Three Simple Truths About Investing

If you are saving for retirement, or any other long-term goal, how you invest your money is an important piece of achieving that goal. Many of the folks I’ve spoken with are not investing their savings well, or even at all, meaning they may be earning interest but little else. Some even say they haven’t been saving because they don’t know how to invest their money.

I get it. The vast majority of people have no education in investing, and, while there is lots of information about it on the internet, it is really hard to know what to trust. Advice and information can be conflicting. If the bulk of your savings is in your retirement account, it can be hard to get help from an adviser, who generally will require a large minimum investment amount to take you on as a client.

But while the thought of risking your hard fought savings in any investment can give you a case of anxiety, here are three truths to keep in mind that can help calm your nerves.

  1. You don’t have to get everything, or even anything perfectly right. Good is really good enough, and frankly there isn’t any strategy that is perfect. The investment market values are the culmination of every investor’s opinion about what will happen in the future, and no one actually knows that. Successful investors hold a variety of investments knowing some will be better than others, but not knowing which is which over any short time frame.
  2. Timing is nothing. The perfect time to invest your long term savings is today. No it doesn’t matter if the market is overvalued, interest rates are too low, or if a recession is on the way. First there is no sure way to know that any of this is true. And second, it won’t be the last investment you make. You’ll be saving for a long time, and you’ll be investing in all types of markets. Third, ten, fifteen or twenty years from now there is a high probability your investments will be worth more than they are now. Time is on your side, and the market has never failed to recover from a downturn.
  3. Keep it simple. There are many low cost perfectly good ways to have your money invested for you. In your company sponsored retirement plan, you likely have the option to invest in a target date retirement fund or a managed account. If so, choose the option that fits with the time you have remaining before you retire. You can safely put all of your money in that investment. It is completely diversified and will adjust so that it continues to be an appropriate investment for your age. You can find similar options for your individual retirement account. Vanguard, Fidelity and T. Rowe Price all offer reasonably priced target date retirement funds. Betterment and Wealthfront, as well as others, offer low cost managed solutions for your IRA or taxable savings. Many state 529 plans also offer age based investment options for your college savings.

Investing your savings well is important to helping you reach your savings goals, but that doesn’t mean it has to be hard or scary. Choose an off-the-shelf investment option that will remain appropriate for your age throughout your career and don’t worry about what the market is doing on any particular day, week, month or even year.

When to Kick the Life Insurance Habit

When my husband, Jeff, and I retired, we dropped our life insurance policies. Even though our daughter was still in high school, we had already saved all we were going to save. The income generated by our savings would be there regardless of whether we were alive, and we had no work related income to replace.  We didn’t need life insurance any more.

I have had the pleasure of telling a few friends they could cut their expenses by dropping their life insurance policies. Initially the reaction is a small gasp. It seems somehow sacrilegious to give it up if you are trying to live a financially sound lifestyle. But for these individuals, who happened to be single women with adult children, life insurance wasn’t a necessity. The kids were out of the house, and they didn’t need Mom to provide for them anymore.

Not everyone needs life insurance. Now you don’t see that statement very often. More often you see gloomy statistics, like less than 60 percent of Americans have life insurance, from a 2015 BankRate.com survey. Of the 40 plus percent of those who don’t have it, for some at least, there is a good reason.

You don’t need life insurance if you don’t have anyone depending on your income for support. The purpose of life insurance is to replace your income if you pass away. If any of these situations sound like you, you don’t need life insurance:

You are single and have no children to provide for. While many will miss you if you are gone, no one will miss your income.

You are single with adult children. The same goes here. Your children are grown and they can get along without you providing them with a life insurance benefit.

You are nearing the end of your career and you have the savings you need. As you get older, your savings grow and you have more equity in your home. These assets will help provide for those you leave behind. Therefore as you get older, assuming you are saving as you should, you need less and less life insurance, until eventually you need none.

You are a child. Children don’t need life insurance. They don’t have an income to replace. Some insurance companies sell policies pitched as a way to save for college. These policies are whole life policies that have a savings element. They develop a cash value over time which can be borrowed when your child is ready for college. But you would be better off just investing the amount of the premium in your state’s college 529 plan. All of the money will go to savings rather than providing a profit to the insurance company and life insurance coverage that you don’t need.

If none of these situations is you, you probably need some life insurance, but the amount you should have could be different depending on your situation.

