Q&A: Volatile markets and retirement

Dear Liz: With the tumult in the stock market, I’ve been thinking of a strategy which may be safe but not prudent. I have about $315,000 in a trust account which pays me about $9,000 a year in dividends. I’m 81. If I sell all the stocks in my trust account, I could draw the same $9,000 for over 10 years, not counting about 2% growth on the $315,000. What are your thoughts?

Answer: Many people have discovered they’re not as risk tolerant as they thought they were. The volatile stock market has unnerved even seasoned retirement investors. Most, however, should continue investing because they won’t need the money for decades, and even retirees typically need the kinds of returns that only stocks can deliver long term.

There’s no reason to take more risk than necessary, however. If all you need from your trust account is $9,000 a year, you’d be unlikely to run out even if your money is sitting in cash. But you may need more than $9,000 in the future — to adjust for inflation, for example, or to cover long-term care costs.

One option to consider is a single-premium immediate annuity. In exchange for a lump sum, you’d get a guaranteed stream of monthly checks for the rest of your life. At your age, you could get $9,000 a year by investing about $100,000 in such an annuity. Because your payments would be guaranteed by the annuity, you might be more comfortable leaving at least some of the rest of your account in stocks for potential growth.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Even in a financial crisis, you have options. Also in the news: When will it make sense to travel again, robo-advisors bring access to a new crop of investors, and Apple Card will let you skip a payment this month.

Even in a Financial Crisis, You Have Options
Take a deep breath.

Ask a Points Nerd: When Will It Make Sense to Travel Again?
Uncertain times.

Robo-Advisors Bring Access to a New Crop of Investors
A good option for new investors.

Apple Card Will Let You Skip Your Payment This Month
But it’s not automatic.

Q&A: Worried about stocks? Why you shouldn’t try to time the market

Dear Liz: I’m a federal employee with a Thrift Savings Plan account. I’m 35 and have put about $125,000 into my TSP. However, I never changed it from the low-risk G fund so it’s not gaining as much interest as it should. Should I wait for the market to tank before moving it around or is it OK to move it now due to my age and amount of time I have before retirement? I’m worried I’ll move it and I’ll lose the value in a downturn, so maybe I should wait for a downturn to act.

Answer: You sent this question a few weeks ago, before the recent correction. Did you use the downturn as an excuse to hop into the market? Or did you stay on the sidelines, worried it might drop further?

Many people in your situation get cold feet. You’re better off in the long run just diving in and not trying to time the market.

Waiting for a downturn sounds good in theory, but in reality there’s no sure way to call the bottom of any stock market decline. And when the stock market recovers, it tends to do so in a hurry. If you delay too long, you risk missing much of the upside.

It won’t feel good if the market plunges a day, a week or a year after you invest your money, but remember that you’re investing for the long term. The day-to-day or even year-to-year gyrations of the stock market don’t matter. What matters is the trend over the next 30 years — and long term, stocks outperform every other asset class.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How to stock up wisely, emergency or not. Also in the news: Some rental owners could get an extra tax break this year, how to unlock the debtor’s prison of student loans, and the most important money move that women aren’t making.

How to Stock Up Wisely, Emergency or Not
No panic shopping.

Some Rental Owners Could Get an Extra Tax Break This Year
The new QBI.

Unlock the Debtor’s Prison of Student Loans
Looking for relief.

This is the most important money move that women aren’t making
It’s time to invest.

Q&A: When should retirees stop actively investing?

Dear Liz: I am retired. My income is from a small pension, Social Security and dividends and interest from investments. I’ve made some bad investments, but I’m still earning a satisfactory return. Is there some kind of formula that I can use to determine whether I should sell a stock, take the loss and seek another investment or keep the stock, enjoy the dividend and worry the stock might drop further?

Answer: One approach is to ask yourself if you’d buy the same stock today. If not, then it may be time to sell these shares. Be sure to consult with a tax pro first because you may be able to use losses on one investment to offset taxable gains on another.

You also might ask yourself if it’s time to transition away from active investing and individual stocks. Most people aren’t able to buy the stock of enough companies to be truly diversified. Then there’s the daunting task of staying up to date on the fortunes and prospects of each company and industry. That’s way more work than most people can handle. Even if you’re up for the task now, you might not be in the future.

