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Choiceology: Season 2 Episode 5

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How you divide your money and time is influenced by a cognitive bias—but it’s one that you can put to good use.

For many people, the start of a new year is an occasion to re-examine their lives, to set new goals and to give up old habits. Making New Year’s resolutions is something of a social ritual, but we see similar behaviors around other significant dates, as well—such as birthdays and anniversaries and the changing of seasons. And while it can be argued that all of these dates are arbitrary, studies show that they can still give you a head start in achieving your goals.

In this episode of Choiceology with Katy Milkman, we examine the common but not always rational phenomenon whereby people divide their lives into chapters. We look at ways to leverage this phenomenon to make better choices.

  • The episode begins on a riverbank, with a religious rite symbolizing rebirth and renewal.
  • Next, we hear about Ray Zahab’s life-changing New Year’s resolution. What began as a simple plan to live a healthier lifestyle ended up taking him on incredible adventures all around the world. Ray is the author of the book Running for My Life.
  • From Ray’s story of personal transformation around an auspicious date, we pivot to a related tendency for people to separate their money into mental accounts. Money, like time, is fungible—one dollar is as useful as any other dollar—yet people often divide their money into different categories. Why?
  • Nobel laureate and best-selling author Richard Thaler explains the value of this cognitive bias and explores some of the peculiar behaviors people exhibit when they earmark their money for different purposes. And John Beshears of the Harvard Business School describes a study that exposes this bias in the way people perceive the value of grocery store coupons.
  • Finally, Katy offers additional tips on leveraging these temporal landmarks and personal budgets to help you stick with your resolutions.

Choiceology is an original podcast from Charles Schwab.

If you enjoy the show, please leave a rating or review on Apple Podcasts.

Click to show the transcript

Katy Milkman: It’s early morning, Sunday. A congregation wades slowly into a sun-dappled river. Weeping willows sway on the banks.

Speaker 2: I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Congregation: Amen. Praise the Lord. Amen. Amen. Amen. Woo. Amen.

Katy Milkman: There’s powerful symbolism in this act of baptism. The water washing away past sins, the opportunity to start a new chapter in your life. To leave the old you behind and begin anew. We see similar rituals in other traditions. The blowing of the shofar to mark the end of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement and the beginning of a new chapter in life. The personal renewal that comes from confessions in the Catholic Church. The smudging ceremonies that many Native Americans use to clear the air of negative emotions and energy, and of course, there’s the secular tradition of out with the old, in with the new at the beginning of every new year.

What is it about these moments of ritual that give them so much power? The power to absolve you of sins, the power to wipe the slate clean, the power to start over. On this episode, we’re looking at a psychological phenomenon that you can leverage to achieve your goals. Whether that’s cleaning your house or finishing an ultra-marathon.

I’m Katy Milkman, and this is Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. It’s a show about decisions, big ones and small ones, along with the subtle biases that affect those decisions. We guide you through a world of hidden psychological forces that influence everything from grocery lists to government budgets, and we do it all to help you avoid costly mistakes.

I want to tell you about Ray Zahab. His story is about personal transformation, and while the how and why parts of his big decision are fascinating, it’s the when I’m most interested in. Ray Zahab was not an athletic kid.

Ray Zahab: I was this kid who was completely sport-averse, like to anything that involved a ball or anything that was organized, or anything that was any sort of leadership roles in a game. I just drew huge anxiety from stuff like that, so I think from the time I was young, there was this part of me that just never felt adequate. Gym class was a time of great apprehension and anxiety for me. You know, I would do anything I could to skip gym class.

Katy Milkman: OK, so Ray wasn’t into sports. That’s not such a big deal. What he was into? Well that was a bigger issue.

Ray Zahab: Both my parents smoked, and you know, it was the time, this was the ’70s when it was like normal. People smoked. I think I was 12 or 13 when I first started picking up cigarettes and trying them out. Hiding, you know, from my parents. Smoking in the barn, because we had a barn. And I think I was pretty much hooked by the time I was 14. By the time I was 16, I was smoking a pack a day.

Katy Milkman: And it wasn’t just smoking. Ray’s lifestyle was unhealthy in other ways.

