MONEY 401(k)s

Why Your Retirement Fund Is Riskier Than You Thought

Your 401(k) target-date fund may own a lot more stocks than it did before, as fund groups got a lot more aggressive. Too bad it happened just in time for the recent market downturn.

In changes that have raised the potential investment risks in many 401(k) retirement accounts, several major fund companies are increasing the stock allocation of their target-date funds, which are used by many of those with such plans.

BlackRock Inc, Fidelity Investments and Pacific Investment Management Co—all firms that have seen returns in their target-date funds lagging competitors—have made adjustments in the past year so that 401(k) plan participants, particularly those who are younger to middle age, are more invested in equities. In some cases employees who are in their 40s now find themselves in funds that are 94% allocated into stocks, up more than 10 percentage points.

The changes have prompted concerns from consultants and analysts who worry that the fund managers are raising the risks too high for 401(k) investors as they seek higher returns, perhaps as a way to boost their own profiles against rivals.

This anxiety could grow if the recent decline in the U.S. stock market—the S&P 500 is down 4.5% since reaching an all-time high in mid-September and dropped more than 2% on Thursday—gains momentum. On the other hand, the increased bets on equities can be seen as a vote of confidence in the bull market, and are also a reflection of expectations of low returns from bonds in the next few years if interest rates climb.

“The shared characteristic these funds have is they have not been doing so well since 2008,” said Janet Yang, a fund analyst at Morningstar. “The question is if the markets had gone down, would they have made these changes?”

For their part, executives at these firms say the changes are based on optimistic long-term forecasts for equities, lowered expectations for bond market returns and a better understanding of how much investors, particularly younger ones, rely on these funds as their primary retirement savings vehicle.

Target-date funds contain a mix of assets, such as stocks and bonds and real estate, and automatically adjust that mix to be less risky as the target maturity date of the fund approaches. The idea is that retirement savers can choose a target-date fund that lines up with their own expected retirement year and then not have to worry about managing their money.

These funds have increasing significance for retirement savers, because employers can and do automatically invest workers’ savings in target-date funds, though the workers can opt out. Some 41% of plan participants invest in these funds, up from 20% five years ago, according to the SPARK Institute, a Washington DC-based lobbyist for the retirement plan industry.

Nevertheless, the recent tilt towards heavier equity holdings raises questions about whether workers are entrusting professional money managers who might end up buying equities at or near market highs—the S&P is up 189% since March 2009.

“Our concern is that this is happening after a pretty good run in the equity market,” said Lori Lucas, defined contribution practice leader at Callan Associates, a San Francisco-based consultant to institutional investors. “If it’s a reaction to the fact that some target-date funds haven’t been competitive then it is a concern.”

A more aggressive approach has worked for some funds in recent years.

The target-date fund families of BlackRock, Fidelity and Pimco have performed among the bottom half of their peers over the last three- and five-year periods, according to Morningstar. Meanwhile, more aggressive target-date fund families, like those managed by The Vanguard Group, T. Rowe Price and Capital Research & Management, ranked among the top half of their peers.

As of June 30, BlackRock’s three-year return for its 2050 fund was 10.6%, according to Morningstar, compared with 10.16% for Fidelity’s similar fund and 7.14% for Pimco’s comparable fund. Meanwhile Capital Research’s 2050 fund returned 13.27% and Vanguard’s fund returned 12.26% for the same period.

Furthermore, with average expenses of 0.85% per year, these funds charge more than the 0.7% in fees levied by the typical actively managed balanced fund, according to Morningstar. The firms’ pitch is that investors are paying more for peace of mind and a set-it-and-forget it approach to managing their retirement money. Workers willing to make their own mix of indexed stock and bond funds could pay considerably less. The average expense ratio for an equity index fund is 0.13% and 0.12% for a bond index fund.

“There is some kind of expectation that we are making these changes because of the equity markets or because of what competitors are doing and that is incorrect,” said Chip Castille, head of BlackRock’s U.S. retirement group.

