How much optimization should you do?

It’s tempting, of course, to say “as much as possible”. Optimization comes with costs, though. Time, if nothing else. And, for me, it often costs in mood and anxiety as well. If I obsess about optimizing something, it doesn’t make me happy, regardless of the ultimate results of my optimization. Furthermore, in most if not all areas, optimization is a process of diminishing returns.

I tend to be a big believer in the Pareto Principle – namely that you get 80% of the results for 20% of the work. And I think this applies to optimization many times as well. I can get 80% of the way to optimized in a given area with 20% of the work. And to get that last 20%, it can take a lot more work. I have a clear memory of a moment of realization after a particularly grueling bout of middle school perfectionism — I could do like 10% of the work and aim for B+’s and A-‘s, or I could keep killing myself trying to get 100% on everything and never look back. For better or worse, I kept that philosophy all the way through my schooling, a consistent 3.6 student who didn’t work very hard at all.

Three Types of Millionaires

In Quit Like a Millionaire, Kristy Chen proposes that there are three types of millionaires – hustlers (who focus on increasing their income), investors (who focus on maximizing their investment performance), and optimizers (who focus on maximizing their savings). Another way of articulating this would be to say that millionaires tend to try to optimize either their income, their investments, or their savings / expenses. And, in her model, each of these types of people tends to neglect the other two financial areas — so hustlers tend to pay little attention to investment performance and savings, etc. While I recognize that all models are imperfect, I do find this to be a useful approximation of the dominant schools of thought I’ve encountered in the world of personal finance. It also got me thinking about where I fit on this.

What I’m NOT is easy. I am definitely not a hustler. I bristle when dealing with salespeople, and find entrepreneurs unrelatable. Early in my adult life, while teaching English in Taiwan, many of my friends opened schools or taught lots of (high-priced) private lessons. I did neither — I taught my classes, and earned plenty of money, but certainly not as much as I could have. And I knew that, if I were the business owner, I’d be thinking about that business all the time, and I didn’t want that. I wanted to clock in and clock out, and that hasn’t changed. And as my career progressed, I certainly did not always make the choices that would lead to the highest salary. I chose majoring in English over majoring in computer science, and then got into education on top of that. I’ve taken some opportunities over the years, and earn good money (relative to where I started, certainly) but I’ve also turned down opportunities because they felt like they weren’t a good fit, even though they paid better.

I’m also not so focused on investment performance, although I do have a bit of experience with that. In my early investing days I tried picking stocks, and also picking actively managed funds, but I ultimately came to believe the research that says that this is very hard to do reliably. Once my focus had shifted to index funds, I certainly tried to get my fees to be as low as possible. I have also kept an aggressive asset allocation (90/10) throughout. And, over the years, I’ve flirted with taking a more aggressive factor-based approach (which I’ve so far resisted). So, while I wouldn’t describe myself as someone who spends a lot of time researching investments to maximize performance, I do try to optimize my investments in a few simple ways: use tax-sheltered space, minimize fees, and focus on equities rather than bonds. I think this simple approach falls well within a Pareto approach to investment optimization.

Similarly, I don’t know that I’m super-focused on optimizing my savings. My wife might disagree on this one, but one of the biggest arguments against my being a big savings optimizer is that, until we moved to Canada, I have never tracked our spending. Not even a little bit. And I only started after we moved because I had a sense that we were very close to our FI number and I wanted to check. All along, though, one of the big benefits of living well within our means is not having to track where every single dollar goes. This is not how optimizers think. At the same time, I will confess that I am a very reluctant shopper and will spend a lot of time hemming and hawing over purchases. I’m also very willing to spend time travel hacking. Again, I think this falls within the 20% work for 80% reward portion of savings optimization, although the truth is probably more like 50% work for 85% reward.

The Pareto Millionaire

So perhaps there’s a fourth type of millionaire — a Pareto millionaire, who does 20% of the work in all three of these areas (income, investment, savings) which, at least in certain countries nowadays, is enough to get you there. To be clear, I’m not coming out against optimization. If it makes you happy, do it. I definitely get much more joy out of collecting credit card bonuses or re-balancing our investments than many other people would. At the same time, though, when it doesn’t bring you joy, recognize that perfect optimization is impossible, and that good enough is good enough.

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