MONEY

25 Ways to Get Smarter About Money Right Now

150212_RET_SMARTER_LEDE
John Lund—Getty Images

Small steps that can make a big difference.

Retirement planning is serious business that requires diligence and patience. But a quick tip, or even an irreverent one, can sometimes be helpful, too. Here are 25 observations from my 30 years of writing about retirement and investing that may spur you to plan more effectively (or to start planning if you’ve been putting it off).

1. If you’re not sure whether you’re saving enough for retirement, you probably aren’t. You can find out for sure pretty easily, though, by going to this Am I Saving Enough? tool.

2. There’s an easy way not to outlive your money: die early. But I think most people would agree that coming up with a realistic and flexible retirement income plan is a more reasonable way to go.

3. If your primary rationale for doing a Roth 401(k) or Roth IRA instead of a traditional version is that “tax free is always better than tax-deferred,” you need to read this story before doing anything.

4. Some people put more thought into whether to have fries with their Big Mac than deciding when to claim Social Security benefits. Unfortunately, giving short shrift to that decision may put those same people at greater risk of having to work behind a fast-food counter late in life to maintain their standard of living.

5. Yes, stocks are risky. But if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be able to generate the high long-term returns that can help you build a sizeable nest egg without devoting a third or more of your income to saving.

6. Just because the mere thought of an immediate annuity makes your eyes glaze over doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider one for your post-career portfolio. When it comes to retirement income, boring can be beautiful.

7. What do rebalancing your retirement portfolio and flossing have in common? We know we ought to make both part of our normal routine, but many people don’t get around to either as regularly as they should.

8. Lots of people (especially in the media) complain that we’d all be better off if companies would just go back to giving workers check-a-month retirement pensions instead of 401(k) plans. But that’s not gonna happen. So focus your efforts on how to maximize your 401(k) or other savings plan.

9. Target-date funds’ stock-bond allocations can’t match your risk tolerance exactly. But guess what? You don’t need an exact match to invest successfully for retirement. And for most people an inexact target-date portfolio is a lot better than anything they’d build on their own.

10. A really smart fund manager can beat an index fund. Problem is, there’s no way to tell in advance whether a manager is one of the handful who’s truly smart or one of the many who look smart but are just lucky or having a few good years. That’s why you’re better off going with index funds in your retirement portfolio.

11. Your employer’s 401(k) match isn’t really “free.” It’s part of your compensation. Which makes it all the more puzzling why anyone wouldn’t contribute at least enough to his 401(k) to get the full company match.

12. Investing in a fund with high fees is like betting on a racehorse being ridden by a fat jockey. Sure, the horse could still be good enough to win. But do you want to put money on it? A low-cost fund effectively allows you to boost your savings rate and gives you a better shot at building an adequate nest egg and making it last throughout retirement.

13. Every time you move to a new house or apartment do you leave all your furniture and other possessions behind? Then why do so many people fail to consolidate their old 401ks into their current plan or a rollover IRA? (Okay, if the old plan’s investing options are unmatchable, that’s a reason. But seriously, how often is that the case?)

14. A reverse mortgage can be a good option to supplement retirement income if your other resources are coming up short. But be sure to consider a trade-down as well. In fact, you may be able to trade down and then do a reverse mortgage in the future.

15. No rule of thumb can be a substitute for detailed retirement planning. But some rules of thumb are better than no planning at all. And going with a rule of thumb may at least help you get on track toward a secure retirement until you decide to get more serious about your planning.

16. Many people are skittish about investing in bonds these days because they’re worried they’ll get clobbered when interest rates rise. But you know what? Pundits have been predicting bond Armageddon for years and it hasn’t happened. Besides, as this research shows, even at today’s low yields bonds remain an effective way to hedge equity risks and diversify your portfolio.

17. People peddling high-cost variable annuities know that retirement investors love the word “guaranteed.” Which is why as soon as you hear that alluring word, you should ask what, exactly, is being guaranteed and who is doing the guaranteeing? Then ask how much you’re paying for that guarantee and what you’re giving up for it. The answers may surprise and enlighten you.

