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Matt Bell

Matt Bell

Managing Editor

Matt joined SMI in 2012. He leads SMI’s content strategy — managing the company’s monthly editorial calendar, writing many of the articles, sourcing content from outside the company, and either writing or overseeing much of what appears on our website. He also represents SMI in various radio guest appearances.

Prior to joining SMI, Matt was an independent biblical money management writer and speaker. He is the author of four personal finance books that were published by NavPress, including Money and Marriage: A Complete Guide for Engaged and Newly Married Couples and The Grad’s Guide to Money (written for high school seniors and college freshmen). He does some outside speaking as well at churches, universities, conferences, and retreats throughout the country. Matt has been involved in stewardship ministry since 1990 when he began serving in the Good $ense ministry at Willowcreek Community Church.

Matt earned an undergraduate degree in Journalism from Northern Illinois University and a graduate degree in Interdisciplinary Studies from DePaul University, where he wrote a thesis about the history and influence of our consumer culture.

Matt and his wife Jude have three children at home. 

Most Recent Articles

The Hardest Work of an Investor

There’s a lot to this whole investing thing, isn’t there?

There’s the need to figure out how much to invest to be adequately prepared for retirement or to help our kids pay for college. But that isn’t really all that difficult since there’s software to help map out a retirement plan and there are calculators to help prepare for college.

There’s the need to figure out our optimal asset allocation so that we build a portfolio with the right mix of stocks and bonds. But again, that isn’t really all that difficult since there are questionnaires that can point us to the right balance.

There’s the need to choose the right investments. But even that isn’t all that difficult. As we emphasize again and again, the key to choosing good investments is choosing a good investment strategy — one that makes sense, given your age, goals, and risk tolerance; one whose design you understand and agree with; and one that requires no more of you than you are willing to do, such as the number of trades you may have to make each year.

No, those aren't the tough parts of being an investor. The tough stuff has nothing to do with calculators or spreadsheets. It has everything to do with managing our emotions, especially when the market heads downward, as it has in these early weeks of 2022.

Feeling bad, yet moving forward

No matter how experienced you are, downturns don’t feel good. They can make us fearful. They can make us wonder whether we’ll be able to achieve our goals.

So much of this has to do with managing expectations.

To invest is to put money at risk. We shouldn’t be surprised by downturns, we should expect them. And when a downturn comes, we can expect to feel bad. It’s simply part of our human design. Psychologists call it loss aversion. It’s what we all intuitively know to be true: it feels really lousy to experience a loss. In fact, when comparing what a loss feels like with a gain of the same magnitude, the loss will feel much worse than the gain will feel good.

The hardest work of an investor is to feel those lousy feelings and keep moving forward. When we see red numbers in the day’s market report or significant losses in our own portfolios, that can give us a pit in our stomachs. It can make us want to run for the exits, to stop the pain, to sell.

What we do — or more importantly, what we don’t do — in the face of a brutal downturn is the hardest work of an investor.

No gym membership required

We’re all drawn to hero stories. We love to read books or watch movies about someone who pursued something worthwhile and battled against all odds to achieve it. We admire the physical effort and hard work that goes into a victory on the field of play.

The hard work of an investor isn’t about hours in the gym or running extra miles. The hard work of an investor is about battling fear. It’s about confronting the questions: Now what will I do? What if I won’t have enough?

In the midst of so much noisy emotion, this is when we need to listen to the small voice of logic.

If we’re listening closely, we can hear it reminding us that to sell now is to lock in a loss. To grab the wheel now and let our emotions guide our decisions is likely to do more harm than good.

And if we’re paying attention, we can hear someOne reminding us to cast our cares on Him, to trust in His provision, and to rest in His peace.

In fact, that’s what was so encouraging about the brutal downturn of early 2020, when the market fell 34% in just 16 trading days on fears about the global pandemic. It had never fallen that far that fast. And who knew what was coming next?

In the midst of that scary time, many SMI members demonstrated great financial wisdom. Through a survey of our members, we found out that very few made any changes to their portfolios at that time, other than those called for by the SMI strategy or strategies they were following. What got them through that tough period were some practical things like knowing enough market history to understand that there would be downturns from time to time and following an objective investment strategy.

Just as importantly, what got them through was their faith. Some 85% of respondents cited prayer as an important key to weathering that storm, with 550 respondents mentioning 73 verses. We put them together in a downloadable document (PDF) that I highly recommend reviewing.

No one likes downturns. You don’t like them and neither do we. But here we are. Now’s the time to do the hard work of an investor. To be able to hear the loud voice of emotion and keep moving forward, guided by the voice of logic and the Voice of faith.

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Money Roundup: Today’s Best Investment Strategy, A Biblical Perspective on Inheritances, and More

Some of the best investing and personal finance articles from around the web.

We’d love to hear your responses to any of the above. To weigh in, just meet us in the comments section.

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Workplace Retirement Plan Automation Gains Momentum. What’s Not to Like?

