiasm. Every month, the spotlight on “how to” reach your financial life goals is shifted to a new strategy, tool, or product. They have to sell subscriptions, right? Note: doom and gloom sell particularly well.
So let’s just acknowledge, from time to time, our plans go awry. What should we do about it? Focus on positive things. Don’t throw out all of your plans because of short-term challenges. Make adjustments.
For example, it is remarkable that with all the wild headlines we’ve experienced so far this year, plus the worst start to the year in U.S. market history, the markets are up slightly here in the U.S. and in foreign emerging markets. The U.S. economy is still growing.
“A sluggish pace of economic growth, accompanied by low interest rates and low inflation, is not an unfavorable backdrop for equities longer-term. This is why we don’t believe a major bear market is likely … remember, the tortoise beats the hare in Aesop’s fable,” wrote Liz Ann Sonders, Charles Schwab’s chief investment strategist, in a recent commentary.
After the multiyear selloffs in developed foreign and emerging-markets equities, both of these broad markets now offer attractive 5-10-year return potential.
When plans go awry, remember that big decisions — especially about money and relationships — are emotionally charged. So recognize that it is difficult to make good decisions when we are overwhelmed by emotion.
You can shore up your decision-making discipline by creating decision guidelines. Write down your key financial policies in advance of future events. What are your guiding principles regarding spending, debt, cash reserves, investing, and risk management?
Develop buffers in your plan. For example, divide your money into different “buckets” and then assign an appropriate investment strategy to each based on short-term or long-term goals. Designate a bucket of less-volatile investments to cover your near-term essentials (especially retirees). If you don’t have your baseline covered, panic is a natural response.
In reality, there will be plenty of opportunities for panic in a future with domestic terrorism, a continuing mess in the Middle East, contentious presidential politics, a refugee crisis in Europe and premature announcements of the demise of the European Union.
When our best-laid financial plans go awry, we need to hit the reset button and formulate new plans based on our current realities and revised forecasts for the future.
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