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The Psychology of Money

The Psychology of Money

Timeless Lessons on Wealth, Greed, and Happiness

Morgan Housel

Summary in 100 words or less

Money decisions are rarely rational and almost always emotional. That said, doing well with money has more to do with our behavior than our intelligence. Instead of a specific case study, you’ll get closer to actionable takeaways by looking for broad patterns of success and failure. Rich is a current income; wealth is financial assets that haven't yet been converted into the stuff you see. The hardest financial skill is to have enough—so master it early. To build wealth, focus on what you can control: Increase your saving rate and the time horizon of you stay invested.

Commentary

My Highlights

Doing well with money has a little to do with how smart you are and a lot to do with how you behave. And behavior is hard to teach, even to really smart people.

People do some crazy things with money. But no one is crazy.

Your personal experiences with money make up maybe 0.00000001% of what’s happened in the world, but maybe 80% of how you think the world works. So equally smart people can disagree about how and why recessions happen, how you should invest your money, what you should prioritize, how much risk you should take, and so on.

Few people make financial decisions purely with a spreadsheet. They make them at the dinner table, or in a company meeting. Places where personal history, your own unique view of the world, ego, pride, marketing, and odd incentives are scrambled together into a narrative that works for you.

The entire concept of being entitled to retirement is, at most, two generations old. Before World War II most Americans worked until they died. That was the expectation and the reality. The labor force participation rate of men age 65 and over was above 50% until the 1940s.

Luck and risk are both the reality that every outcome in life is guided by forces other than individual effort. They are so similar that you can’t believe in one without equally respecting the other. They both happen because the world is too complex to allow 100% of your actions to dictate 100% of your outcomes. They are driven by the same thing: You are one person in a game with seven billion other people and infinite moving parts. The accidental impact of actions outside of your control can be more consequential than the ones you consciously take.

If you give luck and risk their proper respect, you realize that when judging people’s financial success—both your own and others’—it’s never as good or as bad as it seems.

When judging others, attributing success to luck makes you look jealous and mean, even if we know it exists. And when judging yourself, attributing success to luck can be too demoralizing to accept.

Be careful who you praise and admire. Be careful who you look down upon and wish to avoid becoming. Or, just be careful when assuming that 100% of outcomes can be attributed to effort and decisions.

Realize that not all success is due to hard work, and not all poverty is due to laziness. Keep this in mind when judging people, including yourself.

Focus less on specific individuals and case studies and more on broad patterns.

Studying a specific person can be dangerous because we tend to study extreme examples—the billionaires, the CEOs, or the massive failures that dominate the news—and extreme examples are often the least applicable to other situations, given their complexity. The more extreme the outcome, the less likely you can apply its lessons to your own life, because the more likely the outcome was influenced by extreme ends of luck or risk.

You’ll get closer to actionable takeaways by looking for broad patterns of success and failure. The more common the pattern, the more applicable it might be to your life.

The trick when dealing with failure is arranging your financial life in a way that a bad investment here and a missed financial goal there won’t wipe you out so you can keep playing until the odds fall in your favor. But more important is that as much as we recognize the role of luck in success, the role of risk means we should forgive ourselves and leave room for understanding when judging failures.

To make money they didn’t have and didn’t need, they risked what they did have and did need. And that’s foolish. It is just plain foolish. —Warren Buffett

The hardest financial skill is getting the goalpost to stop moving.

If expectations rise with results there is no logic in striving for more because you’ll feel the same after putting in extra effort. It gets dangerous when the taste of having more—more money, more power, more prestige—increases ambition faster than satisfaction. In that case one step forward pushes the goalpost two steps ahead. You feel as if you’re falling behind, and the only way to catch up is to take greater and greater amounts of risk.

Modern capitalism is a pro at two things: generating wealth and generating envy.

The ceiling of social comparison is so high that virtually no one will ever hit it. Which means it’s a battle that can never be won, or that the only way to win is to not fight to begin with—to accept that you might have enough, even if it’s less than those around you.

Reputation is invaluable. Freedom and independence are invaluable. Family and friends are invaluable. Being loved by those who you want to love you is invaluable. Happiness is invaluable. And your best shot at keeping these things is knowing when it’s time to stop taking risks that might harm them. Knowing when you have enough.

Good investing isn’t necessarily about earning the highest returns, because the highest returns tend to be one-off hits that can’t be repeated. It’s about earning pretty good returns that you can stick with and which can be repeated for the longest period of time. That’s when compounding runs wild.

