Mutual Funds Best Option for Most Investors

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

There are three primary ways to invest in the stock market; mutual funds, exchange traded funds (ETFs) and individual stocks.   With mutual funds and ETFs your money is pooled together with money from other investors and is professionally managed in accordance with a predefined objective.   Some major benefits of investing in mutual funds and ETFs include diversification, professional management and time savings.  Some disadvantages of mutual funds may include management fees and less control on when gains become taxable.

An essential factor in effectively managing your portfolio is diversification and it’s difficult to maintain a diversified portfolio without investing a significant amount of money.  A diversified portfolio should be comprised of a combination of fixed income investments and stock market based investments.  The stock based investments should be comprised of small, medium and large companies in a variety of different industries in both the United States and abroad.    Investing in a wide variety of companies and industries can spread out your risk.  Mutual funds allow you to easily diversify your portfolio by pooling your funds with those of other investors.  Instead of buying 10 individual stocks you can by 5 to 10 mutual funds in different areas of the market, each of which may contain hundreds of companies.

Although managing your finances should be a priority, most investors lead busy lives and don’t have the time to research and monitor individual stocks.   Mutual funds can be a good alternative to doing your own research.   Most mutual fund companies have entire teams of highly skilled analysts who visit companies, analyze data, assess the competition and monitor industry trends.  It would be difficult to attain this level of knowledge and understanding on your own.  Additionally, professional management provides the methodology and discipline to keep emotions out of investment decisions.  When investing in individual stock, investors can become emotionally attached to a company whose stock has performed well.  This can result in dangerously high concentrations in a few individual companies.

Mutual funds and ETFs use a broad approach that generally tracks more closely to the entire stock market or a specific index.  Individual stocks, on the other hand, can provide the opportunity to break away from market performance to make a significant profit, if you select a winner.  However, you many also experience a significant loss if the stock is a loser.

Some potential disadvantages of mutual funds in comparison to individual stocks include management fees and less control over when you pay capital gains tax, within non-retirement accounts. With individual stocks and ETFs you don’t pay capital gains until you sell your shares.  However, when a mutual fund manager sells stock within a fund, gains earned on the stock are passed through to the shareholder as a taxable gain.  This gain is added to the investor’s basis in the mutual fund to avoid double taxation when the fund is eventually sold.

Defending Yourself Against a Market Correction

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

The recent increase in the stock market is making a lot of investors nervous about the possibility of a significant correction.  I am frequently asked what the market will do over the next few months.  In reality, no one can predict market performance, especially in the short term. Your best defense against a volatile stock market is to create a financial plan and an asset allocation that is appropriate for your financial situation and time horizon.

If your current asset allocation is in line with your financial goals, there’s probably no need to make major adjustments to your current portfolio.  Your asset allocation defines the percentage of different types of investments such as U.S. stock mutual funds, international funds, bond funds and CDs that are held in your portfolio.  You should establish an asset allocation that corresponds with the timeframe of when your money will be needed.   Investments in the stock market should be limited to money that isn’t needed for at least 5 to 10 years.  Keep money that may be needed for emergencies and short term expenses in safe, fixed income investments like bank accounts, CDs or short term bond funds.

The stock market is inherently volatile and there will be years with negative returns.  However, over long periods of time the market has trended upward with average annual returns on the S&P 500 exceeding 9% (approximately 7% when adjusted for inflation).  It’s important to consider your emotional risk tolerance in establishing your asset allocation.   You may have the time horizon to have a significant portion of your portfolio in stocks but you may not have the emotional tolerance.  Your asset allocation may be too risky if you are tempted to sell whenever the market goes down or you are continually worried about your investments in the stock market.

Establishing an asset allocation that meets your situation can help your ride out fluctuations in the stock market more effectively than trying to anticipate movements in the market.  It’s impossible to time the market and a short term increase is just as likely to occur as a drop in the market.   Although you want to avoid timing the market, you should rebalance your portfolio on an annual basis to maintain your target asset allocation.  Additionally, you will want to adjust your target allocation over time as your financial situation changes and you move through different phases of life.

Keeping other areas of your financial life in order can also help you through a major market adjustment.   It’s essential to maintain an emergency fund of at least 3 to 6 months of expenses,  make a habit of spending less than you earn, and  save at least 10 -15% of your income.

Rather than focusing on where the market is headed and what the financial pundits are predicting, maintain an appropriate asset allocation and keep your financial affairs in order.

Tips from the Wealthy on How to Get Rich

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

You don’t have to be incredibly intelligent and born into the Rockefeller family to attain wealth.   Below are some pointers commonly shared by wealthy people on how to manage your life and your money to reach financial independence.  There is no magic, achieving financial security involves straight forward, common sense actions to gradually build your net worth.

