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Why “average is not normal” — and why most people get this wrong

Ramit Sethi

Tons of people have withdrawn all their money from the stock market because….well, they don’t really know why — it just feels “bad” to keep it in. Logically, we all understand that the stock market’s average return of about 8% is an average — meaning it goes up and down — but when our 401(k) drops 40%, we want to get out immediately. (More about investor psychology.)

When Carl Richards from Behavior Gap, showed me his slideshow below, I loved it. Now, he’s written up a companion guide to illustrate exactly how this applies to you.

Notice the key points that Carl makes below:

  • The stock market’s precipitous drop is catastrophic for anyone who needs to retire on their money now. (Technically, they should have a dramatically reduced exposure to stocks, but most people don’t know what asset allocation is, let alone practice regular rebalancing.)
  • However, if you’re young, the drop in stock prices is a huge advantage to your long-term growth.
  • Too many people make gut-wrenchingly bad decisions because of fear and the irrational belief that they can predict the near-term moves of the stock market. In the short term, anything can happen. By having a longer time horizon, you can mitigate risk and almost certainly predict considerable investment returns. BUT YOU CAN’T TIME THE MARKET, ESPECIALLY IN THE SHORT TERM. FOCUS ON THE LONG TERM!!! I’LL KILL YOU!!! (This is Ramit talking, not Carl)

Ok, on with the presentation.

Since “Average is Not Normal” launched, I have had a lot of very engaging conversations and I want to share some of the insights from those conversations.

To provide some context lets start with the tale of two periods. Below are the annual returns of the S&P 500:

Period 1:

1995: 37.6%
1996: 23.0%
1997: 33.4%
1998: 28.6%
1999: 21.0%

Period 2:

2000: -9.1%
2001: -11.9%
2002: -22.1%
2003: 28.7%
2004: 10.9%

A few thoughts:

1-Imagine if you sold your business in late 1994 and planned on investing the money and living off your investments for the rest of your life. Because of the timing of the sale you start with a huge tail wind. In this case, having a series of way “above average” returns earlier is a huge benefit

2-What if you sold in late ‘99, and your first few years were way “below average.” On top of the market being down dramatically, you are selling to fund your lifestyle. This double whammy can result in a death spiral. On top of the market being down, you have to continue to sell to fund your lifestyle. As this cycle continues, you are taking a larger and larger percentage of your portfolio each year. It only takes a few below average years for this to become a problem.

3-Despite dramatically different results in term of dollars, 20 years later these two time periods could have close to the same 20 year average rate of return.

4-If you are just starting to fund your 401(k), you should hope for the opposite sequence of returns versus your friend who just sold his business. It can be depressing to see your account go down month after month, but for the person still actively saving, you would hope to have “below average” returns early when you don’t have a lot of money at risk.

5-When you are in the accumulation stage, it would be great for the market to be down or at least flat so you can buy more shares “on sale.”

6-There is no such thing as a “good” pattern of returns. What was “bad” for the person who sold his business would be “good” for the person in the early years of funding his 401(k).

7-We have no idea what the sequence of returns is going to be for the next five years.

8-Investing is risky. You could chose an investment that does “great” over a twenty year period, but due to the timing of the above average and below average returns, you could end up broke.

9-Because every person has unique savings and withdrawal goals, real financial planning can not be done as a one-size-fits-all solution.

10-Understanding that average is not normal should result in the realization that real financial planning is a process of setting a course and then making the small course corrections as we deal with the random nature of returns.

* * *

If you liked this article, check out the companion piece at Get Rich Slowly (one of my favorite personal-finance blogs).

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  1. avatar

    I seem to be one of the few excited about the stock market. I have maxed out my IRA and am contributing more now than ever to my 401(k) because it’s on sale! When it goes up, as it will and I am young, I will be glad I kept on buying!

  2. avatar


    First, define long-term.

    Second, read this: “Do shares really always rise?”

    Third, stop talking about stocks – nobody really knows where the market will go, and that includes you. You may have saved a lot of people some money with your little negotiation and credit card tips, but you’re so far out of your league on market issues that you may be reversing all the good you’ve done in other areas.

    You are being irresponsible and foolish. Plus you’re showing your age.

  3. avatar

    Ramit – Just quickly, your link to GRS appears to be incorrect.

  4. avatar
    Writer's Coin

    I was waiting for that choppy chart to zoom out so you could see how insignificant those peaks and valleys are over the long term.