Getting money requires taking risks, being optimistic, and putting yourself out there. But keeping money requires the opposite of taking risk. It requires humility, and fear that what you’ve made can be taken away from you just as fast. It requires frugality and an acceptance that at least some of what you’ve made is attributable to luck, so past success can’t be relied upon to repeat indefinitely.

More than I want big returns, I want to be financially unbreakable. And if I’m unbreakable I actually think I’ll get the biggest returns, because I’ll be able to stick around long enough for compounding to work wonders.

Many bets fail not because they were wrong, but because they were mostly right in a situation that required things to be exactly right. Room for error—often called margin of safety—is one of the most under-appreciated forces in finance. It comes in many forms: A frugal budget, flexible thinking, and a loose timeline—anything that lets you live happily with a range of outcomes.

Sensible optimism is a belief that the odds are in your favor, and over time things will balance out to a good outcome even if what happens in between is filled with misery. And in fact you know it will be filled with misery. You can be optimistic that the long-term growth trajectory is up and to the right, but equally sure that the road between now and then is filled with landmines, and always will be. Those two things are not mutually exclusive.

A mindset that can be paranoid and optimistic at the same time is hard to maintain, because seeing things as black or white takes less effort than accepting nuance. But you need short-term paranoia to keep you alive long enough to exploit long-term optimism.

A good definition of an investing genius is the man or woman who can do the average thing when all those around them are going crazy.

When we pay special attention to a role model’s successes we overlook that their gains came from a small percent of their actions. That makes our own failures, losses, and setbacks feel like we’re doing something wrong. But it’s possible we are wrong, or just sort of right, just as often as the masters are. They may have been more right when they were right, but they could have been wrong just as often as you.

“It’s not whether you’re right or wrong that’s important,” George Soros once said, “but how much money you make when you’re right and how much you lose when you’re wrong.” You can be wrong half the time and still make a fortune.

The highest form of wealth is the ability to wake up every morning and say, “I can do whatever I want today.” The ability to do what you want, when you want, with who you want, for as long as you want, is priceless. It is the highest dividend money pays.

Money’s greatest intrinsic value—and this can’t be overstated—is its ability to give you control over your time. To obtain, bit by bit, a level of independence and autonomy that comes from unspent assets that give you greater control over what you can do and when you can do it.

It’s a subtle recognition that people generally aspire to be respected and admired by others, and using money to buy fancy things may bring less of it than you imagine. If respect and admiration are your goal, be careful how you seek it. Humility, kindness, and empathy will bring you more respect than horsepower ever will.

Wealth is the nice cars not purchased. The diamonds not bought. The watches not worn, the clothes forgone and the first-class upgrade declined. Wealth is financial assets that haven’t yet been converted into the stuff you see.

Rich is a current income. Someone driving a $100,000 car is almost certainly rich, because even if they purchased the car with debt you need a certain level of income to afford the monthly payment. But wealth is hidden. It’s income not spent. Wealth is an option not yet taken to buy something later. Its value lies in offering you options, flexibility, and growth to one day purchase more stuff than you could right now.

Learning to be happy with less money creates a gap between what you have and what you want—similar to the gap you get from growing your paycheck, but easier and more in your control. A high savings rate means having lower expenses than you otherwise could, and having lower expenses means your savings go farther than they would if you spent more.

Savings can be created by spending less. You can spend less if you desire less. And you will desire less if you care less about what others think of you.

Saving does not require a goal of purchasing something specific. You can save just for saving’s sake. And indeed you should. Everyone should.

In a world where intelligence is hyper-competitive and many previous technical skills have become automated, competitive advantages tilt toward nuanced and soft skills—like communication, empathy, and, perhaps most of all, flexibility. If you have flexibility you can wait for good opportunities, both in your career and for your investments. You’ll have a better chance of being able to learn a new skill when it’s necessary. You’ll feel less urgency to chase competitors who can do things you can’t, and have more leeway to find your passion and your niche at your own pace. You can find a new routine, a slower pace, and think about life with a different set of assumptions. The ability to do those things when most others can’t is one of the few things that will set you apart in a world where intelligence is no longer a sustainable advantage.

Day trading and picking individual stocks is not rational for most investors—the odds are heavily against your success. But they’re both reasonable in small amounts if they scratch an itch hard enough to leave the rest of your more diversified investments alone.

A trap many investors fall into is what I call “historians as prophets” fallacy: An over-reliance on past data as a signal to future conditions in a field where innovation and change are the lifeblood of progress.