Ray Zahab: I would have pizza eating contests with my buddies in college and in the period following my incompletion of college. I’d spend summers, just, I mean we’d just drink, go drag racing, hang out, party, go to concerts. Eat like crap. And that cycle never changed for me. You know, it just progressed into my late 20s. So as poorly as I was treating my body, it becomes the norm. You become satisfied with being unhappy, so I didn’t really know any different.

Katy Milkman: Ray chalked up his behavior to a lack of self-esteem.

Ray Zahab: I think it began with the feelings of inadequacy, and that’s in a very physical sense. I think it was just because I was that kid, that was like last picked in gym class to be on a team. It’s somewhere in there, I think, that’s where it’s rooted.

Katy Milkman: By 1997, Ray had hit rock bottom.

Ray Zahab: I had no money. As far as I was concerned, I was at zero. I was so desperate to find an exit from the life that I had, that I was living.

Katy Milkman: He knew he had to make a change. His brother was a distance runner, and Ray thought maybe he could follow his brother’s lead and finally get healthy.

Ray Zahab: So I would tell everyone around me, “Yeah, I’m starting to do these things that, you know, my brother’s doing and, you know, I’m gonna do this stuff.” Well, “Yeah, but Ray, you’re a smoker.” I’d say, “No, I quit smoking.” When I can remember being specifically at parties, you know, and not smoking. Because everybody would see me with a smoke in my hand and a beer in the other, and people are like, “Hey dude, you’re not smoking.” And I’m like, “No, I don’t smoke anymore.” They’re like, “Really?” And then I would sneak over to an ashtray, you know, at the end of the night when half the people were gone, I’d sort through that ashtray.

This is totally embarrassing. I’d sort through that ashtray and I would find the half-smoked cigarette and I’d say to myself, “Well, it’s not really smoking, because they’re not mine.” That’s what I would convince myself. Right? And I would finish some of those butts. I bumped along like that, it took me three years.

Katy Milkman: Three years of making no real progress toward his goal of getting healthy. But then …

Ray Zahab: New Year’s Eve 1999. We are at a concert celebration party. I told myself my last cigarette would be smoked on New Year’s Eve 1999. It was the last five minutes before the new millennium was going to begin. I am smoking this last cigarette as slowly and methodically as I can, and that’s why I picked New Year’s Eve 1999. I used that date because it was such a huge finality it seemed. I mean, it was the end of the century. It just seemed like the right day.

Speaker 5: Five. Four. Three. Two. One.

Ray Zahab: It’s now or it’s never, and I told myself if I can’t do it now, then I’ll never be able to do it. And so, I sort of made my own rules up in my mind. I would have to completely change my lifestyle, completely change the way I was treating my body, and I remember thinking, OK, the clock has started over. It’s at zero, and I’m looking at these cigarettes, and I remember thinking to myself, “Tomorrow morning, I am gonna wake up, and I’m gonna be that motivated guy on January 1, 2000.” That’s what I committed to that night. I said, “If the world doesn’t end, I’m gonna be that guy.” Done. And I butted out my last cigarette.

Katy Milkman: Ray needed to quit smoking, and he used the date of January 1, 2000, to mark the beginning of what he hoped would be a new chapter in his life. But would it work?

Ray Zahab: So I woke up on New Year’s Day, January 1, 2000, and I remember it being a bright and sunny day, and on the table beside my bed was the half-finished pack of cigarettes from the night before, and they were just kind of like laying there half open. I wanted a cigarette. Everything in me wanted the cigarette, but it was January 1, 2000. It was like the new millennium. It was like the clock had started over, and I thought to myself, if I can lick this … if I can beat this, for me, this will be a monumental change in my life. And something in me, a little spark said that I could. That I can do this. And so I took those cigarettes and I said to myself, “Well, the only way I’m gonna really know is to carry these around in my back pocket, and when I don’t want a cigarette anymore, I’ll throw that pack away.” And that’s what I did.

Katy Milkman: This was an impressive feat of self-control. Anyone who’s tried to quit smoking knows how hard it can be. Willpower often isn’t enough to beat this kind of addiction. But Ray was committed to quitting, and not just that. He was determined to completely change his lifestyle. He was going to say goodbye to junk food, to hard drinking, to being lazy. He was going to change it all.