    That’s why I like to use charts as examples, especially the MAX time frame. That’s when all the “small stuff” gets smoothed out and you realize that what happened 20–30 years ago on a year-to-year basis doesn’t really matter.

  5. avatar
    Fabulously Broke

    Great post. All those ups and downs all even out to an average return IN THE END, but not specifically in a certain year.

  6. avatar

    Hi Ramit – I totally agree with what you are saying about taking a long term view and not worrying about short-term changes in the market. I also agree that this *may* be a great opportunity to take advantage of a huge sale and buy buy buy (and I am). But as someone who studied statistics, modern portfolio theory and just read The Black Swan, I’m a bit worried about the future. I think people who are feeling like they want to take all their money out of the market should carefully remember what they are feeling right now (write it down!), and use that to properly adjust their risk tolerance looking forward. If the tolerance (and therefore asset allocation) you’ve chosen depends on “hoping” for some sequence of returns, there is a big problem, and you are in for unhappiness.

  7. avatar
    Silicon Prairie

    I think a few people have looked at the difference in long-term results from investing at a high point vs a low point and found that it’s pretty small. Of course investing is a process and not a single point in time (unless you just received a very large amount of money), so the time when you start may only have a direct impact on a few hundred or thousand dollars.

    Hopefully anyone who just sold their business is acting the same way as someone who just retired after saving for 40 years, and not putting it all into stocks unless they have another source of income over the next 10 years. Then it’s just the usual story; those who are selling want the prices to go up (and when they sell it pushes the prices down) and those who are buying want the prices to go down (and when they buy it pushes the prices up). And those who just want to live off the dividends don’t care what happens to the price.

    Then again most people who are buying want the prices to go up so they can feel good about themselves now instead of later. Even when that makes the rest of their lives harder.

  8. avatar

    Best piece of advice in this post: “Focus on the long term! I’ll kill you!”

    My husband and I are getting our Roth IRAs started this year now that we’ve paid off consumer debt and auto loans. It is a little scary, but I remind myself that we are not retiring anytime soon, and that not investing anything, ever is scarier!

  9. avatar


    I, like you and most of your readers, am relatively young (31). I usually agree with you completely, and I support the analysis that average is not “normal.” However, I think it is risky to simply prescribe the typical long-term buy-and-hold strategy.

    This is the strategy peddled by financial advisors – the same people who would have us conflate “average” and “normal.” The statement “if you are young, then don’t worry about your retirement funds. Buy and hold” has been true our entire lives, since the early 1980s. However, that model may be changing.

    If you look at the average inflation-adjusted returns over a very-long period, our lifetimes have coincided with a major boom ( The swings come in 15 to 20 year periods. This is not a normal recession that we are in; this is the beginning of a fundamental restructuring across all levels of the global economy.

    I cannot say what will happen in the future. I can say, however, that there is a risk that the new model that we will be living with, potentially into our 50s, will be very different from the one that we grew up with. Even if stocks are prices near the long-term trend line today, they have a long way to go over-correcting below. Staying out of the market for a few more years could reserve more capital that could be used to buy at even lower prices in 5 years.

    I don’t advise anyone to time the market at a micro-level, but at the meta-level, we have more pain to come. “Buy and Hold” is what you hear from people shilling financial products. Our generation will need to be more fundamentally flexible in our thinking and not robotic.

    All that being said, the safe thing to do, if someone is a completely inactive investor, is to set your contribution rate and just let it keep buying on the way down. It might not be the BEST deal, but as long as you are young enough it will be a GOOD deal. And everyone should always contribute enough to get the max employer match out of a 401(k), because that’s just claiming your maximum compensation.

    It’s just very frustrating, if you are a somewhat active investor, to put in $100 and then see it shrink to $75 over and over for years on end before it fundamentally turns around. The story is similar to the one I heard about dollar-cost-averaging down. A man made an investment in Bear Stearns last year at the height, convinced it was a strong company. As everything happened, he continues to buy more to lower his average share price as it fell, convinced that the government or the economy would save the company and he’d one day make it all back. He did this down to a price of $1 per share. We all know how that ended…

    This is what can happen if you blindly follow typical financial advice in atypical times.

  10. avatar
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  12. avatar
    Anne Good

    So true that average is anything but average. I remember reading something awhile back saying that most times a single year market return is 1 – 2 standard deviations above/below the average.

    The article also noted that for every time the market returned less than 2.5% for 10 years, the following decade returned an average of over 13%.

    Glad that so many of us have the ability to accumulate these cheap shares now!

