we've learned

Why We Don’t Buy Bitcoin or Any Cryptocurrency — And You Shouldn’t Either

The question we’ve started getting more than any other, from people who are pros at investing to folks who want to start from scratch is, “Should I buy Bitcoin? You guys own Bitcoin, right?

Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have been getting a lot more news lately as valuations have skyrocketed and plummeted, and people who don’t normally pay attention to niche tech things are digging into concepts like what a blockchain is. (We also suspect that some of our colleagues think we were able to pull off this whole early retirement thing by striking it big with Bitcoin. Nope.)

I’ve purposely never written about Bitcoin before because, well, I don’t live my life to invite hatemail. ;-) People who love Bitcoin looooooooovvvvvvve it. Some are evangelists, proselytizers and zealots. Those folks don’t want to hear a bad word against it.

If that’s you, and you don’t want to read criticism of Bitcoin, then this isn’t the post for you, because:

We don’t buy Bitcoin or any cryptocurrency.

And, frankly, if you give a damn about your own financial security, we don’t think you should either. 

But I’m early retired now and have more time to tackle the contentious issues (and hatemail), so let’s do this. ;-) Let’s talk about why we’re not fans, like, at all.

Why we don't buy Bitcoin or any cryptocurrency -- and why you shouldn't either // OurNextLife.com // For folks interested in achieving real financial security or financial independence, we have three words for you: Don't Buy Bitcoin.

Quick Refresher on Bitcoin and Cryptocurrency

If you need a primer on Bitcoin or cryptocurrencies generally, here are some good ones:

Fundamentally, crypto is peer-to-peer virtual currency with no middleman like a government or bank standing in the way. It’s virtual because there are no actual coins, and it only exists digitally, which requires records. All transactions are anonymous, and are intended to be secure and private, so there’s no record that says “Jane Smith has 10 Bitcoins.” Instead, Jane has one or more 64-digit (or 256 bit) keys that are her proof that she owns however much Bitcoin she owns. (That anonymity enables illegal transactions to be conducted with it, but I honestly don’t care about that. Crime will find a way. Though the stories we heard about the Bitcoin ATM in Dallas at FinCon17 were pretty hilarious.)

For Bitcoin or any cryptocurrency to exist without a central processor, you need a decentralized and democratized network of computers to keep those essential records, so that every Bitcoin owners knows what he or she owns and can prove it. That record ledger is called the blockchain, and this short video is a good basic explainer. If you want the geek version of the explanation that goes a lot deeper into cryptography, read this one. But think of the blockchain as the secure data ledger for the currency, which lives in many different computers around the world. Every transaction that has ever happened with Bitcoin is logged in the Bitcoin blockchain.

Enabling the exchange of Bitcoins and all cryptos are cryptocurrency exchanges or digital currency exchanges. These are the intended-to-be-secure businesses that facilitate the transferring of digital currency from one account for another for a fee.

Bitcoins are created through “mining,” and there is a diminishing and finite number that will ever be created, which is intended to boost their value and create scarcity. For that reason, early investors paid peanuts for multiple Bitcoins, while today a buyer might buy a fraction of one for thousands of dollars. (No point putting today’s value in here because it will be irrelevant in an hour!)

The New York Magazine piece nicely sums up what Bitcoin (or any cryptocurrency) was intended to be, and what it has become:

[A] theoretically untraceable and unhackable version of PayPal, more or less. But so many people got so excited about buying into the system that a market developed around buying and selling it — with bitcoin becoming less important as a currency than as a commodity, like gold. You can still buy things in bitcoin (like you can with gold, sort of), but many more people are now using it as an investment vehicle.

It’s the fact that Bitcoin and other cryptos are now used first as an investment vehicle, and only marginal as a repository of value, that we’re opposed to buying them. (Not because people like Paul Krugman call Bitcoin “evil” and believe it’s here to destabilize central banks and hinder governments. I certainly wouldn’t go that far.)

Here’s a lot more detail on why we’re anti-crypto:

It’s Clearly a Bubble Right Now

You could take it from Robert Schiller, who wrote:

Dabbling in Bitcoin lies somewhere between gambling and investing. After all, true investing requires a rational appraisal of an asset’s value and that is simply not possible at present with Bitcoin… It is not just that very few people really comprehend the technology behind Bitcoin. It is that no one can attach objective probabilities to the various possible outcomes of the current Bitcoin enthusiasm. [ED NOTE: “current enthusiasm” = bubble.] … Bitcoin is an example of ambiguity, and the efficient market theory does not capture what is going on in the market for this cryptocurrency… Researchers showed in 2006, for example, that when making decisions involving ambiguity, people do not use the parts of the brain required for calculations of probabilities and expected values… This is fascinating from a psychological perspective. But it isn’t grounded in solid economics.

Or from George Soros, who said:

Bitcoin is not a currency because a currency is supposed to be a stable store of value and the currency that can fluctuate 25% in a day can’t be used for instance to pay wages because wages drop by 25% in a day. It’s a speculation. Based on a misunderstanding.

Or you could look at some data yourself. This volatility chart, comparing B$ to the S&P 500 and to gold, says a lot:

Citi Private Bank, the folks who did the chart above, found that:

Bitcoin’s correlation to the S&P 500 was virtually zero, while its correlation with gold was .054, meaning gold and Bitcoin only trade in sync about 5% of the time—a relationship so negligible as to be insignificant.

Jen Wieczner, writing in Fortune

That itself is not a fatal flaw, but it does tend to suggest that Bitcoin is operating independent of larger economic forces. When the stock market crashes, housing prices tend to be impacted. When the dollar fluctuates, imports and exports shift. Economic forces don’t exist in a vacuum, and are all interconnected. So if something is operating almost entirely out of that interconnected system, as the Citi analysis and Schiller quote show? It’s probably a bubble.