An interesting quirk of investing history is that the further back you look, the more likely you are to be examining a world that no longer applies to today.

The further back in history you look, the more general your takeaways should be. General things like people’s relationship to greed and fear, how they behave under stress, and how they respond to incentives tend to be stable in time. The history of money is useful for that kind of stuff. But specific trends, specific trades, specific sectors, specific causal relationships about markets, and what people should do with their money are always an example of evolution in progress. Historians are not prophets.

The idea is that you have to take risk to get ahead, but no risk that can wipe you out is ever worth taking.

You can plan for every risk except the things that are too crazy to cross your mind. And those crazy things can do the most harm, because they happen more often than you think and you have no plan for how to deal with them. Avoiding these kinds of unknown risks is, almost by definition, impossible. You can’t prepare for what you can’t envision. If there’s one way to guard against their damage, it’s avoiding single points of failure.

A good rule of thumb for a lot of things in life is that everything that can break will eventually break. So if many things rely on one thing working, and that thing breaks, you are counting the days to catastrophe. That’s a single point of failure.

The biggest single point of failure with money is a sole reliance on a paycheck to fund short-term spending needs, with no savings to create a gap between what you think your expenses are and what they might be in the future.

Many of us evolve so much over a lifetime that we don’t want to keep doing the same thing for decades on end. Or anything close to it. So rather than one 80-something-year lifespan, our money has perhaps four distinct 20-year blocks.

We should avoid the extreme ends of financial planning. Assuming you’ll be happy with a very low income, or choosing to work endless hours in pursuit of a high one, increases the odds that you’ll one day find yourself at a point of regret.

Sunk costs—anchoring decisions to past efforts that can’t be refunded—are a devil in a world where people change over time. They make our future selves prisoners to our past, different, selves. It’s the equivalent of a stranger making major life decisions for you.

Bubbles do their damage when long-term investors playing one game start taking their cues from those short-term traders playing another.

There are two topics that will affect your life whether you are interested in them or not: money and health. While health issues tend to be individual, money issues are more systemic. In a connected system where one person’s decisions can affect everyone else, it’s understandable why financial risks gain a spotlight and capture attention in a way few other topics can.

Growth is driven by compounding, which always takes time. Destruction is driven by single points of failure, which can happen in seconds, and loss of confidence, which can happen in an instant.

In investing you must identify the price of success—volatility and loss amid the long backdrop of growth—and be willing to pay it.

When we think about the growth of economies, businesses, investments and careers, we tend to think about tangible things—how much stuff do we have and what are we capable of? But stories are, by far, the most powerful force in the economy. They are the fuel that can let the tangible parts of the economy work, or the brake that holds our capabilities back.

The more you want something to be true, the more likely you are to believe a story that overestimates the odds of it being true.

It seems crazy. But if you desperately need a solution and a good one isn’t known or readily available to you, the path of least resistance is toward Hajaji’s reasoning: willing to believe anything. Not just try anything, but believe it.

Hindsight, the ability to explain the past, gives us the illusion that the world is understandable. It gives us the illusion that the world makes sense, even when it doesn’t make sense. That’s a big deal in producing mistakes in many fields.

Coming to terms with how much you don’t know means coming to terms with how much of what happens in the world is out of your control. And that can be hard to accept.

If you want to do better as an investor, the single most powerful thing you can do is increase your time horizon. Use money to gain control over your time, because not having control of your time is such a powerful and universal drag on happiness.

You should like risk because it pays off over time. But you should be paranoid of ruinous risk because it prevents you from taking future risks that will pay off over time.

Define the game you’re playing, and make sure your actions are not being influenced by people playing a different game.

Achieving some level of independence does not rely on earning a doctor’s income. It’s mostly a matter of keeping your expectations in check and living below your means. Independence, at any income level, is driven by your savings rate. And past a certain level of income your savings rate is driven by your ability to keep your lifestyle expectations from running away.

True success is exiting some rat race to modulate one’s activities for peace of mind. —Nassim Taleb

If you can meet all your goals without having to take the added risk that comes from trying to outperform the market, then what’s the point of even trying? I can afford to not be the greatest investor in the world, but I can’t afford to be a bad one. When I think of it that way, the choice to buy the index and hold on is a no-brainer for us.

My investing strategy doesn’t rely on picking the right sector, or timing the next recession. It relies on a high savings rate, patience, and optimism that the global economy will create value over the next several decades. I spend virtually all of my investing effort thinking about those three things—especially the first two, which I can control.

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