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Twenty years ago the final episode of the iconic sitcom Seinfeld aired. For the last time, 76 million people tuned in to watch Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer talk about nothing.
I was a huge fan of the show and the recent anniversary got me thinking about some of the classic tv moments the show brought us.
As my mind whirled and whipped from one memory to the next, a sort of bizarro world began to form; me from 20 years ago had no interest in money, except of course for making it. On the other hand, today I’m passionate about personal finance and helping others find the financial freedom I’ve been fortunate enough to experience.
Yesteryear me and the me of today started to converge in a Seinfeldian swirl of memories, emotions, and imagination.
What financial advice would Jerry and the gang give us? What phrases would he use to steer us in the right (or much more likely, wrong) direction? What would be some Seinfeld money lessons we could take from the show? I started imagining Jerry Seinfeld, CFP, with his 3 loyal companions by his side.
The Seinfeld Money Team
Who would be his right-hand man (or woman)? The frontrunners for sure had to be George and Elaine.
They both did have business experience after all. Elaine had worked extensively in the publishing world with Pendant Publishing and for the J.Peterman catalog writing copy. With no formal experience with the financial side of things, she may be better suited to handle the marketing side of the operation. I’m sure she’d be a whiz doing up Jerry’s promotional materials, managing his website, and dazzling potential customers with her sick dance moves.
George’s business experience on the other hand was, shall we say, more varied? He boasted an “extensive resume” having worked for the Yankees, Pendant Publishing, and as a bra salesman just to name a few of his many jobs before a brief foray into the cutthroat world of hand-modeling. This long list of experiences and his lifelong friendship with Jerry would almost certainly give him the edge over Elaine when it came to being Jerry’s protege.
Kramer, of course, would be there too, probably lurking in the background with his eye on some obscure financial scheme he’d cooked up with Newman like the Cuban cigar importing fiasco or the Michigan deposit bottle scam.
I have no doubt that he’d be heavily invested in Bitcoin or one of the thousands of other cryptocurrencies that seem to pop up each day.
He’d, of course, have no need for money anyway, as he’d been living the FIRE lifestyle long before it was popular (though we’re all still wondering where he got his money from – was it from Kramerica Industries or passive income from the royalties on his coffee table book?).
Jerry Seinfeld, CFP
And then there would be Jerry.
Always the most stable character with his act mostly together, without a doubt he’d be the one doling out the advice to customers, the face of the company, the public persona on which the brand could be built.
I mean, NBC saw the promise in him when they developed the pilot Jerry, and if he could sell an office full of big-wig tv execs on a show “about nothing”, he’d certainly be able to sell clueless and overwhelmed millennials and baby boomers financial advice and overpriced investments, right?
But how would he do it? What would he say? If you were one of his clients, how would he advise you towards meeting your financial goals while lining his pockets with hefty commissions?
How would his clients respond to his infinite comedic financial wisdom?
My mind was awash with possibilities…
The Meeting: Seinfeld Money Lessons
Invariably Jerry would meet with you at one of his favorite eateries. Depending on your net worth, either Monk’s (the neighborhood restaurant where many of the show’s enduring scenes took place) for the lower end clients or maybe at Poppies for those bigger fish (just be sure to wash your hands!).
After an initial handshake where Jerry remarks about the strength of your grip and your large hands (man hands gif) and the usual preliminary small talk about work, family and hobbies (you have a blog on the side and interestingly, he does stand-up comedy), Jerry and George get down to brass tacks.
Jerry slowly and meticulously begins to explain the investing philosophy of Seinfeld Money Managers. A few seconds after launching into his sales speech to you, George unceremoniously interrupts him, a la the NBC sitcom pitch meeting, and begins pitching an idea for a high risk/reward investment in an up and coming latex import/export company called Vandelay Industries.
After politely rebuffing George’s attempt to get you to take a risk larger than you’re willing to, you turn back to Jerry and begin to chat with him about investing in stocks, bonds, and eventually mutual funds. You want to get a feel for his investing philosophy to see if it’s a good match with yours.
He describes the types of funds he’d get you to invest in as “the best in the business” and “guaranteed to generate double-digit returns over 10 years.”
Surprised by his bravado, you ask how he can make such a boast?
“Some of my buddies at the Friar’s club are friends with a lot of the mutual fund managers,” he replies. “Even though some are real mimbos who’s returns have shrunk like frightened turtles in recent years, we only invest with those managers whose funds have long track records of solid results.”
All this sounds well and good to the casual investor, but you’ve done your research. You know that after all the dust of taxes, fees, and other expenses has settled, passively built portfolios outperform active ones.
1) Beware The Yada Yada Yada
You’ve been around the block a few times when it comes to financial advisors, so one of the first questions you ask Jerry is why he wants you to invest in actively managed mutual funds?
He talks about how the past performance of the funds he hand selects far outpace the returns of passively managed funds.