And when you see a bubble, run away, quickly. But even if it wasn’t a bubble or super volatile, there are still some important reasons not to buy crypto.

[Update: There are now concerns that the price of Bitcoin is being manipulated and propped up by Bitfinex and its dollar-backed cryptocurrency Tether. Which just adds to bubble worries.]

It’s Not Actually Secure — or Private

The entire idea behind Bitcoin is that you have this secure, private currency that can’t be tracked. Except neither of those is true in reality.

Bitcoins and other cryptocurrencies have proven fairly easy to hack and steal. There was the first big Bitcoin exchange hack in 2014, of Mt. Gox, which was then valued at $473 million, and which caused the exchange to shut down, restricting users’ access to their Bitcoin wallets even if their particular Bitcoins weren’t stolen. (And because Bitcoin is only quasi-legal, those users didn’t have same litigation recourse they’d have if a site just decided to restrict access to their money. There’s no FDIC for this stuff.) There was last month’s NiceHash Bitcoin hack, valued at north of $70 million. There was the DAO Ethereum hack, which — unlike other hacks — didn’t hit an exchange or wallet site and instead targeted the “smart contract,” and was valued at $70 million. There was the $72 million Bitfinex hack in 2016, followed by last month’s cyberattack that shut down the same site. There was last week‘s $500 million hack of Coincheck, a Japanese wallet site for the NEM cryptocurrency. And those won’t be the last. (And these are not theoretical money numbers. These are real people’s real Bitcoins or other currency units.)

Crypto fanatics will say that those hacks weren’t flaws in Bitcoin itself, or any other currency, but rather with servicers who operate a level above the blockchain. They argue that these hacks can be prevented in the future, as though hackers sit still and don’t keep trying to find new ways to steal things. But, fine. Let’s pretend the security is a short-term problem.

Even if future crypto is totally secure, it still won’t be as private as it’s intended to be. Blockchain surveillance firm Chainalysis, and certainly others, tracks every transaction on the Bitcoin blockchain and now even has multiple U.S. government contracts to monitor for illegal transactions. If you want to hear the kind of stuff they can figure out by looking at supposedly anonymous key codes, listen to this recent episode of the Reply All podcast. They believe they’ve found the hacked Mt. Gox Bitcoin fortune, and they can extrapolate from transaction data nearly everything you’d want to know about any Bitcoin user.

So let’s say you’re willing to wait out the bubble, and you don’t care about security (why?!) or privacy (fair enough). There’s more.

It’s Easy to Lose

Because Bitcoin is anonymous, there’s no record anywhere that you own however much Bitcoin you have bought. The only proof you have is the digital key you get when you buy it, which is what lets you reference your ledger entry on the blockchain and at some point sell or transfer your value. But turns out that digital key is easy to lose.

A recent study concluded that nearly a quarter of all Bitcoins ever mined are lost forever, because people lose their key codes all the time, especially folks who invested in the early days when each coin wasn’t worth that much. And there are the sad sack stories that come along with that, like the guy in Wales who accidentally threw out an old hard drive with his Bitcoin keys on it, currently worth maybe more than $100 million, and his local government won’t let him dig through the landfill to find it.

If you lose any other password or account number, there is always a way to look it up or retrieve it. Not so with Bitcoin. Even the incredibly sophisticated surveillance firms like Chainalysis can’t help you without a key code, as this Planet Money podcast episode highlights.

It’s Terrible for the Environment

I’m personally heavily persuaded by this one. Mining Bitcoins is quickly becoming one of the most energy-intensive endeavors on the planet, and it’s only set to worsen. One analysis showed that Bitcoin mining now consumes as much electricity as the country of Denmark, enough to power 3 million homes, but others have questioned the assumptions in that study, and say it’s likely lower. By one estimate:

It takes about the same amount of energy to produce a 50 Euro bill as it does to power a 60-watt lightbulb for roughly half an hour. Producing the same value of bitcoin would require enough energy to power your house for four days.

Writers have said that Bitcoin will consume as much electricity as the entire United States by 2020, or even the entire world, costing us our clean energy future, and some say that’s wildly exaggerated (but it still consumes plenty of power). (Ethereum and other cryptos are subject to the same critique.)

Regardless of which extrapolated figure or projection is correct, no one disputes that mining Bitcoins and running transactions on the blockchain consumes a lot of electricity. And as the price of Bitcoin increases, the incentive to mine them will become that much greater because the reward for each coin will offset the cost of consuming more electricity, giving miners an incentive to use even more power, at least in the short term until the scheduled payout decreases.

And while, sure, there are new cryptocurrencies like Chia and Burstcoin that purport to consume far less electricity by using the blockchain differently (“proof of time” instead of “proof of work”), all the rest of these arguments still apply to any crypto.

For those who’d argue that the biggest server farms mining Bitcoins and processing blockchain transactions aren’t hurting anything because so many are located next to hydro dams in China and geothermal vents in Iceland, so are not the same as burning fossil fuels or taking power away from major cities, there’s still a tremendous opportunity cost. We could be using that power to add value to the actual economy.

