A 15-minute conversation that changed the trajectory of my personal finances

About 40 years ago I overheard a friend talking about mutual funds. I had never heard the term so I asked him to explain.  A few days later he spent 15 minutes explaining to me that mutual funds are an investment tool, a strategy for developing longterm wealth through the stock market. I immediately opened an account with Fidelity and have contributed to it for the last 40 years. I started investing in mutual funds when the U.S. stock market was at 1,156 (NYSE Composite); on June 12, 2024 it was at 18,005.

There are several ways to invest in the stock market.

      1. You can choose and buy individual stocks. The New York Stock Exchange currently represents around 2,800 companies. You can try to guess which stocks are going to go up and buy those, and sell stocks when you think they’re going down. In this scenario you’re trusting yourself to make wise decisions.
      2. You can buy mutual funds. A mutual fund is an account managed by professional investors who choose a group of stocks to buy using funds from many investors. In this scenario you’re trusting financial advisors to make wise decisions
      3. You can invest in index funds which passively invest in a benchmark index. For instance you can purchase an index fund that invests exclusively in the S&P 500 (which tracks the stock performance of 500 of the largest companies  in the United States), or the Russell 3000 (which tracks the entire U.S. stock market), or other types of index funds. In this scenario you’re simply investing in large parts of the market, perhaps the entire market. No one is guessing which stocks will go up and which will go down. You’re just riding the entire market.

Many research projects confirm that you should buy index funds. There are many reasons why index funds are so effective.

      1. Though in the short-term the U.S. stock market goes up and down, the longterm trajectory is always up. In the past 50 years (1974-2023) the market has increased an average of 11.1% annually. (Adjusted for inflation, the return is 7.26%)
      2. It’s very difficult for an individual to successfully pick and choose stocks that will outperform the total market. And professional investment firms aren’t much better. 
      3. Most broad index funds have a low expense ratio (as low as 0.015%).
      4. Index firms increase diversification. Instead of just investing in one segment of the market (travel industry, health care, technology, auto industry), you invest in all areas of the economy.

Every month put money in a broad index fund and forget about it. Don’t sell when you think the market is going down. Just stick with it for decades until you retire and then sell shares as needed.

You may ask: I’m currently not invested in the stock market. When is the best time to start? The answer is the same as if someone ask “When is the best time to plant a tree?” Answer: “Forty years ago. Or, today.” 

Here are some index funds to consider.

Best total stock market index funds

      • Fidelity Zero Total Market Index Fund (FZROX).
      • Fidelity Total Market Index Fund (FSKAX).
      • Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund Admiral Shares (VTSAX).
      • Schwab Total Stock Market Index Fund (SWTSX).
      • Schwab 1000 Index Fund (SNXFX).
      • T. Rowe Price Total Equity Market Index Fund (POMIX).

[Disclaimer: I am not a financial advisor. Before making any decisions regarding your personal finances you should consult with an attorney, Certified Financial Planner, or qualified accountant.]

Walk a mile in someone’s shoes.

We’ve all heard the old adage, “Don’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.” It’s sound advice, so let’s talk about how to take that walk.  (I’ll not comment on Billy Connolly’s humorous take on this phrase: “Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes. After that who cares? He’s a mile away and you’ve got his shoes!”)

It’s very difficult to imagine what it’s like to experience life through another person’s viewpoint. What is it like…

      • To be a person of color in a predominately white society?
      • To have a handicap that makes mobility difficult?
      • To have been raised in foster homes?
      • To be the child of a famous person?
      • To be a single mother with three small children?

The English novelist Zadie Smith wrote that when she was a girl, she was constantly imagining what it would be like to grow up in the homes of her friends. “I rarely entered a friend’s home without wondering what it might be like to never leave. That is, what it would be like to be Polish or Ghanaian or Irish or Bengali, to be richer or poorer, to say these prayers or hold those politics. Above all, I wondered what it would be like to believe the sorts of things I didn’t believe.”

While it may be difficult to view life from someone else’s perspective, it’s not impossible, and we must try. It’s the key prerequisite for developing empathy and an essential element of intimate relationships.

