The more you look, the more you lose

How many times a day, week, month or year do you check your tax-deferred savings account? Did you know that the more you look, the higher your chances of losing money? For most of us, once a year is more than enough.look and lose

There are clients of mine that check their retirement accounts several times a day. To say they are addicted to doing so would not be an understatement. Some of them are retired and have nothing else to do each day but sit in front of the television watching financial channels. They are usually male, have control issues and have substituted watching TV and their investment accounts for their old job.

The sad facts are that the more you look, the higher the probability that you will see losses in your portfolio. That’s because the markets do little or nothing the vast majority of time each year. And overtime, you can expect the markets to be up or down at least 50% of the time. That means that if you check your accounts every single day, you will be disappointed with your returns at least half the time. Do you really want to live like that?

In addition, a loss will always impact you psychologically worse than a gain. For some people, it can ruin their entire day. What’s more, those feelings of loss are cumulative. The anxiety builds and builds until you just can’t stand another day of losses. So what do you do? Sell, usually at the bottom or close to it.

But it gets worse. You see the largest annual gains in the markets over no more than a couple of days each year. If you are not invested, you miss it. Then the anxiety really builds, because you don’t know when to buy back in. Now you feel like one of those gamblers at a Las Vegas gaming table in the wee hours of the morning, bleary-eyed, hung-over and exhausted but hoping to get back to break-even before they can call it a day.

Various research studies have shown that the more you monitor your portfolio, the riskier you will perceive investing to be. It’s even got a name—myopic loss aversion. It creates an attitude of over-vigilance when viewing short-term losses. And since human behavior is best at avoiding pain in the short run, your natural emotional reaction is to do just that–cut your losses and run..

Behaviorists have studied those who check their portfolio every day versus those who take a peek once a quarter. The daily checker has twice the probability of seeing a moderate loss (2% or more) than those who view their account just once every three months. Those who check often are shown to take the least risk in their portfolios and earn the least amount of money.

Frequent monitoring of your investments also causes your stress level to rise. Those who do, experience the stress felt by most Wall Street traders, which is one of the most stressful jobs in the financial sector. And the older you are (listen up, retirees), the more serious will be the consequences to your health.

At any age, stressed-out brains sound an alarm that release potentially harmful hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline (fear and flight). Ideally, the brain turns down these alarms when stress hormones get too high. That doesn’t happen when you keep trading (or checking your account). Overtime the brain slowly losses its skills at regulating hormone levels. This can cause all kinds of health problems from Alzheimer’s to heart attacks and everything in-between.

So how often should you check your accounts? Ideally, no more than once a year and never during down periods, if you want to stay healthy and happy. If you find that a difficult proposition, re-examine your risk tolerance and adjust your portfolio accordingly until you can accomplish that goal.

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