You have young children. Those who have young children need the most life insurance. And they are most likely to be under insured. The life insurance provided by your employer will definitely not be enough. You will want your children to be raised with the comfortable lifestyle that you hope to provide for them, and you don’t want to make life financially difficult for your spouse or their guardians. The younger your children are, the more financial support they will need. LifeHappens.org has a good calculator that takes into account all of the relevant information to help you determine how much life insurance you will want to put in place.

For this situation, term life insurance is all that you need. Term life insurance provides coverage for a specific period, like ten or twenty years. Your premiums will be the same throughout the term. At the end of the term you can renew or allow your policy to lapse. You can also cancel your policy at any time without penalty. Term policies are the lowest cost form of life insurance. They are perfect for most people, whose need for life insurance declines over time.

Do not make your minor children beneficiaries of your life insurance policy. Insurance companies won’t pay out a benefit to anyone under the age of 18. Name your spouse, your children’s guardian or a family trust as the beneficiary instead.

You are married and your lifestyle is dependent on your income. It is worth having a discussion with your spouse about how he or she would want to live if you were gone. Would he want to stay in the house, or downsize? Are there debts to pay off? What income could he expect from working? If your spouse could not maintain his or her lifestyle without your income, even if you don’t have children, you need life insurance. If your spouse is working or reasonably could work if you were gone, you won’t need as much. If you have debt that will need to be paid off, you may need more. Term life insurance will do in this case as well.

You have outstanding private student loans.  If you have outstanding private student loans, someone may be liable for their payment after you die. If a parent, grandparent or someone else cosigned for your loan, they may still have to pay the debt after your death. If you live in a community property state and took on the loans after you married, your spouse may still have to pay. You should have enough life insurance to cover the repayment of those outstanding loans. If you are a parent cosigner, you can take out a life insurance policy for the amount of the loan on your student. Again a term policy will work just fine here.

Not everyone needs life insurance. As our kids grow up and our savings build, our need for life insurance gradually declines until it no longer exists. For the time that you do need life insurance, for most people a simple low cost term life insurance policy is all that you need. Don’t spend any more money, or spend it any longer than necessary, on life insurance.


Photo by Jason Briscoe on Unsplash

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For a comprehensive, step-by-step guide to building your own financial plan, pick up my book, Save Yourself; Your Guide to Saving for Retirement and Building Financial Security. It is now available on Amazon.

5 Things To Demand From Your Financial Adviser

What do you do when you’re eighty-two and run out of money? It’s a frightening thing to be looking down the barrel of an empty bank account. It’s worse when the decline in your funds was due to the actions of a financial adviser that you trusted.

Gerry had been relying on her adviser for a long time. She and her husband, John, were in their mid-sixties when John passed away unexpectedly almost twenty years ago. Gerry was heart broken. John was her life.

Their’s was a traditional relationship for their time. Gerry raised their four boys, while John managed his business and their money. When John passed, Gerry put her faith in the financial adviser John had used for years. She didn’t know anything about investments, nor did she care. John had provided well for her, so she didn’t worry about money.

Gerry lived her life, enjoying her friends and a bit of travel. Her financial adviser was busy doing his thing. She didn’t know what. When the financial crisis hit, she was concerned that her account value declined so much, but what could she do?

While the investment markets recovered, Gerry’s account did not. She saw what should have been enough money to last her life dwindle to an alarmingly low level. She finally asked me to have a look.

What I saw was shocking. Her account had declined to just enough to cover a few remaining years of expenses. What’s worse, the investments were all wrong for someone living on their savings, with little savings left.

All of her money was invested in less than a dozen stocks, mostly in the energy field. There was no diversification and no pool of conservatively invested money to cover her monthly withdrawals. Amid a strong stock market, her holdings steadily declined in value. Every month the adviser sold some of her holdings to generate the cash for her monthly expenses. Because the value of the stocks he sold was down, the sales were doing more and more damage to the viability of her portfolio.

I was shocked. I naively believed that nearly all advisers had their clients best interests at heart. I never thought I’d see investment management this egregiously bad. This guy was simply trying to generate commissions on Gerry’s account. His behavior was serving no one but himself and was in fact illegal. His activity is known as prohibited conduct. In the financial services industry, investments must be prudent and suitable for the account owner.