Ray Zahab: I changed my life 180 degrees and went from smoking a pack of cigarettes every night to eating broccoli and all the things I needed to do and getting lots of sleep and not partying so that I could get up the next day and train on my mountain bike.

Katy Milkman: Ray did it. He quit smoking. He was eating better. He got in shape. But he wanted to go further.

Ray Zahab: Over these three years, my life changed dramatically, but the one thing that I did not do that my brother was always amazing at, was running. One day in 2003, I read an article in a magazine about ultra-marathons, and I was immediately transfixed by this article because it was talking about a race that people did in the Yukon, a race called the Yukon Arctic Ultra. This 100-mile race, basically four times the distance of a marathon, that people were doing. And I could not believe they were running in the middle of winter in the arctic, four marathons back to back.

Katy Milkman: The Yukon Arctic Ultra is an extreme endurance race in the arctic. In February. It’s nuts. 

Ray Zahab: And so I entered the race. It took every penny I had to pay for the entry fee. Fast forward two days later; I’m standing on the start line of the Yukon Arctic Ultra.

Speaker 6: Three. Two. One. Go.

Katy Milkman: He ran the whole thing. Near the end of the race …

Ray Zahab: This snow mobile came zipping by at me. and they’re yelling. and the guy’s—I can’t even see what he’s saying because he’s got the face mask on. He’s got his hands up in the air. I thought he was yelling at me, “Get off the trail, you idiot.” But I find out later on what he was yelling at me. It wasn’t long after that, that I’d seen these guys, that I saw a banner that said “Finish Line Yukon Arctic Ultra.” And I could not believe, I ran underneath this finish line, felt like warp speed, laughing like an idiot. Because I could not believe that I went from point A to point B, 100 miles through the night. So close to quitting. I was … it was so close. Like I got my arms up in the air, I cannot believe that I made it.

I’m wandering around the finish line looking for someone. It’s like everybody just left and went home after the race finished, right? But I did it. And from this cabin that was in the distance came running over to me, was this race director. And he said to me, he said, “Dude, you finished the race.” I said “I promise you, I’m a lot more surprised than you are.” The guys back there on that snowmobile, they were yelling at me. And he goes, “Couldn’t you hear what they were saying?” I said, “No.” He goes, “You’re wondering why no one is here?” I said, “I thought it finished and everybody went home and nobody bothered to wait for me.” He said, “Dude, no one’s here because you’re the first one to get here. You won the race.”

Katy Milkman: I want to take stock here for a minute. Ray went from being a hard-drinking, heavy-smoking, fast-food eating, drag-racing party animal to winning an ultra-marathon. Hard to believe how far he’s come.

Ray Zahab: So I ran the Yukon Arctic Ultra-Marathon a hundred miles. Then I ran 4,500 miles across the Sahara. 1,200 miles across the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. 800 miles north to south through the Atacama Desert in Chile in the middle of summer. Then I ran and trekked close to 700 miles to the South Pole. I have crossed the Patagonian Desert, 600 miles. South to north through the Namib Desert, close to 1,200 miles, and the list goes on. In expeditions alone, 9,000 miles, and that does not include unsupported expeditions in the arctic, fat bike expeditions, any of that.

Katy Milkman: 9,000 miles and then some. Ray has taken on many superhuman challenges. He’s gone on many gruelling adventures. He’s demonstrated uncommon endurance and willpower and yet …

Ray Zahab: Still to this day, the hardest thing I ever did was quit smoking. When I first decided that I was gonna change my life, and I was truly committed, I also had to teach myself how to be happy. I looked at my life as the glass was half empty. The first 30 years of my life. And I spent the first 30 years of my life talking myself out of doing things in life. Now I automatically talk myself in. I don’t have to talk myself in, it’s automatic, I’m a risk taker.

Katy Milkman: An incredible transformation. All based on what was really an arbitrary date.

Ray Zahab: Yeah, you know January 1st. December 31st. May 28th. June 11th. You know, whatever, these are all just days on a calendar that we’ve constructed to measure time, right? So I think we can take that day and create it at any time in a year that we want to. It’s just that some of us need that. Some of us want to set a date, and it’s like, “That’s the day.”