  1. Write Down Your Goals: It’s great to dream about what you want to achieve but to accomplish something you need to put your goals into writing and create an action plan to attain them.
  2. Control Your Expenses: Take the time to understand and manage your expenses and create a budget that supports your goals.   Spend less than you earn and develop good saving habits.  Keep your expenses in check when things are going well and avoid automatically increasing your expenses as your income grows.
  3. Don’t Buy Status: Don’t buy things to look rich or to impress your friends.  Most wealthy people drive older model used vehicles and live in modest homes.  Use your money to save for the future and spend on what really matters.
  4. Educate Yourself: Getting a good education and selecting the right career is a huge factor in attaining wealth.  A good education can result in a more rewarding job in a field you enjoy.  If you enjoy your work you are more likely to excel and earn more money.  If you are in a dead end job or a career you don’t enjoy consider going back to school to transition into a career for which you have more passion.
  5. Be Patient and Maintain a Long Term Perspective – The key to successful investing is having the patience to ride out fluctuations in the market. Resist the temptation to chase returns and time the market.  Invest for the long term and let your portfolio grow over time.  Stay the course and avoid making decisions triggered by emotions.
  6. Manage Risk and Return – Balance your desire for high return with the risk involved. Maintain a diversified portfolio with adequate short term liquidity to get you through rough spots in the market.   Rebalance on an annual basis to keep your portfolio diversified.  Take a disciplined approach to investing and avoid high risk investments that promise a return that may be too good to be true.
  7. Start your own business – According to Forbes nearly all of the people on their list of billionaires made their money through involvement with a business they or their family had started. Owning your own business may seem too risky but it can provide you with an opportunity for higher earnings and greater control over your financial future.
  8. Avoid Complex Investments – Avoid investing in anything that seems overly complicated or that you don’t fully understand. Complex investments often come with  greater risk, a lack of control, limited marketability, limited transparency and hidden fees.

Selecting the Right Asset Allocation – Part 2

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Your asset allocation is the basic structure of your investment portfolio defining the target percentage you want to hold in different categories of assets.   Start creating your asset allocation by deciding how much you want to invest in the two major categories, stock mutual funds and interest earning assets.  Next break your allocation down into more specific categories including cash, CDs, bonds, large cap stock, mid-cap stock, small cap stock, international stock, emerging markets stock and real estate.  Setting an appropriate, well diversified asset allocation helps you balance risk and return within your portfolio.  Your asset allocation may change over time as your financial circumstances change.  However, avoid changing your allocation too frequently based on short term fluctuations in the market.

The appropriate allocation depends on several factors including your age and investment time horizon, your financial goals, other risk factors in your life, your experience with investing and your emotional risk tolerance.  Regardless of your investment goals, you need to maintain an emergency fund of readily available funds equal to at least four months of expenses.

Your financial goals are a major determinant in setting your allocation.  Identify your major financial goals and when money is needed to support these goals.  Design an asset allocation to meet these goals.  Money needed in the short term should be held in safer, interest earning investments. The stock market should only be used for long term needs – generally at least five to seven years out.

You may be able to assume more risk in your portfolio if the timetable for your goals is flexible.  The timeframe for money to cover things like college education or your emergency fund may be firm but there may be some flexibility on when you take a major vacation, remodel your home or plan to retire.   Money needed for retirement is generally spent over twenty or thirty years.  You won’t need your entire nest egg on the first day.

Your allocation is also dependent on risks taken in other areas of your life.  For example, if you work in a volatile career with unpredictable earnings, own a small business or own rental property, you may want to reduce the risk in your investment portfolio. On the other hand, if you have a secure job and anticipate a generous pension, you may be comfortable taking more risk.

Regardless of your situation you need to feel emotionally comfortable with your allocation. If you are constantly worried about market fluctuations you may need a more conservative allocation.   Historically the stock market has trended upward, but there will be years with negative returns.  Create an allocation that gives you adequate emotional security to ride out swings in the stock market and helps you avoid selling when the market is down. If you are new to investing, start out slowly and test the water to see how you will react in a volatile market.

Risk and Your Investment Portfolio – Part 1

 

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Deciding upon an asset allocation is one of the first and most significant decisions to be made when you start investing.  Your asset allocation is the percentage of different types of investments such as cash, bonds, stock or real estate that make up your investment portfolio.  Probably one of the most important allocations is that between investments in the stock market and investments in interest earning vehicles such as bank accounts, CDs and bonds.  An ideal asset allocation provides a balance between risk and return that helps you meet your goals but doesn’t keep you awake at night.

There is a trade-off between risk and return.  Generally, if you want a higher return you need to assume a higher level of risk.  Investment risk comes in many different forms with the most common being stock market risk.  Historically, over long periods of time, the stock market has out-performed most other investments.  However, in the short term it can be extremely volatile, including years with negative returns.  In the extreme case you could lose your entire investment in an individual stock.  To reduce risk in the stock portion of your portfolio, consider buying diversified stock mutual funds. You will still experience swings in the market but fluctuations in any one stock will have less impact.

On the other hand, interest earning investments such as bank accounts, CDs, bonds and bond funds are generally less risky and are not subject to stock market fluctuations.  Unfortunately, in exchange for this lower level of risk you may earn a much lower rate of return.

Additionally, bonds and bond funds are subject to interest rate risk and default risk.  If you purchase a bond or bond fund and interest rates increase, the value of your investment will decrease.  To make matters worse, when interest rates rise bond funds commonly experience a flood of redemptions forcing them to sell bonds within the fund at a loss.  Even if you hold on to your shares you can experience a drop in value. However, if you purchase an individual bond and hold it till maturity you will receive the full value upon redemption.   Use caution when buying low quality bonds or bond funds; you may get a higher return but you are subject to a much greater risk of default.

Many investors don’t consider inflation risk.  This results from taking too little risk with a conservative portfolio containing little or no stock.  Over time inflation has averaged about 3% annually, if you are only earning 2% on your portfolio your real return after inflation will be negative.  This is compounded if inflation rates rise significantly.  Consider increasing your allocation in the stock market to hedge against inflation risk.

In the current environment of low interest rates and high volatility it’s crucial to build a portfolio that balances risk and return to support your financial goals and provide you with peace of mind.