BlackRock decided to make its changes after a four-year research project cast new light on how younger workers look at their plans. Previously, BlackRock’s funds were focused on making sure that investors had enough at retirement. But given that employees’ wages tend to be flat or go up in value slowly, like a bond, BlackRock wanted to make sure that the target-date funds were designed to provide greater returns during the course of employees’ lifetimes, Castille said.

That, along with the firm’s positive 10-year forecast for equities, resulted in the changes, he said.

With the BlackRock changes, which take effect next month, 401(k) participants with 25 years left until retirement will see their equity allocation jump to 94% from 78%. Investors at retirement age saw their equities allocation jump to 40% from 38%.

Executives at the firms note that the increases in equities all fit within the age appropriate risk for the investors, and that those investors close to or at retirement are seeing a very small bump in their equities weightings.

Also they note that they believe the changes will combat risks of not having enough money at retirement due to inflation and also address concerns that as people live longer they will need more in retirement.

Fidelity made its changes in January after it revamped its capital markets forecasts, which it revisits annually, said Mathew Jensen, the firm’s director of target-date strategies.

Specifically, Fidelity has lowered its forecasts for bond returns from 4% a year to 1% to 2 %, not including inflation. That along, with internal research that showed that younger workers were not saving enough, led to the decision.

“None of our work was saying ‘hey the equity markets did well, we should be in equities,” Jensen said. “It was about if we have a dollar today, how do we want to put it to work based on what our capital markets assumptions are telling us.”

Now an investor in Fidelity’s 2020 fund has 62% invested in equities, compared with 55% previously, while an investor near or at retirement is 24% in equities, up from 20%.

Pimco raised the equity allocation in its target date funds late last year by 5 percentage points for some funds and 7.5 percentage points for others. The equity allocation for those at retirement is now 20%, up from 15%, while those investors planning to retire in 2050 saw their equity allocation jump to 62.5% up from 55%.

“The decision was supported by our view that the global macro environment had become more stable post the financial crisis,” said John Miller, head of U.S. retirement at Pimco, in an e-mailed statement.

MONEY retirement age

How to Know When It’s Time to Retire

Birthday candles
Fuse—Getty Images

I’ve long argued that one’s quality of life should be a principal factor in deciding when to retire. At the same time, however, financial considerations can’t be ignored. With this in mind, here are three rules of thumb to help you decide whether you’ve reached the perfect age to retire.

1. Have you saved enough money?

The “multiply by-25″ rule is a popular tool that retirement experts encourage people to use to estimate whether they’ve saved enough money to stop working and, at least hopefully, begin a life of leisure.

Here’s how it works: Multiply your desired annual income in retirement, less projected annual Social Security benefits, by 25. If your savings are greater than that, then you’re in good shape. If not, then you may not be financially ready to retire.

For example, let’s say that Bob and Mary Jane estimate they’ll spend $40,000 a year in retirement. Using the rule of 25, they’ll need savings of $1 million.

A slightly different iteration of this is the “multiply by-300″ rule. This is the same thing, but it focuses on months instead of years — that is, take your average monthly expenditures, minus your monthly Social Security check, and multiply that by 300.

If your savings are greater than that, then you’re all set. If not, then you might want to continue working for a few more years.

2. Will you have enough income?

This question is related to the first one, but it attacks the issue from a slightly different angle. As such, it also has its own rule of thumb: the 4% rule.

This rule holds that you can safely withdraw 4% from your portfolio every year and still be confident it will last through retirement. Thus, to determine if you’ll have enough income in retirement, multiply your portfolio by 4% and then add in your projected annual Social Security benefits — to learn one potential problem with this rule, click here.

If the sum of these two numbers is enough to cover your expenses, then you’re ready to retire. If not, then it may behoove you to put off retirement for a while longer, as doing so should allow your portfolio to continue growing. It will also give your Social Security benefits time to accrue delayed retirement credits.

