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How Doing Nothing Can Pay Off for Investors

For the three-month period during which I essentially ignored my investments, the Practical Investing portfolio rose 10%.

The first thing I used to ask my children when I returned from a business trip was, “Did you miss me?” By the time they were teens, they would respond to my re­appearances with highly developed sarcasm: “Were you gone?” So for those of you who might ask the same question (sarcastically or otherwise) about the recent absence of my column from these pages, I should mention that I’ve been on a three-month sabbatical.

Sabbaticals are common in higher education. But I had never contemplated spending several months without paid work until a self-employed friend told me about her sabbatical. She regaled me with stories of traveling through Europe and spending a delicious amount of time with her family. “Isn’t this why we save?” she asked wisely.

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I nodded and immediately vowed to take my own extended leave. But being my not-so-spontaneous self, I spent nearly a year plotting my sabbatical. That mainly involved warning everyone I write for that I wanted a lot of time off and was willing to schedule my disappearance so that I caused as little disruption as possible.

Initially, I planned to travel. My husband and I made arrangements to spend a month in Asia, and I was mining a house-swapping website for more ideas. But, as luck would have it, a close relative became ill, and I decided I wanted to stay close to home. So I chose to refresh and rejuvenate without a plane ticket.

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What did I do? I revamped the garden. I helped my husband paint and pick out flooring for a minor-turned-major remodel of our beach house. I went to many long lunches—during the workweek!—with friends and family. I took daily (sometimes twice-daily) walks with the dogs to teach them leash manners (a work still in progress). I changed my eating habits and lost several pounds that had attached themselves to my hips when I wasn’t looking. I spent several peaceful days paddleboarding and catching up with friends.

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I also learned how to construct and launch a website (KathyKristof.com), and I completed the first draft of the mystery novel I’ve always wanted to write. (I expect that the friends I’ve asked to critique the draft will encourage me to keep my day job.) In short, I have never been so busy, and I loved every moment.

Blissful ignorance. What about my investments, you may wonder? Cue the crickets. Aside from milking dividends from my taxable portfolio (of which the Practical Investing portfolio is a relatively small part), I did nothing.

Of course, just because I was taking time off from work didn’t mean I stopped receiving investment news. Over the course of the three months, I saw headlines about a number of stocks that I own, including Apple (symbol AAPL), Intel (INTC) and Seagate Technology (STX). One screamed “Seagate must cut its dividend now!” Others warned about a sales slump at Apple and limited growth potential at Intel.

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I responded to depressing pieces by deleting the articles without reading them. I sent to the electronic dustbin stories about global terrorism’s harmful impact of on airline stocks, such as Spirit (SAVE) and Copa Holdings (CPA). I trashed stories about Brexit, advising a few skittish friends to follow my Kiplinger colleague Jeff Kosnett’s advice to sit tight and expect Britain’s exit from the European Union to have little impact on our markets. And I ignored tales about today’s hot stocks, even though some of them dealt with real estate investment trusts, which I like and own both inside and outside the Practical Investing portfolio.

Yet for the three-month period during which I essentially ignored my investments, the portfolio rose 10%, to $297,246. The market, as measured by the Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF (VTI), which I use as my benchmark, was up just 6%. Clearly, doing nothing can sometimes pay off. I should do nothing more often.

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