18. No retirement calculator can truly tell you whether you’re on track for a secure retirement because no tool can fully reflect the uncertainty and complexity of real life. Of course, the same goes for the most sophisticated software and human advisers, too. The reason to fire up a good retirement calculator isn’t to come away with a projection that’s 100% accurate. It’s to get a sense of whether you’re on the right course and see how different moves might improve your prospects.

19. You don’t have to be a financial wiz to invest successfully for retirement. But understanding a few basic principles can improve your investing results. Try this investing quiz to see how much you know.

20. Getting fleeced by an unscrupulous adviser or ravaged by a severe bear market can certainly wreak havoc on your retirement plans. But for most people it’s basic lapses in investing and planning that diminish their retirement prospects the most.

21. Many experts say the 4% rule is broken, that it no longer works in today’s low-return world. Fact is, the 4% rule was never all it was cracked up to be. To avoid running out of money in retirement, plug your spending, income, and investing info into a retirement income calculator capable of assessing the probability that your money will last—then repeat the process every year or so to see if you need to adjust your spending.

22. Diversifying your portfolio can lower risk and boost returns. But if you try to get too fancy and stuff your portfolio with investments from every obscure corner of the market and all manner of arcane ETFs, you may end up di-worse-ifying rather than diversifying.

23. Many retirees pour their savings into “income investments” like dividend stocks and high-yield bonds when they want to turn their savings into reliable income. But such a focus can be dangerous. A better way to go: create a low-cost diversified portfolio that generates both income and growth, and then get the income you need from interest, dividends, and periodic sales of fund or ETF shares.

24. The next time wild swings in the market give you the jitters, don’t look to bail out of stocks and huddle in bonds or cash. Market timing doesn’t work. Instead, do this 15-minute Portfolio Check-Up, and then take these 3 Simple Steps to Crash-Proof Your Portfolio.

25. Financial security is definitely important, but retirement satisfaction isn’t just a question of money. Lifestyle matters, too. Among the lifestyle factors that make for a happier post-career life: maintaining your health, staying active and engaged through occasional work or volunteering, cultivating a circle of friends…and, yes, regular sex.

Walter Updegrave is the editor of RealDealRetirement.com. If you have a question on retirement or investing that you would like Walter to answer online, send it to him at walter@realdealretirement.com.

More from RealDealRetirement.com:

Social Security: Your 3 Most Pressing Questions Answered

5 Questions To Ask Before Hiring A Financial Adviser

How To Tell If You Can Afford To Retire Early

 

 

 

MONEY Benefits

The Treasures Hidden in Employee Benefits

businessman with treasure chest of gold coins
Machine Headz—iStock

People often don't realize that they're missing out on valuable employee benefits. Here's how one planner helps them get what's theirs.

I’m talking with a client, Sarah, about her work benefits.

“Are you signed up for disability insurance through work?” I ask. Since Sarah, who’s in her 30s, has at least 25 years until retirement, this insurance is a very important component of her financial plan.

Sarah says she thinks she is.

“Great,” I say. “How long is the waiting period on that, and what percentage of your salary is covered?”

Sarah responds with a big “Ummmm, I have no idea.”

This discussion is actually much more common than you might think. Life gets busy. When open enrollment happened, Sarah checked the boxes on her benefits form without really understanding what she was looking at. Then she moved on with her life. What’s the harm in that?

The harm is that if she hasn’t closely reviewed her employee benefits, she may have a false sense of safety. She may not have checked the right boxes. Her coverage may have major gaps or important conditions of which she’s not aware.

As a financial planner who specializes in working with Gen X professionals, I perform a comprehensive review of my client’s employee benefits as part of his or her financial plan. I can quickly identify potential gaps in insurance coverage, or tax-saving accounts that she or he is not taking advantage of.

Not every financial planning firm does this. Some advisers think that the client already has it under control. Some advisers put a majority of their focus on investment management, and maybe they don’t think they have time to review outside information. This is a mistake.