3. Is your portfolio properly allocated?

Finally, determining if you’re ready to retire isn’t just about how much you’ve saved, it’s also about how your savings are allocated into various asset classes — namely, stocks and bonds.

To be ready for retirement, you want to make sure that your assets are invested in as safe of a way as possible. To do so, it’s smart to steer your portfolio increasingly toward fixed-income investments like bonds as you approach your desired retirement age.

Experts use the following rule to determine the proper allocation: “The percentage of your portfolio invested in bonds should equal your age.” Thus, if you’re 60 years old, then 60% of your portfolio should be in bonds and 40% in stocks. If you’re 55, then the split is 55% to 45%, respectively.

While this may seem like it has less to do with the timing of retirement than the former two rules, the reality is that it’s of equal importance. As my colleague Morgan Housel has discussed in the past, one of investors’ biggest mistakes is to underestimate the volatility in the stock market. According to Morgan’s research, stocks fall by an average of 10% once every 11 months.

Suffice it to say, a drop of this magnitude would have a material impact on both of the preceding rules, as a 10% decline in your stock holdings would equate to a much smaller income under the 4% rule and, as a corollary, it would call for a delayed retirement date under the multiply by-25 rule.

And the impact of this would be even more exaggerated if the lions’ share of your assets were still in stocks as opposed to bonds. Consequently, the culmination of your strategy to bring your portfolio into accord with this final rule is a key step in determining the perfect age at which you’re ready to pull the trigger and actually retire.

MONEY retirement planning

8 Things You Must Do Before You Retire

s├ębastien thibault

Getting ready to retire? The moves you make in the months before you call it quits can smooth the way to a secure future.

After working diligently for more than 30 years—so you could set yourself up financially for your golden years—the glow of retirement is finally on the horizon. Alas, it’s not time to relax just yet.

Each day more than 10,000 baby boomers enter retirement. Yet only around one-quarter of workers 55 and older say they’re doing a good job preparing for the next phase, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. The last 12 months before you call it a career is especially critical to putting your retirement on a prosperous path. It’s time to get your portfolio, health care, and other finances in order so you can enjoy your new life.

THE TURNING-POINT CHECKLIST

12 Months Out:

Dial back on stocks now. You still need the growth that equities provide, but even a 15% market slide in the year before you retire can erase four years’ worth of income. Cap stock exposure to around 50% in your sixties, advises Rande Spiegelman, vice president of financial planning at Schwab Center for Financial Research.

Raise cash. Your paychecks are about to stop. So as you downshift from stocks, move that money into a savings or money market account to fund at least one year of expenses, says Judith Ward, T. Rowe Price senior financial planner.

Set a realistic retirement budget. Use the worksheet on Fidelity’s free retirement-income planner to list all of your fixed and discretionary expenses. Then use T. Rowe Price’s free retirement-income calculator to see how safe that level of spending is likely to be, based on the size of your nest egg and age.

6 Months Out:

Play out Social Security scenarios. You can claim Social Security at 62, but if you can hold off until 70 your checks will be 76% bigger. Tool around FinancialEngines.com’s free Social Security Income Planner to find the best strategy for you.

Figure out how you’ll pay for health care. Check if your company offers retirees medical, long-term care, and other insurance coverage. If you won’t get health insurance and aren’t yet 65 (when you qualify for Medicare), then compare plans offered via the Affordable Care Act at eHealthInsurance.com. Or use COBRA, where you can stay on your employer plan up to 18 months after leaving.

3 MONTHS OUT:

Begin the rollover process. In a small 401(k) plan, average fund expenses can run north of 0.6% of assets. You can cut those fees at least in half by shifting into index funds at a low-cost IRA provider. See if your plan provides free access to investment advisers to help you decide.

Sign up for Medicare. Nearing 65? You can enroll for Medicare up to three months before turning that age. Also, figure in supplemental plans to cover expenses that Medicare does not, such as dental care and prescription drugs.

