Monday, July 24, 2017

The Behavior Gap

The title of certified financial planner Carl Richards’ book The Behavior Gap refers to the gap between “what we should do and what we actually do” when it comes to financial decisions. The book identifies a great many of the mistakes we make, and almost all readers who are honest with themselves will identify with some of the mistakes.

Richards is well known for his napkin drawings, and there are plenty of them in this book. One says that the cost of your mistakes rises with your level of overconfidence. “Overconfidence is a very serious problem. If you don’t think it affects you, that’s probably because you’re overconfident.”

We know we shouldn’t buy high and sell low, but “we make investing decisions based on how we feel rather than what we know. Falling stocks scare us; rising stocks attract us.”

In a drawing offering investment advice, Richards says the chance that a fund will stink rises with its expense ratio. He offers more advice when he says our decisions about how much of our company’s stock to hold should be based on principles of diversification rather than “our feelings about what’s going to happen.”

On the subject of stock mania, Richards tells the story of how during the tech bubble in 1999, he resisted “the temptation to buy technology stocks” initially but eventually gave in and lost money. It’s the last people in before the bubble bursts who get hurt the most.

Richards believes that financial planning begins with life planning. “Find out who you are and what you want. Then you can stop wasting your life energy and your money on stuff that doesn’t matter to you—and start making financial decisions that will get you to your true goals.”

If we take action based on the latest news, we’re likely to do the wrong thing. “Try going on a media fast.” “When thoughts about the market arise, let them go. Go for a bike ride.”

I was surprised to see a financial planner write that “Financial plans are worthless.” However, he followed that up with “but the process of financial planning is vital.” A single static financial plan will become obsolete as life takes a few unexpected turns. Plans need to adapt.

We’re used to being told not to make overly rosy assumptions, but “pessimistic assumptions often discourage people from doing anything to improve their outlook.” I’ve known people who buy lottery tickets because they see winning as the only way to improve their lives. They just don’t understand or believe in the power of saving small amounts regularly.

“While making wise decisions about how you invest your money is important, it doesn’t have nearly the impact of working hard and saving more.” I’m all for encouraging people to save more, but a low-cost index investor could easily end up with twice as much money each month in retirement as someone who spends an investing lifetime chasing the latest hot mutual fund. This seems at least comparable in value to saving more money each month.

In one section, Richards describes so accurately the mood in a company whose stock is soaring that it seemed like he was talking about my employer back in the late 1990s. People had “visions of early retirement,” and they knew they “should sell some of the shares,” but they hung on anyway. Many of my colleagues saw 7-figure paper valuations evaporate.

I recall asking colleagues whether they would buy back the company’s shares if they were converted to cash right now. This only caused one of my colleagues to sell. I sold too few shares myself. Richards calls this the “Overnight Test” and asks if your portfolio went to cash overnight and you wouldn’t rebuild the same portfolio today, “what changes would you make,” and “why aren’t you making them now?”

“What makes us feel safe may be at odds with the numbers.” I’ve learned this truth when it comes to retirement. My wife and I need different things to feel it’s safe to retire. For me, it’s a set of spreadsheets that analyze all the numbers in a dozen different ways. I’d just be guessing about what would put my wife at ease.

We’ve heard that simple solutions are best when it comes to finances, such as saving diligently and choosing low-cost diversified investments. “We often resist simple solutions because they require us to change our behavior.” “We’d rather look for a magic bullet: something to save us from the day-to-day grind of simply doing the work that needs doing.” “It’s much easier to entertain ourselves with the fantasy of finding an investment that will give us a fantastic return than to save a little bit more money each month. But in the end, the fantasy will fail us.” Well said.

This book is both entertaining and helpful for readers prepared to admit to themselves that they’re guilty of some of the mistakes that create this “behavior gap.”


  1. Thanks for the review. I did rent the book from library after reading your article.
    I give it 5 stars. Nice job from the author.

    1. @cashinstinct: Glad you found the review and book useful.