Success Is Driven From Behaviors


I saw an ad on my Facebook feed looking to sell me life insurance. It asked whether you could do any two of the following eight things and if you could then it was implied that insurance would be cheaper for you. The eight things;

Run a 9 minute mile?
25+ consecutive push-ups?
Stand on one foot for 20+ seconds with eyes closed?
Deadlift your bodyweight?
30+ consecutive sit-ups?
Touch your toes in a sit-and-reach test?
Cycle 50+ miles a week?
Exercise 2.5+ hours a week?

It's human nature to go through and see how many you might be able to do but there was one striking thing that jumped out right away. Six of the eight are result oriented, you can run a nine minute mile or you can't. You might not have control over that time, no matter how often you run. The last two items on the list are not about outputs (25 push-ups), they are about input. Cycling 50 miles a week might take you three hours or it might take you ten but you could decide how far to ride and then do it. Likewise exercising 2.5 hours, you need to find the time of course but if exercise is a high enough priority then you're likely to find the time, you are controlling both inputs.

If you exercise effectively in your 2.5 hours then chances are some of the other things on the list will become attainable if they're not already. The insurance company presumes that getting to the point of doing some of these physical challenges makes you less likely to die and I would throw in, likely to spend less overall on healthcare costs.

So it is with saving and investing. A key point I've been making for more than a decade (no claim of originality) is that savings rate and lifestyle choices (living below your means) matter more than investment performance. Blogger Nick Maggiulli put his spin on the point citing data from American Society of Pension Professionals and Actuaries who said that 74% of retirement success was attributable to savings rates. Part of the dynamic that supports this is the extent to which investment returns are out of our control.

I think lifestyle choices feature more prominently than the 74% attributed to savings would imply. If you make $10,000/mo then you might be able to qualify for a $2500 mortgage payment. Someone making that amount might also take on $1200 in car payments and they could probably afford that along with a couple of other things but it's not too long before they're affording a nice lifestyle but not saving anything. Living a $9900/mo lifestyle on $10,000 of income is not path to wealth accumulation.

A little less dramatically, there are countless articles that tell us people are not saving enough for their retirements or other financial milestones. Here is one view that says by 50, you should have four times your salary saved for retirement. Do you have four times your salary saved (if you're 50)? If you're 40 do you have two times your salary saved as the article suggests? If you are anywhere close to being on track, how did you get there? Is it more about savings or about returns? If you are not on track, what is the more likely path to getting on track; making a killing the market or upping your savings rate?

Anyone living below their means likely has a very high savings rate but also can think more in terms of accumulating a multiple of expenses not a multiple of income. You may not be there yet but it is clear that this is an easier path if you can get to that point.

In most circumstances you can decide to exercise and you can decide to downshift your spending habits. Being physically fit and financially fit will make every other aspect of your life easier.