  13. avatar

    I’m in agreement with Erik. The recession we are in is not typical and the ‘buy and hold’ mantra may well not hold true.

    Look up “Japan’s Lost Decade” and the failure of Japan’s quantitative easing strategy. Japan’s situation at the beginning of the 90s is similar to the situation we are in today.

    I have greatly reduced my exposure to risk in my 401k because I fear a further downside in the next 2-5 years. I am still buying equities because I am young but I’m only allowing them to make up 10-15% of my portfolio. Even 10-15% makes me nervous. None of the government stimulus policy seems poised to do anything but slow down economic recovery in the best case.

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  17. avatar


    Kick ass post. It’s a fact that company values will continue to increase over the long haul and eventually stock price will follow suit. On a much larger scale “Mr. Market” will eventually reflect the values of the stocks in its pool. In the short-term we will do what are hard wired to do best…react emotionally. In this particular case, pull out our $$$ because it “feels” like the end of the world.

    Too many people have a short-term view and I doubt things will change much (let’s be honest here, us Americans are king of the short-term view. If we can’t have it now, we don’t care). In the meantime I will enjoy the opportunity to acquire shares at fire-sale prices. You won’t see me in 7, 10 or even 15 years flashing a brand new R8 or Versace suit. But you might see me in 30 years on a tropical beach sipping an iced alcoholic beverage.

    All that I care is about point A & Z. (A=My investment, Z=Retirement)

  18. avatar

    Great post, Ramit! I have a quick question if you don’t mind. In your post, you state that “if you’re young, the drop in stock prices is a huge advantage to your long-term growth.” How exactly do you suggest that young people take advantage of this opportunity? If I have extra money in my savings account, would it be a good time to max out on a roth IRA? I understand that it’s good to buy low, but I’m nervous about investing money right now given the fragile state of our economy. Any advice would be much appreciated. Thank you!

  19. avatar
    Ramit Sethi

    It wouldn’t be smart to recommend that you max out your Roth IRA just because the stock market is low. It might go higher, or lower…who knows?

    But it would be very smart to start implementing a regular, ongoing plan of investing at regular intervals. Your 401(k) match first, then (arguably) any debt you have, then max out your Roth IRA, then back to the 401(k). This is the “Hierarchy of investing” I write about in my book in greater detail.

    In general, you want to make sure you’re saving for things you need in the next 5 years, and investing with the money you don’t need until later than that.

    Btw, you’ll see a lot of people who are afraid to invest for many more years, and they’ll miss the best days of investing — which means their returns will suffer dearly. I posted some research on this before, but can’t find it easily right now. The best thing is to be in the market regularly, consistently, regardless of what the timing is. Your lever is the asset allocation: If you’re more conservative, get more bonds (rather than equities).

  20. avatar
    Carl Richards

    Thanks for the feedback. It is great to see some many people engaged in such an important conversation.

    A few points:

    @Writer’s Coin: I have used the zooming out chart in other presentations to highlight the need to stay focused on the long term. This was designed to highlight the need to understand that the timing of returns has an impact on financial planning.

  21. avatar

    Read carefully what Erik had to say. He made a lot of great points.

    We are undergoing the greatest credit contraction ever since the great depression. Our banking system is in shambles, our credit system is not functioning, jobs are being lost an an alarming rate, housing values are still falling, our countries debt levels are out of control, and we are facing many more immediate and long term problems.

    A long term view is good to have but at least think about what would happen if our market contracted another 50%-75% and what effect that would have on your current portfolio….

  22. avatar
    Ramit Sethi

    Chris, if the market contracted 50-75%, how would that change your investing plan?

    What about if the market went up 50-75% (or much more) — how would that change your investing plan?

    Now, what if the market could do either of those, but you just don’t know which?

  23. avatar
    Carl RIchards

    While my point with this post was not intended to be stump speech for the power of dollar cost averaging OR the importance of buying and holding (I did see that Ramit threatened to KILL anyone who doesn’t focus on the long term) it seems that there have been plenty of comments about this topic, so let me share my thoughts on it.

    I assume that anyone reading is:

    1- Follow Ramit’s advice to be super diversified (we call that investing like and adult).
    2-Has gone through some process of financial planning to determine how much you NEED (this is different from how much you can handle) to have in equities.

    If you have done those two now we can talk. Fundamental to the concept of capitalism it the relationship between risk and reward. Over the long haul we get paid for taking compensated risk (see assumption #1). So the question we should be asking is do we still believe that stocks are more risky than bonds and cash, if so then it follows that there will be a premium for owning them (the equity premium).

