Should I Trade My Retirement Account?

September 14, 2018 — 2:39 PM EDT

While many Americans aren’t quite certain how much they need to save for retirement, Investopedia users buck the trend.

In a survey of the site’s users, respondents who had a tax-advantaged retirement account, such as a 401(k) or Individual Retirement Account (IRA) were likely to check their account balances regularly. More than 75% of respondents checked their account balance or holdings at least a few times a month, while nearly 40% logged in at least a few times per week.

Investopedia conducted the survey in early July from a representative sample of online readers. One hundred and twenty-two respondents located in the U.S. answered eleven questions on whether and how they use their retirement account to trade stocks.

Staying on Top of Your Accounts

At a time when 21% of American adults have not even begun saving for the long term, according to Northwestern Mutual, experts agree that savers should be engaged and planning for their retirement.

We asked Scot Landborg, senior partner at Sterling Wealth Partners, a wealth and tax advisory firm in Tustin, California for his opinion of the fact that three fourths of retirement savers check their accounts frequently. “What’s encouraging about your findings is how active people are in saving for their own retirement,” he said. However, frequently checking their retirement accounts could hurt many savers' ability to reach their long-term goals.

Many of Investopedia’s respondents, in addition to frequently checking their balances, also trade in their accounts. More than 40% of respondents indicated that they trade in their tax advantaged accounts, with 10% of those who do so trade multiple times per week.

Excessive Trading Can Hurt Performance

In an email, Jamie Hopkins, director of the American College’s New York Life Center for Retirement Income, told Investopedia that, for many investors, “checking your balances, statements, and investment performance are good behaviors, excessively trading your investments is not.”

More than 60% of those polled who do trade in their accounts do so in reaction to “changes in the stock market.” As Investopedia Editor-in-Chief Caleb Silver says, "It's OK to re-balance it occasionally, but if you try to use it to time the market, you may be digging yourself a financial hole that you will never be able to climb out of."

Many investors suffer from what Patrick Healey, founder and president of Caliber Financial Partners in Jersey City, New Jersey, refers to as “short-termism.” Healey says that investors “want that instant gratification of placing a trade and making a bit of money on it, but [often] tend to make irrational and emotional decisions," which lead to long-term losses.

Healey’s claims are supported by research. According to the 2018 DALBAR Quantitative Analysis of Investor Behavior study, the average equity investor significantly underperformed the market. In the 10 years ending January 30, 2017, a typical equity investor earned just 4.88% on average, per year, while the S&P 500 was up 8.5%. That difference is due largely to investor behavior. Or, as Hopkins wrote about active retirement savers, “Frequent trading of stocks based on instincts or short term market trends often results in bad outcomes for the average investor.”

Keeping Yourself In Check

For investors who insist on actively managing their savings, tax-advantaged accounts are the best places to do it. According to Landborg, “From a tax perspective, if you’re going to actively manage and move in and out of different positions, your retirement account, Roth account or IRA are the best places to do it because you won’t have any tax consequences from buying and selling positions.”

And not all trading is bad. Half of respondents who do trade their accounts do so in order to rebalance their accounts. While the subject of some debate, research by Morgan Stanley shows that rebalancing your portfolio, or buying and selling securities to return to your optimal asset allocation, can increase returns over time.

Regardless of your reason for trading, however, it’s important to be sure that the moves you're making are being done with a purpose in mind. Rebalancing too frequently may lead to higher costs, while reacting to a falling market may imperil your future retirement goals. According to Hopkins, “The biggest risk to retirement security is often yourself. When markets decline people tend to panic and sell, fearing a loss. However, by selling, you lock in that loss. Instead, you need to have a plan and emergency funds, to ride out the downturns in the market.”

Automate Your Investment Decisions

Investors who have performed well in the bull market that's followed the financial crisis should be careful to look to the future. “Now is the time to put into writing what you’ll do if the market goes down 10% or 20%,” says Landborg. He recommends putting together an Investment Policy Statement, similar to the one that many financial advisors assemble for their clients.

The process doesn’t have to be as intricate or as formal as it sounds. Younger investors can have something as simple as a paragraph that reminds them to “stay the course and not make changes,” in the event of a downturn, says Landborg. Older savers who are approaching retirement should "lay out [what they'll do differently] if the market drops,” as well as what the market will have to do in order for them to increase their equities exposure.

Investors who are hesitant to put in the time and effort required to make such a plan should look to professional or automated investing strategies. While financial advisors can help savers put together a holistic financial plan, automated options, such as target date strategies or robo-advisors offer a solution for investors who are just looking to put their investments on autopilot. Hopkins recommends that savers, "Automate your plan as much as possible, including your investments. While it is healthy to look at your account balances and investment performance, realize that you are unlikely to beat the market and your frequent trading, which for a year or two night look good, will eventually come back down." Robo-advisors like Betterment offer to take human error out of rebalancing by automating the process while nudging you into better saving behaviors.