Here’s the problem: What you don’t know can hurt you. A client may think she has disability insurance through work, but what if she never actually signed up? She suddenly gets diagnosed with cancer and can’t work. Then she misses out on the 50%-60% of the monthly paycheck that employer-provided disability plans often provide. So now she’s dealing with both the stress of cancer treatments and the challenge of paying for living expenses no longer covered by her income. And her adviser has failed her.

A review of employee benefits doesn’t have to take long. Here are the steps I take with my clients:

  1. My client sends me either the employer benefits summary or screenshots from his or her employer benefits website.
  2. I look at the retirement plan. Is it pre-tax only, or is there an option to do Roth 401(k) or Roth 403(b) contributions? What is the employer matching formula? If the client is behind on saving for retirement, is there room to increase contributions before hitting the IRS-mandated maximum?
  3. Next, I review the disability insurance information. Is there long-term disability insurance offered? If so, is the client currently signed up for it? Is there an option to increase the coverage for a little more money? What is the waiting period? Does the employer or the employee pay the premiums (affecting whether the benefits are taxable)?
  4. I review the life insurance benefits. What is basic included coverage? If the client doesn’t have enough insurance, is there an option to increase the coverage? Does that option require medical underwriting or can he or she increase coverage without a medical exam?
  5. I make sure that the client is signed up for the health insurance plan that makes the most sense for him or her. Sometimes it’s better for spouses to be on the same health insurance policy instead of separate ones through their respective employers. Would the client benefit from doing a high-deductible plan (an attractive choice if the client is in good health)?
  6. Finally, I review the tax-advantaged savings account (usually a Health Savings Account or a health Flexible Spending Arrangement and a childcare FSA) to see if there are any benefits that we could be using, and I check the other benefits (like tuition reimbursement and pre-paid legal services) to see if there is anything else that could save my client money.

Once I report my recommendations to my clients, I find that they really appreciate that I am looking out for their best interests. And it gives them another reason to stick around.

———-

Katie Brewer, CFP, is the president of Your Richest Life, where she works virtually with Gen X professionals, helping them create and stick to a financial roadmap to live their richest life. Katie is a fee-only planner, a founding member of the XY Planning Network, and a member of the Financial Planning Association.

MONEY Financial Planning

The Most Important Money Mistakes to Avoid

iStock

Smart people do silly things with money all the time, but some mistakes can be much worse than others.

We asked three of our experts what they consider to be the top money mistake to avoid, and here’s what they had to say.

Dan Caplinger
The most pernicious financial trap that millions of Americans fall into is getting into too much debt. Unfortunately, it’s easy to get exposed to debt at an early age, especially as the rise of student loans has made taking on debt a necessity for many students seeking a college education.

Yet it’s important to distinguish between different types of debt. Used responsibly, lower-interest debt like mortgages and subsidized student loans can actually be a good way to get financing, helping you build up a credit history and allowing you to achieve goals that would otherwise be out of reach. Yet even with this “good” debt, it’s important to match up your financing costs with your current or expected income, rather than simply assuming you’ll be able to pay it off when the time comes.

At the other end of the spectrum, high-cost financing like payday loans should be a method of last resort for borrowers, given their high fees. Even credit cards carry double-digit interest rates, making them a gold mine for issuing banks while making them difficult for cardholders to pay off once they start carrying a balance. The best solution is to be mindful of using debt and to save it for when you really need it.

Jason Hall
It may seem like no big deal, but cashing out your 401(k) early has major repercussions and leads you to have less money when you’ll need it most: in retirement.

According to a Fidelity Investments study, more than one-third of workers under 50 have cashed out a 401(k) at some point. Given an average balance of more than $14,000 for those in their 20s through 40s, we’re talking about a lot of retirement money that people are taking out far too early. Even $14,000 may seem like a relatively easy amount of money to “replace” in a retirement account, but the real cost is the lost opportunity to grow the money.

Think about it this way. If you cash out at 40 years old, you aren’t just taking out $14,000 — you’re taking away decades of potential compound growth:

Returns based on 7% annualized rate of return, which is below the 30-year stock market average.

