Crystal Ball

Fear, frustration and fantasy: How investors view 2014

Tim Maurer, Special to

I'm not a prognosticator or soothsayer. That's OK, because the world doesn't need another "expert" waxing and whining on what might and might not happen in 2014.

My job is to listen to clients, students, readers and viewers as they discuss the intersection of money and life, in hopes that I might offer any insight that would benefit them—meaning, you.

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So here's what I'm hearing from you and your peers in three primary demographics—retirees, accumulators and millennials—regarding fears, frustrations and fantasies.

Retirees are frightened
As a retiree, you are downright scared. Taxes are up. If you were one of the few that were successful enough in your working years to provide a high enough level of income in retirement to be in the top tax bracket, your marginal tax rate may be 17 percent higher this year than last (ranging from 35 percent to 39.6 percent, but more likely 41 percent, after exemptions and deductions are phased out).

(Read more: Long/short strategies for a souped-up market)

If you're fortunate enough to derive a meaningful amount of your income from capital gains, you may be paying 59 percent more in capital gains tax (from 15 percent to 20 percent, plus another 3.8 percent in Medicare tax). Sure, some say this is a "good problem to have," but for retirees who have engineered a lifestyle around a particular income, higher taxes just mean a diminishing bottom line.

The Fed's still printing money at a $75 billion-per-month clip, and the grip it has on the industrial-size slingshot ready to launch interest rates into orbit feels like it's starting to slip.

Half of Europe is still in a depressive funk, while half of the Middle East is in crisis.

With a 30-year-bond bull market now seemingly behind us, you don't know what to do with the substantial portion of your retirement nest egg that you thought you were supposed to invest in "safer" bonds. Meanwhile, the U.S. stock market feels poised to correct—or worse.

(Read more: Forgot your resolutions already? Read this)

While not all the news is bad, there is no question that the circumstances surrounding the U.S. stock and bond markets are grounds enough for justified fear. The good news is that with proper planning, your retirement readiness or success should not be contingent on a single market move or a particular year's performance.

Rote though it may sound, a well-conceived portfolio, widely diversified across domestic and international equity and bond positions, should still survive a year or three of downside surprises.

Here are three keys ways to survive such a scenario:

1. Don't bet on the market's direction based on macro headlines. Even from the brightest minds, forecasts have proved futile. One retiree, frantic, contacted me because his nest egg suffered a 28 percent loss—this year. How? His advisor bet on the scary headlines last December that 2013 would be a bust and tried to become a hero by shorting the market.

2. Be willing to be boring. "It's not the return on my money that I'm interested in, it's the return of my money," said famous investor Mark Twain. And while I don't recommend investing in mason jars to hide your nest egg underground, I agree with Twain—in spirit—that your primary objective in retirement should be capital preservation over growth.

3. Be flexible. While I do believe that a 4 percent withdrawal rate can be responsibly used as a litmus test for your retirement readiness, I don't believe that establishing an unyielding withdrawal rate or amount is the path of wisdom. Wait until a year like this past year to take the grandkids to Disney, and be willing to suspend your season tickets to the symphony in a down year. Allow the expansion and contraction of your annual spending to mirror your portfolio.

A successful new year is much less likely to be determined by factors we don't control than it is by those we do.

Accumulators are frustrated
Things were starting to look good. Sure, the kids were getting expensive and your lifestyle was starting to creep, but income was keeping pace. The 401(k) had finally recovered from the tech bust, but your best investment turned out to be the one you lived in. Until 2008.

Now college feels like it's right around the corner, and your net worth has barely caught up with where it was fully seven years ago.

(Read more: Stocks still tops, advisor survey finds)

Fortunately, there is also some good news. Your household income is pretty good—maybe really good. The real estate implosion and stock market meltdown, although painful, have eliminated your naivety, and your biggest financial gains in the past five years are actually due to eliminating debt.

You're leaner, meaner and wiser. Never again will you bank on forces beyond your control to deliver prosperity. Instead, you'll rely more on the principles of your grandparents—saving as much as possible and eliminating debt.

Millennials are fantasizing
You're still frustrated, but at least not exasperated. And that frustration helps you keep your edge.

You're not counting on any of the constructs of your parents and grandparents. Although you are cynical, you're not particularly bitter, because you didn't want to do it their way, anyway.

You don't plan to retire, because you don't have any lifetime employment opportunities—you won't get a pension and don't trust Social Security.

(Read more: ETF, mutual fund flows still up but iffy)

But that's OK, because you also don't want to work the way your parents and grandparents did. You don't intend to kill yourself for 10 hours a day for a job you don't love and a boss you don't like.

You plan to integrate work, life, money and service into an existence less demanding and more rewarding. You're living in a fantasy, but it actually seems to be working!

You're not stupid. Unlike your buddy, you save some money instead of spending it on "Call of Duty 17" and "medicinal" vegetation. And you should, so that you can enjoy the same flexibility in the future that you have now.

(Read more: Recovering economy may rein in bull market)

Regardless of your age, station in life or net worth, you're wincing at the challenges that may come as you imagine what 2014 brings. But what retirees, accumulators and millennials all have in common is that a successful new year is much less likely to be determined by factors we don't control than it is by those we do.

—By Tim Maurer, Special to Tim Maurer, a certified financial planner, is director of personal finance at the BAM Alliance and an adjunct faculty member at Towson University. He has co-written two books with best-selling author Jim Stovall. Their most recent release is "The Ultimate Financial Plan: Balancing Your Money and Life."