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The Right Way To Balance Growth And Safety When Investing Your Retirement Nest Egg

I have a retired friend who knows he needs growth to ensure his nest egg will last throughout retirement, but at the same time is nervous about the investing in the stock market. Any advice for how he should invest?

      —D.F.

First, let me say that I don’t blame you (I mean your friend) for being skittish. Even though stock prices have more than tripled after bottoming out in the wake of the financial crisis a little more than eight years ago and now stand at or near record highs, there’s that nagging concern in the back of many investors’ minds that the market could suddenly reverse course and we could be looking at another major selloff and a prolonged slump.

And, of course, at some point that will happen, as it has many times before. We just don’t know when or what will trigger the downturn. So the question is how do we invest our nest egg so we can take advantage of stocks’ potential for long-term growth without leaving ourselves too vulnerable to devastating setbacks that could jeopardize our retirement security?

The answer comes down to balance. But not just balance in an investing sense, or creating an investing strategy that reflects an acceptable tradeoff between risk and reward. I’m talking about balance in an emotional sense too, achieving a level of equanimity that helps us keep our composure when the markets are in turmoil, so we don’t do something we’ll later regret, like selling stocks in a panic at depressed prices.

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The first step toward achieving investing balance is to build a portfolio of stocks and bonds that can generate acceptable returns while also providing reasonable downsize protection. For help in creating such a stocks-bonds mix, you can go to Vanguard’s free risk tolerance-asset allocation tool. You answer 11 questions that get to such issues as when you intend to begin drawing money from your savings, how long you need those withdrawals to last and how you would likely react to a big market setback. The tool then suggests an appropriate mix of stocks and bonds based on those answers.

To get a sense of how such a blend of stocks and bonds has performed in the past you can click on the link to “other allocation mixes.” That will take you to a page that shows you best-year and worst-year returns for your recommended mix as well as others more conservative and more aggressive. You can also see how many years the various portfolios have suffered a loss and how each has performed on average over many decades. You shouldn’t think of this as any sort of guarantee of how a given combination of stocks and bonds will fare in the future. If anything, many pros believe average returns going ahead for both stocks and bonds will be considerably lower than in the past. But at least you’ll have a good idea of how different mixes have behaved under a variety of market conditions.

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In your zeal to protect yourself against setbacks, however, you don’t want to end up with a mix that’s so wimpy that you run a high risk of running through your nest egg too soon. So to get a sense of whether your recommended mix of stocks and bonds will be able to support the type of spending you envision during a retirement that could very well last 30 or more years, I suggest you also go to this retirement income calculator.

Just plug in your recommended asset mix along with such information as how much you have saved, how much you expect to spend monthly in retirement and how long you’ll need that retirement income to last. (The tool assumes you’ll live to age 95, which I think is a reasonable assumption for planning purposes. But if you’d like to see how long you might be around based on your age and health status, you can check out the Actuaries Longevity Illustrator.)

After you’ve done this, the calculator will estimate the chances that you’ll be able to maintain your planned level of withdrawals from your nest egg. If that probability is lower than you’d like—as a general rule, I’d say you’d like to see an estimated success rate of 80% or more, give or take—then you can re-run the numbers with different asset mixes and different withdrawal rates. In general, though, as long as you keep your initial withdrawal rate within a range of 3% to 4% or so, you should be able to have decent assurance that your nest egg will support you at least 30 years. You can go with a higher withdrawal rate, but you’ll find that the chances of your money lasting throughout a long retirement start to drop off pretty quickly as you push your withdrawal rate above that range.

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Once you’ve settled on an asset mix and withdrawal rate, you can turn your attention to emotional balance. I don’t know of a tool that can help with this aspect of investing and planning. Rather the idea is to find ways to stay cool when the markets are (or seem to be) crumbling around you, and to avoid giving in to the impulse to take action when every fiber of your being is screaming at you to do something, anything!

One way you might maintain your composure when most investors are all shook up is to remind yourself that not all market downturns turn into full-fledged routs. You could even take a few minutes to review instances in recent years (Brexit, the Greek debt crisis, fears of a slowdown in China’s growth rate) when many investors were convinced a market drop would lead to a major selloff but stocks recovered. If nothing else, this exercise could reinforce the notion that it’s foolish to try to outguess the markets.

And even if things get truly ugly, you might take a few minutes to recall the process you went through to arrive at your portfolio and remind yourself that you factored the likelihood of a significant setback into your decision-making when you settled on your asset mix. Indeed, the whole point of the exercise was to create a portfolio that you could stick with regardless of what’s going on in the markets and that, aside from occasional rebalancing, you wouldn’t have to re-jigger.

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And while I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest you don’t keep track of economic and financial news, you certainly don’t want to follow it obsessively, especially if watching every tick of the market’s downward trajectory gets you so rattled that you’ll eventually cave in to the urge to abandon your long-term strategy.

That’s not to say you can never make a move. There may be times when you should. If, for example, it becomes apparent that you overestimated your appetite for risk when setting your stocks-bonds mix, then you need to re-assess and do some fine-tuning. But if you do make a move, you should do it calmly, rationally and as part of a well-thought-out plan, not in response to the latest dip in the market or on the basis of some pundit’s prediction of coming Armageddon.

*Originally published here.

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