An increasing number of businesses with 401(k) plans are automatically enrolling their employees. According to the Plan Sponsor Council of America (PSCA), about 62% of such companies used auto-enrollment in 2020, up from 60% in 2019 and just 46% in 2010. With auto-enrollment, workers have to opt out of the retirement plan if they don’t want to participate rather than having to opt in, as used to be common practice.

Automation has been very effective at increasing retirement plan participation and retention. As reported by CNBC, a Vanguard study found that 92% of retirement plan participants who had been opted into their employer’s plan were still participating three years later.

Automated enrollment in a workplace retirement plan is a good thing. It can help overcome the very powerful forces of inertia and the preference to spend rather than save. However, there are some potential downsides.

The limits of automation

As more and more decisions are made for us, whether financial or otherwise, there can be a tendency to take too little ownership over those decisions, to assume that the decisions being made on our behalf are the right decisions.

How much to save. For example, a common automation feature being used in many workplace retirement plans is setting what percentage of a participant’s salary is contributed to the plan. In many cases, the default “deferral” rate has been just 3% of salary. While a growing number of plans have now doubled that rate, 6% is still too low for most people to be able to build a sufficient retirement nest egg.

The good news is that nearly 80% of employers using auto-enrollment now also use auto-escalation, which gradually and automatically increases the deferral rate, usually up to a maximum of 10%. While employees can choose to increase their contribution rate at any time and up to the maximum amount legally allowable, very few typically step outside the automated process. Far better if more people were encouraged to run some numbers with a retirement calculator, determine their optimal savings rate, and choose to save at that rate.

What to invest in. With the majority of automated retirement plans, participant contributions are automatically invested in target-date funds (TDFs). To be sure, target-date funds have a lot going for them. They simplify what can be a confusing process: choosing an appropriate asset allocation. And they automatically make that allocation more conservative over time, which is very helpful.

Still, TDFs are far from perfect. Without understanding how they work, it can be easy to assume that all such funds with the same target date are designed the same, when the reality is that asset allocations vary widely among different fund families. And, there may be other strategies that are better suited to a person’s goals and risk tolerance.

Whether to borrow. A few years ago, the Wall Street Journal highlighted another problem with automated retirement plans. It cited several examples where workers who never made a conscious choice to participate in their workplace plan or at what level eventually were shocked to discover that they had quite a bit of money built up in their accounts. Without appreciating the importance of leaving the money alone so it could grow and be available to them in their later years, they wanted the money now! And after finding out how easy it would be to “borrow” they money, they did. 

The best of both worlds

As plan sponsors work to bring new levels of automation to 401(k) plans, it would be ideal if they (or someone!) would bring added focus to teaching participants how to get the most from such plans. Nudges are tremendously helpful in overcoming inertia. However, just as a tug boat can get a big ship moving, there still needs to be a captain at the wheel who knows where the ship is going, understands what it’s going to take to get there, and takes responsibility for the journey.

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Living With the End in Mind

I don’t mean to get all morbid on you, but I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately. Over the Christmas break, I attended five visitations on behalf of our church. Then we got the tragic news that the dad in a family we knew from where we used to live in the Chicago area died suddenly. He was in his 50s and leaves a wife and two school-age children behind.

It all served as a jarring but helpful reminder about the brevity of life. I was grateful for the reminder that salvation is forever secured the minute a person accepts Christ as Lord and Savior. And, because one of my job hazards is a tendency to see things through a financial filter, it also reminded me of the importance of having our finances in order.

A lasting impression

At one of the visitations, an elderly widow took my hand and through tear-filled eyes shared some details of their long marriage. She said her husband had become an alcoholic and moved away for many years, although they did not divorce. Not long before he died, he had returned, adding an element of redemption to their story, although she described his faith as marginal at best. Those were the heartbreaking first words she chose to share about her husband with a total stranger.

It made me think about legacy. What will people remember about us after we die? What will come most quickly to their minds as they think about us or talk about us with others?

Of all the family members I met at the visitations, no one said anything about money. Still, I think we would all agree on the importance of leaving our families in good shape — well provided for and well equipped to carry on without us. We would want that to be part of our legacy.

Steps we can take

I’ve written before about my enthusiasm for the study Set Your House in Order, from the financial discipleship ministry Compass—Finances God’s Way. Along with its rich foundation of spiritual content, the study practically helps participants pull together their financial records, making them easily accessible to a spouse.

It’s very natural for one spouse to take the lead with financial matters, such as paying bills and managing investment accounts. If that’s you, how easily could your spouse take on those responsibilities if this turns out to be your last day alive?

I’m a strong proponent of complete financial transparency in marriage. So, in our household, my wife and I have easy access to all of our financial information — our monthly cash-flow plan (we use Mint) and the log-in information for savings and investment accounts. Since I take the lead in paying bills, I put together a spreadsheet that lists all of the bills, their due dates, and how I pay them (some are on auto-pay, some are not). I’m also the one who makes changes to our investment portfolio when the SMI strategies we follow call for a change. This is an area where we could use more conversation about what to do in my absence, so it’s on my to-do list for this month. (We know of numerous SMI members who have made their spouses aware of the option to automate management of their portfolio.)

