Sometimes the decision doesn’t matter

I’m an unabashed coffee addict. I’ve had at least one cup of coffee every morning for the last 15 years, except for a few months where I couldn’t have it because of a health issue.

This morning I was making my morning coffee per usual, a 2-cup french press. As it percolates, I like to get my mug out and put milk in it so that I’m ready to push down the plunger and pour a cup as soon as it’s ready.

This morning when I went into the refrigerator, I saw two open cartons of milk. We had one here at home, and apparently we brought down the one we had at our ski apartment up in the mountains.

One has an expiration date of late January, the other mid-February. Turns out when you buy organic milk, it lasts a long time!

I found myself weighing the decision about which one to use. The one that expires later had been opened sooner and was more empty, while the one that expires sooner was almost full.

Let me be clear – I found myself debating which carton to use a quarter cup of milk from, when neither expires for at least another month and will both be used by their expiration date.

In a moment of lucidity I realized the absurdity of spending any mental revolutions at all on the decision.

So I grabbed the more-empty-but-expires-later one, poured some into my mug, and kept going with my day.

It’s a silly anecdote maybe, but the realization that I was spending time and energy on such a meaningless decision made me wonder how often we do that with a lot of other things in life.

  • Should I get the red one or the blue one? Well, which one do you prefer?
  • Should I read this book or that one? Well, which one are you in the mood for?
  • Should I use a robo-advisor or handle investing myself? Are you even investing anything at all?

We ask these little questions all the time and spend time on them, when really what matters is that we take action of some sort. Any sort.

Reality is, when you know where you’re going and have the bigger picture of why you do things then you realize that these little decisions just don’t matter as much as we think they do.

Sure, it’s worth thinking about how to maximize your investment returns. But once you’ve made the decision to start investing and set the habit of doing it (ideally through automatic investing/transfers so you don’t have a choice in the matter), you start asking better questions instead of ones that have no marginal gain.

Instead of asking if you should use a savings account that gives a .1% return instead of a .09% return (the difference between these two with a $100,000 initial investment is literally $10.01, and you’re losing money to inflation on both of those), simply knowing that the stock market on average for the last 50 years returns 9.69% before inflation and 5.38% after inflation annually tells you that you hold long term investments in the stock market instead of in a savings account.

To put things into even more perspective, $100,000 invested in the stock market with no additional added will make you $551.40 more in the stock market than in that savings account. Over 30 years, you’ll make $1,683.70 more. And if you invest just $100 a month additionally, you’ll make $37,977.56. Wow.

So first you had to answer the first question that matters – should I invest my money?

Then you had to ask the second question – should I put my money in the stock market or a savings account at my bank? 

Now you can ask the third question – what’s the best way to invest my money to achieve my long term goals?

As Ramit says, “ask $30,000 questions not $3 questions.”

Eventually, you’ll see that those small questions are not worth spending time or energy on.

It does not matter which milk carton I choose to pour milk from. I’ve made decisions that have made it easy for me to have two opened cartons of milk in the refrigerator and I don’t have to think about which one I should use first.

We’ll use both.

Ask the questions that matter first, and then if you care about the details you can sweat those.

Personally, I’d rather just get to drinking my coffee.

With milk.

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