Transaction Times Are Getting Longer, Which Affects Your Value

The Bitcoin blockchain is now so big and unwieldy (and getting bigger every day) that the network is struggling to process more than four transactions per second. Which means two things:

1. Fees associated with Bitcoin transactions are skyrocketing:

And as any reasonable investor knows, fees are the fastest wealth killer. If you moved your money out of a high-fee brokerage and over to Vanguard or Fidelity because you prefer low fees, then this alone should be reason enough to stay away from Bitcoin. But the longer transaction times also mean:

2. It can take days to process a single transaction, and given the huge price volatility (see B$ vs. gold and S&P chart above), you could potentially end up paying tons more than you intended to — or cashing out far less than you’d hoped — at the time when your transaction actually clears the network. Would you ever sell stock shares if someone told you, “Well, right now the shares you want to sell are worth $1000, but when they sell, they could be worth anywhere from $400 to $2000”? If you say yes, then accept that what you’re fundamentally doing is not investing, it’s gambling.

You Don’t Own Anything of Value

This is an old-school economics 101 argument, but as someone old enough to have lived through the tech crash at the turn of the millennium, I remember when some investors lost absolutely everything because so many of those dotcom boom darlings didn’t own anything. When they folded, they didn’t own any bricks-and-mortar buildings, or equipment, or anything to liquidate that would have paid forlorn shareholders something. If you own stock in a company with physical property that folds, you can at least get the proceeds of the sale of those properties, so in a sense, you are diversified in those stock holdings by owning both the company and its real estate. With crypto, you own nothing. If people stop speculating and this bubble bursts, there’s no thing underlying your bet.

More than that, something only truly has value if we all agree it has value. Gold has value beyond being an investment instrument, and everyone in the world sees the U.S. Dollar as being worth something. A dollar is also backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. Treasury, which is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. There’s consensus around a dollar’s value, and that is one of several forces keeping that value stable. While anyone could argue that cryptocurrencies are still new and therefore don’t have that consensus yet, there are a lot of good reasons why getting to that consensus is unlikely. (See above.) And for those who argue that Bitcoin and other cryptos do have underlying value, because theoretically people could also decide to stop trusting the U.S. government, for example, a currency that is backed by a central bank (especially the most powerful one in the world, which is decently good at doing things like controlling inflation through monetary policy) is fundamentally different than a currency backed and guaranteed by no one.

You Will Virtually Always Do Better Not Trying to Beat the Market

The first rule of sound investing is not to try to beat the market. That’s when you fall prey to hot stock tips that later crash and get emotionally invested, which leads to buying high and selling low. Very smart and successful investors like Warren Buffett remind us that you don’t need to beat the market at all to amass wealth, you just need to match it. Historically markets return well above the rate of inflation, which means that in the long term your money will always grow in value if it’s invested in a broad swath of the economy, in things like the low-fee index funds that many of us financial independence enthusiasts love. Also, does it need saying? Get rich quick schemes don’t work, except for the tiny fraction who go on to star in the infomercials.

Buying Bitcoin is the very definition of trying to beat the market, and history shows that doesn’t work out well for most people. (Even the pros!)

The Role Cryptocurrency Can Play

If you want to make Bitcoin or any other cryptocurrency part of your portfolio, just treat it as your gamble. Whatever you’d be comfortable putting on a craps table or roulette table in Vegas and potentially losing in its entirety, use that money to buy crypto. Or whatever money you would otherwise have used on gaming or some hobby, use that. But don’t treat this volatile, insecure, speculative bubble “asset” as an investment. Put your real money into index funds, dividend stocks, real estate or other assets that will generate passive income and reliably grow wealth for you.

But if you do buy it, by all means, keep your wallet secure.

Let’s Discuss!

I know there are strong feels on both sides of this one, so let’s dig into it. Fan of Bitcoin? Bitcoin hater? Still on the fence? Tell us which you are and why, and let’s get chatting in the comments!

Want extra Our Next Life content? Get the e-newsletter!

Onls profile6 closeweb

Subscribe to get our monthly newsletter with tons of top secret info we'll never share here on the blog. It's like a whole extra post or two a month!

No spam or slimy sales pitches ever. Unsubscribe any time -- no worries! Powered by ConvertKit

104 replies »

  1. Ah Tanja, I think I love you :-)
    Kudos to you for taking this one on, and writing a thorough and detailed piece on it. You’re preaching to the converted here (I wouldn’t buy crypto because a)bubble and b) not owning anything of value) but I’ve learnt more about bitcoin and it’s workings thanks to you.

  2. I’m not a fan or a hater of Bitcoin. I’m just not a gambler. I do think that blockchain technology is pretty cool and has tons of uses yet to be discovered. We’re examining it at my job now. Blockchain is one of those “why didn’t I think of that!” technologies that’s deceptively simple, but alas, no one brought it to light until 10 years ago.

    Informative post Tanja. I’m just glad that I’m already financially independent so I won’t be tempted to chase any of these fads, whether they stick or not.

    • Dude! What are you doing up at this hour? And don’t say lunar eclipse, because I know you won’t get to see it from there. (That is why I’m up!)

      And I agree with you re: the blockchain, though I do wonder if there will ever be an instance where one will truly function long-term in a democratized way rather than evolving into a few megahubs, or whether you can have a blockchain product that doesn’t end up using tons of resources (energy, computing power, what have you) without perverse incentives. But we shall see!

  3. As my mom used to say about my comic books, it’s only worth what the next person will give you for it. I think blockchain and smart contracts are cool, bitcoin as a currency? No thanks. I’ll let someone else gamble on it as an “investment” and I’ll stick to boring index funds.

    The world is full of assets that can 10x their value very quickly without the huge learning curve (and on the simple things like – where do you hold bitcoin? how do you prevent it from being stolen?) and longer history.

