Dear Liz: I just started saving for retirement through my job’s 401(k) plan. I’ve been putting aside $400 a month. I just checked my account to see how it was doing. It has lost over $600! I am trying to save for my retirement — not lose. Where should I invest? I’m considering getting a financial planner to help me.
Answer: The most important thing you need to know about investing is that there is no such thing as a truly risk-free investment.
You won’t lose your principal if you invest in “safe” investments, such as Treasuries and FDIC-insured bank accounts. But you won’t earn enough to keep ahead of inflation. Basically, you’ll never be able to save enough to retire, since the purchasing power of your funds will erode over time rather than grow.
To stay ahead of inflation, you need to take more risk. Stocks over time have consistently offered returns that beat inflation. In every 30-year period starting in 1928, stocks have returned average annual returns of at least 8%. But they certainly don’t gain that much every year, and some years you’ll face steep losses. When you invest in stocks, you have to be prepared for volatility. In other words, sometimes your investments will lose money.
You can reduce that volatility somewhat by diversifying your stock investments (some small companies, some large; some U.S. companies, some foreign) and by including a diversified mix of bonds in your portfolio, along with cash.
A fee-only financial planner can help you design an investment plan that makes sense for your situation. Or you can consider opting for the “lifestyle” or “target date retirement” funds offered by your plan, since they do the diversification and rebalancing for you.