Katy Milkman: Ray Zahab is a long-distance runner and author of the book Running for My Life. I’ve got links in the show notes and at Schwab.com/podcast.

Ray made some remarkable changes on January 1, 2000. Now granted, New Year’s is a time for resolutions. Lots of people set new goals for themselves on New Year’s. But other dates and times work too. The start of the week or the start of a new season, for example. We call these temporal landmarks, and they mark the passage of time, which helps people organize their lives into distinct episodes. It’s that somewhat arbitrary demarcation of time that I’m interested in. The thing is, January 1st is just another day. Monday is just another day. Your birthday is just another day. And yet, these occasions can be powerful because of the way we perceive time in episodes or categories rather than seeing it as fluid and continuous.

Ray Zahab could have quit smoking on December 29th or January 3rd, but he was more motivated by January 1st. We canvassed a few people who’ve made big life changes around temporal landmarks. We called them up to ask them what inspired them. Here’s one example.

Eric: Turning 31 was quite the turning point in thought process in my life, and it came down to me working at a steady job as a radio announcer. I had been there for five years, six months, seven days, 23 hours when I realized, “I’m not doing this for myself anymore.” The date was October 1st of 2018, and I decided to take life into my own hands and quit my job to pursue a life and career making music. All right, here we go (singing). I do, I realize I was just yelling.

Katy Milkman: That was Eric, talking and singing about a big career decision he made around his 31st birthday. Maybe you’ve made similar choices around important dates. Changing jobs on an anniversary. Getting into shape after the start of a new year. Making amends with family around a birthday. If you heard our last episode, you might remember that Scott Harrison used his 31st birthday as an excuse to launch his now incredibly successful Charity: Water organization. After years of hedonism and partying, he marked a new chapter, and he left his old self behind. So why does this happen? Why is it at least a little bit easier to make these types of decisions or to achieve goals on a date that marks some kind of new beginning rather than on a regular, average, run-of-the-mill Wednesday morning?

It has something to do with the fresh-start effect. Research I did with Hengchen Dai and Jason Riis shows that people are significantly more likely to tackle their goals around temporal landmarks. These are times that stand out from the minutiae of the day-to-day and segment our lives into episodes. Birthdays. Anniversaries. Changing seasons. The start of new jobs. These are all psychologically significant markers in time. They feel like breaking points and give us the sense of a clean slate. On these dates, we can look back on failures and say, “That was the old me last year, or last week, or in my last job, and this is the new me.” That optimism and feeling of separation from failure is key to helping people achieve their goals, and it’s something many religious rituals try to tap into as well.

The fresh-start effect is related to a larger phenomenon called mental accounting. Mental accounting describes our tendency to label resources like time and money and treat them as if they belong in certain buckets and aren’t entirely interchangeable. One day has the same type of hours in it as any other day. One dollar is as useful or valuable as any other dollar. But people tend to put their money and their time into different mental accounts and to use them differently once they’re categorized. Once you label a certain hour family time, it may become precious. An hour you wouldn’t spend on work no matter the consequences. Once you label a certain savings account vacation money, it may similarly become off-limits, even for paying pressing bills.

Nobel Prize–winning economist Richard Thaler noticed this tendency that people had to create mental accounts. It’s not what a standard economic model would predict people do, though it does seem to be an intuitive way to simplify life.

Richard Thaler: One way of simplifying is to put stuff into categories. There’s a clip I always show in my class, a discussion between Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman, where Gene Hackman is telling this story about when they were both starving young actors. And he goes over to Dustin Hoffman’s house, and Dustin Hoffman says he needs a loan, and Hackman says, “No, you don’t need a loan. I saw in your kitchen there are all these mason jars and they all have money in them. You don’t need any money.” And Hoffman says, “No, yeah, the jar labeled food doesn’t have any money in it, and I can’t take the money out of the utilities jar and spend it for food.” So he needs a loan.

Katy Milkman: Just to belabor the point, if you have money sitting around, even if you’re stockpiling it for a particular purpose, the first place to go when you need cash is—drumroll please—to that pile of money you’ve been stockpiling. You don’t want to take out a high-interest-rate loan. But this isn’t the way people think. We label money and time and give some of it special treatment.