      • Nice post. I’m always willing to read differing opinions on cryptos/blockchain as I am a long term believer in cryptos/blockchain/Bitcoin etc. I think it’s wrong to separate a case use like Bitcoin (currency) from the blockchain. I recognize that they are two separate things but for all intents and purposes Bitcoin and blockchain are the same thing. That is like saying you like all the cool tech stuff underlying the iPhone but not the case use itself, the iPhone. There is plenty cool tech in an iPhone. Does that mean that the tech of the iPhone is more valuable than the phone itself. Are the parts of an iPhone from Intel, Samsung, Broadcom, Skyworks and many more, more valuable than the iPhone itself? No. It’s about the case use, the phone (Bitcoin) and not the parts that make it work (blockchain).

        Regarding environmental impacts and electrical usage predictions I draw parallels to peak oil arguments. The 70s, 80s, 90s all produced multiple never ending reports on peak oil and how we must conserve find alt energy sources etc. Here we are today with a world oil glut. One thing technology has proven time and again is that solutions to problems are often found. Sure, alarming stats like mining electricity consumption equal the country of Denmark and soon the entire U.S. output make for great sensationalist headlines but the fact remains that no one can predict the future even with trend lines pointing in a certain direction. I have seen the reports and trends highlighting the end of “drillable” oil. So too, I highly doubt that we’ll “run out of electricity” as Bitcoin mining continues in earnest. There will always be some tech solution to a problem.

        • Hi DivHut — Interesting point about separating the two. And on the environmental impact, I think the peak oil argument is not the best way to look at it. Instead look at the absolute amount of energy being consumed by B$ mining, and how many other homes and businesses that could be powering (or just not being used at all). That means more electrical generators have to be built to serve regular, non-B$ needs, and even if they are totally renewable like wind or geothermal, that’s still energy and resources going into building them. So think about it in terms of environmental opportunity costs, not whether there are finite resources.

  4. Posts detailing “investing” in bitcoins started to emerge lately in our PF community, mostly negative ones. I wanted to go against them, I wanted to defend the cryptos, but this article made me change my mind. Some points are arguable, but you did an awesome job at research and you brought up the arguments yourself. I am impressed. Also I realized why I wanted to do so. I love technology and I am impressed by this whole phenomenon. The real problem that people does not handle cryptos at their place. Definitely not a good investment vehicle, the current hype is definitely a bubble and won’t advice anyone to put serious money into it. Still I have the urge to throw in some bucks and play with it just for the fun and the geeky joy. Thanks for sharing!

  5. As someone retiring the old fashioned way – through hard work, frugality, and index investing – Bitcoin millionaires are cheapening the experience. Quitting work at my age (early 30s), there’s a good portion of the population who would only believe I “got lucky” with cryptocurrency, because no one could possibly save that much money otherwise, right?

    I don’t care much about what people think, but I still fall into that trap sometimes…there’s still a part of me that is a little bitter to be retiring right around the time crypto is trending. If I really dig into those feelings, it’s because I’m so proud of us for the years and years of work we’ve put into our finances, and to think that someone could look at what we’ve done and say “pssh, you obviously got lucky, I don’t see any blood, sweat or tears in what you’ve done.”

    Those people will always be there, though. Crypto just gives them an easy excuse.

    Anyway, great post!

    • Don’t let that urge to compare steal your joy. You know you earned your early retirement, and most of the folks with a Bitcoin fortune right now just have paper gains. A crash could potentially come and wipe everybody out. (Economically, I hope that doesn’t happen, but it’s possible.) Focus on what you did and enjoy that and remember that it’s only between 1 and 3 percent of people, depending which data you believe, who retire before 55. So you’re still a rare and special unicorn. ;-)

      • lol, no unicorns here. You’re right though, deep down this is just my lizard brain feeling jealous. I would imagine crypto millionaires run into the same financial problems as lottery winners, so even if the grass looks greener I’m sure it’s not!

        • We all do that. ;-) And I bet you’re right that the grass is always greener. I bet having a Bitcoin fortune and no other real assets is STRESSFUL. All that fluctuation! So many heart attacks.

  6. I’m glad to see more FIRE folks writing about this topic. When I first learned about cryptos the concept really irritated me, so its relieving to see that its not just me not jumping on the crypto bandwagon.

    • I think the anti-Bitcoin crowd is probably just as guilty of some of that kneejerk reacting as the pro-Bitcoin crowd, so it’s good to try to understand anything new in detail and not just write it off. (I’ll admit initial skepticism, too, though — but since then I’ve tried to keep an open mind.) But yeah, PLENTY of good reasons not to get on that bandwagon. ;-)

  7. It’s kind of fun to think of crypto as the shag carpeting of the investing world. Part of me really thinks we will have a, What were we thinking? moment. But maybe not. I actually like the idea of some kind of financial disruptor. But I’m not hoping on board with my money because we have lots of other things to get right financially first.

    Though if I had a trip to Vegas planned soon, I might be tempted to put the same amount of “fun money” into crypto.

    • Yeah, no shame in putting in true fun money that you can afford to kiss goodbye, if you just want to get in on the fun. But I agree — a financial disruptor would be welcome! But not this one, not yet, with so many problems still in place.

  8. Excellent “splainer” on this. I suspect the majority of people chasing cryptocurrencies have little, if any, savings or investments. To them, it’s an alternative to Power Ball or Mega Millions to fund their retirement. Buyer beware.

    • Thanks! Given the anonymity of it, it’s impossible to know exactly who’s buying what, and whether they have other investments. But it’s definitely not made for the conservative buy-and-hold type investors. ;-)

  9. Very well written article on the topic. I was lucky enough to make 3k on a small gamble I took on it. And I have 500 dollars of a gamble left in there. I do however count it as already gone.

    I leave some in there (500) on the off chance takes off again as it has previously. I didnt want to regret it again, i could of bought 5k worth when it was only 250 for one coin…would be a lot closer to financial freedom…hindsight is 20/20 though.