Get a running start. Put your post-career itinerary into action. Research volunteer groups that you want to join, reach out to contacts if you plan to keep a hand in work, start a new exercise routine, or begin planning that big trip.

MONEY retirement planning

The Single Biggest Threat To Your Retirement

Mirror
Shawn Gearhart—Getty Images

You might think a stock market slump or a shaky economy pose the biggest danger to your retirement. But the biggest threat may be looking back at you in the mirror.

There’s no shortage of things that can jeopardize your retirement security. Market slumps, job layoffs, medical expenses, an unanticipated spike in inflation, unexpected financial obligations…the list goes on and on. But as scary as these threats may be, they don’t represent the biggest danger to your retirement security. That would be…

You.

Yes, that attractive devil staring back at you in the mirror every morning.

That’s not to say the other hazards I’ve mentioned can’t diminish your retirement prospects. They can. But the danger we ourselves pose to our retirement security can be more insidious if only because we’re not as likely to be aware of it.

So how, exactly, do we undermine our own retirement success? Here are the main ways, followed by advice on how you can limit self-inflicted damage.

*We have a fear of commitment. I’m not talking relationships here, but the difficulty we have in starting to plan for retirement and, more specifically, beginning a savings regimen early on and sticking with it throughout our career. The latest stats from the Bureau of Economic Analysis show that the U.S. savings rate today hovers just below 6% of disposable income, less than half where it stood in the early 1970s. Even among people earning $100,000 or more, only about a third contribute the max to their 401(k). This reluctance to save isn’t totally surprising. After all, our brains are hard-wired for immediate gratification. The sleek car or fancy duds we can have right now are more appealing to us than financial security down the road.

*We’re too emotional. Just when we should be thinking with our heads, we too often go with our guts. Prime example: When the markets are booming, we feel more ebullient, which makes us more apt to underestimate the risk in stocks and load up on them. After a crash, our ebullience turns to gloom, leading us to overestimate the risk we face and flee stocks for the short-term safety of bonds and cash.

*We don’t follow through. Even when we take the time and effort to come up with a coherent strategy, such as building a diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds that jibes with our appetite for risk, we then sabotage our efforts by failing to adhere to our plan. We know that different returns for different asset classes will knock our portfolio’s balance out of whack over time. Still, we don’t bother to periodically rebalance our holdings to bring them back to their proper proportions. Similarly, even if go to the trouble to go to a good online retirement calculator to figure out how much we need to save to have a decent shot at a secure retirement, we often fail to monitor our progress and make periodic adjustments. Retirement is a multi-decade journey. You can’t set your course once and go on autopilot for 30 years.

*We focus on the wrong things. Instead of focusing on the most important aspects of retirement planning—Am I saving enough? Do I have the right mix of stocks and bonds? How should my spouse and I coordinate claiming Social Security to get more in benefits?—we get mired in the weeds, poring over performance charts for the funds that have the highest returns or endlessly researching exotic new investments that purport to provide more diversification in our portfolios. News flash: In the long run, the single most important thing you can do to improve your retirement prospects is save more. If you focus first on that and then turn your attention to building a simple mix of low-cost stock and bond index funds, you’ll have laid the groundwork for a secure retirement.

Fortunately, it’s possible, if not to completely eliminate, then at least mitigate the threat we pose to ourselves when it comes to retirement planning. We do have a natural tendency to spend, but behavioral research shows that we may be more likely to save for the future if we feel some sort of link with our future selves. One way to establish that link is to check out the Face Retirement tool in RDR’s Retirement Toolbox, which uses age-morphing technology to “introduce” you to your future self. Once you’ve made that connection, you may find it easier to set aside resources today to help the you of tomorrow.

