Being a Smart Investor in Turbulent Times

Can We Still be Smart Investors?

Any other week would be a better one in which to write a financially-themed article. While this article will be in the November issue, the context from which I write is immediately following the announcement that the House of Representatives voted NO on the Bailout plan. We all know that this sent the stock market tumbling, causing many people to feel fear— perhaps the first real time in our generation’s adult life (except maybe some from the dot com bust but that was “fun money” before we had families!!).

While a revised Bailout Plan will likely pass and a few more banks may fall by the time this is published, the events of the past few weeks have made many people question whether or not they are handling their money the “smartest” way.

As a fee-based financial planner who does not manage portfolios, I cannot recommend individual stocks or funds to buy and sell. Nor do I think that will help the families with whom I work at this juncture. I can, however, help you take a macro-perspective on what is smart for you and your family.

“Smart” begins with the basics:

  1. What is your family’s vision and what are you creating?
  2. What is your relationship with money? How do you handle fluctuations? How anxious are you?
  3. What are your financial goals? When do you need the money?

VISION:

You’ve heard me say it time and time again if you read my column with regularity. What is the life you want to create for your family? What does it look like? How do you define success?

Are you living in a hillside cottage with a large yard or do you have an apartment with a home in Tahoe? Do you pick a new country to visit with your children every year? Do you want to settle into a community where you will root for the next 20+ years? Do your children walk to the locale public school or will they be attending a private school?

The vision you create for your family trickles down to the types of investments you make also called an investment vehicle (such as stocks, bonds, mutual funds). Before you can decide into which vehicle you will invest, you need to know for what you want the money.

YOUR MONEY PERSONALITY:

A fascinating area of financial planning is how people relate with money. This alone can fill pages upon pages of articles and keep me reading for weeks (I am endlessly intrigued by this topic). At the very fundamental level, you have to know what is commonly talked about in the financial planning world as your “risk tolerance.” I find that concept hard to grasp, so with my clients I like to hear more about what keeps them up at night. What makes them anxious?

Is it any negative movement in a 401k or is it not having enough money in cash in a savings account? Do they ride out the drops like the one on Sept 29th with grace and ease saying “it’ll come back” or “this is expected” or do they run for the bank and hide their money in their mattress? Everyone is different and understanding your level of anxiety with investment fluctuations is an imperative input factor to deciding how to invest.

YOUR FINANCIAL GOALS:

Taking your vision and translating it into financial goals is where I find the financial planning process helps the couples with whom I work the most. This makes the softer airy vision a dollars and cents reality. Smart investing requires that you know:

The amount the goal will cost
The Time horizon over which you are investing (that is, when do you need the money)?
The amount of money you are starting with for the goal
The amount you are contributing along the way

All of these factors will let you know what the return you need for your money will be. To say that another way, it will tell you how much you have to make each year on the investment to reach the goal. And different investment vehicles offer different possibilities for returns. Holding investments in cash will probably stay within a few % points, while stocks can jump all over the chart — in both directions. To get higher returns, you also will take on higher risk. The return you need combined with your personal tolerance for fluctuations will determine the investment vehicle.

For example:
If you already have $100,000 that you want to put toward a home down payment in one year, you only need a very conservative investment vehicle. Keeping that cash in a money market account would give you the best assurance that your money will be there when you want it.

I see many clients who come to me with next year’s house down payment in stocks or equity mutual funds. Perhaps that is how they built up the money or maybe they just like to participate in the market. In a week like the ones of late, however, a portfolio may drop 10%, making a $100,000 down payment now a $90,000 one. For the exceptionally daring individual, this may be okay, but as a financial planner, I advise people to match their investment vehicles with their time horizons.

If you want access to your money soon, keep it in a cash-equivalent vehicle. This way the market can jump all over the place and you can rest assured that you have what you need when you need it (caveat from the recent events: up to the FDIC insured limits of $100,000 – or more if you set up a certain kind of account designed to expand this limit) . The longer you have before you need the money, the more fluctuations you can likely tolerate. So while you may not be thrilled that your 401k invested in a mix of mutual funds, for example, has decreased, you will likely have more tolerance if you do not need the funds for another 30 years.

PARTNER FOR SUCCESS:

Granted there are those among us who will feel compelled to switch to other asset classes if ours are not performing just because of their personality and risk tolerance. Whether or not this is the smart way to go depends on your personal situation only. To help you handle the next bump, I encourage you to be prepared to act with knowledge and not emotion. The best way to do this is to partner with a financial professional who can help you ride out these rough times and stick with a “system” that works for your anxiety level and your goal achievement timeline. With a plan in place, you can approach the times when everyone else seems to panic with the desired calmness that comes with real knowledge of your own smart investing strategy.

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