Cheat Codes (up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, Start)

My parents didn’t allow video games in the house until I was a teenager. Prior to that, the only way for me to get my fill was to head over to Jon Jackson’s house to play the original Nintendo. We played Duck Hunt, all the Super Mario Bros., and Paperboy, but our favorite game by far was Contra.

Nowadays, we’d call Contra an “RPG” style game but back then I just thought of it as a couple of soldiers running through the jungle blasting bad guys. It wasn’t an easy game to beat: There were eight stages, each with their own boss, and you only had three lives.

Unless you had The Cheat Code.

While the game was loading, if you pressed the following combination of buttons on your controller you would be rewarded with 30 lives: up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, Start. It was the ultimate cheat code and it allowed me and Jon to beat Contra every time.

I hadn’t thought of Contra or the cheat code in years, maybe decades, until last week when I stumbled across this shirt and, of course, immediately bought it. (This is the only “buy” recommendation I’ll ever make in the Brief!) Wearing this shirt makes me feel part of a small community. When you see it, you either know what it is or you don’t. The other night as I was walking into Trader Joe’s, the gentleman minding the door shouted out “The Contra Code!” We exchanged a knowing look and a thumbs up.


But I digress. Look, we’re wired to pursue an easier way to do things and, in general, that’s good! It’s why there’s such great and constant innovation. It’s why I have a leaf blower instead of a rake. Could Jon and I have beat Contra with three lives each? Maybe. But we could definitely beat it with 30 lives.

Yet, the pursuit of an easier path can lead us astray. I believe there are cheat codes when it comes to personal finance. It’s just that we most often hear about the wrong ones. Here are a few examples of false cheat codes that can get us in trouble.

False Cheat Code #1: Debt

The most prominent false cheat code is debt. Can I afford this purchase outright? Nope. But with debt? Of course! It could be a car, a house, a Peloton (No judgement; I just bought one. It was either that or a whole new set of pants), or Christmas gifts. Used wisely, debt can be helpful. But too much debt, committing too much of our future earnings to things we buy today, can be ruinous.

False Cheat Code #2: Individual Stocks

Here are three screenshots I took Thursday morning from Yahoo! Finance:

These perfectly encapsulate what is being taught to the masses about investing. The first one is my favorite (and by favorite, I mean the one that makes my blood boil): “With no prior experience, Kyle Dennis decided to invest in stocks. He owes his trading success to these strategies.” Who knew it was so easy?!

Individual stocks aren’t a cheat code because, as I’ve written about before, 96% of the stocks that traded on the three major exchanges from 1926-2015 created no wealth. If your investment strategy is picking individual stocks, you better make sure not to miss out on the other 4%.

False Cheat Code #3: Claiming Social Security Early

I’ve had conversations over the years with individuals who said something to the effect of “I took Social Security early so that I could retire.” There are situations where this strategy is beneficial, poor health or a short life expectancy being the most notable. Yet, while turning on benefits may provide you the income necessary to retire early, it can have really negative long-term effects. That’s due to the penalty for claiming before your full retirement age (roughly a 6.5% reduction in benefits per year) and how compounding exacerbates the penalty over time. A retirement plan that hinges on taking Social Security at 62 is risky.

So, if these are examples of fake cheat codes, what are some real ones?

The Real Cheat Codes

Here’s a short list of real cheat codes, most of which you’ve heard from us numerous times over the years: Saving an adequate portion of your salary and increasing it every time you receive a raise, keeping your investment fees as low as possible, being tax-efficient, investing in such a way that you avoid missing out on the 4% of stocks that generate wealth, creating a flexible financial plan, having intentional conversations about money and the role it plays in your life, and time in the market, not timing the market.

False cheat codes aren’t easy to avoid because what they promise and how they promise it is appealing. It’s only with time that the real repercussions are revealed.

If you are interested in making the game of personal finance more fun and less stressful, you can learn more about our team and schedule a call here.

Ryan Smith
[email protected]

Born and raised on the North Shore of Massachusetts, I moved to Raleigh in 2011 to marry my wife, Emily. We have two kids, Jack and Gwen, a golden retriever named Olly, and are members of Church of the Apostles. I have been a Financial Advisor since 2005 and earned a Master’s of Science in Financial Planning from Bentley University in 2007. I became a CFP® professional in 2009, a Retirement Income Certified Professional® in 2015, and a Certified Tax Specialist™ in 2023.