Similarly, you can prevent emotions from wreaking havoc with your retirement by adopting a more disciplined approach to planning. Writing down a savings target—10% to 15% is reasonable—will make you more likely to adhere to it than a mere mental note to yourself to try to put some money away. Sign up for your 401(k) plan and elect to have that target percentage deducted from your paycheck, and boom! You’re overcoming both the fear to commit and the failure to follow through. Set an annual date—your birthday, day after Thanksgiving, whenever—to rebalance your retirement portfolio and check your progress with an online retirement planning calculator, and you’re doing an even better job on the follow-through front

The reality is that today the onus is increasingly on you to provide for your security in retirement. So the more you’re able to turn yourself into an asset that enhances your future financial prospects rather than a threat that diminishes them, the more secure and enjoyable a retirement you’re likely to achieve.

Walter Updegrave is the editor of RealDealRetirement.com. He previously wrote the Ask the Expert column for MONEY and CNNMoney. You can reach him at walter@realdealretirement.com.

MONEY 401(k)s

How Do I Choose Investments for My 401(k)?

What's the the right mix of stocks and bonds for your retirement account? Financial planners explain.

MONEY Ask the Expert

Here’s How to Protect Your 401(k) from the Next Big Market Drop

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: Bull markets don’t last forever. How can I protect my 401(k) if there’s another big downturn soon?

A: After a five-year tear, the bull market is starting to look a bit tired, so it’s understandable that you may be be nervous about a possible downturn. But any changes in your 401(k) should be geared mainly to the years you have until retirement rather than potential stock market moves.

The current bull market may indeed be in its last phase and returns going forward are likely to be more modest. Still, occasional stomach-churning downturns are just the nature of the investing game, says Tim Golas, a partner at Spurstone Executive Wealth Solutions. “I don’t see anything like the 2008 crisis on the horizon, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see a lot more volatility in the markets,” says Golas.

That may feel uncomfortable. But don’t look at an increase in market risk as a key reason to cut back your exposure to stocks. “If you leave the market during tough times and get really conservative with long-term investments, you can miss a lot of gains,” says Golas.

A better way to determine the size of your stock allocation is to use your age, projected retirement date, as well as your risk tolerance as a guide. If you are in your 20s and 30s and have many years till retirement, the long-term growth potential of stocks will outweigh their risks, so your retirement assets should be concentrated in stocks, not bonds. If you have 30 or 40 years till retirement you can keep as much as 80% of your 401(k) in equities and 20% in bonds, financial advisers say.

If you’re uncomfortable with big market swings, you can do fine with a smaller allocation to stocks. But for most investors, it’s best to keep at least a 50% to 60% equities, since you’ll need that growth in your nest egg. As you get older and closer to retirement, it makes sense to trade some of that potential growth in stocks for stability. After all, you want to be sure that money is available when you need it. So over time you should reduce the percentage of your assets invested in stocks and boost the amount in bonds to help preserve your portfolio.

To determine how much you should have in stocks vs. bonds, financial planners recommend this standard rule of thumb: Subtract your age from 110. Using this measure, a 40-year old would keep 70% of their retirement funds in stocks. Of course, you can fine-tune the percentage to suit your strategy.

When you’re within five or 10 years of retirement, you should focus on reducing risk in your portfolio. An asset allocation of 50% stocks and 50% stocks should provide the stability you need while still providing enough growth to outpace inflation during your retirement years.

Once you have your strategy set, try to ignore daily market moves and stay on course. “You shouldn’t apply short-term thinking to long-term assets,” says Golas.

For more on retirement investing:

Money’s Ultimate Guide to Retirement

MONEY retirement planning

4 Simple Rules For Juicing Up Your Retirement Fund

Juicing a lemon
Tooga—Getty Images

These basic yet effective moves can help you get the investment gains you need without taking on outsize risk.

With financial pundits incessantly speculating about where stock prices are headed or blathering about a seemingly endless stream of “revolutionary” new investment products, you could easily get the impression you need to constantly revamp your retirement portfolio. But guess what? You don’t.