    Thank you for the excellent updates on your journey each week!!



    • Thanks! And good for you — you beat the house (a little bit). ;-) It’s great that 1.) you think of the money still in there as gone, and 2.) you aren’t dumping more in. You couldn’t have known that B$ would take off and you could just as easily have lost all the money you put in, so don’t beat yourself up about it. ;-)

  10. I look at it this way: Blockchain is potentially very awesome but we’ll have to see, Bitcoin is horrible for the environment and completely a loose cannon as far as a thing that holds value so nooo thank you.

    It might be fine as a fun money thing, financially, but I can’t get past how horrible it is for our environment.

    • 100% agree — IF there’s a secure way to use a blockchain without requiring so much electricity. It’ll be interesting to see how Chia and Burstcoin do, and if they can truly be more secure with the proof of time model vs. proof of work, and also currency farming vs. mining (meaning less blockchain processing so less electricity). If those can prove that power needs are much smaller, then I’m all for more blockchain stuff.

  11. I’m not a bitcoin zealot, but I have liked and written about it since 2011. I also have never owned even a fraction of a bitcoin.

    As I was reading the article, I came to your conclusion before I got to the conclusion. If Person A considers it 95% gambling 5% investing, then I’m cool with that. If Person B is expecting it to be 95% investing and 5% gambling, that’s probably not going to end well. Also, I believe Person A should keep the investment low (say $50 a month) and dollar cost average every month. I don’t know if it’s even possible to do this on an exchange, but Robinhood is allowing Bitcoin trading in February and I think it’s with zero (or extremely low) transaction fees.

    For years, Bitcoin actually worked more as a currency. It’s become a commodity more recently. Currencies can become very unstable too. I think this happened with the Venezuelan bolívar in recent history. Of course that’s opposite of the “current enthusiasm.” In a situation such as that people could flee to bitcoin as an actual stabilizing hedge. (This definitely would work better if bitcoin acted a little more stable like it did before the bubble.)

    I blame the Bitcoin bubble on human behavior and I wonder if over time that will be fixed and it will act more like a stable currency.

    The environmental issue is actually the biggest one for me now. That’s huge and we shouldn’t spend so much of our natural resources to make currency.

    • Agree with everything here. And I’m actually surprised, knowing you, that you didn’t go in a ponzi scheme direction. ;-) Not that I think it’s truly that (as some very smart economists have asserted — I didn’t even go there in this post), but it’s obvious that the rising prices are being fueled by more speculators coming in, which pays off those who got in earlier. And, understandably, those who are invested then have an interest in hyping it so more folks will jump in and push the prices up higher. It’s a ponzi scheme in a technical sense in the same way teaching yoga is multilevel marketing (which is to say: it’s not technically, but it has much in common). ;-)

  12. I see a huge potential for the Blockchain technology. However, cryptocurrency like Bitcoin, I don’t see any values. There doesn’t seem to be any intrinsic value. It’s a lot about hype… take a look at historical market hypes – the tulips, dot com bubble, etc.

  13. I’m a huge theoretical fan of crypto. I first heard of it in 2014, and should have bought some then, but I didn’t. I still don’t own any now since I think it’s a bit premature in the development of the dispersed ledger technology (not to mention foolish to buy a currency when you can’t very well buy goods and services with it).

    I think dispersed ledger technology has massive potential in applications besides currency (especially property rights, contract enforcement, even personal identification applications), but I will refrain from waxing poetic about blockchain for the time being and instead focus on why I’m a fan of crypto, even though I haven’t invested myself.

    These are my three basic reasons for loving crypto (or at least the future I see for crypto once it becomes a currency proper rather than tulip bulbs)
    1. The Federal Reserve and other central banks are too intimately connected with the financial sector in my opinion. The 2008 bailouts yielded real resources (not just cash) going to banks at the expense of alternative uses of those resources. Alternative currencies I hope will act as a check on the actions of big banks and reduce moral hazard. To say this another way, let’s say in 50 years we have another financial crisis (Not recession, financial crisis). If crypto is well developed including ways to issue loans, secure property rights, etc. I think the Federal Reserve may have the power to actually let major banks fail. This will massively reduce systemic risk in the financial system.

    2. We see many instances throughout the world where the government is not on the side of the people. If I lived in one such country, I would find it prudent to diversify my currency exposure in the event of a refugee situation. In fact, even living in USA I find such actions prudent. Diversifying into a non-government backed currency seems like a better choice than a gov’t backed currency in my opinion, but the currency must have the “trust factor” which so far I haven’t seen come to bear in any crypto including Bitcoin. I assume that once the bubble of crypto pops we will see the best currencies remain.

    3. The ability to use an alternative currency provides a powerful check on corrupt government. If you harken back to Soviet-era Russia (among other examples), the rich an powerful had access to non-Russian currency that allowed them to make deals happen. How much more powerful would it have been if all the people could have accessed and used that currency? I think it’s a good check on government’s ability to corrupt- after all, a government only has power insofar as it can force people to comply with it’s laws, and the true rule of law is emergent

    • Yeah, the “can’t spend it anywhere” thing is kind of an important problem! ;-) Though we did see one street vendor in Taiwan who claimed to accept B$. We didn’t test it out, of course.

      The central bank argument is a super interesting one, and it feels like a double-edged sword. Having leverage to let the banks fail makes total sense, but there’s also the argument that cryptos will hasten the demise of central banks and national currencies, which is… problematic. It would surely be good for some folks, but as usual would disadvantage the same people who always end up screwed — those who are least able to adapt for any number of personal and systemic reasons. But certainly there are plenty of places where it’s already true that people and their governments are not aligned in interests, and I can see how especially people in countries with currency hyperinflation would feel a strong pull to a non-governmental option! And the corrupt government aspect is a great point, too. Do you know of research of folks in corrupt countries now using crypto? I’d be curious to dig into that!

