Investor Toolkit

The wrong investments are sabotaging your retirement

Key Points
  • If you're saving for retirement, most experts will tell you to leave your investments alone when markets are turbulent, provided you have your money in the right investments for you.
  • Evaluating whether your money is allocated in the right investments is a continual process.
  • Start by assessing your equity/bond exposure, and consider investing in a target-date fund.

When markets hit the skids, investors often hear the same refrain when it comes to their retirement goals: Stay the course.

But that advice often has a caveat: as long as those investments are properly allocated.

Making sure you are invested in the correct way has a lot to do with your age and your goals.

Life has a way of throwing different barbs that can crack apparently safe nest eggs.
Jose A. Bernat Bacete | Getty Images

With the recent market tumult, now is as good a time as ever to ask whether the investments you are in are right for you.

That comes as stocks have had a rocky start to the second quarter. The Dow Jones Industrial Average has seen dramatic swings this week as news about tariffs and technology-sector woes hung over the markets.

Empower Retirement, which handles $530 billion in retirement assets, saw normal call volume when the market dropped earlier this week, said its president, Edmund F. Murphy. Volatility up or down typically results in a 10 percent increase in calls, he said.

"This week has been kind of business as usual," said Meghan Murphy, a vice president at Fidelity Investments, which serves about 15 million retirement plan participants.

Fidelity saw a bigger increase in call volume and online logins when the market dropped in February.

"They're really just looking to talk to somebody and gain some comfort along the way," Murphy said.

There are a few things you want to look out for when you're troubleshooting your retirement investments.

Right-size your equity/bond allocation

Take a look at the funds in your retirement account that you are invested in.

Compare your holdings to a 70/30 allocation, with 70 percent in equity and 30 percent in bonds, said Alex Koury, wealth advisor at ValuesQuest in Phoenix.

If you have more than 70 percent of your investments in stocks, your portfolio is more aggressive. If you have less, your investments will be less susceptible to market fluctuations.

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The ideal ratio for you depends a lot on when you expect to retire. The closer you are to your retirement, the less investment risk you want to take on, Koury said.

"If you have a long time before you retire, you shouldn't be as concerned about what's happening in the market today," Koury said.

Your 401(k) plan provider and other companies typically offer online tools that can help you evaluate your investments. Teresa Ghilarducci, professor of economics at the New School for Social Research, recommends those offered by Vanguard, a provider of low-cost funds.

Use a target-date fund

Target-date funds allow you to select a fund based on your expected retirement date and let its fund managers decide on the best investment selections for you. Those allocations are adjusted over time as you get closer to retirement.

"They're often a lot better than picking your own assets," Ghilarducci said. "Humans make predictable mistakes based on their emotions. At least the steward of your target-date fund is a professional and not susceptible to those mistakes."

You should be careful when selecting your retirement date and corresponding fund, according to Aaron Pottichen, president of retirement services at CLS Partners.

Target-date funds are built with the idea that you will retire at age 65. But many individuals who are investing today will not reach full retirement age for claiming Social Security until 67 or 68, which is often a significant source of retirement income, Pottichen said.

Consequently, you may want to move to the next vintage fund that will buy you more time. If you were automatically enrolled in a 2050 fund, for example, you may want to move to a 2055 fund to be closer to when you will realistically retire, Pottichen said.

Watch your investment mix

Combining both target-date and other funds in your 401(k) plan can add unnecessary risk to your portfolio.

"If you add funds on top of a target-date fund, you probably will make your portfolio imbalanced," said Ghilarducci of the New School.

While you can prevent that by paying close attention to your investments, that effort defeats the purpose of the fund, she said.

Over time, if you stay the course and act without emotion, you can do well and continue to see your assets grow.
Edmund F. Murphy
president of Empower Retirement

"If you want to pay that much attention to your target-date fund, you should do it yourself," Ghilarducci said.

While you can construct your portfolio on your own, that comes with more risks, including overlapping investments that can overweight your exposure, as well as unnecessary fees.

"If this land of investments is foreign to you and you don't have comfort with it, you should probably use a target-date fund," CLS Partners' Pottichen said.

Don't set it and forget it

One of the most common mistakes investors make is not rebalancing their portfolios, according to Dan Keady, chief financial planning strategist at TIAA.

If you want a 60 percent stock allocation but let that drift to as much as 75 percent, your investments could backfire when there is a market downturn.

The best way to prevent such a situation is to pull any growth from stocks and put it into other asset classes, he said, adding that investors should do such rebalancing on an annual basis. Tying that to a key date, such as your birthday, can help you to remember to do it.

But if you are closer to retirement and more concerned with risk, you want to revisit your investments quarterly.

Rebalancing regularly, combined with dollar cost averaging, or continuing to invest at a fixed rate over time, can help position you for long-term success, Empower Retirement's Murphy said.

"Over time, if you stay the course and act without emotion, you can do well and continue to see your assets grow," he said.