For a moment, think of someone you know whose life is quite different from yours. I’m thinking of the man who has done our yard work for the past 25 years. I’ve watched him raise his three sons who have helped their father do hard work. Bardo and his family are faithful, good workers who work many hours a day mowing and trimming lawns.

Now close your eyes and think about what the person’s life might be like—his fears, joys, insecurities, aspirations, dreams. Has Bardo saved for retirement? Does he have a hobby that offers a break from mundane, tedious work? How is he paying for his sons’ college education? Does he stay in touch with family in Mexico? What’s more difficult for him: working in the severe heat of summer or the cold of winter? Who fixes his truck when it breaks down?

As a result of spending a few minutes thinking about what it’s like to be Bardo, I’m more empathetic toward him and curious to know more about his story. In the coming weeks, I’m going to take the time to engage more with him.

Why do I often tell my 7-month old granddaughter “I love you” but seldom say that to the significant adults in my life?

My church is having a four-week emphasis on Love like Jesus. On the first Sunday, Pastor Chuck began his exposition of 1 Corinthians 13 and in his message he encouraged everyone to speak often to those you care about, these three magical words: “I love you.”

Our nine-year-old grandson, Ben, was sitting with us in the service playing Hangman and Tic-tac-toe. I assumed he didn’t pay much attention to the sermon, but several times that evening he approached Mary and me and said, “I love you.” From the day he was born I have often affirmed my love for him by saying that phrase.

Our 7-month old granddaughter, Claire, and her mother live with us. Many times a day I tell her I love her. She doesn’t understand what I’m saying, though I suspect that she picks up on the tender emotions of the moment.

I’m wondering: why do I often say “I love you” to my grandchildren but don’t say it to adults. Other than to my wife, it’s been a long time since I’ve spoken these live-giving words to someone over the age of 10. Why is that?

I could blame it on my family of origin—I can’t remember my father ever speaking those words to me—but that’s a flimsy excuse. I could blame it on our culture—“real men” don’t do that, or on acceptable norms—it seems odd for adults to say that to one another—but the guiding principle should be: the Bible tells us to love one another and that should include verbally expressing our love to one another. 

I’m going to change.




You can tell a lot about someone by observing how they treat people whom they don’t have to be kind to. 

I’ve read that when you’re interviewing someone for a job, it helps to have a meal with them in a public restaurant because then you can observe how the interviewee treats the waitstaff. You can also tell a lot about someone by observing how they treat the custodial staff at the office, or those who are low on the org. chart. You can tell a lot about someone by observing how he treats people whom he doesn’t have to be kind to. It provides a subtle but accurate glimpse into how the person values people and how he is likely to treat them. 

Much of what I write about in these posts is autobiographical—not just things I’m thinking about but issues that I struggle with. I take these lessons/suggestions personal. So I’ve been asking myself: am I kind and considerate to people who are “unseen”?

Kindness should be blind, unconditional, and indiscriminate. When we demonstrate kindness to those who are least expecting it, the impact can be profound. The following story speaks of the power of a random act of kindness.  

The African bishop, Desmond Tutu, was once asked why he became an Anglican rather than joining some other denomination. He replied that in the days of apartheid, when a black person and a white person met while walking on a footpath, the black person was expected to step into the gutter to allow the white person to pass and then nod his head as a gesture of respect.

“One day,” Tutu said, “when I was just a little boy, my mother and I were walking down the street when a tall, white man, dressed in a black suit, came toward us. Before my mother and I could step off the sidewalk, as was expected of us, this man stepped off the sidewalk and, as my mother and I passed, tipped his hat in a gesture of respect to her. I was more than surprised at what had happened, and I asked my mother, ‘Why did that white man do that?’ My mother explained, ‘He’s an Anglican priest. He’s a man of God, that’s why he did it.’ When she told me that he was an Anglican priest, I decided there and then that I wanted to be an Anglican priest too. And what is more, I wanted to be a man of God.”

Bishop Desmond Tutu was one of the key contributors to the abolishment of apartheid in South Africa.