In fact, you’re more likely to hurt your retirement prospects by focusing on the ups and downs of the market and overdiversifying into fad investments. A better strategy: stick to a few simple but effective principles that can help you get the investment gains you need without incurring outsize risks.

Here are four tips that can help you add juice to your retirement portfolio’s performance and boost your odds of achieving retirement security.

1. Focus on building a portfolio, not picking funds. Many people think smart investing starts with selecting specific funds. But that approach is backwards. Before you start homing in on individual funds or any other type of investment, you need an overall plan.

Specifically, you want to put together a portfolio that not only includes stock and bond funds, but a broad range of both (growth and value stocks, large shares and small; government and corporate bonds). The aim is to create a diverse group of investments that don’t all move in synch with one another. This way, when one part of your portfolio is getting routed, another part can be racking up gains—or at least not get battered as badly.

The mix of stocks and bonds you own should be based on factors such as your age, your investing goals and your tolerance for risk. Generally, the younger you are, the more of your money you’ll want in stocks.

For guidance on creating such a portfolio, you can check out the investing tools in the Real Deal Retirement Toolbox. If you find the idea of building your own portfolio daunting, consider a target-date retirement fund, an all-in-one fund that includes a diversified mix of stocks and bonds and that becomes more conservative as you age. Though far from perfect, target funds are a good choice for people who can’t or don’t want to build a portfolio on their own.

2. Seek to track, not beat, the market. Aspiring for “average” results by investing in index funds or ETFs that track the performance of market benchmarks strikes some as an admission of failure. It shouldn’t. If you earn the average market return—or something close to it—you can grow your retirement stash substantially over time.

If ten years ago you had invested $10,000 in a total stock market index fund—a fund that tracks the entire U.S. stock market—you would have earned an annualized return of almost 9% and be sitting on a stash worth more than $23,000 today.

Sure, some funds did better. But most didn’t, and it’s hard if not impossible to identify in advance the ones likely to outperform. Indeed, S&P Dow Jones’s latest “Persistence Scorecard” shows that very few funds can consistently outperform their peers. Besides, what sometimes looks like superior performance is just a fund taking on a lot more risk, which makes it more vulnerable to market setbacks.

If you stick to broadly diversified stock and bond index funds, you can avoid the whole fund-picking racket, and fare much better than investors who are constantly seeking out hot funds.

3. Control your emotions. When the markets are surging, people tend to get overconfident about their investing abilities and underestimate the risk they’re taking. That’s one reason investors pour so much money into stocks after the market’s been on a run.

By contrast, in the wake of a market crash investors become overly cautious and often dump stocks and huddle in bonds and cash, even though stocks are usually more attractively priced after big downturns.

You’re much better off avoiding this emotional roller-coaster ride and maintaining your composure. Once you’ve created a portfolio of stocks and bonds that makes sense for you, you should largely avoid tinkering with it whatever the market is doing, except to rebalance back to your original asset mix periodically (say, once a year). By taking your emotions out of the game and adhering to the simple disciplined strategy of rebalancing back to your target stocks-bond mix, you’ll avoid the classic investor mistake of loading up on assets when they’re likely overpriced and selling after they’ve taken a beating and may be bargains.

4. Rein in costs. People tend to gravitate toward investments that have recently posted the highest returns. But returns are highly volatile. And a fund or stock that’s topping the performance charts one year may be an also-ran the next.

Expenses, on the other hand, are much more predictable. A fund that has much higher management fees than its peers will probably stay that way—its costs aren’t likely to go down. And since each dollar you pay in expenses lowers your net return, bloated fees act as a drag on a fund’s performance. Over the long-term that can seriously stunt the size of your retirement nest egg.

That’s why low-cost funds tend to outperform their high-fee counterparts over long periods of time. Which is another argument to stick mostly to index funds, which typically have some of the lowest expenses around. You can screen for low-cost funds by going to the Basic Screener in the Tools section of Morningstar.com. (The tool is free, but registration is required.)