Gerry didn’t want to take legal action, though she certainly had a very good case. She did sell her holdings to salvage what little money she had left. She’ll have to sell her beautiful house in the next year or so. She needs the equity to live on. Fortunately the equity will be enough for her to maintain her lifestyle for the rest of her life, but she’s devastated that she’ll have to leave her home that she loves so much.

You can’t just give your money to someone and assume they’ll do what’s right. While most financial advisers are good people, this story illustrates that it’s not true for all. Even an adviser with your best interests in mind, can’t know whether their strategy is still good for you unless you engage with them. Here are the things you should be discussing with your adviser on a regular basis:

  1. Update your financial information beyond the investments your adviser is managing. This should include total savings, total debt, and income.
  2. Reiterate or update your financial goals.
  3. Discuss whether you are saving enough, or if you’re closer to retirement, a plan for withdrawals that will help your money last and minimize your tax burden.
  4. Discuss how the investment strategy aligns with your goals, and how you can expect it to change over time.
  5. Ask to be educated on any concepts you don’t understand.

If your adviser isn’t willing to talk with you about these topics, find another one. Seriously consider someone with a Certified Financial Planner (CFP) designation. These professionals must demonstrate their skills before a governing board and practice for at least three years before they can use the designation. You can find CFP professionals in your area at letsmakeaplan.org or napfa.org.

Advisers gain a great deal of control over your savings. That can relieve you of making decisions you’re neither qualified nor comfortable in making. But you can’t just walk away. Review your monthly statements to make sure your adviser is doing what she said she would. And to make sure she is working toward the same goals as you, demand a detailed discussion with her at least annually.


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For a comprehensive, step-by-step guide to building your own financial plan, pick up my book, Save Yourself; Your Guide to Saving for Retirement and Building Financial Security. It is now available on Amazon.

It’s Here!

Thank you to everyone who has followed my posts for the last few years. I am extremely excited to announce that my book is now available on Amazon!

Save Yourself is a comprehensive guide to saving for retirement and shoring up your financial security so you can do whatever it is you want. Through the stories of real people, it shows you exactly how you can make the changes that will allow you to save for a long and secure retirement so that you don’t need to work for pay. In addition, it covers other aspects of true financial security, giving you peace of mind throughout your life.

Early reviews are very positive. Here’s one that a reader was kind enough to post on Amazon.

The Save Yourself guide to retirement planning justifies the need to take control of your financial security with meticulous statistical research and lays out the step-by-step plan to reduce debt, budget and achieve financial independence. If you are putting planning off, author Grandstaff’s remark that “The monthly savings requirement more than doubles for every ten years you delay” is a sobering statement to prompt action to read her work and get started today.”

Happy reading! Reviews are very important to help other readers find the book, so please post one back at the same Amazon page. Again thank you for your kind attention, and have a wonderful holiday season.

What You Should Do When the Stock Market Swoons

Nothing.

Now, what would be really great is if we could invest more money in the stock markets when they are going up and get out of the stock markets when they are going down. Our return would be much better if we could avoid those nasty market downturns. Many attempt to do just that, but few are any good at it.

The trouble is if you missed just the months with the top 5 percent of returns in the market since 1950, you would have cut your returns almost in half. Of course, if you were able to avoid the bottom 5 percent of months in the process, you would perform just about as well as the market. But given the uncertainty of when those occur, that doesn’t seem like a good trade-off.

To illustrate, take a look at what happened during and after the financial crisis. The following chart shows the total return for the S&P 500 and cash flows in (bars going up) and out (bars going down) of equity mutual funds during the crisis and through the recovery to 2012.

S&P chart

The peak in value for the S&P 500 prior to the crisis came in September of 2007. From there the stock market began a gradual decline, with some investors selling sporadically. However, in September of 2008, the floodgates opened, and mutual fund investors began pouring out of equity funds. The S&P 500 had already lost more than 36 percent of its value.

The bottom of the market came in February of 2009, just four months and 16 percent later. But money kept leaving the stock markets. Even as the stock market crested its prior peak, equity funds saw growing withdrawals through the end of 2012.

If you had perfect foresight, you would have sold in September of 2007 at the peak. You would have avoided the following drop in value of 51 percent. Then you would have bought back your investment at the low in February of 2009. If you had done that, then ten years later—by September 2017—your investment would have risen by almost four times, or 14.2 percent per year.

