Ross Levin: Fortune can smile, but don't let luck replace strategy

  • Updated: January 25, 2014 - 2:00 PM

When I was 23, I went to the bank and borrowed $2,000 to receive a lifetime membership to a south Minneapolis health club. I would never have to pay monthly dues. After pretty regularly getting there two to three times a week for more than 30 years, it has turned out to be the best investment I ever made. While it is easy to look at the success of this now, I wish I could say that I knew what I was doing, but I simply got lucky.

When we are making financial choices, we tend to only look at the results. Over time, pleasant memories expand and we skew toward overconfidence, so we think we made better choices than we really did.

My lifetime membership has probably paid for itself 20 times over. I retired my loan in three years and never again have had a health club payment. But there were a number of things that I never considered. When I joined, the club appeared to be on the brink of insolvency; if they had gone out of business, my money was lost. We might have moved away.

In “Mastermind, How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes,’’ Maria Konnikova writes: “We believe what we want to see and … encode that belief instead of the facts in our brains, and then think that we saw an objective fact when really what we remember seeing is only our limited perception at the time.”

One of our clients was contemplating a move out of state for tax reasons. They could visualize the warm climate and use the tax savings to support a mortgage. It was more difficult to envision how things would change. Their community would be vastly different. The various causes in which they had been involved would change. As they planned for their move, they would inevitably feel less loyalty to their current state. In order to justify the move, they would keep trying to find what was wrong with Minnesota, making their time here less pleasurable. Things we may take for granted here — health care, green space, education — may be less available.

There is no doubt that Minnesota’s tax environment (especially for estates) makes other places more economically attractive. But in order to come to the best decision around this topic, the objective needs to be broadened from saving taxes to true quality of life. The ultimate conclusion may be the same, but far more should be considered in the decision­making process.

One of our clients is interested in leaving money to a small nonprofit when they pass away. The charity is run by a dedicated founder and supports an area about which our client is quite passionate. But what if, after our client’s passing, the leader leaves, or the nonprofit changes its focus, or runs into trouble? The challenge is to develop ways they can support the cause without giving the charity too much at once. For instance, the clients could sit down with the charity and develop a game plan together. They could look at funding a community foundation and express their intent to fund particular areas of interest. They could have their children serve as successor advisers to the fund.

Money can create opportunities, but it can also create problems. Without fully exploring the impact that their gift may have, they could be jeopardizing a cause they wish to support.

I may not have made the same decision about the health club if I had better analyzed it. But luck shouldn’t replace strategy.

Spend your life wisely.

Ross Levin is the founding principal of Accredited Investors Inc. in Edina. His Gains & Losses column appears on the last Sunday of the month. His e-mail is ross@accredited.com.

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