There are no guarantees in investing. But if you follow the four tips above, you should be able to substantially boost the value of your nest egg without subjecting it to undue risk.

Walter Updegrave is the editor of RealDealRetirement.com. He previously wrote the Ask the Expert column for MONEY and CNNMoney. You can reach him at walter@realdealretirement.com.

More from RealDealRetirement.com:

Why Saving Trumps Investing When It Comes To Retirement

10 Tips To Supercharge Your Savings

Worried You’ll Outlive Your Nest Egg? Tilt the Odds in Your Favor

MONEY Ask the Expert

Help, My Spouse Is Afraid of Stocks. What Should I Do?

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I just got married, and my husband and I are both contributing to 401(k)s. But he is very conservative with his investments and keeps very little in stocks. We have more than three decades till retirement. How can we align our 401(k)s so we both feel comfortable?

A: It’s certainly not unusual for a couple to have different attitudes about how to manage their money. Spouses often aren’t on the same page when it comes to personal finances. But when you are investing for retirement, being too conservative can make it harder to reach your long-term goals.

“You need some of the risk that comes with investing in stocks, or you won’t have enough growth to fuel your portfolio for the long run,” says San Diego financial planner Marc Roland. And the younger you are, the more risk you can afford to take with your retirement money.

That’s because you have more time to ride out the anxiety-inducing downturns in the markets. Financial planners recommend using your age and subtracting it from 110 to get the percentage of your portfolio that you should keep in stocks. A 30-year-old, for example, should have roughly 80% of their holdings in equities.

So how do you mesh that guideline with an asset allocation that doesn’t panic your husband when the market drops?

First, understand that asset allocation isn’t the only important factor you should consider. How much you put away has more impact on your retirement savings success than how you invest your money. When you’re decades from retirement, it’s hard to know exactly how much you’ll need for a comfortable lifestyle at 65. But one rule of thumb is that you’ll need 70% of your pre-retirement salary to live comfortably. You can get a good ball park estimate with a calculator like this one from T. Rowe Price.

The more you are contributing to your 401(k)s, the less risk you have to take on, says Roland. If you’re both saving at least 10% of your income, and you boost that rate to 15% or more as you get older and earn more, a balanced portfolio of about 60% in stocks with the rest in bonds would work, says Roland. (That ratio of stocks to bonds is a bit conservative for investors in their 20s, who could reasonably stash as much as 80% in equities.)

To achieve that overall mix, the more aggressive spouse can invest 80% in stocks, while the risk-averse spouse can hold the line at 40%, assuming you are contributing similar amounts to your plans. “That blend will give them an appropriate asset allocation but each portfolio is tailored to each person’s risk tolerance,” says Roland.

Related links:

MONEY 401(k)s

Why This Popular Retirement Investment May Leave You Poorer

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slobo—Getty Images

Target-date funds are supposed to be simple all-in-one investments, but there's a lot more going on than meets the eye.

Considering my indecision about how to invest my retirement portfolio (see “Do I Really Need Foreign Stocks in My 401(k)?”) you would think there’s an easy solution staring me in the face: target-date funds, which shift their asset mix from riskier to more conservative investments on a fixed schedule based on a specific retirement date.

These funds often come with attractive, trademarked names like “SmartRetirement” and are marketed as “all-in-one” solutions. But while they certainly make intuitive sense, they are not remotely as simple as they sound.

First introduced about two decades ago, the growth of target-date funds was spurred by the Pension Protection Act of 2006, which blessed them as the default investment option for employees being automatically enrolled by defined contribution plans, such as 401(k)s. And indeed, investing in a target-date fund is certainly better than nothing. But the financial crisis of 2008 raised the first important question about target-date funds when some of them with a 2010 target turned out to be overexposed to equities and lost up to 40% of their value: Are these funds supposed to merely take you up to retirement, or do they take you through it for the next 20 to 30 years?

