“Stay the course” is the mantra for many financial planners particularly when it comes to investing with an eye toward retirement. After all, the stock market can take investors on a wild ride and if you reacted to every blip you would end up with investment losses. And let’s not mention the money going to fees and expenses because of your frequent market moves.
But staying the course can be hard to do. A change in your asset allocation or risk profile won’t be easy to spot even though it can throw your entire retirement plan out of whack. And in an environment where retirement can last more than 20 years, it’s more important than ever before for investors to stay focused on the end game when it comes to investing for retirement. Knowing the signs your investment plan has lost focus can go a long way in ensuring you reach your financial goals by the time you are ready to exit the workforce. (For more, see: Six Critical Rules for Successful Retirement Investing.)
When it comes to signs your investment plan has lost its focus, one of the big ones is going to be your asset allocation. Most sound financial plans start with your goals for retirement, time horizon for your investments and a risk tolerance you can handle. If you have 30 plus years left in the workforce your plan is going to be different than someone who is retiring in the next five years. The same goes with risk tolerance.
A young investor can be much riskier with the type of investments he or she chooses compared to someone who is in income preservation mode. Your asset allocation also has to be in line with your time horizon and risk tolerance. But that well thought out strategy can change depending on the markets, potentially pushing you into a position where you are too heavily invested in equities at a time when you want to be more conservative. Or on the flip side, you could end up having too much exposure to bonds when you should have more risk in your portfolio.
In order to ensure your asset allocation stays in line with your investment goals you are going to have to rebalance it from time to time. You can either rebalance at set periods each year or you could do it when your equity exposure exceeds a certain predetermined threshold. Rebalancing isn’t the time to change your entire retirement investment strategy. The goal is to get it back in line with what you had originally planned for. (For more, see: Rebalance Your Portfolio To Stay On Track.)
One of the bad sides of investing are the fees you have to pay when you execute trades, whether it is buying or selling a stock, bond or other financial instruments. For people who created a retirement plan, the amount of the turnover in the portfolio should be relatively low as should the fees they pay. After all, if you are only rebalancing every quarter or when a huge event takes your asset allocation out of balance then you shouldn’t pay a lot in fees.
But if you find yourself making changes to your investment plan often and as a result are paying more, then it can be a sign your retirement plan has lost focus. In order to rein in excessive trading, investors have to rebalance their portfolio back to their asset allocation and resist the temptation to react on short-term movements in the stock market. (For related reading, see: How to Lower Investment Account Fees in Retirement.)
Investing for the long haul is going to require patience, discipline and diversification. Without the three components it’s easy to lose focus and thus money. Asset allocation is a way to ensure you stay on track but within your assets that you want to be diversified. Let’s say you are allocated with 70% of your investments going toward stocks. Within that area you want to make sure you have exposure to different areas of the market whether that is small capitalization stocks, blue chips, dividend paying equities or international investments.
If your investments are lacking diversification within each asset class it’s a telltale sign the plan is lacking focus. It’s also the time to step in and make sure you aren’t too heavily exposed to one stock, industry or area. If that part of the market tanks you are going to see your savings and profits get wiped away along with it. (For more, see: Diversification Beyond Stocks.)
For many people who create a retirement plan when they are young they don’t take into account life circumstances that can change their focus. For instance an unexpected illness or medical condition would require you to rethink your investment strategy, just like a promotion or sudden windfall would require you to invest differently because of the potential tax hit. But if life happens and your investments stay the same it’s a surefire sign your plan is losing its focus. (For more, see: Tailoring Your Investment Plan.)
Investing with an eye toward retirement requires a lot of planning, patience, discipline and flexibility. Because the plan is designed to meet long-term goals, there aren’t many reasons to overhaul it. But left unchecked it could lose focus over time, minimizing the potential for your money to grow. If your asset allocation is out of whack, you find yourself suddenly paying more in investment fees, you aren’t as diversified as you thought, or circumstances in your life change but your investment remains the same—all of these signs indicate that your investment plan has lost focus and needs some attention.