But be realistic. You only have perfect hindsight. You know nothing about the future. You can’t tell whether the market is at a peak or just a nice viewpoint along the way. And you certainly can’t tell when the market has hit bottom.

The biggest monthly net sale of equity funds was in October of 2008, and the biggest monthly net buy following that was January of 2013. If you had sold and bought back in those months, as many other market participants did, your return for the ten years ending in September 2017 would have been just 10 percent, or about 1 percent per year.

What if you had done nothing? If you had not touched your stock market investments, in the following ten years your money would have more than doubled for an annualized return of 7.3 percent. Doing nothing is certainly easier than picking both the top and bottom of the stock market. Steadily adding to your investments, as you would in your retirement account, would have been even better.

Timing the market is a fool’s game. Seeing your nest egg shrink is no fun for anyone, but if you don’t have to spend your money right away, it can recover. So, as the market is adjusting, your task is simply to do nothing.

Photo by Chris Liverani on Unsplash

When Your Money Makes More Money Than You Put In

Saving money is hard. As human beings we are naturally wired to place our immediate needs (or wants) ahead of our future needs. Long term goals, like retirement, seem particularly daunting. The numbers are large, and the payoff is a long way off. Would it help to know that it gets easier the longer you do it?

Yes, the more consistently you set money aside the easier it becomes, because you are developing a habit of saving money. If you save through your company retirement savings plan, it’s even easier, because the money is whisked away before you get it.

But that isn’t what I’m talking about. The more money you save, the more your money works for you. Your money starts making money through the magic – actually the math- of compounding. Here’s what you could look forward to if you were to save the same amount of money each year, and earn an annual investment return of 7 percent.

  • In eleven years, the earnings on your total savings will match your contribution in that year.
  • In about six more years, the earnings on your total savings will be double your contribution in that year.
  • In about three more years after that, the earnings on your total savings will be triple your contribution in that year.

Of course if your investment return is lower, it takes a bit longer for your investment earnings to match your savings contribution. If your return were only 5 percent per year, it would take about fifteen years for the earnings to match your contribution. But there is a similar pattern of doubling and tripling your contribution over ever shorter time frames following that.

Admittedly, I’m both a money and a math nerd. I find this half-life of time to essentially gain an extra year of savings through the earnings on what you’ve already saved exciting. Who wouldn’t appreciate their money working harder than they do?

That is why it is so important to begin saving for your long term goals as soon as possible. The more time you have, the more your money can do the heavy lifting for you. Your total contributions toward your goal can be smaller.

If you are struggling to find the motivation to save for something that is decades away, keep in mind that you don’t have to do all the work. Saving money is hard, so make it as easy as you possibly can. Take advantage of the magic of compounding. Save early and save often, and you won’t have to save as much.

Photo by Mert Guller on Unsplash

 

 

 

How to Take Advantage of the Mutual Fund Company Price Wars

Fidelity has added two zero cost funds to their line-up of low-cost index mutual funds. One fund tracks the U.S. stock market and the other tracks international markets. These new funds are the latest volley in the index fund price wars. So it’s a good time to talk about the impact of fees on your investments and at what point it makes sense to switch.

Mutual fund fees are extracted from the value of the underlying fund investments. While you never have to pay out-of-pocket for these fees, they reduce the value of your investments, and are therefore, worth paying attention to.

Average fees for funds investing in large U.S. companies are 1.25 percent per year. If you assume the stock market will return 7 percent per year, after fees, your return would be 5.75 percent.

However, there are many index funds with much lower fees. Index funds track a market index, which is a fixed list of company stocks, like the S&P 500, or the Dow Jones Industrial Average. There are hundreds of indices which slice and dice the investment markets every which way you can imagine.

Because index funds track a fixed list of companies, the investment process is largely automated. The fund companies don’t have to pay expensive research staff, and therefore the funds are cheaper to manage and less costly to you.

The following table compares investment minimums and fees among a sample of a few low-cost index funds similar to one of the new funds from Fidelity.

Index Mutual Funds Minimum Investment Annual Fees
Vanguard Total Market Index Fund Investor Share Class  $3,000 0.14%
Vanguard Total Market Index Fund Admiral Share Class  $10,000 0.04%
Schwab 1000 Index Fund  $ 1 0.05%
Fidelity Zero Total Market Index Fund  $ – 0.00%

All of these funds are substantially less expensive than the average fund investing in U.S. stocks. That is why index investing has become so popular. Over a ten year period, a $10,000 investment will be worth around $2,000 more in any one of these index funds, versus a fund with a 1.25 percent expense ratio. Give yourself thirty years and the difference will be around $20,000.