Again, you’ve spent a lot of time reading and researching the best ways to invest and you know that research clearly shows that past performance of a mutual fund is no predictor of future results. You know the best predictor is the fees you pay, but you’ll ask him about that later.
You politely ask him to see the returns of his managed portfolios and he reaches into what looks like a giant purse but what he describes as a European carry-all. He pulls out a laptop and after a minute or two has the returns from the previous 10 years.
As he explains the charts and tables, you notice that he skims over one very important part of the discussion.
“These are the returns from the hand-selected funds we use to tailor make your portfolio. As you can clearly see, they beat the benchmark index. Of course, there are also a few fees associated with them. Front and back-end loads, account fees, yada yada yada. But I know you’ll be VERY happy in these.”
With what you’ve learned about fees being the biggest predictor of a fund’s future returns you start to get quite nervous because the fees on the funds he’s recommending seem quite high!
2) Avoid Shrinkage
At this point, you express your concern that there may be shrinkage of your portfolio. Immediately George begins to shout in a rather panicked voice, “I was in the pool! I was in the pool!!”
As a relatively experienced investor, you know a bit about pooled funds, but you can’t see how this relates to fees eating into your returns. This George fellow seems quite strange, but he calms down the moment you stop talking about shrinkage.
After shooting George a disgusted look, Jerry tries to assure you that the fees won’t have that big of an impact on your overall returns. In fact, he says, he beats the market consistently which is why you can feel confident paying the fees for these funds.
3) That’s Gold Jerry, Gold!! – Dumb Money Becomes Smart
You’re not convinced.
You’ve done the research and know that in the long run, index funds outperform actively managed mutual funds.
You tell Jerry that while some funds do in fact outperform the index, it’s a very small percentage of all funds that do. And you explain, even though some funds outperform the index, you can only determine which funds these are AFTER their performance has been reported. There’s very little rhyme or reason to who beats the index. Yes, undoubtedly there are managers that go on hot streaks. But they can cool off without any warning and for seemingly no reason at all.
You lean on the advice of investing guru Warren Buffett who said, “The goal of the non-professional should not be to pick winners — neither he nor his ‘helpers’ can do that — but should rather be to own a cross-section of businesses that in aggregate are bound to do well. A low-cost S&P 500 index fund will achieve this goal.”
You tell him that this advice from such an investing giant is “Gold Jerry, gold!!”
He simply responds with a hand wave and an emphatic awe, “Ah!”
You can’t quite understand how a person working in the financial services industry can recommend products that have very little research to back up their alleged success. But a phrase you heard on a tv show somewhere echoes in your mind.
“It’s not a lie if you believe it.”
4) Emergencies DO Happen
Although this is disconcerting, you put it on the back burner for now to discuss some other matters.
You’re a big believer in insuring against unexpected life events.
You ask about the different insurance products they offer.
“George handles the life insurance,” Jerry responds. “He fortunate- ahem, I mean unfortunately had a fiance die an untimely death and because of this is intimately involved with the ins and outs of the various products.”
George is staring off into space with a wistful look of regret and what might have been and doesn’t pick up on his cue to delve into your insurance needs.
You decide that discussing insurance can wait, but you bring up the fact that you’d like to be sure that you have an emergency fund of 3-6 months set aside to cover unexpected expenses. This means that you’ll likely not be investing as much as you had originally anticipated.
Jerry tries to mask a look of disappointment as recommends that you invest your emergency fund with him instead. To cover such emergency incidents, he suggests you open a line of credit. If something happens, you can use the investments to pay off the LOC. That way your emergency fund is earning higher interest for you and not sitting in a high-interest savings account earning a piddly 1-3%.
You ask if he’s considered how the fees and taxes for selling the investments would work in such a case. He jabbers on about them being minimal and yada yadas some more. You notice he tends to do that whenever fees are discussed.
Finally, you tell him you’re just not comfortable investing your emergency fund and would rather have it very accessible and liquid.
He says he doesn’t get the allure of an emergency fund, but “not that there’s anything wrong with it,” and agrees to set one up for you in the future.
5) Beware of Returns That Are “Real and Spectacular!”
Jerry is now grasping at straws.
First the fees, now the emergency fund. You two are clearly not on the same wavelength but he’s not ready to give up yet. Evidently, his stand-up comedy side-hustle isn’t that lucrative and he needs your business badly.
In desperation, he tries one last Hail Mary.
Everyone wants to make a quick buck, right? He decides to pull out the big guns in one last-ditch effort to WOW you with an investment proposal of Kramerian proportions.
“I’ve got one word for you…” he says in a dramatic whisper. “Bitcoin!!”
“Bitcoin?” you think to yourself as he explains that while the cryptocurrencies are down right now, the potential for returns are nearly limitless.
The returns, in his words, are “REAL and they’re SPECTACULAR!”
You’re not wowed in the least by this latest speculative flavor of the week. Real Estate in 08, dot com in 99. Heck, even tulips in the 1630’s. This is nothing new. It’s as old as investing itself. Sometimes there’s actual value and sometimes not.