Variable Annuity Not Magic Solution

office pictures may 2012 002While driving home recently I was disconcerted by another commercial spouting false information and preying on investor fear.  This commercial was exaggerating the danger and volatility of the stock market by implying most investors lost millions in the 2008 and 2009 market crash.  In reality if you were invested in the stock market from 2006 to 2016 you would have seen a 65% increase in your stock portfolio.  If you didn’t sell when the market dropped, you would have experienced a reasonable return rather than a loss on your investment.   Commercials like this stir up fear and anxiety then promise the perfect solution to market volatility – the magic to provide great returns without taking risk.

There is no miracle product that is going to provide you with high returns without risk.  If it sounds too good to be true, it is!  A basic concept of investing is the trade-off between risk and return.  If you want more return you will have to absorb greater risk.  If you want a risk free investment you will be limited to CD’s and US government bonds that pay very low interest rates.   If you want to earn higher returns you will need to take on some risk and invest part of your portfolio in the stock market.

The mystery product in commercials and ads that promise high returns with no risk is often a variable annuity.  While on occasion the use of an annuity may be appropriate for a portion of your portfolio, most variable annuities come with significant disadvantages.   A variable annuity is an insurance vehicle that invests your money into separate accounts similar to mutual funds.   Annuities are complex insurance contracts that are commonly sold on commission, with built-in fees and significant restrictions on when and how you can withdraw your money.    Earnings on money invested in a variable annuity grow tax deferred but are taxed at regular income tax rates when withdrawn.

Insurance salespeople influence you to buy annuities by promising protection from market volatility.  Basically, in addition to paying the typical fees and commissions, you can purchase an insurance rider to guard against a drop in the market.  However, this insurance usually only applies to a death benefit or the base amount used to calculate an annual income stream.   If you think a variable annuity is appropriate for your situation make sure you fully understand the product’s benefits and restrictions before investing.   Also consider an annuity with no or a low commission and without restrictions on when and how you can access your money.

A better option for managing market volatility may be to invest in a diversified portfolio that supports your time horizon.   Avoid the need or temptation to withdraw money from the stock market when it’s down.  Invest money needed in the short term in safe investments and limit your stock market investments to long term money.

Get Serious About Planning for Retirement in Your 50’s

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

In our 50’s we still have time to plan and save for retirement and it’s close enough that we can envision ourselves in retirement.  Below are some things to address as you plan for retirement.

  • Set some goals and make plans, what does your retirement look like? Consider your path to retirement and your timeframe – you can gradually transition by working fewer hours in your current job, work part time in a new career field or completely stop working.  Think about how you will spend your time in retirement.   Work usually provides us with mental stimulation, a sense of purpose and accomplishment, social interaction and a sense of identity.  How will you meet these needs in retirement?
  • Evaluate your current situation. Take a thorough look at current expenses and assets.  Analyze your spending habits and compare this to your earnings.   Look for opportunities to save money to invest and prepare for retirement.
  • Ramp up savings and maximize your retirement contributions – try to save at least 10% to 15% of your annual income. Increase contributions to your 401k and IRA to take advantage of catch-up provisions.  These are your highest earning years where you can really benefit from investing in tax deferred retirement plans.
  • Invest in a diversified portfolio that will grow and keep up with inflation. Your retirement savings is long term money that will need to last another 30 – 40 years.   A reasonable portion of this money should be invested in stock mutual funds to provide you the growth needed to carry you through retirement.
  • Take steps to reduce your retirement expenses – pay off high interest debt, credit cards and vehicle loans. Make extra payments on your mortgage to pay it off around the time you retire.
  • Think about where and how you want to live. Do you want to move to a lower cost area or downsize to a smaller home? Put plans in place to meet your goals.  Complete major remodeling, repairs and upgrades on appliances before you go into retirement.
  • Develop a retirement budget. Consider the impact of inflation and taxes on your monthly outflow.  Many retirees are more active and spend more early in retirement.   Include expenses for health care and long term care in your budget.
  • Evaluate your Social Security options. Delay taking Social Security benefits as long as possible, up to age 70.
  • Calculate how much you need to pull from your retirement savings by subtracting your monthly expenses from your Social Security and pension benefits. As a rule of thumb, avoid spending more than about 4% of your retirement savings per year.  This will vary with the amount of risk you are comfortable taking in your portfolio.  To get a more precise projection on when you can retire, how much you can spend and how much you should save, periodically work with a financial planner on some formal retirement planning.

Patience is the Key to Successful Gardening and Investing

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

We recently built a new home and have been feverishly working on landscaping and planting new flower beds.   While going through the process of planting and nurturing my flower gardens I realized there are many similarities between gardening and investing.  I planted a lot of perennials to create a garden that will last for many years.  However, I’m anxious for the perennials to grow into the large, colorful flowers I have envisioned.  I realize it takes time and patience to develop a gorgeous garden.  To satiate my immediate need for some color I interspersed some annuals with the perennials.  The annuals will meet my short term needs but aren’t a good long term investment.  They will provide beautiful color this year but will die and won’t return next spring

To build a successful garden you have to plan ahead, prepare the earth and plant seeds long before reaping the benefits.   Investing is similar to gardening in that you need to think ahead to create a plan that will meet your long term objectives.  You have to start by planting the seeds and continue feeding and nurturing your investment plan.  After your initial investment is made, continue making contributions and annually re-balance your portfolio to be sure you stay on track.  Periodically some weeding is required to remove poor performing or inappropriate investments from your portfolio.   You may also need to add some nutrients by adding better performing mutual funds or by expanding on the categories of funds in which you are invested.