However, among these already low-cost funds, the differences are much smaller. The following table shows the difference in expenses over time on a $10,000 investment for the funds above.

Cumulative Expenses Over Time

Ten Years

Twenty Years

Thirty Years

Vanguard Total Market Index Fund Investor Share Class

$256

$1,000

$2,932

Vanguard Total Market Index Fund Admiral Share Class

$73

$288

$849

Schwab 1000 Index Fund

$92

$360

$1,060

Fidelity Total Market Index Fund

$0

$0

$0

If you are just starting out and planning to invest in index funds, going with the low cost provider is a reasonable strategy. While Fidelity has these two new zero cost funds, they also have several index funds with expenses ranging between 0.015 percent and 0.11 percent.

However, if you already have investments, there are a few things to consider when deciding whether to change fund companies for the purpose of getting a lower fee.

  1. It’s important to keep your financial life simple by holding as much of your investments as possible at one institution. If most of your investments are already with Vanguard, it probably isn’t worth it to open a Fidelity account just to take advantage of the new zero cost funds.
  2. While the fund fees may be lower, you could pay a premium to buy and sell a low- cost index fund away from the fund company that manages it. For example, if you buy the Vanguard Total Market Index fund through Charles Schwab, the trade will cost you $76. The Fidelity Zero funds aren’t available there (at least not yet).
  3. If your investments are in a taxable savings account, you will have to pay capital gains taxes on the sale of the fund you already hold to move to a lower cost fund. If you have a high expense fund, it could still be worth it, but it probably won’t pencil out among already low-cost index funds. Of course there are no tax consequences to transactions in your retirement savings accounts.

The mutual fund company price wars are making investing cheaper and more accessible to all investors. Mutual fund fees take a bite out of your returns, so the lower the better. But if you are already invested in a low-cost fund, there can be drawbacks to switching to a new fund, even if it costs less. It may not be worth it to chase the fund companies to save a few bucks.

Image courtesy of sheelamohan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

How to Lose Money with Every Dollar You Invest

Recently I was helping my daughter with her bank account and noticed a $1 withdrawal labeled “Stash Fee”. It was a fee to robo-adviser, Stash. Normally I would be thrilled by the good news that my daughter was saving and investing. But in this case I wasn’t.

I had a couple of concerns, but the biggest one was that $1 fee which would be coming out of her account monthly as long as she maintained her account with Stash. It doesn’t seem like a lot, $12 per year, but she had only invested $50 so far. That’s an investment expense of two percent per month! It would be really hard for her investment to make money with that expense load.

I’m a fan of robo-advisers. They offer a great service for savers with both small balances and big ones. They generally use low cost exchange traded funds to build a well diversified portfolio, and their management fees are also low. For more details on robo-advisers, check out the post I did a little over a year ago.

The Stash service allows investors to invest as little as $5.00. You can set up an automatic regular transfer from your bank account. In fact, you are required to link your bank account to your Stash account, so they can automatically withdraw your fees every month.

Most robo-advisers subtract your fees from your investment account, and even with small balances, the fees are lower. Betterment, and Wealthfront two other robo-advisers, offer investment management for 0.25 percent per year. Betterment has no minimum balance, but Wealthfront does require an initial $500 investment.

Stash bills itself as a way for young investors to learn more about investments while building their portfolio. They offer lots of information on investing as well as help selecting investments. But they seem to leave out the bit about how high fees eat into your savings.

Stash’s fees do become more reasonable as a percent of your investments the more you invest. Once your balance hits $5,000, the fee converts to 0.25 percent per year, which is about $12.50 on that amount of money. That is in line with Betterment and Wealthfront, but both those advisers will build your portfolio for you, as opposed to offering to help you build your own.

This experience highlights the importance of understanding what you are getting into. Never hand over your money to any adviser without investigating how they work, what they offer and how they compare to other alternatives. There are many low cost ways to have your money invested for you.