As you can see, the early cash-out costs you dearly in future returns; the earlier you do it, the more ground you’ll have to make up to replace those lost returns. Don’t cash out when you change jobs. Instead, roll those funds over into your new employer’s 401(k) or an IRA to avoid any tax penalties, and let time do the hard work for you. You’ll need that $100,000 in retirement a lot more than you need $14,000 today.

Dan Dzombak
One of the biggest money mistakes you can make is going without health insurance.

While the monthly premiums can seem like a lot, you’re taking a massive risk with your health and finances by forgoing health insurance. Medical bills quickly add up, and if you have a serious injury, it may also mean you have to miss work, lowering your income when you most need it. These two factors, as well as the continuing rise in healthcare costs, are why a 2009 study from Harvard estimated that 62% of all personal bankruptcies stem from medical expenses.

Since then, we’ve seen the rollout of Obamacare, which signed up 10.3 million Americans through the health insurance marketplaces. Gallup estimated last year that Obamacare lowered the percentage of the adult population that’s uninsured to 13.4%. That’s the lowest level in years, yet it still represents a large number of people forgoing health insurance.

Lastly, as of 2014, not having health insurance is a big money mistake. For tax year 2014, if you didn’t have health insurance, there’s a fine of the higher of $95 or 1% of your income. For tax year 2015, the penalty jumps to the higher of $325 or 2% of your income. While there are some exemptions, if you are in a position to do so, get health insurance. Keep in mind that for low-income taxpayers, Obamacare includes subsidies to lower the monthly payments to help afford health insurance.

MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Secure Your Finances When Reality Doesn’t Bite

Investing illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I am a 22-year-old college grad with a six-figure income and minimal student debt. I have no car and live with my parents. Is there something I should do now to lead a secure and fiscally responsible life? My father gave me the name of his planner but he was of little help — Timothy

A: Given your age, healthy salary, low expenses, and minimal debt, you’re financial situation is pretty straight forward. “There is a time and a place to work with a financial planner, and now may not be one of them,” says Maggie Kirchhoff, a certified financial planner with Wisdom Wealth Strategies in Denver.

If you still want some guidance, you may have better luck getting referrals from friends or colleagues. “A planner who’s a good fit for your parents may not be a good match for you,” she adds.

In the meantime, there are plenty of things you can be doing to improve your financial security. The biggest one: “Save systematically,” says Kirchhoff. If you start saving $5,500 a year, even with a conservative 5% annual return, you’ll have nearly $600,000 when you turn 60. “That assumes you never increase contributions,” she says.

It sounds like you’re in a position to save several times that amount now that your expenses are still low. Make use of your current economic sweet spot by taking full advantage of tax-friendly retirement vehicles, such as an employer-sponsored 401(k) plan. You can sock away up to $18,000 a year in such a plan, and any contributions are exempt from federal and state taxes. If your employer offers matching benefits, contribute at least enough to get the most you can from that benefit.

Your 401(k) plan likely offers an allocation tool to help you figure out the best mix of stocks and bonds for your time horizon and risk tolerance. Based on that recommendation, you’ll want to choose a handful of low-cost mutual funds or index funds that invest in companies of different sizes, in the United States and abroad. “You can make it as complicated or simple as you like,” says Kirchhoff.

If you want to keep things simple, look at whether your plan offers any target-date funds, which allocate assets based on the year you expect to retire (a bit of a guess at this point) and automatically make changes to that mix as that date nears. Caveat: Don’t overpay to put your retirement plan on autopilot; ideally the expense ratio should be less than 1%.

Now, just as important as investing for retirement is making sure you protect that nest egg from its biggest threat: you. Build an emergency fund so you won’t be tempted to dip into your long-term savings — and owe taxes and penalties — if you lose your job or face unexpected expenses.

“A general rule is three to six months of expenses, but since his expense are already so low, he should aim to eventually save three to six months of his take-home pay,” says Kirchhoff, who recommends keeping your rainy-day fund in a money market account that isn’t tied directly to your checking account.