And you seem to remember something about Mr. Buffett referring to Bitcoin as “rat poison squared.” A description like that from the Oracle of Omaha is more than you need to steer clear.
You politely but firmly state that you’re not in the business of speculating and that investing in such a volatile product really isn’t your style.
You’re a Buffett guy, you say. A Bogle guy. A get rich slowly guy. The Millionaire Next Door is Your financial bible and Bitcoin just doesn’t fit your value system or investing strategy.
6) It’s Not You, It’s Me: Necessary Endings
As the desert of artisan muffin tops make their way to the table, it’s a done deal that this isn’t a good fit.
You sensed it early on but thought you’d give Misters Seinfeld and Costanza that benefit of the doubt.
Now though, it’s painfully obvious.
They seem like nice enough guys. Misguided, yes, but they’re not crooks. They’re just trying to make a living, keep the heat on, pay the bills.
You decide to let them down easy.
“Hey guys,” you start out, “I really appreciate you taking the time to sit down and chat with me. But I don’t think we’re a fit to work together. It’s nothing you guys have done or said, really. It’s just that I’m not really in a place to be investing or taking the risks your clients are used to. I think at this stage of the game I’m more suited to a passive portfolio, something lower cost, without having to make a whole lot of decisions. I want you to know though, honestly, it’s not you. It’s me and where I’m at right now.”
Jerry looks defeated and has a resigned look on his face as he realizes he’s lost you as a potential client.
But George looks genuinely offended.
A moment later you realize why as he launches into a tirade about how he, “invented the line you just used and that if it’s anyone, it’s definitely him.”
“Ok, ok, ok,” you say after a minute of him explaining in excruciating detail all the personal deficiencies that make him a horrendous financial advisor. “You’re right. I just can’t invest in Vandelay Industries or Bitcoin or any of the other products you’re recommending. It’s you!”
“You’re darn right it is!!” he responds, with an oddly satisfied air of pride.
7) Avoid the Costs of “Serenity Now, Insanity Later”
As what has just transpired sinks in for Jerry, a look of grim realization slowly spreads across his face as he comes to terms with the fact that he won’t be making a lick of commission off of you.
But once again, it’s George who catches your eye.
It appears as though he’s actually starting to boil right before your eyes. He’s desperately trying to hold in some very powerful emotions but it’s not working. He has a terrible poker face.
Suddenly, he blurts out, “George is getting upset!”, “Serenity Now!!”
“How strange,” you think to yourself as you watch him slowly start to simmer down. He’s a decent enough guy but he’s clearly repressing some significant emotions.
Is there mental illness? Perhaps.
If you weren’t certain before that you didn’t want these two handling your money, it’s locked down now.
You wouldn’t let these two within a country mile of your piggy bank, let alone your retirement savings.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t be kind.
You know from past experience and your wife forcing you to watch Dr. Phil reruns just how costly repressing your emotions can be, both on your mental health and bank account as you pay for countless therapy sessions.
“You know,” you say to George, “you should really find an outlet for your emotions. It’s not healthy to bottle things up like that. I know from experience. ”
“What,” he laughs back in your face, “you think I’ll go crazy if I don’t see some shrink?”
“Serenity now,” you reply, “insanity later.”
A Tearful Goodbye
You thank both Jerry and George for the meal and shake hands across the table. Again, they can’t help but glance down at your hands for a second or two too long.
You stand up to leave the restaurant, but as you turn you hear a muffled whimpering coming from behind you.
He’s crying and looks like he’s not quite sure how to handle this rejection.
George, however, looks used to rejection, but you’ve expended all the goodwill you have left in your tank for one night.
You move away from the table, put on your magic 8 ball jacket and step out of the restaurant a moment later.
Bringing It All Together
You’re exhausted from the evening.
You go home, kick off your shoes, and open a bag of pretzels. As you plop down on the couch, you crack open your laptop.
You decide to take ol’ Warren’s advice and you open an online brokerage account.
After funding your account, you make 1 purchase, a Vanguard S&P 500 index fund. If it’s good enough for Mr. Buffett, it’s good enough for you.
As close your laptop, you realize that the pretzels have made you quite thirsty.
You hop up and grab a Snapple from the fridge before returning to the couch.
You turn on the tv and check out what’s on. There’s nothing and you contemplate going to bed until something catches your eye; an old rerun of your favorite sitcom involving 4 friends with varying levels of incompetence and neuroses.
You put your feet up on the coffee table and enjoy a few laughs. You’re confident that what you’ve done with your money will pay off in the long run and thankful you didn’t end up taking the advice of the two financial advisors you had dinner with earlier that night.
What are some Seinfeld money lessons you’ve learned from the show? Is there one character you’d take money advice from? Please share in the comments below or on Twitter @method_money or my Facebook page Method To Your Money. You can also find me on Pinterest. Want more great ideas for mastering your money? Sign up to receive my weekly emails detailing how to keep more of your hard earned cash!