Q&A: What a bear market really means for your 401(k)

Dear Liz: With the stock market tanking and no rebound likely in the near future, should I decrease the amount I am contributing toward my retirement? I earn a high-five-figure salary and currently contribute 25% of my pay to my company’s 401(k). The current balance is $450,000 with about two-thirds held in a 2030 target date fund and the remainder in a 2035 target date fund. I hope to retire at the end of 2030 at age 64. I have no other retirement accounts, but I am married and my husband collects Social Security and a pension.

It’s hard putting hundreds of dollars into my 401(k) every two weeks only to watch it seemingly disappear. Would it be smart to decrease the percentage I contribute by 5% to 7% and then use that extra money to pay down a $40,000 home equity line of credit? Or should I just stay the course, keep my percentage the same and ride out this bear market?

Answer: Since you’re within 10 years of retirement, it’s time to hire a fee-only financial planner to get specific, individualized advice about your situation. The decisions you make in the years immediately before and after retirement can have a huge impact on how long your money lasts. Mistakes made in this time frame can be difficult if not impossible to reverse.

Take, for example, this impulse to reduce your contribution rate. Your money isn’t disappearing; it’s being used to buy stocks at a discount. When the market rebounds, as it inevitably will, those shares you bought on sale will benefit from the growth.

A planner would tell you not to cut retirement contributions simply because stocks had entered a bear market. The logical response to a bear market is to invest more, not less.

That said, variable rate debt is getting more expensive thanks to Federal Reserve Bank rate hikes. Reducing your 401(k) contributions a few percentage points to pay off that debt faster could make sense, especially if you’re not giving up free money in the form of a company match and your reduced savings rate will still allow you to retire on time.

Again, a fee-only financial planner could help you weigh your options and recommend the best path.