The answer greatly determines a fund’s “glide path,” or schedule for those allocation shifts. The funds that take you “to” retirement tend to be more conservative, while the “through” funds hold more in stocks well into retirement. Still, even target-date funds bearing the same date and following the same “to” or “through” strategy may have a very different asset allocations. For a solution that’s supposed to be easy, that’s an awful lot of fine print for the average investor to read, much less understand.

Then there is the question of timing for those shifts in asset allocation. Some target-date funds opt for a slow and gradual reduction of stocks (and increase in bonds), which can reduce risk but also reduce returns, since you receive less growth from equities. Others may sharply reduce the stock allocation just a few years before the target date—the longer run in equities gives investors a shot at better returns, but it’s also riskier. Which is right for you depends on how much risk you can tolerate and whether you’d be willing to postpone retirement based on market conditions, as many were forced to do after 2008.

In short, no one particular portfolio is going to meet everyone’s needs, so there’s a lot more to consider about target-date funds than first meets the eye. If I were to go for a target-date fund, I would probably pick one that doesn’t follow a set glide path but is instead “tactically managed” by a portfolio manager in the same manner as a traditional mutual fund. A recent Morningstar report found that “contrary to the academic and industry research that suggests it’s difficult to consistently execute tactical management well, target-date series with that flexibility have generally outperformed those not making market-timing calls.”

Maybe it’s the control freak in me, but I prefer selecting my own assortment of funds instead of using a target-date option where the choices are made for you. Granted, managing my own retirement portfolio was a lot simpler when I was young and had a seemingly limitless appetite for risk. But even as I get older and diversification becomes more important, I still want to be in the driver’s seat. Anyone can pick a target, but there is no one, single, easy way to get there.

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

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MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Invest Your First 401(k)

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I just started my first job after college, and I want to sign up for my company’s 401(k). How should I invest it?

A: By saving in a 401(k) plan while you’re still in your 20s, you give yourself a huge advantage—you’ll actually need to save less money for retirement than someone who gets a later start, thanks to the power of compounding.

But figuring out how to invest that money can be daunting. According to a survey by Charles Schwab, half of people find explanations of their 401(k) investments more confusing than their health care benefits. Another 46% say they don’t know what their best investment choices are, while 34% say they feel a lot of stress about how to allocate their 401(k) dollars. The sheer number of fund choices can also be overwhelming: the typical 401(k) plan offers 19 investment options, according to the Plan Sponsor Council of America.

The good news is that when you’re starting out, you can keep it simple, says Jane Young, a fee-only financial planner at It’s Not Just Money in Colorado Springs. If your company offers a target-date fund (nearly 70% do), that can be a smart choice. With a target-date fund, you get an instant all-in-one asset mix that gradually shifts to become more conservative as you approach retirement. A 25-year-old worker who plans to retire at 65 might choose a 2055 target-date fund. It would keep the bulk of its assets in stocks, which provide growth but are more risky than bonds or cash. When you’re young, you can afford to keep more in stocks, since you have decades to recover from bear markets. (If you want to minimize risk, you could opt for a more conservative target-date fund—you don’t have to choose one with your retirement date.)

If your plan doesn’t offer a target-date option, build a portfolio yourself using core funds, such as an S&P 500 stock index fund and an intermediate-term bond fund, says Young. Look for the lowest-fee funds, which will allow more of your money go to work for you. (For more on selecting good, low-cost options, see how we choose our Money 50 list of recommended funds.) A reasonable mix for someone in their twenties: 20% of assets in a bond fund and 80% in stocks. In the equity portion of your portfolio, invest 50% in large company stocks, 25% in international stocks, and 25% in small and mid-size companies.

Ultimately how much you save for retirement is more important than how you invest it. So be sure to put away enough to get your employer’s full matching contribution. Keep increasing your savings rate until you are contributing 10% or more—some investing experts suggest that Millennials save at least 15% of income (including your company match) to ensure a secure retirement. And by diversifying and opting for low-cost funds, you will make the most of your 401(k) plan.

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