It’s essential to meet short term needs.  This year I had a short term need for some annuals to add color to the garden.    In your portfolio, you need to include short term money for emergencies and living expenses.  If short term needs are addressed you can invest your long term money more effectively with greater confidence.

Additionally, in both gardening and investing it’s important to stay diversified.  My garden has a variety of flowers that bloom at different times of the year or react differently to varying weather conditions.  Your portfolio should also be diversified with a variety of different investments that help you buffer against a variety of market conditions and changes in your personal life.

Just like perennials in the garden, investments in your portfolio need time to grow and absorb fluctuations in the market.  If you become impatient and give up before they have time to fully bloom you won’t meet your end goal.  Just as vibrant short term annuals can provide a lot of immediate satisfaction they don’t result in a garden that is sustainable over many years.

Investing, as in gardening, is a slow and steady process.  Get started, set a plan, keep a long term perspective and stick to your plan.   Patience and perseverance will help you build a gorgeous garden and a more secure financial future.

Timeless Tips for Investment Success

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

You don’t need to employ a lot of sophisticated techniques and strategies to become a successful investor.  The most effective tools for investment success are simplicity, patience, and discipline.  Below are some guidelines to help you get the most from your investments.

Invest for the long term.  Evaluate your situation, set some goals, create a plan and stick with it.   Keep money that you may need for emergencies and short term living expenses in less volatile investments such as money market accounts, CDs and bonds.   Investments in the stock market should be limited to money that isn’t needed for at least 5 years.  If you keep a long term perspective with the money invested in the stock market you will be less likely to react to short term fluctuations.

Maintain a diversified portfolio.  Your portfolio should be comprised of a variety of different types of investments including stocks, bonds and cash.  The stock portion of your portfolio should include stock mutual funds that invest in companies of different sizes, in different industries and in different geographies.  Don’t chase the latest hot asset class and don’t act on the hot stock tip your buddy shared with you at happy hour.  Create a diversified portfolio and rebalance on an annual basis.  It’s also advisable to avoid investing more than 5% in a single security.

Don’t Time the Market.  Many studies have found that market timing just does not work and can be detrimental to your portfolio.  The so-called experts really have no idea what the market is going to do.  Many analysts earn a living by projecting future market fluctuations when in reality they are no better at predicting the future than you or me.  Peter Lynch sums it up perfectly with the following quote – “More money has been lost by investors preparing for corrections, or trying to anticipate corrections, than has been lost in corrections themselves.”

Keep Your Emotions in Check. The stock market is volatile and there will be years with negative returns.   Limit investment in the stock market to money you won’t need for several years.  Have patience and stay the course.  As experienced after the 2008 correction, the market will eventually rebound.  Don’t succumb to media hype and fear tactics claiming things are different this time. There have always been, and always will be, major events that trigger dramatic fluctuations in the stock market.  Don’t panic this will pass.  Sir John Templeton once said, “The four most dangerous words in investing are: “This Time is Different!”

Be tax smart but don’t let taxes drive your portfolio.  Where possible maximize the use of tax advantaged retirement vehicles such as 401k plans and Roth IRAs.  Place investments with the greatest opportunity for long term growth in tax deferred or tax free retirement accounts.   Save taxes where it makes sense but don’t intentionally sacrifice return just to save a few dollars in taxes.

Don’t Let Emotions Derail Your Investment Portfolio

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Emotions may be the single biggest detriment to your investment success.  We try to approach investments from a logical perspective but we are emotional creatures and money can stir-up intense feelings. The most common emotions are fear and greed which can lead us to overreact and sell low when the market is down and buy high when the market is at a peak.  Both actions are harmful to the performance of your investment portfolio. We can’t ignore emotions but we can better understand our emotional triggers and learn how to manage them.

You can minimize emotional reactions to fluctuations in the stock market by creating a plan.   With some planning you can establish a diversified asset allocation that incorporates your investment timeframe, financial goals and tolerance for risk.  A well designed asset allocation can ensure that money needed in the short term is placed in safer fixed income investments while long term money is invested in higher return, higher risk investments like stock mutual funds.   As a general rule, money needed in the next five years should not be invested in the stock market.  If you position your short term money in safer, less volatile investments such as money markets, CDs and bonds, you will be less likely to overreact   and act on emotion.

When you invest in the stock market prepare yourself for volatility including some years with negative returns.  Over long periods of time, the average return in the stock market has been around 9%, much higher than the average return for fixed income investments.  However, stock market returns are not level.  In some years, stock market returns will be higher than average and some years they will be lower than average. If you are prepared for this and maintain a long time horizon you will be more likely to stay on course.

Be wary of sensational news reports that claim the world is coming to an end and everything is different this time.  The stock market goes through cycles and there will always be scandals, bubbles and crises getting blown out of proportion by the media, financial pundits or financial companies trying to sell you something.  An example of this is commercials that use fear tactics to encourage you to buy gold and silver. They prey on the fear and uncertainty investors experience during a significant market drop.

Buying on emotion can also be detrimental to the long term performance of your portfolio.  We have a natural fear of missing an opportunity.  Avoid chasing the latest hot asset class or following the crowd because you don’t want to miss out.  Assets performing well this year may be next year’s losers and investments with abnormally high returns aren’t sustainable.  Don’t get swept up in the euphoria, keep your portfolio diversified where assets that perform well this year can buffer against those that aren’t performing well.

Slow and steady wins every time!

