Why People Lose Money in the Market

And How to Bounce Back When It Happens

A person walking through forest with a bag of money hanging from a stick over his shoulder is oblivious to a bear tearing open the money bag behind him


Jamie Jones / Getty Images

Many new investors have found that soon after buying their first stock, its value drops. It makes for a disappointing introduction to the world of investing. Still, it can also prove to be a valuable wake-up call, inspiring you to learn everything you can about investing in the markets. While investing in financial markets over the long-term is an excellent path to wealth, it’s not unusual to experience occasional losses as investment values go up and down.

Here’s what you need to know about why people lose money in the market—and how you can bounce back from a loss in your portfolio.

Not Understanding Market Cycles

People often lose money in the markets because they don’t understand economic and investment market cycles. Business and economic cycles expand and decline. The boom cycles are fostered by a growing economy, expanding employment, and various other economic factors. As inflation creeps up, prices rise, and GDP growth slows, so too does the stock market decline in value.

Investment markets also rise and fall due to global events. One the first day of trading after 9/11 (Sept 17, 2001), the Dow fell 7.1%, the biggest one-day point loss in the index's history.

If you sold during the week following 9/11, your investments most likely would have lost money.

But if you’d held fast and done nothing after the decline, you would have been rewarded for your steadiness: Within a month of the attacks, the Dow Jones, Nasdaq, and S&P 500 were back to where they were before the attacks.

If you want to avoid losing money during a market-wide drop, your best bet is to sit tight and wait for your investments to rebound.

Letting Emotions Guide Decision-Making

People lose money in the markets because they let their emotions, mainly fear and greed, drive their investing. Behavioral finance—the marriage of behavioral psychology and behavioral economics—explains why investors make poor decisions. Understanding basic behavioral finance concepts and learning to manage your emotions can help you avoid a good deal of losses during your investment lifetime.

For example, following the herd mentality is one of the worst behavioral finance mistakes, and it plays out whenever you follow the investing crowd. Herding in investing occurs when you make investments based on whatever choices "the group" is making, without performing your evaluation of current information.

To avoid losing money in the markets, don’t follow the crowd and don’t buy into overvalued assets. Instead, create a sensible investment plan and follow it.

In the late 1990s, venture capitalists and individual investors were pouring money into internet dot com companies, driving their values sky-high. Most of these companies lacked fundamental financial stability. Investors, afraid of missing out, continued to listen to the popular press and follow the herd with their investment dollars.

A glance at historical S&P 500 stock market returns shows how buying and selling with the herd can damage returns.

Looking to Get Rich Quick

Some people lose money in the markets because they think investing is a get-rich-quick scheme. You can quickly lose your investment dollars by heeding the outrageous claims of penny stock and day-trading strategies.

The most recent Dalbar study of investor behavior found that for 2018, the average investor underperformed the market as a whole for the 25th year in a row (as long as Dalbar has conducted the study). For 2018, the S&P 500 retreated 4.38%, while the average investor lost 9.42%. The reasons are simple. Investors try to outsmart the markets by practicing frequent buying and selling in an attempt to make superior gains. It rarely works.

To avoid losing money in the markets, tune out the outlandish investment pitches and the promises of riches. As in the fable of the Tortoise and the Hare, a “slow and steady” strategy will win out: Avoid the glamorous “can’t miss” pitches and strategies, and instead stick with proven investment approaches for the long term. Though you might lose a bit in the short-term, ultimately, the slow-and-steady approach will win the financial race.

The Balance does not provide tax, investment, or financial services and advice. The information is being presented without consideration of the investment objectives, risk tolerance, or financial circumstances of any specific investor and might not be suitable for all investors. Past performance is not indicative of future results. Investing involves risk, including the possible loss of principal.