Robo-advisers are a good way to go, particularly if you don’t have much to invest right away. However, Stash’s fee structure makes them a poor choice for balances less than a few thousand dollars. There are other options with much lower fees. If you like what Stash has to offer, wait until you’ve saved up the $5,000 to make the fees competitive before you invest with them. Whatever investment adviser you choose, make sure that you understand what they offer and what they charge before you hand over your money.

The Stock Market is at Record Highs. Should You Get Out?

Both the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500, the venerable U.S. stock market indices, closed near record highs on Friday, October 13th. Both indices have been steadily climbing all year. The Dow, including dividends, is up 17.92 percent and the S&P, also including dividends, is up 15.86 percent just this year.

The run up has investors waiting for the other shoe to drop. Surely the next move can only be down. Every week there are articles discussing whether we are on the verge of another stock market bubble bursting. You’ve worked hard for your savings, and nothing is worse than seeing a big hole in the value of your nest egg. So should you sell your stock market investments to avoid that?

To see how it might turn out, look at what happened following the last stock market peak, in September of 2007, just before the financial crisis. If you had perfect foresight you would have sold then, and avoided the following drop in value of 51 percent. Then you would have bought back your investment at the low in February of 2009. By now your investment would have more than tripled.

But let’s be realistic. We only have perfect hindsight. We know nothing about the future. We can’t tell whether we are at a peak or just a nice view point along the way. And we certainly won’t be able to tell when the market has hit bottom.

To get a sense of what most investors did following the stock market peak in 2007, we can look at investor net buys or sales of mutual funds and exchange traded funds investing in the stock market during the time period. In the following chart, fund net buys (actually sales because they are negative) are in blue and the S&P 500 Total Return Index is in orange.

Funds flows and performance

Yes, investors began taking money out of the stock market as it began to decline from it’s highs. But they continued to take money out even as it rebounded. As the market surpassed it’s previous peak investors were still withdrawing money. It wasn’t until the end of 2012 that stock funds began to see steady net buys.

The biggest monthly net sale was in October of 2008 and the biggest monthly net buy following that was January of 2013. If you had sold and bought back in those months your return from September of 2007 through October 13, 2017 would have been just 11.89 percent, or about 1.3 percent per year.

Even being off by a few months would have cost your returns. If you didn’t sell until December 2007 and didn’t buy until May 2009, your money would have only doubled instead of tripled. If you had waited another six months on both ends, your money would be only 1.5 times more than at the 2007 peak.

What if you had done nothing? If you had not touched your stock market investments, by now your money would have more than doubled. Doing nothing is certainly easier than picking both the top and bottom of the stock market. Steadily adding to your investments, as you would in your retirement account, would have been even better.

Where stock market declines become devastating is when you have to withdraw your money during the decline to meet expenses.  To avoid that, don’t invest any money you will need to spend in the next ten years there. Anything that you won’t need for more than ten years can stay invested in the stock market. Historically, the S&P 500 has finished higher than it started in 26 out of every 27 ten-year periods.

Of course there will be another market down-turn. But no one knows when or how severe it will be. In the mean time you need your savings to grow for your long term goals, like retirement. So no, don’t get out of your stock market investments now and in fact keep adding to them. If you have more than ten years before you need to spend your money, you have plenty of time for your savings to recover from the next down-turn, whenever that is.

Sources: Yahoo Finance S&P 500 Total Return Index and Data Hub US Investor Flow of Funds

Image courtesy of Idea go at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

There are Only Three Investment Categories

Investing your hard earned savings can be daunting. There are so many options it can be hard to figure out what to do. You likely have several investment options in your 401(k). And what about all the other options? Are IRAs or ETFs right for you?

You can untangle the mess of terminology and options if you understand that at the root of things, there are only three types of investments. Everything else is simply a container to hold those investments. The three categories are:

  1. Stocks: Also known as equities. When you invest in stock you own a small piece of a company. As an owner you share in the company’s earnings with other owners. Your earnings may be sent to you in the form of a dividend, or the company might reinvest them in the business. Growth in earnings and dividends drives the long-term value of the shares you own, though many things influence the daily prices of stock in a publicly traded company. Because the future earnings are uncertain, stocks are risky investments.
  2. Bonds: Also known as fixed income. When you invest in a bond, you own a piece of a loan made to a company or government entity. There are even bonds that bundle together mortgage loans to individuals known as mortgage backed securities.  As the owner of a bond you are entitled to interest and the return of principal (your piece of the amount loaned). The daily value of a bond is driven by changes in interest rates and the time remaining until the loan must be paid back, but if you hold the bond to maturity you will simply get the interest and principal. Because the interest and principal payments are contractual obligations, bonds are less risky than stocks.
  3. Hard Assets: Hard assets are things you can touch, like precious metals, agricultural products, oil and gas or real estate. The value of most hard assets is driven by supply and demand. Real estate is the exception. Real estate can also generate income through rent. Supply and demand is unpredictable, so hard assets are also risky investments.