Avoiding the Stock Market Can be a Risky

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

You may be hesitant to invest in the stock market because it feels too risky.  However, consider the risk you are taking with your financial future by avoiding the stock market.  The primary reason to invest in the stock market is the potential for a much higher return, especially in low interest rate environments.  Most of us need the potential for long term growth provided by the stock market to meet our retirement needs.  If you invest all of your money in fixed income you may struggle just to keep up with inflation and you run the risk of outliving your money.

Historically, stock market returns have been almost double those earned by bonds.  According to the Ibbotson SBBI (stock, bonds, bills and inflation) report, between 1926 and 2014 the average annual return on Small Stock was 12.3%, Large Stock was 10.1%, Government Bonds was 5.5%, Treasury Bills was 3.5% and Inflation was 3%.  This illustrates that investing at least some of your portfolio in stock can provide a much greater opportunity than fixed income to meet your financial goals.

Investing in the stock market is not without risk.  As with all investments, we must take on greater risk to earn a greater return.  However, there are many ways to help manage the volatility of the stock market.  Before investing in stocks make sure your financial affairs are in order.  Pay off your credit cards, establish an emergency fund and put money that will be needed over the next five years into less volatile fixed income investments.  The stock market is for long term investing.  It can provide the opportunity to earn higher long term returns but you can count on some volatility along the way.  By creating a buffer to cover short term needs you will be less likely overreact to fluctuations in the market and sell when the market is down.

You can also buffer stock market risk by creating a well-diversified portfolio comprised of mutual funds invested in stocks or bonds from a variety of different size companies, different industries and a variety of different geographies.  Investing in a single company can be very risky but investment in mutual funds can reduce this risk.  When investing in mutual funds your money is combined with that of other investors and invested, by a professional manager, into a large number of stocks or bonds.  Investing in a large number of companies enables you to spread out your risk.

Dollar cost averaging, where you automatically invest a set amount on a regular basis – usually monthly or quarterly, can also reduce risk.  Rather than investing a large amount all at once, when the market may be high, you gradually invest over time.  With dollar cost averaging you buy more shares when the market is low and fewer shares when the market is high.

Selecting the Right Asset Allocation

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

When investing money, one of the first decisions to be made is your asset allocation.  Asset allocation is the division of your assets into different types of investments such as stock mutual funds, bonds, real estate or cash.  In order to maximize the return on your portfolio it’s crucial to maintain a well-diversified asset allocation.  According to many financial experts, asset allocation may be your single most important investment decision, more important than the specific investments or funds that you select.

There is no one size fits all; the right asset allocation is based on your unique situation which may change as your circumstances or perspective changes.  Some major factors to consider include investment time horizon, the need for liquidity, risk tolerance, risks taken in other areas of your life and how much risk is required to achieve your goals.

Arriving at the appropriate asset allocation is largely a balance between risk and return.  If you want or need a higher return you will have to assume a higher level of risk.  If you have a long investment time horizon, you can take on more risk because you don’t need your money right away and you can ride out fluctuations in the market.  However, if you have a short time horizon you should minimize your risk so your money will be readily available.

If you want to minimize risk, invest in fixed income investments such as money market accounts, certificate of deposits, high quality bonds or short term bond funds.   If you are willing to take on more risk, with the expectation of getting higher returns, consider stock mutual funds.  Generally, avoid investing money needed in the next five years into the stock market.   However, the stock market is an excellent option for long term money.

Regardless of your situation, the best allocation is usually a combination of fixed income and stock mutual funds.  With a diversified portfolio you can take advantage of higher returns found in the stock market while buffering your risk and meeting short term needs with fixed income investments.

Once your target asset allocation is set, rebalance on annual basis to stay on target.   Rebalancing will automatically result in selling investments that are high and buying investments that are low.  Avoid changing your target allocation based on emotional reactions to short term market fluctuations.    Stick to your plan unless there are major changes in your circumstances.

If you are unsure where to start, a good rule of thumb is to subtract your age from 120 to arrive at the percentage you should invest in stock market.  In the past it was customary to subtract from 100 but this has increased as life expectancies and the time one spends in retirement have increased.   In the final analysis, select an asset allocation that meets your specific needs and gives you peace of mind.

Mutual Funds Probably Better Option Than Individual Stocks

 

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Mutual funds are a better option than individual stocks for most investors.  The decision to invest in mutual funds or individual stocks depends on the size of your portfolio, your investment knowledge, your level of time and involvement, your risk tolerance, your ability to make objective investment decisions and your tax situation.

Many investors don’t have enough money to adequately diversify their portfolio across a wide range of individual stocks.   To gain true stock diversification, you need to invest in companies of different sizes, in a wide range of different industry sectors and in a variety of different geographies. Mutual funds enable you to gain this broad diversification by pooling your money with a large number of other investors.

Additionally, mutual funds are professionally managed, making them ideal for individuals with limited investment knowledge or a limited amount of time to research and monitor individual stocks.  Most mutual fund companies have a large staff of managers and research analysts who analyze financial reports, visit companies and keep tabs on the economic and political climate.  It is very difficult for most     investors to devote the time and commitment needed to create and maintain a well-diversified portfolio of individual stocks.

Professional managers also have access to more timely information.  Many investors are tempted to buy and sell individual stock based on current events.  However, the market is relatively efficient which means it quickly responds to new information.  What seems like breaking news has probably already been factored into the price of the stock.

Unfortunately, diversification and professional management does not come without a cost.  Most mutual funds charge an annual management fee of between .25 and 1.25%.

