Setting Investment Goals to Reach Financial Independence

Keeping Your Eye on the Prize Can Help Improve Your Focus

Investment Questions About Financial Independence
Going through a checklist of well-planned investment questions can help you on your journey to financial independence. Image Credit: Getty Images / Stuart Kinlough

Learning to set investment goals is one of the most important things you can do as a new investor because it helps you keep track of where you have been, where you are, and where you are going as it pertains to your personal finances and your journey to financial independence. The best investment goals typically have three things in common:

  1. Good investment goals are measurable. This means they are clear, concise, and definite. Saying to yourself, “I am going to set a goal of saving $50 per week” is useful because you can evaluate your finances and determine whether you succeeded or not. Either you did, or you did not, save $50 per week. In contrast, saying something like, “I am going to set a goal of saving more money each year” is somewhat useless because it doesn’t hold you accountable.
  1. Good investment goals are reasonable and rational. If you say that you want to reach $1 million in personal net worth by the age of 40, you can use things like the time value of money formula to test whether or not your present rate of saving is sufficient. You aren’t going to get there by putting aside $5,000 a year between the age of 18 and 40 at a historically, reasonably probable rate of return. This means you need to either lower your expectations or increase the amount of money you are putting to work each year.
  2. Good investment goals are compatible with your long-term objectives. I’ve said it too many times to count over the years — in fact, if you regularly read my work, you are probably tired of me saying it — but it is worth repeating, again, because the message never seems to get through to a large percentage of people who are programmed that money is the only thing that matters: Money is a tool that should exist to serve you. Nothing more. Nothing less. The sole purpose of money is to make your life better; to give you the things that allow you to experience more happiness and utility. It doesn’t do you a bit of good to end up with an enormously large balance sheet if it means you have to sacrifice everything of value in your life and end up dying, leaving behind the fruits of your labor for heirs or other beneficiaries who are irresponsible or who have no gratitude for the labor you gifted them. Sometimes, it is better to have a lower savings rate and enjoy the journey more than you otherwise would have. The trick is to make sure you’re wisely balancing your long-term desires and your short-term wants in a way that maximizes joy. There is no formula for that as only you can determine which trade-offs you are willing to make; which sacrifices pay bigger dividends for you down the road.

    Questions to Ask Yourself When Setting Investment Goals for Financial Independence

    When you sit down and begin drawing up your investment goals, ask yourself the following questions to help clarify some of your implicit assumptions. This can be a particularly useful exercise if you are married as, many times, spouses aren’t aware that they don’t necessary operate from the same starting point when it comes to financial matters.

