‘Never Buy a Boat’ and Other Misguided Financial Advice

‘Never buy a boat’ and other rash financial advice
Barry Ritholtz
Washington Post, September 27, 2015




“A boat is a hole in the water you throw money into.”

“The two happiest days in a sailor’s life are the day he buys a boat and the day he sells it.”


I have a somewhat unique perspective on dispensing financial advice. I run an asset management firm. We hear all manner of terrible advice that our prospective clients have received elsewhere. (No, owning physical gold and the SPDR Gold ETF does not mean you are diversified.) Conflicted advice, thoughtless portfolio constructions, high-risk low-return bets and debunked financial myths are just the tip of the iceberg.

I also write about investing. Hence, a natural tension exists: Good investing is boring and long-term, while good writing tends to be emotionally appealing and punchy. It’s a trade-off, and I understand how nuance and subtlety can be lost in the media’s hunt for clicks.

This came to mind recently when I read an intriguing column headlined “Never buy a boat.” As a boat owner and lover of the seas, I found it an amusing discussion. But as a financial adviser, I was sorely disappointed.

I am sure you have seen many other such “lessons:” Houses are money pits. Don’t drink expensive lattes. Never install a pool. Don’t go to college. Golf is an expensive hobby. Don’t invest in a 401(k). Never buy a high-end sports car.

Merely saying “no” is not financial advice; it is a form of blind risk avoidance. The problem with such advice is twofold. First, it misunderstands the purpose of money. Second, it fundamentally misses out on the best way to make intelligent financial decisions.

Money, for all its glory and the trouble the blind pursuit of it has caused, is misunderstood by many. No, money is not the root of all evil. The problem is people and how they behave around it.

Money is merely a tool, a medium of exchange. Its value is that it allows its owners the freedom to make decisions that those without it cannot.

At its most basic level, money allows sustenance and security: Food, housing, clothes, medical care and transportation. Get a little more of it and you can pay for your kids’ education, and take a vacation now and again. Freedom from worry is a nice benefit of having enough to cover the above. If you’re fortunate to have more than enough, then other choices emerge: philanthropy, entertainment, hobbies, travel, whatever indulgences catch your fancy.

Which brings us back to our boat: Assuming you have enough cash and/or credit, using some of it to buy a boat is simply an option, one that should be considered intelligently.

Let’s start with the costs. There is the purchase price, which experience teaches us is the smallest expense of boating. Where will you keep it — at a marina slip (most expensive but most convenient) or a mooring (cheaper but less convenient) or trailer (cheapest but least convenient). You might own a dock, but that means you spent a lot of money on related real estate. Maintenance and repairs are not cheap, especially if you are out in saltwater (as opposed to freshwater lakes and rivers). There are issues of winter storage if you live in the north, and then prep for boating season. Fuel and insurance are costs, as, of course, are food and beer.

These are all easily calculable by anyone with a spreadsheet (or even a pencil and paper). You should be able to determine pretty accurately what a boat will cost you; assuming you have a household budget (what do you mean you don’t?!), then you should also know how much boat you can afford.

There are many other questions: How much are you going to use it? What friends and family will accompany you? Who else do you know that boats? What other time demands do you have? Think about these and other questions, and you can determine (a) if you can afford a boat and (b) if it’s worth it to you.

We can run through the same exercise for just about any expenditure, from that latte to a vacation home. Just saying no is lazy, and misses the point of money as a tool.

Let me suggest better advice than “never ever buy a boat.” Try the following: “Don’t buy things you cannot afford, won’t actually use and that could cause you more pain than pleasure.”

I have many friends who are boaters. One bought a 14-foot kayak and goes out every morning (weather permitting) for a robust paddle. His blood pressure is down, his outlook is sunny, and he enjoys the solitude on the water. Another friend bought a 55-foot behemoth. It’s a floating hotel, comfortable and luxurious. He hardly ever used it — and sold it at a big loss after a year.

So my advice for people considering buying a boat are to recognize four key issues: knowledge, costs, skill and psychology. For our wannabe boater, or anyone making a major purchase, it looks something like this:

• Understand what you are getting into.

• Carefully consider all of the costs of ownership.

• Only buy what you can afford.

• Make an intelligent decision about using your limited time and money.

This is a useful approach, more thoughtful than merely saying “No!” to anything with a price tag attached.

Not surprisingly, you can apply the same approach to any financial situation. Consider assessing an investment:

• Don’t buy anything you don’t understand.

• Watch the fees on all of your funds, investments, advisers, etc.

• Be smart about your own skill set in beating the market with stock selection or market timing; you are likely better off with an index fund instead.

• Understand how markets behave, and only risk what you can tolerate going up and down with market volatility.

Knowledge, costs, skill and psychology: running any issue through these four filters is not magic, but it does force you to consider important issues you might have otherwise overlooked.

If you want a boat – or something else equally costly – don’t make a snap yes or no judgment. Instead, frame the question in terms of these components. It will lead you to intelligent decision making.


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  1. DeDude commented on Oct 3

    Never take one sentence advice.

    Any “rule” for doing or not doing should be fully understood. Why should I do (or not) this? What is the pro/con balance in any given situation. Although we love the simple narratives they are almost always too simple.

  2. 4whatitsworth commented on Oct 3

    Fun analogy.

    If you are going to buy such a thing you should look at the local boating community before you buy, check out how big their boats are, and how often they use them, and how long they have owned a boat. Generally speaking smaller boats get used more, are owned longer, and easier to sell.

    People mostly make the mistake of thinking they want a big boat so that if the water Is rough they will be ok (fear), plus their fiends will see that they have a big boat (ego). After they buy it they never go out in rough water, then only go out occasionally because its a hassle and finally they realize that they don’t really have any friends that are going to admire them.

    If you cast aside the romantic notions and do the math it is probably makes a lot more sense to rent. As the saying goes if it fly’s, floats or fu*ks rent it.

  3. bmz commented on Oct 3

    Before I retired, my sailboat was my psychotherapy; after retirement it has become my physical therapy. Regardless, it has added years to my life, and I could not conceive of living without it.

    • DeDude commented on Oct 4

      You are a perfect example of why simple generalized rules don’t work.

  4. Joe commented on Oct 4

    I can only imagine rising up on one elbow from my death bed and saying, “If only I had avoided even more opportunities to create once in a lifetime memories. It would only make dying even sweeter.”

    ‘cuz.I paid the price and made some of the memories. Now imagining regrets is all I got.

    See ya at he track.

    Ex AFM 237

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