Richard Thaler: There’s this paper by Heath and Soll that shows that if you’ve gone out to dinner in the middle of the week because maybe some friend came in from out of town and you don’t normally go out for a fancy dinner in the middle of the week, then you’re less likely to do that on the weekend, because your entertainment budget or out-to-dinner budget has already been spent. We see all kinds of silly decisions made by both individuals and consumers because they’re keeping these accounts. Now, why do they keep them? They’re for self-control reasons. Now, actually when I was first doing research on this, I hired an RA …

Katy Milkman: An RA is a research assistant.

Richard Thaler: … to go around for a summer talking to lower income and lower middle income families about how they do their budgeting. And it very much confirmed the impression that people were forming these accounts, either explicitly or implicitly, and then using that as a way of keeping their finances in line, and that’s the same reason organizations do it. The relation between mental accounting and regular financial accounting, whatever we call it, they’re really quite the same. My colleague Neale Mahoney and Jeff Liebman have a recent paper showing how government budgets that expire at the end of the year create all kinds of weird behavior of people using up their budgets before the fiscal year ends. And in fact, you even see a big spike in spending on the West Coast on the last day of the fiscal year because they didn’t manage to get it all spent on the East Coast. So they call their friends in California and say, “Can you spend a little money? You know, this call is at 9:00 West Coast time, ’cause it’s midnight on the East Coast, and there’s a hundred grand left, can you guys figure out something to do with it?”

Katy Milkman: So interesting. That was Richard Thaler, winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Economics and the co-author of the New York Times’ best-selling book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.

So this mental accounting thing that Richard Thaler and others have observed describes the behavior of individuals, families and organizations, and it can result in irrational choices. Like skipping a tradition you enjoy, like going out to dinner on the weekend because you happen to have a dinner out midweek. Or even taking out a high-interest loan when you have cash on hand that you’ve simply labeled for some other purpose. But mental accounting can also help you keep track of your spending.

We see similar examples in the way people view their time. They tend to place their time in different accounts too. What that means is that when one time period or mental account comes to an end, so to speak, it leads them to act like something meaningful has happened. They shift their behavior. As an example, we called to ask Rebecca to tell us how she thinks about starting a new year in her life.

Rebecca: Every year, on my birthday, I take the day off. I go to a diner first thing in the morning, and I sit with my journal, and I reflect on my year. And from that, I decide where I’m gonna go for the next year, and I set my goals, personal and professional. I like to think about things I loved about my year, like real highlight points. Things about my year that I never want to repeat. Some are in my control and some are not. That’s right, but I went back to look at one from 2014, and it says like, “Wear more fun hats.”

Katy Milkman: Rebecca marks important aspects of her life by years, like many of us do. She uses her birthday as a time to reflect and set goals. Now, she could do that every six months, every seven and a half months, or every 18 months, but birthdays have more significance for her because of this mental accounting of time. A birthday marks the start of a new chapter for her. And when I explore mental accounting on the money side with one of my friends at Harvard Business School, John Beshears. We worked on a research paper together about a decade ago that explored a peculiar behavior that people exhibited when they were shopping online for groceries. John, can you explain the study a bit?

John Beshears: What we did was we looked at data from an online grocer that sent out $10 coupons to its users. What traditional economic theory would say is that, OK, well, you give people an extra $10—and it’s not attached to any particular item or anything other than it’s just an extra $10 that you can spend. Now what should I do with that $10? According to traditional economic theory, that’s an extra $10 in lifetime wealth and, therefore, I should spend that $10 in a way that’s spread out over the rest of my life. Right? And so in my next grocery visit, if I’m just $10 wealthier overall over the course of my entire life, that leads to a negligible impact on my grocery spending. But what we found is that actually that $10 coupon leads me to spend more money. The money from this coupon was landing in the online grocery mental account for people, and it looks like they did the natural thing, which is when you have more money in your online grocery mental account, you spend more on online groceries.

An additional thing that really suggests that people are somehow feeling wealthier in this online grocery account is that we could look at the exact items that they bought when they had this $10 coupon. Nicer, luxury types of foods—like seafood, like meat—and then also we found that there was an increase in spending on items that you haven’t really purchased in the past.