    1. What is “your number”? In order to reach financial independence from your portfolio, how much monthly passive income would it require if you were to withdraw no more than 3 percent to 4 percent of the principal value each year? That is the amount of money it would take if you wanted to live off your capital without having to sell your time to someone else while enjoying your desired standard of living.
    2. What is your risk tolerance? No matter how successful you are or how much money you amass, some people are wired in a way that fluctuations in their portfolio’s market value leads to enormous levels of emotional misery. They’d rather end up with less money in the future, and enjoy a lower rate of compounding, but have a smoother ride. Learning to be honest with yourself about where you fall on that spectrum is a big part of fiscal maturity. For example, though it can put you at a significant disadvantage under most circumstances, you don’t have to own stocks to build wealth. There are ​other asset classes that might work for you and that have their own ability to compound capital while throwing off dividends, interest, and/or rents.
    3. How do your moral and ethical values influence your portfolio management strategy? Each of us exists as part of the world; our actions and decisions influencing those around us for better or worse. How do you want to invest your money? Are you comfortable owning tobacco shares? How about stock in weapons manufacturers? Do you have a moral problem with owning alcohol distilleries? Energy companies that have a large carbon footprint? When push comes to shove, you need to decide what you can live with in terms of generating income and what is a bridge too far for you.
    1. Do you plan on spending all of your capital during your lifetime or do you desire to leave behind a financial legacy for your heirs and beneficiaries? If you spend through your capital, it means you’ll be able to enjoy a higher withdrawal rate than you could support otherwise. If you don’t, you’ll get to take a small cut of the stream of passive income from your holdings but the principal should grow over time, provided it is prudently managed, serving as what effectively amounts to an endowment. Determining the right answer depends on a number of considerations but the point is that somebody is going to spend that money. You need to make sure it’s the person you want doing it, even if it is yourself. Furthermore, if you do leave the money behind for others to enjoy, will you do it outright, with no strings attached, or will you establish a trust fund?
    1. Will you limit your investments to your home country or expand globally? Despite the uptick in nationalism that has occurred beginning in the year 2016, the forces of globalization are real, they are powerful, and they mean than anyone with access to a brokerage account can become an owner of firms throughout the world. You can be a steel worker in the rust belt and collect dividends from Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan. You can be a teacher in California and watch money come in from your holdings in Canada and France. While this introduces additional risks of permanent capital loss, as well as other risks such as currency risk and political risk, it also offers greater diversification and potential exposure to market performance that may turn out to be better on a risk-adjusted basis than that which would have been available from a domestic portfolio alone.
    2. What is motivating you to achieve financial independence? While some people are natural savers — they tend to accumulate without really needing a reason to do so as they live below their means and don’t really know what to do with the difference — most people are driven by some primary or secondary motivation that causes them to pile up capital. It is extraordinarily important that you look within yourself and honestly answer the question, “Why?”. Why are you compelled to save? What makes you want to invest rather than spending or donating the money that is flowing through your hands? Often, by getting to the heart of that question, you can better design your portfolio to achieve whatever it is you are really pursuing.
    3. Are you emotionally capable of managing your portfolio on your own? This question can be difficult for some people to answer because they feel like being honest with themselves means admitting a personal shortcoming. That’s nonsense. The goal is to get what you want out of your portfolio, not to somehow prove you are a master of the universe. Vanguard, one of the largest asset management companies sponsoring both active and passive mutual funds and exchange-traded funds in the world, estimated in one of its white papers that the typical investor could add, over time, a net 3 percent or so to their investment returns by hiring one of the advisors using the framework they lay out in their argument; that the higher investment advisory fees paid are more than made up for due to a combination of behavioral modification, tax guidance, financial planning assistance, and other services that somehow benefit the client. You can read their argument in Vanguard Research’s September 2016 publication, “Putting a value on your value: Quantifying Vanguard Advisor’s Alpha”. In other words, opportunity cost counts as much as explicit cost; a message that is all too often lost in the age of soundbites, memes, and oversimplification.
    4. How do different asset classes line up with your personality and temperament? I realize we’ve already touched on this a bit but this point is somewhat distinct and needs to be discussed further. Humanity is diverse. Each of us is wired differently. We have our own unique likes and dislikes; things that make us happy and things that cause us irritation. Just as some prefer beef or chicken, there are a lot of ways to make, and invest, money in this world as you venture out onto the journey toward financial independence. Consider, for a moment, real estate. Real estate has been around long before stock markets arose. Along with money lending, it is one of the most ancient of traditions. You buy a piece of property that someone else wants to use, you allow them to use it for a predetermined length of time under a series of covenants and social and cultural norms that spell out the specifics of the agreement, and, in exchange, you are paid money, which is referred to as rent. However, among your obligations, you have to make sure the property is kept up to a sufficient degree. If you specialize in residential real estate and a toilet breaks in the middle of the night, you’re getting a telephone call unless you pay a real estate management company to handle those matters for you. Your tenant might develop a drug addiction problem and sell the appliances. He or she might become a hoarder and destroy so much of the property that it is condemned by the city.  That’s the trade-off. Those potential problems are among the costs that you must be willing to suffer if you want to enjoy real estate income. There’s no real way to get around it. It’s life. Personally, I don’t find that appealing. As a result, I’ve tended to focus on private businesses and publicly traded securities, such as common stocks, throughout my career because the trade-offs those involve don’t bother me nearly as much. Were I to ever delve in any meaningful way into real estate investments, it most likely would be commercial real estate due to longer lease agreement terms and the fact I’d be negotiating with corporate clients and not individuals. It better fits with who I am. I’m not saying I’d never consider residential real estate but I’m aware of the trade-offs and it’d take a unique set of circumstances for me to cross that particular Rubicon.
    5. What is your time horizon? Even if a particular asset class or investment fits with your personality, temperament, net worth, liquidity situation, and preferences, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is a good fit given that the time horizon before you will need to tap it for liquidity might not align. For example, let’s say you have a spare $100,000 to put to work but you think you’ll need the money in five years. No matter how attractive the opportunity, if you were given the chance to invest in a great private business that had no projected liquidity event and didn’t pay dividends, it’s probably not wise for you to make the investment as you have a need the investment can’t meet — namely, a return to cash or cash equivalents within 60 months.

    Of course, these are just a few of the things you should be considering but you shouldn’t gloss over them. Get it right in the beginning, make calculated decisions toward your financial objectives, and you’ll find that things tend to be a lot easier.