A state of preparedness

Advent (the church season just before Christmas) is a wonderful annual reminder of the importance of living in a state of constant preparedness for Christ’s return. In similar fashion, it’s helpful to be prepared to die before His return. We became spiritually prepared in the single moment when we placed our faith in Christ. Financial preparedness requires more tending. Perhaps in the past year, we took on a new bill that needs to be paid each month or a new account that needs to be managed.

In one of my favorite editorials of 2021, Austin encouraged us to live, and give, with a sense of urgency. He quoted Steven James, who provided this stark reminder from his book, Becoming Real:

“People die in the midst of going to the dentist’s office or driving home from vacation or taking a shower or watching TV or mowing the lawn or barbecuing ribs on the back deck or enjoying a good night’s sleep…. We all die. And we don’t die when we expect to die or after our dreams have all come true or when we’ve finally made it in the world. No, most of us die in the midst of pretending we’ll never die. We die living as if tomorrow were guaranteed and this life will last forever.”

Somewhere in the back of our minds, we all know this is true. But every now and then it’s helpful to bring it to the front of our minds — to consider whether we have done all that we can to make sure our families will be well provided for and well equipped to carry on should we be called home later today.

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Money Roundup: Before the Bubble Bursts, Rethinking ‘Safe,’ and More

Some of the best investing and personal finance articles from around the web — a bit early this week since we'll have Dynamic Asset Allocation and Sector Rotation strategy updates on Friday.

We’d love to hear your responses to any of the above. To weigh in, just meet us in the comments section.

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Once More, With Feeling

I love this time of year. When January comes into view, it always feels like a fresh start — a chance to wipe the slate clean, give some prayerful thought to the most important areas of life, and make new plans. So I’m intrigued with the findings of researchers who have studied what it takes to accomplish goals.

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The 7 Essential Steps to Leaving Debt Behind

Getting out of debt is one of the most common goals people set at the start of a new year. Since its one of the top financial goals at the beginning of every year, it seems that many people set this goal but don’t achieve it.

What if this were the year you actually did get out of debt, and what if you did so in a way that helps you avoid debt forever?

I once had $20,000 of credit card debt, so I know what it feels like to be buried in bills. I also know the satisfaction of getting and staying out of debt. Here is a tried-and-true seven-step process for ditching your debt once and for all.

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The Problem With Pundits and Other Points to Ponder

Fuel for the fire

“This market doesn’t need more alarm bells — they’re already clanging and jangling all over the place — but here we are.”

– Market watcher Wolf Richter, pointing out in a 12/17/21 blog post that, in addition to sky-high valuations, the level of margin debt (i.e., borrowed money used to buy stocks) is sky-high as well. Read more at bit.ly/3EfL7AA.

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Money Roundup: The Financial Silly Season, The Ugly Truth About Market Bubbles, and More

Some of the best investing and personal finance articles from around the web.

We’d love to hear your responses to any of the above. To weigh in, just meet us in the comments section.

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SMI Members Helped Make #GivingTuesday a Great Success

On #GivingTuesday this year we offered an opportunity for SMI members to come alongside the Jesus Film Project (JFP) to help reach parts of South Asia with the Gospel. As we noted, hundreds of millions in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives have not heard the gospel, even once.

Well, you came through with a wonderful response. According to our friends at the JFP, 40 SMI members collectively gave nearly $15,000! As in years past, generous SMI members learned of a need and wanted to be part of the solution. And this year, SMI Advisory Services (SMIAS) — the separate, but affiliated, business that manages the SMI mutual funds and SMI Private Client — matched those gifts. That means together we raised nearly $30,000 to advance the Gospel.

The money will be used to equip Jesus Film Project teams with the tools they need to bring the Jesus Film to even the most remote parts of South Asia, plant new churches, and disciple new believers. That equipment includes backpack kits, with a small, highly portable solar-powered projector, speakers, and screen for large group presentations as well as solar-powered video tablet/speaker sets for small groups.

When you consider that one backpack kit costs $3,240 and one tablet set costs $570, the amount contributed by SMI members this year, along with the doubling impact of the SMIAS match, is enough to purchase 6 backpack kits and 18 tablet sets. Each Jesus Film Project team that is equipped with a backpack kit will show the Jesus film at least 50 times a year (some show it up to 100 times each year). The tablet sets will be used for follow-up discipleship.

If each showing includes 100 participants (some draw as many as 200), that means an estimated 30,000 people per year will be reached with the Gospel through your generous contributions (6 backpack kits x 50 showings per year x 100 people at each showing).

We’re grateful for the work being done by the Jesus Film Project, and we’re grateful to you for your role in helping to make this work possible.

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