    It is tempting to say that this time is different. And in fact it is probaly different in some ways, BUT in one important way it is just like every other cycle we have been through, it will end (realize that I did not say we will return to where we were). So the question is does that mean that we will no longer get paid for owning stocks from here?

    Every single time someone has decided that stocks are no longer worth owning, they have been wrong. EVERY TIME. So while it is tempting (and the evidence is mounting) to believe that, the weighty evidence of history tells us otherwise. In light of everything we know it actually seems irrational to believe that this is end of the equity premium.

    However if you do think that it is the end then the correct portfolio would be “guns and butter”.

  24. avatar

    Ramit if that was the scenario and the market could swing that far either way I would want to be long volatility and hedge myself against all market risk and take no direction on equities..

    There is still HUGE risk on either side of the market long or short. If you truly want to take a long term approach to investing you need to take a look at the opportunities in all the asset classes, more than just equities. The name of the game now is wealth preservation.. If you can preserve your wealth in the next 1~2 years there will be HUGE opportunities to be taken advantage of later down the road…

  25. avatar

    I always enjoy the comments that indicate that “this market downturn is different” from all the rest in Wall St’s history. I just don’t buy into that way of thinking. Granted, I haven’t lived through every market downturn. But during my lifetime, the Savings and Loan crisis was “different” than anything previously seen, as was the “Dot.Com bust”, and as is the current crisis. They’re all a little unique, but we’ve also always recovered from them up to this point, too.

    And although our current crisis looks similar to Japan’s economic meltdown in the 80s and 90s, there are many variables at play in Japan’s economy that greatly differ from America’s. It may be comparing apples to apples, but it’s more like comparing Fuji apples to Granny Smith apples.

    One book that’s helped me out tremendously with long-term investing is Benjamin Graham’s “The Intelligent Investor”. I love it because most modern investment books focus on the most recent 30 years of investing; and suggest keeping a diversified mix of stocks or stock funds while you’re young, and then move more conservative by incrementing in bonds or cash positions as you get closer to retirement.

    The Intelligent Investor was originally written in the early 1970s, with the entire Wall St timespan in mind, up to the 1970s. Its focus was more on keeping a healthy mix of stocks and bonds at all times, based on one’s personal gut feeling about risk in the market.

    I originally read that book in 2007. In December 2007, I positioned my 401k into 75% bonds/25% stocks, because I had a gut feeling that market risk at the time was too high. In October 2008, I reevaluated and now have about 85% stocks/15% bonds. My gut feeling now is that market risk has been reduced to a much more comfortable level. So far, the move back into heavy stocks has proven to be a bit preemptive, because the market has dropped a little since Oct 2008, but I’m still much happier buying stocks at current prices as opposed to the price I was happily paying in 2007, and I seriously doubt that the market will lose another 40% from current levels.

  26. avatar

    Chris: taking volatility positions has worked so well historically, too. Just ask John Meriwether!

  27. avatar

    “Buy bonds”? The bond market bubble is soon to bust. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…..

  28. avatar

    The stock market is a suckers game. You are much better finding a guaranteed rate of return, or investing the money in yourself (by starting a business, getting an education, etc.) rather than gambling your life savings on stocks or funds that are out of your control.

    When you have extra money that you could afford to lose completely, then by all means go ahead and play the market. Just be aware that you are gambling, and that history has shown time and time again that the people you are trusting with your money are corrupt. Also keep in mind that it is very hard to recover from a loss: A 50% loss requires a 100% gain just to break even.

    As Warren Buffet says, the secret is to “not lose money”.

  29. avatar
    Ramit Sethi

    Spoken like someone who does not understand the stock market.

    I notice you didn’t mention asset allocation, time horizon, diversification, tolerance for risk, or any of those other pesky things that make up the lion’s share of investment returns. Instead, it’s much easier to call it a “suckers game” [sic], isn’t it?

  30. avatar
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  31. avatar

    Any Opie and Anthony fans out there would have heard them talking about stocks and investing with Duff McKagan – Seattle Weekly columnist, and the bass player for a little band called Guns n Roses. Obviously, they’re not the most credible sources of financial information, nor the smartest people of the bunch. But the one thing that they all shared, and what Doug semi-aluded to, when regarding investing is this: only put in what you can afford to lose. It’s a simple premise that just makes sense. Of course it’s a risk to play the stock market game. But it serves no purpose to micro-monitor the gains and losses from day to day.