  14. I’ve got the half a Litecoin my brother gifted me for Christmas and that’s all I ever plan to have. Haven’t checked the price once since he gave it to me because it doesn’t matter: I’ve got zero (of my own) skin in the game and it’s not part of my money at all. It’s not even fun Vegas gambling money in my mind since I always build that into the cost of a trip there, which requires thinking about it at all and I pay the crypto zero attention ;) I’m focusing on the ACTUAL money part of my finances.

    It could be the most exciting and promising technology ever, and I’d still be against it for the environmental factor. I cannot in good conscience ever endorse something that trashes the planet like that.

    • I like the idea of letting yourself forget about your Litecoin (but don’t lose the key!), and then maybe one day you’ll be surprised that you have some secret money, like when you find a $20 bill in an old jacket pocket. ;-)

      On the enviro side, folks say that Bitcoin is working on some updates to make it more efficient, and if other cryptos can answer that concern and build in structures to avoid the speculative bubble problem, I’m definitely not going to rule them out forever. But they’re definitely not to a place yet (or maybe ever) where we’d seriously consider them!

  15. I learned a lot from your post, Tanja. I guess I use Warren Buffet’s advice to invest in what I know. I don’t know Bitcoin, so I don’t invest in it.

    • Awesome! I do think it’s worth stretching yourself to learn more about different options (like with everything in life!), but I’d also say trust your gut. If something doesn’t sit right, don’t invest your money in it! ;-)

  16. As someone with a nerdy banker boyfriend, I’ve been convinced that blockchain is the way of the future. At this point, I still believe (like you) that it is gambling. I only recently found out he was “hiding” a chunk of change in various cryptocurrencies. I don’t much care he’s got it, but I did ask him to take his original investment out so he was only playing with ‘house money’. I’m definitely interested to see where all this goes in the future!

    • That’s a good way to do it — take out the principle and let the winnings ride for a bit to see where they go. No double distributed ledgers will be a bigger force in the future, but maybe let’s just iron out the kinks (or, really, major problems) before we all risk our security on this stuff. ;-)

  17. I wouldn’t say don’t buy bitcoin. I’d say don’t take out another mortgage on your house or trade on margin to buy bitcoin. Or maybe don’t use your credit card to buy bitcoin. As @fierymillenials has stated, blockchain is very likely the way of the future and we are probably just scratching the surface. Following principles of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, I’d put in at most 10% of my money into cryptos. Now that 10% if lost, is a loss granted. However, there is huge upside if the technology does catch on even after the bubble bursts. Remember, Google and Amazon came out of the dot com bubble. Just my 2 cents. :)

    • Thank you for sharing this perspective! I think we’re saying the same thing in the part about not buying Bitcoin with money you can’t afford to lose, but I appreciate your very forward-oriented view on this! Let’s hope they can work out some of the kinks to make it more energy-efficient and secure, as well as faster.

    • I kind of love that idea! (You’d just have to base it outside the U.S. since we’ve decided with our tariffs that we’re anti-solar now.) >:-( And yeah, I wish we could get a handle on the REAL energy use of Bitcoin and the other cryptos that work essentially the same way, and then have a conversation about what’s worth it or not.

  18. Thanks for writing this, I’ve been rallying against this absurdity for a while. There is *some* value in electronic currency in countries with unstable governments, but they already accomplish having an alternative currency with value by using the euro, dollar, ect.

    The environmental cost is obscene!

    • You’re welcome! I think in a more idealistic sense, I see the value of crypto, but the problems in real-world usage are enough to be dealbreakers for us at this point in time. And yeah, the electricity stuff is out of control!

  19. I’m glad you addressed the environmental impact. I saw Bitcoin more than a year ago and thought it was a bad investment. I’m a bit jealous now that I didn’t invest then. It was in the last month when I heard about a guy with a Tesla using the free charge ups and a computer in his trunk to mine bitcoin that I learned about the energy needed to maintain Bitcoin. I don’t know what the environmental cost of other currencies may be. Mining the metals for our coins can’t be great. And if you have ever watched Gold Rush on Discovery, it is shocking how many tons of dirt are processed to get an ounce of gold. So this is not the first environmentally “bad” currency. But in today’s age, why are we inventing a new currency that is bad in this regard?

    • Yeah, I bet a lot of us are like you and didn’t learn about the environmental aspect of most cryptos until recently! And that’s definitely true that hard money requires manufacturing as well, though I believe coins are heavily recycled at this point and we aren’t mining a ton of new metals for them — but I might not have that right! But yeah, with all the innovation at our fingertips, it seems crazy to invent something new that requires so much power.

  20. Great post! And yeah, the environmental impact is the biggest problem for me, and then the obvious bubble behaviour. I’ll stick to index funds. But if, at some point, defendably green index funds come along? I’ll be all over that!!

  21. I totally agree with you but am all “woulda coulda shoulda” about Bitcoin because I actually studied it for work 3-4 years ago. I basically wrote all the arguments against it that you did and now think “but I should have thrown $20 in anyway”… But definitely not now! 😂

  22. So Fergus had 1-2 bitcoins ages ago and sold for $10 T_T

    We don’t currently have any cryptocurrency, but I could see it as being potentially useful in the future, assuming markets stabilize and it’s not a gamble anymore. It could, for example, be a great way to avoid foreign transaction fees or to send money to friends and family outside of the states without it taking forever (of course, a better way for this would be for banks to actually act like it’s 2018 already ;) ).

