How do you know you’re doing the right things, if nothing is happening?
For new investors this is one of the hardest problems. You might learn all the steps to follow… you calculate how much you’ll end up with in 40 years… you can talk to others who have done it… but it just doesn’t seem real at first.
You invest your money the way you should and a few months later you get your first dividend for a whole $0.27.
For years it can seem like nothing is happening. Meanwhile you hear about a friend who made $10,000 buying stock in a small oil company. Would that be faster?
You promise yourself that you’ll invest more if you have some extra cash at the end of the month. But it just seems so hard to be motivated when you aren’t getting anything for it.
This is exactly what I felt when I started out. My first investment was $800 that I used to open an account at CIBC. After realizing that their fees were too high I decided I would switch to TD. My next move was opening an account there. Four months later I set up an automatic transfer of $100 every month to my investment accounts.
At that time I would get dividends of just a few dollars – after all the research and preparation I had done and even saving up for a few months to get that first $800!
We know it takes time. But who doesn’t struggle to do something when it seems like it will be meaningless for the next 5 or 10 years? If you feel that way you’re not alone. Even though it was hard I did wait and my portfolio did grow. But I did one other thing besides waiting and that’s what I’m writing about today.
Six years after I opened my first account I checked the new balances after a regular monthly contribution and noticed that all the accounts added up to over $100,000. Even though no one is going to retire on an amount like that it felt like a huge accomplishment to know that all my hard work had gotten to that point and I could finally see my investments growing on their own.
At the beginning I couldn’t imagine my portfolio growing quickly, giving me hundreds of dollars in dividends on one day like it does now, or gaining over $2,000 in one week on its own like it did recently. After reaching this milestone it started to feel a lot more real.
A little extra push
So what’s the big secret to go from $100/month to a $100,000 portfolio? Is it a hot biotech stock that tripled my investment? Is it knowing when the US stock market was about to take off? The truth is that I barely pay attention to the markets. And I’ve only bet $80 on specific stocks (I was right but it was too late).
It’s actually the $100/month that’s responsible. In case you don’t feel like doing the math, investing $100 every month for 6 years will give you $7,200. Something’s missing right? How does $7,200 turn into $100,000 without having to be the smartest investment genius who ever lived or wait 100 years for it to grow?
Let’s look at the way many people try to invest. I was like this at first. We all have bills to pay so we say to ourselves, “I’ll invest whatever is left at the end of the month. I can spend a bit less this month.” But then something unexpected happens. And the next month. And the next.
There’s only one thing that stays the same: we never have anything left over at the end of the month. This is why it took almost a year to come up with the $800 I needed to open my first account. I had heard of another way and 4 months later when I opened my second account I set it up to automatically take $100 every month. Even though this was on top of all my regular expenses it turned out that I could suddenly afford it every month.
Soon I didn’t even notice this. It was like buying groceries – I knew it cost something but I didn’t stay up at night worrying about how to afford it. So I thought “why not $125?”. I updated the transfers. After a few more months it still didn’t seem like much. I changed it to $150. $200. $300/month. At least twice a year I would increase the amount.
Every time it was just a small step. Another $100/month? I don’t need to move to the cheapest part of town and eat rice and beans every day to do that. But when I kept adding to the amount that I put in every month it started to get bigger. Then the portfolio started to grow from all those contributions and from the gains after investing them. Those $1 dividends I had gotten at first turned into $10, then $50, then $100, then hundreds of dollars.
How to make it work
Now you don’t have to go as far as I did. Once I started to see the first increases in the total value it gave me even more reason to make small sacrifices so I could increase the monthly amounts. I never did anything that I would make my life miserable but I did have to make hard choices.
If you don’t want to go that far it’s ok. It may take a little longer but the same idea will work for anyone. You need to find your own way to do it. For example the anonymous Maritimer blogger who just reached a $1m net worth did it by working extra jobs and overtime and managing rental properties. Personally I couldn’t do that for long. Maybe you find it easier. Or maybe you have something you can sell for some extra income.
Anything you can do to increase your income and control your expenses, even just a bit, will help you more than you would think. And you can do it a little bit at a time. When we make big changes in our life quickly it’s hard to make them stick. Going from eating out every day to always cooking at home? Or starting an extreme diet? If you only do it for a month before giving up you’re not alone.
Small changes are so easy we don’t notice them. After doing them for a month they turn into a habit that we do automatically. And over time they really add up.