With the extreme ends of your financial situation covered, you’ll then want to think about what you have planned for the next five or 10 years.

Is graduate school in your future? What about buying or renting a place of your own? Once you get up to speed on your retirement savings and emergency fund, you can turn your attention to saving up for any near-term goals.

You might also consider eventually opening a Roth IRA. You’ll make after-tax contributions, but the money will grow sans tax, and you won’t owe taxes when you withdraw for retirement down the road. (Note: You can save up to $5,500 a year in a Roth, but contributions phase out once your modified gross adjusted income reaches $116,000 to $131,000.)

A Roth may not only save you more in taxes down the road, it also offers a little more flexibility that most retirement accounts. For example, you can withdraw up to $10,000 for a first-time home purchase, without tax or penalty, if you’ve had the account at least five years. Likewise, you can withdraw contributions at any point, for any purpose.

What about the student debt? Depending on the interest rate and whether you qualify for a tax deduction (in your case probably not), you could hang onto it and focus on other financial priorities.

That said, if you can make large contributions to your 401(k) plan, build your emergency fund and pay off your student debt at a quicker pace, says Kirchhoff, so much the better.

TIME

This Is The Dumbest Reason You’re Losing Money

TIME.com stock photos Money Dollar Bills
Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

Your inaction could cost you big

Interest rates might be low, but they’re not going to stay that way forever. And when they do rise, the chance to save a bundle will vanish. In spite of that, most Americans won’t take advantage of this window of opportunity.

A new survey from HSH.com, a site for comparing and calculating mortgage rates, finds that only 9% of Americans plan to refinance a mortgage this year, while only 30% say they’re going to pay off credit card debt.

This means we’re leaving money on the table in a big way. “Given that most credit cards are variable-rate, a rising interest rate environment would tend to be more costly over time, so there is even a greater benefit to retiring balances as quickly as possible,” says HSH.com vice president Keith Gumbinger. When the prime rate goes up, so will your monthly rate, even if you haven’t added to your overall balance.

“As far as mortgage refinancing goes, it’s a matter of opportunism,” Gumbinger says. “At the moment, fixed mortgage rates are at about 20-month lows, and very close to as much as 60-year lows.” While there are more variables to consider when refinancing, such as if your credit is good enough to qualify for the lowest rate, how much equity you have in your home and whether or not you plan to stay in that home for a while longer, Gumbinger says the opportunity for greater savings — and month-to-month cash flow — can make refinancing worth it under the right circumstances.

Even though Americans might be aware of their collective inertia when it comes to taking these steps, Gumbinger says the actual number of people who make a proactive improvement to their finances is likely to be low. “Even the best intentions are rarely realized, and over the course of the year there are likely to be many distractions,” he points out. For comparison, last year only 24% of us paid off credit card debt, although 15% did take advantage of low rates to refinance a mortgage.

Unfortunately, it’s not even like we’re socking away the money we do have for the future. The survey finds that only a third of Americans say they’re going to save for retirement this year. That’s an improvement from the 27% who say they did last year, but it’s still low.

“The calendar continues to work against you in the battle to amass assets,” Gumbinger warns. “Incomes are growing again, so if IRA [or] 401k contributions have been on the minimal side over the last few years, here’s a bit of a chance to play catch-up.”

MONEY College

How to Balance Saving for Retirement With Saving for Your Kids’ College Education

Parents often find themselves between a rock and a hard place when it comes to doing what's best for themselves and their children. One financial adviser offers a formula to make it easier.

It’s a uniquely Gen X personal finance dilemma: Should those of us with young children be socking away our savings in 401(k)s and IRAs to make up for Social Security’s predicted shortfall, or in 529s to meet our children’s inevitably gigantic college tuition bills? Ideally, of course, we’d contribute to both—but that would require considerable discretionary income. If you have to chose one over the other, which should you pick?