Also, most people don’t do well with active investing. Trying to figure out when to buy and sell for maximum gain usually results in excess trading costs that lower your returns. It’s also too tempting to hang on to a losing stock rather than admit you made a mistake, or to chase “hot” stocks that have already had their biggest gains.

A better approach would be a portfolio of mutual funds or exchange traded funds that’s regularly rebalanced, either by a financial advisor or a computer algorithm. If you opt for funds that mimic a market benchmark, you’ll be assured of matching the market and getting a better return than most active investors can achieve.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How young investors can prepare for the next recession. Also in the news: A new episode of SmartMoney podcast on family holiday travel, how to break free from your parents’ money patterns, and should you trust online shopping apps like Honey?

Is a Recession Coming? How Young Investors Can Prepare
Safeguarding your portfolio.

SmartMoney Podcast: ‘What Are Your Best Tips to Save on Family Holiday Travel?’
How to find the best deals.

How to Break Free of Your Parents’ Money Patterns
Creating your own financial legacy.

Should You Trust Online Shopping Apps Like Honey?
The discounts come at the expense of your privacy.

Q&A: A surprise pension creates investment concerns

Dear Liz: Before my husband died, I encouraged him to find out if he had a pension. He worked for his company for more than 10 years and was vested, but he didn’t think he qualified. A few months after he died, I found an unopened letter stating he would receive a pension after he reached his retirement date. I contacted the benefit plan service center and submitted the required documents. I now have two options for receiving the money as his beneficiary: a lump sum or a single-life annuity that would pay a monthly benefit for my lifetime only. The lump sum could be rolled over into an eligible employer plan or traditional IRA, neither of which I have, or paid directly to me, in which case the whole amount is taxable. I am 65 and my only income is his Social Security survivor benefit and a small pension from my company when I retired. So what is the best thing for me to do?

Answer: Thank goodness you found that letter. It’s unfortunate your husband didn’t understand that “vested” meant qualified to receive a pension.

You don’t have to have an employer plan or an existing IRA to keep the lump sum from being taxed right away. You can open an IRA for the sole purpose of receiving the rollover. A bank or brokerage can help you set this up.

Any withdrawals would be taxed, but you wouldn’t be required to start taking withdrawals until you turn 70½. Even then, you would be required to withdraw only a small portion each year (a little less than 4% to start). You can always take more if you want.

Your income is low enough that taxes shouldn’t be driving your decision. Instead, consider whether you’d rather be able to tap the money at will or have more guaranteed income for the rest of your life.

If you don’t have other savings, you may want to have this pool of money standing by to use for emergencies and other spending. On the other hand, an annuity is money that you don’t have to manage and that you can’t outlive or lose to fraud, bad investments or bad decisions. If you have enough emergency savings, adding more guaranteed income could help you live a bit more comfortably.

Q&A: Weighing investment choices

Dear Liz: I felt your advice about using an inherited IRA to pay off a mortgage was spot on, but I would add one suggestion. The person could use their required minimum distribution (or a little extra) from the inherited IRA each year to pay down the principal on the mortgage. Then they could see what the remaining loan balance is when they are approaching retirement in 10 years.

Answer: That could be a good alternative if being debt free is more important than maximizing their returns. Using just the distributions to pay down the mortgage would allow the bulk of the money to continue earning tax-free returns as long as possible, while reducing the mortgage balance over time.

The letter writer might do better financially by investing the distributions, but using them to pay down the mortgage could get them closer to their desired goal of being mortgage free.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How to protect yourself after the Capital One data breach. Also in the news: Things to watch out for in the Equifax data breach settlement, why you need a midyear budget check-in, and how much you’ll need to invest each month in order to retire with a million dollars.

How to Protect Yourself After the Capital One Data Breach
Over 100,000,000 U.S. customers affected.

Equifax Data Breach Settlement: Scammers, Site Glitches, and Why You Won’t Get $125
Watch out for scammers.

Why You Need a Midyear Budget Check-In
Assessing where you’re at before the holidays.

How much you’ll need to invest each month to retire with a million dollars at age 20, 30, 40 and beyond
Charting your progress.