I got to thinking the other day, as I so often do, after seeing somebody toss off a joke on Twitter. The gag is an asset manager being told by a prospective client, “I need real, net of fee returns of 8%, so I don’t think you are a fit.” The asset manager drily replies in .gif form, “Correct.” My immediate response was not to the “realistic” or “unrealistic” element of an 8% return, net of fees. My response was to the idea of “needing” one return or another.
What return do you need?
If you want to operate a private space program like Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, you need many billions of dollars. For the sake of argument, let’s say ten billion of them. Now, ten billion dollars sounds like a lot of money, but it’s not an impossibly large amount of money. According to Forbes’s (always-suspect) list, there are about 150 people in the world with fortunes that large. The formula is simple: you start a company (or, like Eduardo Saverin, be roommates with someone who starts a company, sue him, renounce your US citizenship, and move to Singapore), hire some competent managers, wait for the stock market to get frothy, go public, and presto, you’re worth $10 billion.
The trouble is, there’s no point in operating half a space program. That means if your managers are a little less competent or the stock market is a little less frothy, you might only walk away with $5 billion — not nearly enough to land a man on Mars. If you don’t want to strand Matt Damon halfway there, then you need a different goal. For example, the University of California system budgeted the collection of $3.15 billion in tuition and fees in 2016-2017, meaning with $5 billion you could pay the tuition and fees for every student in the University of California system for a year (and still hang on to almost $2 billion).
The point is not that financing public education in California is a less worthy goal than sending Matt Damon to Mars. The point is that you can’t afford to send Matt Damon to Mars, so you need a backup goal.
And indeed, this is a perfectly common situation to find oneself in. On a visit to a steakhouse you might prefer the $150 cut of meat to the $45 cut, but choose the $45 piece anyway because you can’t afford the $150 option. It doesn’t make your choice “less authentic” or “worse” in any meaningful way; it simply means you’ve arrived at a particular balance of your preferences and your constraints.
Your goals don’t need to be realistic if you have enough of them
At this point you might object that there’s a big difference between a $150 steak and a reusable rocket that can land on a platform floating at sea. But I don’t see any difference at all: to afford the steak you need another $105, to afford the rocket you need another $9,999,999,955. In both cases, your ability to meet your goal depends on your starting assets, your income, your savings rate, and the return on your investments.
Personal finance advice often ends up eliding this by saying the only goal worth thinking about is to acquire “as much as possible.” Traditionally, that’s been used to mean as much money as possible. “The Millionaire Next Door” became a classic of the genre by observing that even a middle-class income allows healthy white people to accumulate millions of dollars if they live frugally enough. In our own time, the FIRE community turns this logic on its head and says the goal is to acquire as much freedom as possible, i.e. working the least possible amount of time required to liberate oneself from the drudgery of work.
If “as much (money, freedom, whatever) as possible” is the only way you know how to think about your goals, then you end up with more or less identical advice: earn as much money as possible, spend as little money as possible, and invest in the most aggressive portfolio you will be able to stick with through market volatility.
But acquiring “as much as possible” is obviously not the only way to set goals. Most significantly, it takes all potential goals that decrease your net worth off the table. Giving away a million dollars may feel good for a moment, but it also reduces your net worth by a million dollars, which makes it theoretically indistinguishable from buying a new car, renovating your kitchen, buying organic groceries, or sending your kids to private schools.
Have enough goals to accommodate reality
Fortunately for them, but much to the consternation of personal financial columnists and bloggers, in the real world people seem to have no trouble organizing their lives around multiple goals. People do buy organic groceries, even though they could invest the difference in price. People do renovate their kitchens, even if the renovations cost more than any higher final sale price of their house. People even send their kids to private schools, unfortunately.
While I find people are in general extremely effective at forming and executing goals within their means, they don’t pay nearly enough attention to “upside risk:” the possibility that their income, savings, and return on investments will dramatically outpace their goals. Of course, setting unrealistic goals is, by definition, unrealistic. You don’t want to commit to donating $1 million in 10 years, only to discover that a job loss, unexpected medical expenses, or global financial crisis leaves you with just $250,000.
But you also don’t want to commit to donating $250,000 and find that your investment has swollen to $1 million, leaving you with $750,000 you can’t fathom what to do with. Is that a better problem to have than the reverse? Of course. But there’s no such thing as a good problem, and if you find yourself suddenly on the spot trying to figure out what to do with $750,000, you’re vulnerable to two serious errors.
First, you might simply spend the money foolishly, or not at all. If you check your brokerage statement the same day you get a mail or phone solicitation from the Wounded Warrior Project, you might ship the money off to them to be spent on their lavish headquarters and advertising budget. Worse in its own way is simply choosing not to spend it and passing the problem on to the next generation.
But the second problem is one I consider almost as dire: a big part of the pleasure of setting goals is working towards them, and experiencing satisfaction and disappointment as you draw nearer and farther away from them. In my other career as a travel hacker, I see my loyalty program balances rise towards the values I need to book the trips I want to take. Money’s not entirely like that: there will always be things to spend as much or as little money as you like on. But the principle is the same: working towards a goal has a satisfaction independent of actually achieving it.
Conclusion: set unrealistic goals!
Most people have a sense of what they will do if their investments end up returning 5% instead of 8%. They’ll move to a smaller house, they’ll replace the car less often, they’ll take fewer vacations, they’ll leave less money to their children. But fewer people know what they’ll do if their investments end up returning 11%, or 20%, or 100%, instead of 8%. Thinking about that problem sooner, rather than later, gives you more time to formulate the right goals and more time to relish getting closer to them, whether or not you ever end up getting Matt Damon to Mars.