There are two distinct schools of thought on the answer. The first advocates saving for retirement over college because it’s more important to ensure your own financial health. This is sort of an extension of the put-on-your-own-oxygen-mask-first maxim, and it certainly makes some sense: Your kids can always borrow for college, but you can’t really borrow for retirement, with the exception of a reverse home mortgage, which most advisers think is a terrible idea.

The flip side of this, however, is that while you can choose when to retire and delay it if necessary, you can’t really delay when your kid goes to college. Moreover, the cost of tuition has been rising at a much faster rate than inflation, another argument for making college savings a priority. Finally, many parents don’t want to saddle their young with an enormous amount of debt when they graduate.

According to a recent survey by Sallie Mae and Ipsos, out-of-pocket parental contributions for college, whether from current income or savings, increased in 2014, while borrowing by students and parents actually dropped to the lowest level in five years, perhaps the result of an improved economy and a bull market for stocks. But clearly, parents often find themselves between a rock and a hard place when it comes to doing what’s best for themselves and their children: While 21% of families did not rely on any financial aid or borrowing at all, 7% percent withdrew money from retirement accounts.

If you’re struggling with this decision, one approach that may help is to let time guide your choices, since starting early can make such a huge difference thanks to the power of compound interest. Ideally, this would mean participating in a 401(k) starting at age 25 and contributing anywhere from 10% to 15%, as is currently recommended. Do that for a decade, and even if your income is quite low, the early saving will put you way ahead of the game and give you more leeway for the next phase, which commences when you have children (or, for the sake of my model, when you’re 35).

As soon as your first child is born, open a 529 or similar college savings account. Put in as much money as possible, reducing your retirement contributions if you have to in order to again take advantage of the early start. Meanwhile, your retirement account can continue to grow on its own from reinvested dividends and, hopefully, positive returns. Throw anything you can into the 529s—from the smallest birthday check from grandma to your annual bonus—in the first five or so years of a child’s life, because pretty soon you will have to switch back to saving for retirement again.

By the time you’re 45, you will have two decades of saving and investing under your belt and two portfolios as a result, either of which you can continue to fund depending on its size and your cost calculations for both retirement and college. You probably also now have a substantially larger income and hopefully might be able to contribute to both simultanously moving forward, or make catch-up payments with one or the other if you see major shortfalls. At this point, however, retirement should once again be the central focus for the next decade—until your child heads off to college and you have start writing checks for living expenses, dorm fees, and textbooks. Don’t worry, you still have another 10 to 15 years to earn more money for retirement, although those contributions will have less long-term impact due to the shorter time horizon.

Of course, this strategy doesn’t guarantee that your kids won’t have to apply for scholarships or take out loans, or that you won’t have to put off retiring until 75. But at least you will know that you did everything in your power to try to plan in advance.

Konigsberg is the author of The Truth About Grief, a contributor to the anthology Money Changes Everything, and a director at Arden Asset Management. The views expressed are solely her own.

 

 

 

 

 

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: January 13

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. The U.S. could improve its counterinsurgency strategy by gathering better public opinion data from people in conflict zones.

By Andrew Shaver and Yang-Yang Zhou in the Washington Post

2. The drought-stricken western U.S. can learn from Israel’s water management software which pores over tons of data to detect or prevent leaks.

By Amanda Little in Bloomberg Businessweek

3. Beyond “Teach for Mexico:” To upgrade Latin America’s outdated public education systems, leaders must fight institutional inequality.

By Whitney Eulich and Ruxandra Guidi in the Christian Science Monitor

4. Investment recommendations for retirees are often based on savings levels achieved by only a small fraction of families. Here’s better advice.

By Luke Delorme in the Daily Economy

5. Lessons from the Swiss: We should start making people pay for the trash they throw away.

By Sabine Oishi in the Baltimore Sun

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

MONEY IRAs

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?

MONEY bonds

Why Skimpy Bond Yields Are a Retirement Game Changer

farmer in field of bad crop
Adrian Sherratt—Alamy Is a long season of slow growth and low returns ahead?

A 10-year Treasury bond now pays less than 2%. That may make it harder to earn the returns you expect in your 401(k).

