The Extreme IRA Mistake You May Be Making

A new study reveals that many savers have crazy retirement portfolios. This four-step plan will keep you from going to extremes with your IRA.

When did you last pay attention to how your IRA is invested? It’s time to take a close look. Nearly two out of three IRA owners have extreme stock and bond allocations, a new study by the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) found. In 2010 and 2012, 33% of IRA savers had no money in stocks, while 23% were 100% in equities.

Many young savers and pre-retirees have portfolios that are either too cautious or too risky: 41% of 25- to 44-year-olds have 0% of their IRAs in stocks, while 21% of 55- to 65-year-olds are 100% in stocks.

An all-bond or all-stock IRA may be just what you want, of course. Perhaps you can’t tolerate the ups and downs of the stock market or you think you can handle 100% equities (more on that later). Or maybe your IRA is part of a larger portfolio.

But chances are, you ended up with an out-of-whack allocation because you left your IRA alone. “It seems likely many investors aren’t investing the right way for their goals, whether out of inertia or procrastination,” says EBRI senior research associate Craig Copeland. An earlier study by the Investment Company Institute found that less than 11% of traditional IRA investors moved money in their accounts in any of the five years ending in 2012.

To keep a closer tab on how your retirement funds are invested, take these four steps.

See where you stand. Looking at everything you have stashed in your IRA, 401(k), and taxable accounts (don’t forget your spouse’s plans), tally up your holdings by asset class—large-company stocks, short-term bonds, and the like. You’ll probably find that the bull market of the past five years has shifted your allocation dramatically. If you held 60% stocks and 40% bonds in 2009 and let your money ride, your current mix may be closer to 75% stocks and 25% bonds.

Get a grip on your risks. An extreme allocation—or a more extreme one than you planned—can put your retirement at risk. Hunkering down in fixed income means missing out on years of growth. Putting 100% in stocks could backfire if equities plunge just as you retire—what happened to many older 401(k) investors during the 2008–09 market crash.

Reset your target. If you also have a 401(k), your plan likely has an asset-allocation tool that can help you settle on a new mix, and you may find that you need to make big changes. That’s especially true for pre-retirees, who should be gradually reducing stocks, says George Papadopoulos, a financial planner in Novi, Mich.  A typical allocation for that age group is 60% stocks and 40% bonds. As you actually move into retirement, it could be 50/50.

Make the shift now. If moving a large amount of money in or out of stocks or bonds leaves you nervous, you may be tempted to do it gradually. But especially in tax-sheltered accounts, it’s best to fix your mistake quickly. (In taxable accounts you may want to add new money instead to avoid incurring taxable gains.) “If you’re someone who’s a procrastinator, you may never get around to rebalancing,” says Boca Raton, Fla., financial planner Mari Adam. And you don’t want a market downturn to do your rebalancing for you.

Get more IRA answers in the Ultimate Retirement Guide:
What’s the Difference Between a Traditional and a Roth IRA?
How Should I Invest My IRA Money?
How Will My IRA Withdrawals Be Taxed in Retirement?

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