Q&A: Investors need to stop trying to time the market

Dear Liz: My 25-year-old son is a new investor. He put $11,000 ($5,500 each for 2016 and 2017) into an IRA in a money market fund with a discount brokerage firm. He doesn’t want to get into the market yet because he thinks it is in a bubble. I’m afraid with this strategy, he could be sitting there for a long time losing out to inflation. How would you present this argument?

Answer: You might ask him when he plans to enter the market. When stocks fall 10%? 20%? More? If stocks do tumble to his target level, there are likely to be plenty of scary headlines indicating that the market could fall further. Will he be able to follow through on his plan or will he put off investing — and miss the inevitable rise that will follow?

Newbie investors, and even some more experienced ones who should know better, often think that they can time the market. They can’t. They’re better off diving in with a well-diversified portfolio and adding to it regularly without worrying about the day-to-day swings of the market. Your son won’t need this money for decades, so there’s no sense fretting about what might happen tomorrow or next week. Over the next 40 years, he’ll see significant gains — but only if he gets off the sidelines and puts his money to work.

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Stress Level Conceptual Meter Indicating MaximumIt’s a trick question, of course. If you’re asking it, then it’s time to review your long-term investment strategy (or to come up with one, if you haven’t done so).

The bottom line is that trying to time the market is a loser’s game. Those who say they can do it are blowing hot air up your skirt. Sure, some people sell in time to avoid the worst of a downturn–and then they typically miss the rebound that inevitably follows.

If you’re investing for a goal that’s decades away, such as retirement, then the day-to-day fluctuations of the market are irrelevant noise. Even if you’re close to retirement age, you’re still going to need a hefty exposure to stocks to give you the growth you’ll need over time to offset inflation. You can’t expect gains without declines, though. They’re part of the deal.

If you really feel you need to do something, then get a second opinion on your current asset allocation–how your investments are divided among stocks, bonds and cash. You can get free advice from sites such as FutureAdvisor or look into low-cost options from Vanguard or Schwab, among others. Another option is to hire a fee-only planners who charge by the hour or who charge a retainer or a percentage of assets. The Financial Planning Association has tips on choosing a financial planner. Once you have a target asset allocation, you’ll have a map to follow regardless of what the market does.

 

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Money rules of thumb: Retirement edition

Thumbs upFor every rule of thumb, there are hundreds of people who would quibble with it.

We saw that just recently with a USA Today columnist who quantified exactly how much you need to save for retirement (his answer, via an analysis by T. Rowe Price: $82.28 a day). Lots of people didn’t like that the number was an estimate, an average, and that their own mileage may vary.

But many more people don’t have the patience, knowledge or energy to sort through all the potential factors for every financial decision. Sometimes, they just want an answer.

Over the next few days, I’m going to share the most helpful rules of thumb I know. They aren’t going to apply to everyone in all situations. But if you’re looking for guidelines (or guardrails), there are a starting point.

Let’s start with retirement:

Retirement comes first. You can’t get back lost company matches or lost tax breaks, and every $1 you fail to save now can cost you $10 to $20 in lost future retirement income. You may have other important goals, such as paying down debt or building an emergency fund, but you first need to get started with retirement savings.

Save 10% for basics, 15% for comfort, 20% to escape. If you start saving for retirement by your early 30s, 10% is a decent start and 15% should put you in good shape for a comfortable retirement (these numbers can include company matches). If you’re hoping for early retirement, though, you’ll want to boost that to at least 20%. Add 5-10% to each category for each decade you’ve delayed getting started.

Don’t touch your retirement funds until you’re retired. That pile of money can be tempting, and you can come up with all kinds of reasons why it makes sense to borrow against it or withdraw it. You’re just robbing your future self.

Keep it simple–and cheap. Don’t waste money trying to beat the market. Choosing index mutual funds or exchange-traded funds, which seek to match market benchmarks rather than exceed them, will give you the returns you need at low cost. And cost makes a huge difference. If you put aside $5,000 a year for 40 years, 1 percentage point difference in the fees you pay can result in $225,000 less for retirement.