Yields on the benchmark 10-year Treasury slipped below 2% on Tuesday as bonds rallied. (Bond prices rise when yields, or interest rates, fall, and prices fall as rates rise.) Since the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, bond yields have bounced around near historic lows. That’s had many investors worried about what would happen to their fixed-income investments when the seemingly inevitable rise in bond interest rates finally arrives.

Screen Shot 2015-01-05 at 3.44.58 PM

But in fact, today’s low yields could present a long-term challenge to retirement-oriented savers, even if interest rates stay low, and even if bonds today aren’t overpriced. And investing mostly or entirely in equities won’t immunize you from the problems of investing during a low-return era.

What happens if bond yields rise. First, let’s consider what happens if the conventional wisdom is right, and bond yields do start to rise again. If you hold bonds in a mutual fund as part of, say, a 401(k) plan, the most important thing you can do is understand your risk when bond prices fall. A plain-vanilla, intermediate-term bond fund these days has a “duration” of about 5.5. That measure of interest-rate risk roughly means that if rates rose by one percentage point, the fund would fall 5.5% in value. (Your actual loss would be lower, since you’d still be getting paid interest on the bonds in the fund.)

A decline in the value of a fund that’s the safe part of your retirement portfolio could come as a shock, and for money you may need soon, a shorter-duration bond fund makes sense. But keep short-run bond fund losses in perspective: Over the longer run, a shift up in rates can also help make up for what you lost, and the current yield on bonds gives you a strong clue about what to expect.

Say you own a diversified bond fund. Assume the yield is about 2% when you buy it, and the fund’s average bond matures in seven years. According to numbers from Vanguard, a sudden two-point jump in rates—a huge spike—would cause the fund to lose about 8% in total. As its bonds paid out higher yields, however, your annualized return after seven years would still be likely to level off to just about 2%.

What happens if yields stay low. The real risk with bonds today, however, may not be losses in the short run. It’s that the returns will stay frustratingly low for a long time.

Ben Inker, co-head of asset allocation at GMO, a Boston fund manager, lays out two scenarios, one he calls “purgatory” and the other “hell.” In purgatory, rates are headed for a spike. Bond prices will fall, and stocks might too. But after that you pick up better yield and better returns.

In hell, interest rates stay low. Part of the reason it’s hell is why interest rates stay low: The economy never gets back to its pre-2008 strength. With low growth prospects, there’s less demand for capital, and many investors around the world are content to accept relatively low returns on cash and bonds.

Part of the reason yields have recently fallen below 2% is that bond investors still see some risk of this “secular stagnation” scenario.

Ironically, in hell, your bond investments don’t lose money, since there’s no big rate spike. And today’s stock prices, oddly, might make sense too. Here’s why: When the price of stocks is high relative to long-run past earnings, future returns tend to be lower. Today the P/E ratio for stocks is expensive at 27. (The average is 17.) So stock returns may be on the low side. You still may be willing to take that deal, however, if you are earning only 2% on your bonds.

That may help explain why stocks have recently shot up. But if so, that’s a one-time adjustment. Hell is not just a low-bond-yield world. It’s a low-total-return world.

That would be bad news for savers, especially younger ones who will be putting much of their money into the market in the future. In the hell scenario, a typical portfolio earns 3.4% after inflation instead of the 4.7% Inker assumes you’d have gotten in the past. “Let’s say you turned 25 in 2009 and started saving,” he says. “You end up accumulating 25% less by retirement.”

Inker stresses he doesn’t know which scenario we’re headed for. The one constant is that in neither are there lots of opportunities to make money with low risk. “This is a frustrating environment for us as investors,” admits Inker. “It is less clear what the right thing to do is than throughout almost the rest of history.” The trouble with bonds, it turns out, is bigger than unpalatable yields. And it’s the trouble with an economy that is taking a long time to find its true normal.

 

This story is adapted from “How 2% Explains the World,” in the 2015 Investor’s Guide in the January-Feburary issue of MONEY.

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