Welcome to NinetoFI! I’m John – loving father and husband, professional engineer and manager, and ceaseless financial tinkerer. I created this website as a way to help people avoid some of the money mistakes I made, and to explore the best ways to speed up your path to FI – Financial Independence.

 

In this post, I want to give you a real high-level view of these money mistakes, my personal investing journey. I feel a bit like the prodigal son, straying away from his father and squandering his time, talent, and treasures. Only to return again. So let’s begin!

 

Getting off to a good start

Luckily, I have always been a frugal kid and generally good around money. I tried to save a portion of every dollar I made. I also loved math in school and did well, so I got a full ride scholarship to study engineering in college. With a bit of help from my parents (THANK YOU!) and several side jobs through college, I came out on the other side debt free and with a great starting job paying ~$70k per year.

 

My wife also got a great job, and we decided to save her entire paycheck. This was one of the smartest moves we could have done as a new couple. We prepared ourselves for the likely future of living on one salary when we decided to have children.

 

Combining our frugal nature, good earning jobs, and great savings habits, we started building up a little nest egg. Here’s where the mistakes started.

 

Once you earn money… what are you supposed to do with it?

I didn’t know about IRA’s or 401k’s. It was something I never heard of from my parents. And I was ignorant of the stock market. All our money was saved in cash, right in the middle of one of the greatest bull market we’ve ever seen.

It wasn’t until we got pregnant with our first child that I started reading about investing, and thinking more deeply about our financial future.

I started out with The Little Book of Common Sense Investing by John Bogle.

In hindsight, I could have been done with my journey there. But it was only beginning.

Bogle spoke of “average” returns, and that it was a fool’s errand to attempt to replicate the great investors of our time by picking great stocks.

But here I am, a young twenty-something hot shot, hearing advice to be satisfied with “average!” How dare John Bogle sentence me to anything average in life. I didn’t get to where I am by being average!

The ego is a hard thing to master.

So I quickly dismissed index investing as lazy and sub-optimal. And the prodigal son collects his inheritance and leaves for Sodom…

Younger me

 

Enter the world of active investing…

After walking away from index investing, I moved on to watching CNBC, specifically Jim Cramer.

 

 

I never quite understood what he was talking about, but he was mildly entertaining. And every week he would have a segment where he would bring a “technician” on the show to discuss the chart patterns of a popular company, and this guy would make all sorts of predictions based on the head and shoulder patterns or how the RSI indicator was telling.

Like so many before me, I was intrigued by what this guy would talk about. Support, resistance – it sounded like he was playing some war game, bringing in a level of strategy that made stock market investing out as more of a strategy game that could be won if you just found the right pattern in the charts.

 

Several months and thousands of charts later, I realized that I was no more investing than some lady on the side of the road was foretelling the future by reading my tea leaves.

 

After technical analysis came momentum investing – specifically dual momentum and tactical asset allocation. Again – incredible marketing machines with these names. A few thousand dollars later and a similar conclusion, it was time to find the next best investing method.

 

I “graduated” to fundamental analysis, diving into stock screeners, millions of lines in excel looking for just the right combination of value, size, momentum, and quality factors to create my own factor zoo.

After about a year of investing in this way – I actually had great success. But again, the flaws became apparent over time. For one, Unit risk became a scary thing. Some of the companies that my screeners identified got slashed in half. I guess their valuations were low for a reason. Others had rumors of mergers and acquisitions. These stressful situations turned into gambles that I had to choose between. When each individual stock makes up 5% of your portfolio, you really feel the sting when something goes against you.

And I did not adopt the style of fundamental investing of Warren Buffett – I didn’t know these companies dearly to be able to kid myself into providing my own evaluation of their worth.

I took more from the book of “What Works on Wall Street,” where I relied solely on the ranking of a multitude of factors to determine a basket of ~30 stocks that in aggregate showed very attractive qualities, and should make a good long term investment.

This information was backed up by the “Magic Formula” book (…ugh will the marketing ever stop?) where Joel Greenblatt showcased in a very logical fashion how purchasing great businesses (quality) at good prices (value) outperformed the market by incredible sums when compounded over time.