Additionally, when investing your own money it is hard to stay objective.  We have a natural inclination to emotionally react to changes in the market and to become emotionally attached to specific stocks.  It is easier for mutual fund managers to make objective decisions.  Performance is usually better when we stay on course and history shows us that investors in individual stocks trade more frequently than mutual fund investors.

Mutual funds can also be a better option for investors who are risk adverse. By investing in a broadly diversified portfolio of mutual funds, most of your risk will come from fluctuations in the market.  A portfolio comprised of several individual stocks is generally more volatile.  It also carries a higher risk of losing money if a company, whose stock you own, has financial problems or goes out of business.

A disadvantage to owning mutual funds, instead of individual stocks can be a lack of control on when you pay capital gains. This is especially true if you are in a high tax bracket and a lot of your money is invested outside of retirement accounts.  When fund managers sell stock, gains must flow through to the investors as they are earned, not when the fund is sole.

Asset Allocation – the Foundation of Your Portfolio

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Your asset allocation serves as a foundation from which to build your investment portfolio.  An asset allocation identifies the types of investments and the proportion of each you plan to hold in your portfolio.  At a very general level most investments are broken into three categories: stocks, interest earning, and real estate.  Each of these broad categories can be broken down further into hundreds of different options.   The two factors that usually drive an asset allocation are the timeframe in which you will need your money and your personal risk tolerance.  Generally, we strive for a diversified portfolio that provides the highest rate of return for the level of risk we are willing to take.

The first step in developing an asset allocation is to evaluate your current situation and determine when the money you are investing will be used.  Money that is needed in the short term should be placed in interest earning investments, not in real estate or the stock market.  Interest earning investments, such as money market accounts and CDs, are secure but usually provide a rate of return below the rate of inflation.  While it’s important to keep your short term money safe, too much in interest earning investments will stifle the long term growth potential of your portfolio.

Once your short term money has been secured, you can create a diversified portfolio that supports your investment timeframe and risk tolerance.   A great way to diversify is through the use of low cost mutual funds.  Mutual funds enable groups of individuals to pool their money to buy a large number of different companies or government entities.  Mutual funds enable you to maintain a diversified asset allocation by investing in funds with different objectives.  Consider selecting funds that invest in a variety of stocks and bonds in large, medium, and small companies within different industries and different geographical regions.  Your goal is to maintain diversification so that when one category is doing poorly it may be offset by another category that is performing well.   A diversified asset allocation allows you to spread out your risk so you don’t have dramatic losses if a given company or asset class performs poorly.   Additionally, by spreading your asset allocation over a broad range of investments, you may have opportunities that would have been too risky in an undiversified portfolio.

Your asset allocation is the framework of your portfolio – establish a plan that meets your objectives and stick with it!  Avoid making changes to your asset allocation based on emotional reactions to short term changes in the market.   Over time, your portfolio will get out of balance due to fluctuations in the market.   I recommend adjusting your portfolio by rebalancing on an annual basis.  In addition to keeping your asset allocation on target, the need for rebalancing will result in selling stock when it is high and buying when it is low.

Investing in a Volatile Market

 

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Here are some things you should keep in mind when investing in the stock market; the market will fluctuate, there will be years with negative returns, the stock market is for long term investing, and the media and prognosticators will greatly exaggerate negative information to create news and get attention.  If you keep this in mind, you can dramatically improve your long term investment returns and sleep better at night.  Based on numerous studies conducted by DALBAR, the average investor earns several percentage points below the market average due to market timing and emotional reactions to market fluctuations.  It’s how we are wired.  When the market goes up, we feel good and we want don’t want to miss out on the opportunity to make money.  As a result, we buy stock when the market is at its peak.  On the flip side, when the market drops we worry about losing money, and sell when the market is at the bottom.  It’s hard to make money in this cycle of buying high and selling low.  When investing in the stock market, try to avoid overreacting to the inevitable short term fluctuations in the market.

Other factors that can help you ride out dramatic fluctuations in the market include establishing a solid financial foundation and maintaining an asset allocation that meets your investment timeframe.  Establish a solid financial foundation by living within your means, minimizing the use of credit, and maintaining an emergency fund of 3 to 6 months of expenses.  A strong foundation helps you avoid pulling money out of the stock market at inopportune times should an emergency arise. 

Once you have established a strong financial foundation you can start investing in the stock market.  One key to success with stock market investing is establishing an asset allocation that’s in line with the timeframe in which you will need money.  Money that is needed in the short term should not be invested it the stock market.  As a general rule, do not invest any money needed within the next five years in the stock market.  Over long periods of time the stock market has trended upward, but in the short term there have been periods with substantial drops.  Give yourself time to ride out the natural fluctuations in the market.  

Additionally, it is important to diversify your money across a wide variety of investments.  You can reduce the amount of risk you take by diversifying across different companies, municipalities, industries, and countries.  When one type of investment is doing poorly, another may be doing well.  This helps to buffer the losses you may experience in your portfolio.  An excellent way to diversify is through the use of a variety of different types of mutual funds.  Mutual funds pool your money with money from others to invest in a large number of companies or government entities based on a predefined investment objective.