    Wait, you’re not saying anything bad about CryptoKitties, though, right? I mean, you’re a fool to not have at least 10% of your net worth in CryptoKitties…

    • Oh my goodness, he must be kicking himself! And yeah, I could see the foreign transaction thing, though right now fees get high on B$ sometimes, and banks could easily modernize to fix this problem. And no! Not saying anything bad about CryptoKitties! (What is that again?) ;-)

  23. i bought the craze by buying stock in the exchanges where it trades. cme group and cboe. all they need are a zilliion transactions and they charge for every one, so i advise the world to trade the bejeeziz out of bitcoin and i’ll take the dividend payouts from the exchanges. and it’s more fun to blow it at the track where you get 2 minutes of the horses running around along with all the sordid degenerate but lovable track-goers.

    • If everyone listened to you, though, the bubble would get bigger, there’d be an inevitable crash, that could trigger a crash in the larger economy, and that would come back to bite you. Does that factor into your thinking at all?

  24. “Dabbling in Bitcoin lies somewhere between gambling and investing”

    So true. Thanks for laying out all the reasons why gambling in Bitcoin is a terrible idea. If people want to gamble, keep it under 5% of the portfolio. Investing isn’t about hitting a home run based on luck, it’s about slow and steady progress and not shooting yourself in the foot.

  25. I am amazed at the lack of hate in the comments (the comments on the MMM post from a few weeks ago were not nearly so pleasant). Assuming you haven’t been dropping the ban hammer left and right, this has been amazingly civil – how’s your inbox?

  26. Cool article but I have to disagree with a few things,
    Volatility doesn’t need to equal high risk, just invest less.
    Hacking is common yes but it occurs mostly on exchanges and web based wallets. There are many different forms of wallets with differing levels of security.
    Not all coins are traceable.
    There are solutions regarding the issue of energy consumption. Coins are starting to shift from PoW To PoS
    If anyone decides to “invest” in crypto’s .. i’d advise like any investment do your research

    • Totally fair to disagree! I think the challenge is that right now it’s impossible to tell which wallet or exchange sites will get hacked, which currencies are being manipulated, and which are truly untraceable. So no problem getting into this stuff as a very small part of your portfolio if you’re determined, but accept that losing it all is a possibility before you do. While that’s technically true of any investment, it’s far less likely with stocks that represent companies that have multiple aspects to their value such as IP, property, etc. But such a great point to do your research with any investment.

  27. While I agree that cryptocurrencies are a gamble and not an investment, I do think there is a place for taking on this type of risk (absolutely NOT bitcoin) in investment portfolios, particularly for people who do not have a high income who are chasing FIRE. The reality for a lot of folks who are no where close to 6 figure earners is that if they achieve FIRE at a young age, it will be through a combination of savvy saving, living frugally, and a very heavy dose of good timing/luck with investing. If you have the means to allot a certain (small) portion of your investments to lottery plays like crypto, then I think you should take that risk. The key is, of course, to get in early and only put in what you’re willing to lose. The ship has already sailed on bitcoin, but if you’ve got your finger on the pulse of some other whackadoo idea you think may have some potential and you’ve got an extra $50 (think about where bitcoin prices were in 2011….) you won’t miss, go for it!

    • I think you put it really well! If you can afford to lose 100% of the money you put out there in some new whackadoo idea, and you’re okay with that possibility, then why not roll the dice on a small investment or two? So long as you’re not staking your financial security on it or betting money you can’t afford to lose, then no problem.

      That said, I do think it’s a mistake to think that some people will never be able to FIRE through traditional investing alone. While we earned above average in our last few years, we for sure didn’t start there. But we found that compounding works at all levels — in what we earned over time and in our market gains.

      • Definitely agree that anyone can make it to FIRE if they start early enough and can take advantage of the magic of compounding interest, it’s just a much tougher road if you’ve got less to save. I was speaking a little bit from personal experience as my partner and I keep our assets separate and I make about double what he makes and if it weren’t for a few of the more risky investments (with those insignificant amounts of dough) that he has made along the way, my portfolio would be waaaaaay more than double his. He lives this weirdly charmed life where crazy investments just tend to work out for him though…as for me, on my first trip to Vegas I bet a dollar on red and a dollar on black, and of course it landed on the green double zeros, so rolling the dice isn’t exactly my cup of tea ;).

        I read your most recent post about sequence of returns risk and loved it. As much as none of us can time the market, there really is an annoying element of luck when chasing FIRE…I think since 2009 we’ve been living in a bit of a FIRE golden age where the markets will help to speed up FIRE goals but it’s going to be an interesting road ahead for those just now catching the bug, or those who are lagging further behind (like myself…haha), particularly if we enter that dreaded market stagnation period…we shall see!!

        • Obviously plenty of people have gotten to FIRE faster by getting lucky with this historical bull market, or by earning more, or getting some other boost early on. But don’t let the lack of unicorns in your financial life discourage you. The Charltons (https://ournextlife.com/2016/01/13/interview-with-robert-robin-charlton-authors-of-how-to-retire-early/) retired in 10 years without ever cracking six figures combined, and without benefiting from the most bonkers market years (they since have, but it didn’t affect their retirement timing), and there are other examples too. You probably don’t need that encouragement since you’re talking to folks just catching the bug, but mostly putting this here for folks who read your comment. ;-) And all so true on the markets — fingers crossed that we’re just looking at a blip or small correction and nothing more!

  28. I know some people in the FI community who profited six figures with cryptocurrency last year. It was pretty easy to risk a little (say, $1k) and gain a lot. For example, a $1,000 gamble on Ethereum is now worth $81,000.

