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Financial independence fans see opportunity as market lurches

Mark Makela | Reuters

Here's more proof that we all respond differently to life events.

While most people are in agony over their plunging net worth amid stock market gyrations due to the coronavirus, those who are in the FIRE movement — that's "financial independence, retire early" — have their eye on bargains.

There's no denying it's a frightening time. Investors are ditching stocks like winter coats in a heat wave. A possible recession is likely to mean heavy job losses and a widespread search for survival strategies. The Federal Reserve has already cut its interest rate to near zero, an effort meant to encourage borrowing by making it cheaper. 

The more you have, the more you lose. While some people feel the pain of having lost $10,000, $50,000 or $100,000, Jeff Bezos parted with $7 billion, at least on paper, overnight.  

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So it's a terrible time, right? 

That depends on your attitude. 

If you're looking at your portfolio and seeing that it's worth about 70% of what it was a month ago, the new market numbers are discouraging. 

But some see it as a solid buying opportunity. 

The more you know

Matt Marberry, 29, says a set-it-and-forget-it approach helps him stay calm when the market is crashing.
Source: Matt Marberry

It's possible people who are panicking aren't as familiar with the movement and haven't read enough, says Matt Marberry, 29, who works in entertainment and tourism in Orlando, Florida. Marberry is a small-business owner and contract worker, which allows him access to a 401(k).

Less a proponent of early retirement and more interested in financial independence, Marberry is an avid reader of investment information. He also listens to a couple of podcasts, like ChooseFI, that discuss cutting expenses and increasing savings. 

Marberry says if he were brand-new to investing, he might think the idea that it's time to shop for bargains is crazy. Since the market started plummeting, his portfolio has lost about 12% in value, which he doesn't see as too dramatic.

"Even if I retire at age 50, I'm very confident the market will go through many more cycles," Marberry said. "I'm not so concerned" about recent price drops.

Don't look now

Currently Marberry invests 25% of his W-2 income in a 401(k), and he and his wife also max out their Roth individual retirement accounts. They prefer low-cost index funds, and he does not often check performance. "I try to set it and forget it," he said, which is a constant refrain from the financial independence community.

"Before I found out about the financial movement, I used to do individual stock investing," Marberry said. Index funds investing makes it easier to stay the course.

He added that, had he stayed in individual stocks, "I'm sure I'd be jumping in and out of the market."

"Now I just need to stick to my investing strategy, and that will take me to a place where I'm comfortable."

Settling an old regret 

Around March 11, the market dropped below the "buy" numbers for Mary T., 55, who asked that her last name not be used, due to fears of identity theft. She admits the limits she set — the Dow Jones at 22,500 and the S&P 500 at 2,400 — were personal. 

Mary, a retired urban planner in Kirkland, Washington, based those numbers on how the market was performing in 2017, when she had just sold some property and had cash. After considering a stock purchase, she decided everything seemed expensive, even overpriced. The money stayed in her bank account.

Over the last few years, she waited for a bear market that didn't happen — until it did.

"I missed all the upward trajectory in the last two to three years," she said. "I figured, this [the downturn] is happy news for me. I can jump back in."

Invest so you can sleep

Though conservative, Mary also knows investing in stocks is a way to build wealth. She invests half in bonds and half in equities, with some of her holdings in balanced funds, which also contain some bonds.

"With the market crashing, it's an opportunity to get back in," she said. "I just look at how trends go, how the markets have worked in the past."

"I would encourage people to stick to their plan," she said. "No one can control what happens five years from now."

In fact, she says, reacting to the numbers caused her to lose money.

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