8 Timeless Tips to Keep Your Investments on Track

  1. Keep It Simple – Don’t invest in anything that you don’t understand.   Most investments aren’t that complicated. Be very cautious if you are considering an investment with pages and pages of difficult to understand legal verbiage.  You can bet the small print wasn’t added for your benefit.
  2. Pigs Get Fat, Hogs Get Slaughtered – The biggest risk to sensible investing is fear and greed.  If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.  Don’t fall for offers with exceptionally high returns. If someone promises you a return significantly higher than the market rate, there’s a catch.  It’s either a scam or there are huge risks involved. Perform some due diligence to understand why the returns are higher than normal.
  3. Keep Your Emotions in Check – Establish and stick to an allocation that meets your timeframe and risk tolerance. The stock market will rise and fall.  Don’t fall into the trap of panic selling when the market falls, only to turn around and buy when the market’s back on top.  You don’t make much money selling low and buying high.
  4. Diversify, Diversify, Diversify – At a minimum, your net worth should reflect a combination of stock mutual funds, fixed income investments, and real estate.  You should hold a large number of different investments within each category.  For example, your stock portfolio should be comprised of small, medium, and large companies in a variety of different industries in the U.S. and abroad.  A diversified portfolio provides a buffer against volatility.  Each category responds differently to changing economic and political conditions.
  5. Invest Based on When Money is Needed – Maximize your risk/return ratio by designing a portfolio that supports your investment time horizon.  Generally, money needed in the short term should be invested in safe, less volatile investments.  Your return may be limited, but your principal will be safe.  With long term money, you can take more risk and potentially earn a higher return.  With a longer time horizon you can ride out the fluctuations in the stock market.
  6. Be Tax Smart – Consider tax consequences when buying and selling investments, and maximize your contributions to tax advantaged retirement plans. Within taxable accounts, municipal bonds and mutual funds with a low turnover ratio are good options.  Also, watch for opportunities to harvest tax losses.
  7. Avoid High Fees, Commissions and Surrender Charges – High fees, commissions, and surrender charges can eat into your return and limit your flexibility.  Review prospectuses and investment reports to fully understand the fees and penalties associated with the funds or products you are considering.
  8. Stocks Don’t Have Memories – Don’t keep a poor performing security with hopes it will return to its original purchase price. Stock and stock mutual funds should be evaluated based their future potential.  There is no correlation between the current value of a stock and what you paid for it.

Variable Annuities May Not Be Your Best Option

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA


A variable annuity is an investment contract with an insurance company where you invest money into your choice of a variety of sub-accounts. Sub-accounts are similar to mutual funds, where money from a large number of investors is pooled and invested in accordance with specific investment objectives. Like mutual funds, sub-accounts may invest in different categories of stock or interest earning investments.
One characteristic of a variable annuity is the tax deferral of gains until the funds are withdrawn. However, upon distribution the gains are taxable at regular income tax rates, as opposed to capital gains rates that may be available for mutual funds. Additionally, there is no step-up in basis upon death for assets held in variable annuities.
Variable annuities are generally more appropriate for non-retirement accounts because gains within a retirement account are already tax deferred. Traditional retirement accounts and Roth IRAs meet the tax deferral needs for most investors. However, in some cases a variable annuity may be attractive to a high income investor who has maximized his traditional retirement options and needs additional opportunities for tax deferral. This is especially true for an investor who is currently in a high tax bracket and expects to be in a lower tax bracket in retirement.
When investing in variable annuities, with non-retirement money, there is no requirement to take a Required Minimum Distribution at 70 ½. However, there is generally a 10% penalty on withdrawals made before 59 1/2. Trades can be made within a variable annuity account without immediate tax consequences. The entire gain will be taxable upon withdrawal. There is no annual contribution limit for variable annuities, and you can make non-taxable transfers between annuity companies using a 1035 exchange. However, you may have to pay a surrender charge if you have held the annuity for less than seven to ten years, and you purchased it from a commissioned adviser. Before buying an annuity, read the fine print to fully understand all of the fees and penalties associated with the product. Most variable annuities have early withdrawal penalties and a higher expense structure than mutual funds.
A variable annuity may be an option for someone who wants to purchase an insurance policy to buffer the risk of losing money in the market. For many investors, due to the long term growth in the stock market, this guarantee may be come at too high a price. Some investors are willing to pay additional fees in exchange for the peace of mind that a guaranteed withdrawal benefit can provide. Guaranteed minimum withdrawal benefits (GMWB) can be very complex and have some significant restrictions. Additionally, some products offer a guaranteed death benefit for an extra fee. Read the contract carefully and make sure you understand the product before you buy.
Due to the high costs, lack of flexibility, complexity and unfavorable tax treatment variable annuities are not beneficial for many investors.

Tips to Acheive Financial Fitness

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA


The first step toward financial fitness is to understand your current situation and live within your means. Review your actual expenses on an annual basis and categorize your expenses as necessary or discretionary. Compare your expenses to your income and develop a budget to ensure you are living within your means and saving for the future. The next step is to pay off high interest credit cards and personal debts. Once you have paid off your credit cards, create and maintain an emergency fund equal to about four months of expenses, including expenses for the current month. Your emergency funds should be readily accessible in a checking, savings or money market account.
Now it’s time to look toward the future. Get in the habit of always saving at least 10% to 15% of your gross income. Think about your goals and what you want to accomplish. If you don’t own a home, you may want to save for a down payment. When you purchase a home make sure you can easily make the payments while contributing toward retirement. Generally, your mortgage expense should be at or below 25% of your take home pay.
Contribute money into retirement plans, for which you qualify. Make contributions to your 401k plan, at least up to the employer match and maximize your Roth IRA. If you are self-employed, consider a SEP or a Simple plan. If you have children and want to contribute to their college expenses, consider a 529 college savings plan. Do not contribute so much toward your children’s college fund that you sacrifice your own retirement.
As you save for retirement, be an investor not a trader. Investing in the stock market is a long term endeavor, forecasting the short-term movement of the stock market is fruitless. Avoid emotional reactions to headlines and short term events. Don’t overreact to sensationalistic stories or chase the latest investment trends. Establish a defensive position by maintaining a well-diversified portfolio, custom designed for your unique situation. Slow and steady wins the race!
Don’t invest in anything that you don’t understand or that sounds too good to be true. If you really want to invest in complicated products, read the fine print. Be especially aware of high commissions, fees, and surrender charges. There is no free lunch; if you are being offered above market returns, there is probably a catch. Keep in mind that contracts are written to protect the insurance or investment company, not the investor.
It is impossible to predict fluctuations in the market or to select the next great stock. However, you can hedge your bets with a well-diversified portfolio. Establish an asset allocation that is aligned with your goals, investment timeframe, and risk tolerance. Your portfolio should contain a mix of fixed income and stock based investments across a wide variety of companies and industries. Rebalance your portfolio on an annual basis to stay diversified.

