'How's your 401(k) doing?' It's a good question to ask right now

  • President Trump's decision to impose steel and aluminum tariffs helped spark a market decline this week.
  • While the president no longer has reason to boast about rising 401(k) balances, you should not forget to pay attention to how you're investing for long-term retirement goals.
  • Make sure your allocations match your plans, particularly as market conditions have changed, and stay focused on the future.

You may still want to ask yourself, "How's my 401(k) doing?" even though the markets aren't giving President Donald Trump anything to brag about.

Trump added the campaign slogan "How's your 401(k) doing?" late last year as the markets saw sweeping gains.

"Look at your 401-k's since Election," he tweeted on Dec. 4. "Highest Stock Market EVER!"

But the market's downturn this week, following the president's announcement of plans to impose tariffs on steel and aluminium, shows that investors also need to brace themselves for setbacks.

Trump's decision helped send the Dow Jones industrial average down 420 points on Thursday, with losses continuing into Friday. Manufacturers that use steel and aluminium, such as Boeing and General Motors, were particularly affected by the drop.

Despite the selloff, the president stood by his stance on Friday.

While you might not want to boast about your 401(k) balances on Twitter, as some investors were doing earlier this year, you still want to stay invested, financial advisors say.

"The 401(k) as a place to save for retirement is one of the very best places you can put your money," said Paul Pagnato, founder and CEO of PagnatoKarp in Reston, Virginia. "We highly encourage people to continue to put as much money into that as they possibly can."

Admittedly, not everyone is investing in a 401(k). While about 80 percent of Americans who work for large employers have access to these plans, according to research from the Census Bureau, two-thirds are not saving money in those accounts.

In 2018, savers can put as much as $18,500 into their 401(k) or other employee retirement plans including 403(b)s, most 457 plans and the Thrift Savings Plan. If you are 50 or over, you can put away an additional $6,000 per year.

It might take some time to get used to the increased volatility.

Though investors have not experienced anything like this for the past nine years, Pagnato said, the fluctuations are very normal when you look out over the past 50 or 60 years.

"People kind of forget what it's like to have a downturn," said Scott Hanson, co-founder and senior partner at Hanson McClain Advisors in Sacramento, California. "It's prudent to be prepared for one."

You don't want to make any changes as an emotional reaction to the market, Hanson said. But you may want to think about how the money in your account is allocated, particularly if you haven't done so in a while, he said.

"If someone hasn't looked at their allocation in a couple of years, now is the time to make some adjustments," Hanson said.

One risk to watch out for: You could be overweighted in stocks because the market has done so well.

"The 401(k) as a place to save for retirement is one of the very best places you can put your money. We highly encourage people to continue to put as much money into that as they possibly can." -Paul Pagnato, Founder and CEO of PagnatoKarp

You also want to keep in mind how long you have until your retirement and make sure your investments suit that time horizon.

Even savers who are on the brink of retirement will need to keep at least some money invested in riskier assets for the long-term, Hanson said, while keeping funds they need in the first few years of retirement in safer assets.

Those goals should take precedence over what's happening in the news, he said.

"Don't let the big numbers scare you," Hanson said of the market drop. "Percentage-wise, we're still in pretty normal territory here."

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