Katy Milkman: So people act richer like they can afford things that weren’t within reach before, which is kind of weird, isn’t it? They kind of put that money in a different bucket and then spend it in a different way.

John Beshears: In some sense, economists, at least the traditional ones, would say you should not engage in mental accounting because it leads you to misallocate your resources, whether it’s your money or your time across all the different things that you might spend your money or your time on. But mental accounting can be quite helpful in managing your life.

Another application is you can actually use it as a way of managing your spending. So if you think that it’s a good idea for you to have a little bit of money that you get to spend on a small indulgence that you like—let’s say it’s your twice a week morning latte—if you create a mental account for yourself, and you say, “OK, well, my weekly budget for this small indulgence is $10.” Then what’s gonna happen is you can try to use that as a way of sticking to your plan, right? You can use it as a way of saying, “OK, well I spent my indulgence money on Tuesday and, therefore, for the rest of the week I have to be disciplined.” So mental accounting can actually be a very useful way of disciplining yourself and sticking to a plan. Whether it’s a plan for how you’re gonna spend your money or a plan for how you’re gonna spend your time.

Katy Milkman: John, thank you so much for joining. This was really great.

John Beshears: Yeah, it was absolutely a pleasure. Thanks, Katy.

Katy Milkman: John Beshears is a professor of negotiations, organizations and markets at Harvard Business School. I’m Katy Milkman, and this is Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. If—like a lot of people—you want to make a fresh start with your finances, check out our sister podcast, Financial Decoder. It’s hosted by Mark Riepe, head of the Schwab Center for Financial Research. Each episode, Mark tackles a different question like “How can you save more?” or “Does your portfolio need adjusting?” You can find it at Schwab.com/financialdecoder or wherever you listen to podcasts.

While mental accounting may be a tendency that a well-trained economist would balk at, you can use it to your advantage. As John Beshears mentioned, those accounts that you keep in your head can actually help you manage your spending, especially when it comes to things that you can live without, like lattes. The mental accounts serve as little commitments that can help you from overindulging. Mental accounts also make it easier to keep track of things, since it’s hard to re-optimize your budget every time you experience a shock to your inflows or your outflows. So mental accounting for money is one thing, and mental accounting for time is another. When you look at the accounts you keep around time, those boundaries and markers may be arbitrary, but they can give you a boost of motivation or shift your frame of mind to help you achieve your goals.

To quit smoking, Ray Zahab used the fresh start that came with an iconic date, January 1, 2000, the start of a new millennium. But you can also use things like the beginning of a new week, or a new school semester, or a new job, to make a start on challenging goals. That new diet you want to try? You might be more compelled to actually start it if you pick some kind of temporal landmark as your kickoff date, like your birthday or, say, the first day of spring. You’re basically using a date that feels like a new beginning to open a new mental account.

In our research, my collaborators and I have showed that people are more likely to search for the term “diet” on Google, visit the gym and set goals on a popular goal setting website at fresh start moments like the start of a new week, or year, and following birthdays and holidays associated with new beginnings. And we may be able to leverage this to help people make better choices. In one recent experiment with thousands of non-savers, we found that inviting people to start saving after an upcoming birthday led to more savings over a nine-month follow-up period than inviting people to start saving at an equivalent time delay but without mentioning the upcoming birthday. Though admittedly this could be due to a fear of growing old without savings, rather than the fresh-start effect.

Of course, a fresh start doesn’t guarantee success. Lots of New Year’s resolutions fail, and many birthday goals are forgotten—and a mental account for savings doesn’t ensure you won’t dip into that bucket to make a frivolous purchase. But these temporal landmarks and mental accounts can be a useful first step towards achieving your goals.

You’ve been listening to Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. If you’ve enjoyed the show, leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. It helps other people find the show, and while you’re there, you can subscribe for free. Same goes for other podcasting apps. Subscribe and you won’t miss an episode. Next time on the show, we’ll look at the ways we tend to fool ourselves in the face of randomness, and we’ll explore mysterious disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle. I’m Katy Milkman. Talk to you next time.

Speaker 11: For important disclosures, see the show notes or visit Schwab.com/podcast.

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