Even IF this philosophy could be taken at face value (which we can’t, why would he be selling this book for $20 for a strategy that would make you a millionaire in just a few short years?), the philosophy would not have fared well in the Nine to FI household. My beautiful Mrs. Nine to FI is a wonderful wife, mother, and all-round kick ass gal, but she is an extremely conservative investor. The idea of me dumping our life savings into 30 companies I didn’t know simply because of the rank score of a few numbers on balance sheets… yeah, not working in this home.

And while the phrase “Maybe it’s different this time,” while it is terribly over used and rarely true, I feel has merit when it comes to fundamental analysis.

In the 50’s and 60’s, the pace of technological change just wasn’t what it is today.  Take this scientific graph from contrarian-investor.com:

Exponential growth is certainly upon us. The origins of fundamental investing came from the days of Ben Graham, where the 5  year growth curves could be rather reliable as an indicator of the next year or five of that same company.

Let’s fast forward to today. Netflix, Amazon, Uber, Blockbuster, Sears, Ford.

What’s going on here? Industry disruption. Companies that start in basements or in dorm rooms coming out of no where and putting companies out of business before they even knows what hit them.

No 5 year EPS growth % is going to predict a Netflix. No P/S ratio is going to be prepared for when Uber hits the scene and takes a toll on new car sales across the country.

Looking at the graph, by my guess, this trend isn’t going to reverse any time soon. The world of exponential growth is upon us, and it will be continuing.

I see fundamental analysis, as fundamentally flawed. I can’t trust a business’s past metrics any more than I can trust a pattern on a technician’s chart.

And then things got nutty

Enter peer to peer lending through both Prosper and Lending Club. I mean, if you’re going to go, go all out, right?

After a two year test period (yes, I know it is not statistically significant, but it gave me enough time to observe and make my own decisions), I determined that I would much rather own the debt of a fortune 500 company or the US government, who intends to use the proceeds to expand their infrastructure, create new profit centers, increase the minimum wage for their citizens or employees….

What I was not okay with was lending money out to help pay for some guy’s new motorcycle purchase, or nice new deck on his back porch.

At first, I saw this industry as being a disruptor to the banks, and maybe it will be. But in the two years of my investing, I saw more notes get charged off (defaulted against) than I saw get fully paid.

And this was in the middle of a great bull market. If these customers couldn’t make their payments when times were good, I don’t want to see what a downturn looks like.

After my foray into peer to peer lending, I took some “play money” and testing my hand at trading derivatives…

Yep, I really wanted to exhaust all investing strategies.

The statistical nature and active style of trading was alluring to the engineer inside of me. And I may still be trading using the new Tastyworks platform – but I wanted to have a life outside the markets.

I found myself consumed. My day job performance began to slip. I grew obsessed with each tick as it brought wild swings to my portfolio.

I would rush home at 3:30pm and run right passed my wife and children with their outstretched arms just so I could tuck into my home office and make some closing trades before the bell, or just to watch the markets some more.

I couldn’t spend my precious time ignoring those I love, and I knew myself enough to know that the stress of the required activity to make an honest pass at trading would just be too much, especially for someone seeking FI…

Eventually, it was time for the prodigal son to return home

 

So after years of wandering through the many worlds of investing, I became clear of a few important lessons:

  1. Things that sound too good to be true often are
  2. Everyone is out there to make money – understand the motives behind any strategy before you put your hard earned money into it.
  3. Simplicity > complexity when it comes to many things in life, Especially so in finance and investing.
  4. I would rather spend my time trying to help others and spend quality time with my family and friends around me than attempt to be the one who is able to outperform the market for ears on end. There is so much more value and fulfillment to be found through building amazing businesses and enjoying the fruits that life has to offer.

 

As a result of these lessons, I decided that I would return to the simple path to wealth, and spend the time and energy that I was saving to start this blog.

At NinetoFI, I want to help empower all those who are struggling with a similar path. Those who don’t need the flashy cars, but desire freedom. Those that have been attracted to the siren song of active stock picking, but haven’t found success yet.

I want to focus on the wealth building ways that we truly can control. Taxes, Fees, exploitable programs that we can control, and reasonable frugality. These are concrete methods to improve our bottom lines and create the life we want for ourselves and our families.

Let’s build it together. Thanks for stopping by!

John