Should you bail on stocks?

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.

 

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailToday’s top story: Learning what identity thieves want you to do. Also in the news: Saving money as a wedding guest, market myths that can make you poorer, and how to manage your money emotions.

5 Things Identity Thieves Want You to Do
How to do the opposite.

Tips to Save Money as a Wedding Guest
How to celebrate the happy couple without going broke.

7 market myths that make investors poorer
Mythbusting!

How to Manage Your Money Emotions
Reining in emotional spending.

5 Financial Lessons Everyone Should Learn in Their 30s (Did You?)
It’s never too late.

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.

 

How to start investing

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailA reader recently posted this question on my Facebook page:

Liz, I’m 30 years old and looking into starting [to invest in] mutual funds and IRAs and have no idea where to start. I know I really need to invest for the future and am eager to do so, but again, have no knowledge on any of this nor know where to start. Any advice or pointers would be more than appreciated.

I suggested he start with reading two really good books for beginning investors, Kathy Kristof’s “Investing 101” and Eric Tyson’s “Personal Finance for Dummies.” But here’s a summary of what you’ll learn:

Get started investing as soon as possible, even if you don’t quite know what you’re doing. You’ll learn along the way, and you really can’t make up for lost time.

Invest mostly in stocks. Stocks over time offer the best return of any investment class, and provide you the inflation-beating gains you’ll need for a comfortable retirement.

Don’t try to beat the market. Few do consistently. Most people just waste a lot of money. Instead, opt for mutual funds or exchange traded funds that try to match the market, rather than beat it.

Keep fees low, low, low. Wall Street loves to slather them on, but fees kill returns. Here’s an example: An annual IRA contribution of $5,000 can grow to about $1 million over 40 years if you net a 7 percent average annual return. If you net 6 percent, that lowers your total by a $224,000. That’s a heck of a lot to pay for a 1 percentage point difference in fees.

If you have a workplace retirement plan such as a 401(k), that’s where you should start investing. If you don’t, then an IRA you open yourself is the next best thing.

So here’s a prescription for getting started: Open an IRA at Vanguard, which prides itself on its low expenses. Send them a check for $1,000 (the minimum to get started with an IRA). Choose a target date retirement fund that’s close to the year when you expect to retire (in this reader’s case, that would be the Vanguard Target Retirement 2050). Target date funds take care of everything: asset allocation, investment choices, rebalancing over time for a more conservative mix as you approach retirement age. You can get the $20 annual account fee waived if you sign up for online access and opt for electronic delivery of account documents.

There you go–you’re on your way.

How to protect your 401(k) in a frothy market

iStock_000002401817XSmallReader Claudia asks how she can lock in her recent investment gains:

“Is there a way to protect the growth on a 401K? From your post, it doesn’t appear that there is. It appears that the initial investment along with any growth is left to the mercy of the economy, market, etc.”

You actually can “take some money off the table” by switching it to the lower-risk options in your account, such as stable value funds, short-term bond funds and money market funds. The problem is that you won’t get much if any growth on that money going forward. And most of us will need a lot of growth if we want to retire someday.

Everyone’s 401(k) got hammered in 2008-2009. The people who made the damage permanent, though, were the ones who bailed out of the stock market and missed the subsequent run-up.

Investing in the stock market is scary, but over the long run stocks outperform every other type of investment and give us the inflation-beating growth we’ll need to retire.

So rather than trying to time the market, which doesn’t work, consider putting your anxiety to good use by reviewing your asset allocation—your mix of stocks, bonds and cash—and see if it makes sense given your goals.

How do you know the right balance? Your HR department may have resources, or you can use an online resource such as Financial Engines or Jemstep to give you advice. Another option is to simply use the “lifestyle” or “target date” options your 401(k) probably offers. These funds do all the heavy lifting for you, allocating your money and rebalancing automatically so your portfolio doesn’t get too far out of whack.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

School Kids DiversityWhy schools are lacking financial literacy classes, what retirees need to consider before buying a new car, and how to get the most from your wholesale club membership.

Why We Want—But Can’t Have—Personal Finance in Schools
Is financial literacy as important as historical literacy?

Should Retirees Finance a Car or Pay Cash?
Several things retirees should consider before getting behind the wheel.

10 Mistakes Even Savvy Stock Investors Make
Tweeter does not equal Twitter.

Don’t Count on Home Equity to Fund Retirement
Being realistic about the equity in your home.

Ways to Save: Best, worst buys at wholesale clubs
Do you really need that ten pound jar of peanuts?