Within each of these broad categories is a host of sub-categories. They include US and international stocks in large, mid or small sizes, US and international corporate and government bonds and many more. There are thousands of companies and bond issues, and you can hold any of them directly. All other investments are indirect ways, or containers, for holding one or more of these three investment categories. Here are a few of the common forms of holding investments indirectly.

  1. Mutual Funds: Mutual funds can hold any or all of the three investment categories. There are single category mutual funds that invest in only one of the three, and there are multi-category funds that invest in two or more categories.
  2. Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs): ETFs are a special type of mutual fund. Mutual funds are valued at the end of each day and sold through the fund company that manages them. ETFs are sold on the stock market like a company stock. The value fluctuates throughout the day. Because the ETF must have a value at any given moment, most invest to mimic an index, which is a fixed group of investments, like the S&P 500.
  3. Target Date Mutual Funds: Target date funds are also a special form of mutual fund. They were designed for retirement savings investments and invest in at least stocks and bonds, if not hard assets too. They usually have a year in their name, like 2035 or 2050. When the target date is far in the future, these funds invest most of their holdings in stocks, and as the target date approaches their holding of bonds become larger.

There are many other vehicles that allow you to indirectly invest in the three main categories. Whether you are investing directly or indirectly to get a truly diversified portfolio, you should spread your investment money among different categories. Diversification reduces the risk of your holdings, because their values aren’t influenced by the same drivers, and therefore they will perform differently in any given circumstance.  The biggest reduction in risk comes from adding investments in the lower risk bond category to your other holdings. Different investments in the same category offer some diversification, but not as much as investments across categories.

The next container up is the account. The different forms of accounts are merely ways of titling your holdings, similar to the way you would title an account in both you and your spouse’s name or the name of a business. The different titles designate how the account is to be used. Theoretically an account can hold any kind of investment, but the institution or the provider may limit what they offer you.

  1. 401(k): You may have a 401(k) or its cousin the 403(b) account through work. Your employer has picked a list of several mutual funds for you to choose from and will include some in both the stock and bond categories as well as at least one or two investing in multiple categories.
  2. IRA: IRA accounts are available through most financial institutions. Common places to open an IRA are through a full service brokerage firm, like Merrill Lynch, through a discount brokerage firm, like Charles Schwab or directly through a mutual fund company, like Vanguard. There are many more investment options available in an IRA. You can hold stocks, bonds and hard assets¹ directly, or you can hold any of hundreds of mutual funds and ETFs.
  3. 529 Plan: 529 plans are college savings plans offered through your state of residence. The state will offer a limited line-up of investment options that will usually include a fund paying guaranteed interest, funds investing in single categories and age based funds, that like target date funds are designed to become less risky as the date of college attendance approaches.
  4. Taxable Account: Taxable accounts are simply titled in your name or jointly in you and your spouses name or the name of a business. They don’t have any tax advantages, and the title simply designates who has the authority to use the account. You can use the money in the account for any purpose including retirement and college. Like with IRAs, the investments you can hold in a taxable account are wide open.

401(k)s, IRAs and 529 plans have tax advantages. If you use them as intended your investments can grow tax free. It is still your money, and you can use it however you like. But the government will want the taxes that you didn’t pay along the way if the money isn’t used as intended, and in some cases there may be a penalty in the form of additional taxes.

Investing is a process of matching the account type with the intention you have for the money, deciding whether to invest indirectly through mutual funds, ETFs, and other vehicles or directly depending on what is available to you and how much work you want to put into managing your money, and diversifying your investments among the different categories according to the amount of risk you are willing to take. What the money is for may be the only straight forward decision here, but understanding this framework will help you know what questions to ask.

  1. Hard assets are held through futures and forward contracts to buy or sell the product, or in the case of real estate, through real estate investment trusts. There are a few specialty institutions that can hold title to real property.

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