    But yeah, I agree that it is a gamble. At best, I’d call it “educated gambling”, since there are some strategies with crypto to minimize risk. But it’s not like investing in something real. It’s speculative. And a lot of people are going to lose money on it. But if you happened to be someone who put money in early or mid 2017, you likely made some easy profit on the hysteria.

  29. Things that you can’t easily sell are wild “investments.” I think of art in similar ways, but at least with art you have a tangible object that is exchangeable for cash. You may never find a buyer, or someone may come along and want your Van Gogh for over $100 million. (Whether high art should be in private hands away from the public is another discussion entirely).

    A thing that wants to pretend it’s a currency, but acts like a commodity (and commodity futures trading also often feels like a net loss for the world) is too fickle by half.

  30. I think the technology is fascinating, and I’m not convinced that it’s complete speculation. I think that there are many folks who understand it and likely have already made their money on it and chuckling a bit while folks who have no clue what they are talking about brag about their investment. I think if you know what you are doing that perhaps it’s a valid space to play in. I, however, understand exactly zero of the nuances of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, I’m not interested in learning more currently (down the road, perhaps I’ll try to wrap my head around it), and, thus, I don’t have any cryptocurrency positions in my investment portfolio. It sort of reminds me when I first moved to San Diego how everybody was telling me that I needed to invest in the local darling Qualcomm (before the dot com bust) and that they were going to change the world, blah blah blah. As far as I know Qualcomm is a great company, but when everybody is telling you how awesome it is, I think it’s a good sign NOT to invest. The dot com bust happened later that year. I’m pretty sure those folks were trying to offload their shares when they were telling me to buy buy buy….

    • Ha — I do think plenty of the seeming crypto enthusiasts right now are just trying to unload their own B$! I’m with you on the technology — blockchain obviously has tons of potential, and the idea of decentralized data is hugely appealing. Now if they can just get the security right, decrease the electricity usage and stop the speculating, it might be worth investigating more. But for now, I think you’re right to focus your energies elsewhere. ;-)

  31. Nice article and that is coming from someone who is very pro-bitcoin and (at least in my humble opinion) fairly knowledgeable about it. And even though I think you would say you are anti-bitcoin I find we share many opinions. I didn’t see many comments from pro-bitcoin people so I thought I would chip in my two cents, noting that I know virtually nothing about all the other crypto-currencies that have proliferated recently.

    Originally I bought bitcoin in 2011 with $200 ‘play money’ at a price of $15 each. I always thought bitcoins had potential and was prepared to take a chance on it. After initially losing 80% of that when the price crashed to around $3 my investment turned out really well and I have withdrawn from bitcoin many times what I initially put in.

    A lot of the negatives that you covered in your article weren’t a significant problem at the time or it wasn’t even known that they would become a problem. Including, slow transactions, competing altcoins and power consumption.

    An interesting thing I have been faced with is the psychology of dealing with this very successful investment. I see a lot of commenters here who have invested a little bit later on in what sounds like a sensible manner who hope to make a nice profit. I see comments about removing your initial investment and letting the rest accumulate as if there is nothing to lose at that stage. I had this mentality for a long time but I think it was a mistake. Now my mentality is that every day that you don’t sell what you have invested in bitcoin is a day you are choosing to buy that much bitcoin. This is the reason I have been selling off large amounts of my successful bitcoin investments, the value of bitcoin I held had become seriously unbalanced with the rest of my portfolio and I could not justify putting that much money into bitcoin even though I had long ago withdrawn my initial investment and I had ‘nothing to lose’ and I still think the value is likely to increase at some point in the future. To be honest I should have done this earlier, I would have been worse off but it would have been sensible. I have only done well because I got lucky.

    The difficulty with this new mentality is that there is not much point putting in ‘play money’ because you should withdraw it as soon as it is no longer play money and that will be long before you make any worthwhile profits. So I would say don’t buy small amounts, unless the purpose is for testing and using the network rather than speculation. Most people should steer well clear. I would only suggest investing if you have a strong understanding and belief in bitcoin and even then it should be a very small amount of your total investments – think single digit percentages.

    I still like the future possibilities for bitcoin and I’m prepared to put in more than play money and so I will continue to choose to own some but I hope the amount I do own is and remains much more balanced in relation to the rest of my portfolio of assets.

    P.S. My only gripe about the article is the hacking part. Crypto will not be 100% secure in the future it is 100% secure now (at least bitcoin is I don’t know much about others) provided that you are smart, careful and prepared to take responsibility for looking after bitcoin yourself. As you correctly point out there are many hacks but these are all the result of stupid or careless companies or users. Companies will probably get better at being custodians of bitcoin but I still would never trust them with something that is so easily lost, stolen or destroyed. If you take care and responsibility for your own bitcoin you have more security than any other asset class, you are safe from bank runs, corporate collapses, natural disasters, government intrusion and any other number of unlikely disaster situations which apply to every other form of asset. The perfect security of bitcoin is one of bitcoins biggest selling points in my mind.

    • Thanks, Michael! I appreciate all your notes here. I would say I’m anti-Bitcoin as it stands now, but I’m not anti-blockchain or even anti-crypto if you could solve all the security and energy challenges and stabilize the pricing like real currency. ;-) You are definitely not the first early Bitcoin investor I’ve heard from who now advises other people not to buy it (even though, presumably, you want people to buy your remaining coins from you!). And on the security side, I don’t know enough about the technical intricacies of each hack to know whether it’s true or not that only folks who were careless with their keys lost their Bitcoins, but it’s certainly a cautionary tale for everyone involved in crypto to understand the risks involved and be diligent in safeguarding your assets.

Comments are where the magic happens! Let's chat!