    Like Mikey D said in the movie “Rounders” – You can’t lose what you don’t put in the middle, but you can’t win much either.

  32. avatar

    Ramit, I like how you are actually involved in this comment thread. Sometimes I think you let these comments go wild without weighing in. It’s one thing for another poster to rebut someone, but it’s entirely different for your green highlight to show-up. I think it’s very important for you, the owner of the blog, to beat back against some of the scare that shows up here. Your response, “[…] Now, what if the market could do either of those, but you just don’t know which?” was a great rebuttal to chris who only pointed out one side of the coin and didn’t remind everyone that no one can predict the future. He failed to mention it could go _either way_ and that’s what makes investment planning so hard.

    I’m thankful for your (and other sane commenter’s) voice of reason. I hope everyone sees your rebuttal after reading their argument, and that’s why I think the green highlight is so important.

    I hope your book is filled with that sort of perspective.

  33. avatar

    Tyler, you make a great point.. I think its great that Ramit is actually involved in the comments on his blog.

    I agree that there are two sides to the market and its basically unpredictable in the future but you can take one sided positions based on probabilities/risk/and your outlook based upon evidence. All I was pointing out was although markets tend to rebound after periods of negative returns, it does that mean that it will rebound. As you mentioned Tyler markets are inherently unpredictable so there is a possibility that the market will be down for multiple periods to come.

    If that does happen how would you react? are you significantly hedged? do you have amount invested that you can stand to loose? Etc… You inherently can’t assume the markets will go up or down in any direction.

  34. avatar

    Chris, I can see your point that asking questions from different point of views is important to evaluating your own strategy. If you only ever look at the market as getting only better or only worse, you’re putting yourself in a risky position. I guess my point was that since you didn’t point that out in your original post, I was glad Ramit came along and did. This is not to criticize that you didn’t, merely saying that because people come here for direction and read the comments, I think it’s important for Ramit to jump in here and there to give the comments balance.

  35. avatar

    @ Ben, who said: “Buy bonds”? The bond market bubble is soon to bust. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…..
    The bond market is diverse in and of itself. Choosing short-term bonds with decent track records has helped keep my 401k afloat for the past year or so. And as I mentioned previously, I’m now back at about 85% stocks, so if my bonds blow up in my face, it’ll result in just a minimal impact.

    Great thing about personal finance is that it’s personal. I’m actually fairly happy with the results of my 2008 investments, which is a sentiment not shared by many.

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  39. avatar

    I think that your Point # 10 says it all. Constructing an asset allocation that allows for adjustments when various markets have had huge moves outside of the norm. Having had the largest stock market correction since 1931, this would certainly seem like one of those times. There should also be an acceptance that the perfect tops and bottoms will likely be missed, and that buying and selling somewhere in the area of the tops and bottoms is good enough. For example, one may have sold stock holdings in early 1999, not early 2000, and missed the last leg up of that bull market, but in hindsight, that investor would have been wise having missed the nasty correction of the early 2000’s. It comes down to easing into undervalued markets and easing out of overvalued ones, and having the discipline and confidence to be a contrarian at times.

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  41. avatar

    This is one of the reasons I am so bummed about being out of work! I would love to be increasing our contributions right now, but have to focus on covering our minimum expenses with 1 paycheck and desperately trying to not tap our emergency fund.

    Regarding the stock market as a whole, I loved this video as a way to illustrate the ups and downs and have forwarded a link on, especially to my siblings and other young adults I know!

    There is one outcome of a recession/depression that does not get much press. There is a very small chance that our whole free market economy and the government could crash and all money invested in equities and bonds would be gone ( or just devalued to the point that you could barely buy a train ticket with the $500K left in your portfolio).

    I am not an economist or a statistician so I don’t have any numbers to back up this claim and I don’t think this will happen in my lifetime BUT it is the reason to support the claim “don’t invest anything that you can’t afford to lose”. Pay yourself first by setting up an emergency fund, investing in your education and making informed decisions when it comes to your money.

    It’s all we can do.

  42. avatar
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  43. avatar

    This is indeed true – returns are never in a range and it never goes up all the time.

    Part of the solution is may be to monitor the investments & utilize low cost ones like ETFs. There is no single solution for all of us.

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  45. avatar

    When will folks learn that markets, like everything in life, are cyclical?

    There isn’t anything in tomorrow that doesn’t get learned from today.

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  48. avatar
    Muhammad Jamil

    Very Nice tips.