Stock Can Be a Good Option in Retirement

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jane M. Young

As we approach retirement, there is a common misconception that we need to abruptly transition our portfolios completely out of the stock market to be fully invested in fixed income investments.   One reason to avoid a sudden shift to fixed income is that retirement is fluid; it is not a permanent decision. Most people will and should gradually transition into retirement.  Traditional retirement is becoming less common because life expectancies are increasing and fewer people are receiving pensions. Most people will go in and out of retirement several times.  After many years we may leave a traditional career field for some well-deserved rest and relaxation.  However, after a few years of leisure we may miss the sense of purpose, accomplishment, and identity gained from working.  As a result, we may return to work in a new career field, do some consulting in an area where we had past experience or work part-time in a coffee shop.

Another problem with a drastic shift to fixed income is that we don’t need our entire retirement nest egg on the day we reach retirement.   The typical retirement age is around 65, based on current Social Security data, the average retiree will live for another twenty years. A small portion of our portfolio may be needed upon reaching retirement but a large percentage won’t be needed for many years.   It is important to keep long term money in a diversified portfolio, including stock mutual funds, to provide growth and inflation protection.   A reasonable rate of growth in our portfolio is usually needed to meet our goals. Inflation can take a huge bite out of the purchasing power of our portfolios over twenty years or more.   Historically, fixed income investments have just barely kept up with inflation while stock market investments have provided a nice hedge against inflation.

We need to think in terms of segregating our portfolios into imaginary buckets based on the timeframes in which money will be needed.  Money that is needed in the next few years should be safe and readily available.  Money that isn’t needed for many years can stay in a diversified portfolio based on personal risk tolerance.  Portfolios should be rebalanced on an annual basis to be sure there is easy access to money needed in the short term.

A final myth with regard to investing in retirement is that money needed to cover your retirement expenses must come from interest earning investments.  Sure, money needed in the short term needs to be kept in safe, fixed income investments to avoid selling stock when the market is down.  However, this doesn’t mean that we have to cover all of our retirement income needs with interest earning investments.  There may be several good reasons to cover retirement expenses by selling stock.   When the stock market is up it may be wise to harvest some gains or do some rebalancing.  At other times there may be tax benefits to selling stock.

 

Mutual Funds May be Your Best Option

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jane M. Young

Generally the typical investor is better off investing in stock mutual funds than in individual stocks. A mutual fund is an investment vehicle where money from a large number of investors is pooled together and invested by a professional manager or management team.  Mutual fund managers invest this pool of money in accordance with a predefined set of goals and guidelines.

One of the primary benefits of investing in stock mutual funds is the ability to diversify across a large number of different stocks.  With mutual funds, you don’t need a fortune to invest in a broad spectrum of stocks issued by large and small companies from a variety of different industries and geographies.  Diversification with mutual funds reduces risk by providing a buffer against extreme swings in the prices of individual stocks.   You are less likely to lose a lot of money if an individual stock plummets. Unfortunately, you are also less likely to experience a huge gain if an individual stock skyrockets.

Another benefit of stock mutual funds over individual stocks is that less time and knowledge is required to create and monitor a portfolio.  Most individual investors do not have the time, expertise, or resources to select and monitor individual stocks.  Mutual funds hire hundreds of analysts to research and monitor companies, industries and market trends.   It is very difficult for an individual to achieve this level of knowledge and understanding across a broad spectrum of companies.  Mutual fund managers have the resources to easily move in and out of companies and industries as investment factors change.

Most individual investors appreciate the convenience of selecting and monitoring a diversified portfolio of mutual funds over the arduous task of selecting a large number of individual stocks.   Stock mutual funds are a good option for your serious money.  However, if you really want to play the market and invest in individual stocks, use money that you can afford to lose.

For diehard stock investors, there are some advantages to investing in individual stocks.  Many stock mutual funds charge an annual management fee of between .50% and 1% (.25% for index funds).  With individual stocks, there is a cost to buy and sell the stock but there is no annual management fee associated with holding stock.

Another advantage of individual stocks is greater control over when capital gains are recognized within a non- retirement account.  When you own an individual stock, capital gains are not recognized until the stock is sold.   In a high income year, you can delay selling your stock, and recognizing the gain, to a year when it would be more tax efficient.   On the other hand, when you invest in a stock mutual fund you have no control over capital gains on stock sold within the fund.  Capital gains must be paid on sales within the mutual fund, before you actually sell the fund.  Mutual funds are not taxable entities, therefore all gains flow through to the end investor.

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