Every 6 months you can check back and see if you can do a bit more, even another $10/month. I never felt like $100/month would make me rich. I just knew that if I could do that to start with then I could put in more later. And if I did it every month without fail then it would add up.
Anyone can start this now
Can’t afford much? You only need $25/month. The amount might be small but that’s fine. Maybe you’ll start a new high-paying job or get a raise later. If you wait until then you might procrastinate for years before setting it up (let’s be honest, this isn’t at the top of your fun list). But if you start now then you can just log in and update the number instantly.
The amount you have now doesn’t matter as much as starting now and then sticking to it. It’s not the people who start out really fast who win, it’s the ones who start early and keep going for a long time.
I have one really important rule every time I increase that monthly transfer: I add less than I want to
Wait, what? This is investment advice that doesn’t force you to deprive yourself of everything you enjoy in life so you can save for retirement? Yes!
The most important thing is doing this every month for as long as possible, as long as you don’t lose your job or have a major unexpected expense. Pick something that you’re comfortable with. If you really can afford more then you’ll have another chance to increase it in a few months.
When this turns into a familiar habit you can keep doing it for a long time and when you do it for a long time it will change your life. Keep taking small steps and in a few years you might notice that you’re saving an amount every month that would have made you panic when you first started.
Besides, investing should make you feel like your life is getting better, not worse. I don’t torture myself to make it work. That means I can enjoy the journey in addition to the rewards it gives me.
There are only a couple of times in all the years that I’ve been investing where I had to decrease or stop the monthly contributions for a bit. I always got back to the previous amount as soon as possible. All the months when they did happen were more important than the few months when they didn’t.
If it takes you 10 years to reach $100,000, or 15 years, or even longer that’s ok too. After that it starts to go a lot faster. And if you keep making your monthly contributions they will help too. I don’t plan to stop them any time soon.
Doing it in your sleep
Good investing is not about doing more work, trying harder, or constantly changing from one investment to another. You should work hard at your job or raising your kids. Investing is more like planting a garden. A few good choices and some time are all it takes. Other than that you don’t even need to think about it.
If you plant the seeds for your garden in September you won’t get anything no matter how hard you work at it. But if you plant them early in the year, even if you don’t do anything after that, you might end up getting a lot out of them.
Investing early is the same as planting seeds early. It gives them more time to grow and that can make all the difference. Monthly contributions are like an automatic irrigation system for your garden. You aren’t doing more work but you still get more. And increasing your monthly contributions is like adding fertilizer. Put them all together and those small things add up to something far bigger.
While others worry about whether they’re saving enough, you can just smile and know that it happens in your sleep. If you really do end up with extra cash at the end of the month you can invest some of that but we know how rare that is!
Imagine if you had started investing $250/month 20 years ago (or your parents did it for you, if you’re too young) and you forgot about it until today. Wouldn’t that be a great thing to discover? That’s the gift you can give yourself. It seems like a small amount at first but when you leave it alone for long enough it will grow. And since it feels like a small amount – it’s a lot easier than having to come up with $25,000 in cash tomorrow – there’s nothing stopping you from doing it now.
The really great thing is that you can forget about complicated investment strategies
Pick a couple of good investments and do this, and it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll end up better off than most people as long as you have an average income, buy things you can afford, and don’t make any major mistakes or have really bad luck. This one action is based on the way that the smartest investors think and it’s so simple that anyone can do it.
It gives me peace of mind too. I can’t control everything that happens to my investments. All I can control is what I do. And when I do this the right thing is effortless.
So here’s how I want you to turbo-charge your investments in under half an hour:
- Set up an automatic transfer right after every paycheque or once a month. If you use mutual funds like Tangerine or TD e-Series, have it go directly into the funds you own. If you buy ETFs, have it go to your broker and then set up a reminder in your calendar, email, or phone that will tell you to buy more shares as soon as you have enough cash. If you’ve already done this go to step 2. Total time: 5 – 10 minutes.
- Pick two times a year, like January and August, when you will increase that monthly amount. You don’t need some complicated budget (the truth is, almost no one can actually follow a budget). Just log in to your account so you can see the automatic transfer, then ask yourself if that amount is creating serious difficulty in your life (and talk to your significant other if applicable). If not, how much more can you add every month? $10? $25? $100? $500? Update that amount and then going back to enjoying your life. Total time: 10 – 15 minutes per year.
- Leave a comment to let me know how this will change the way you invest!