Most people investing money in a 401k plan in 2011 and beyond will likely feel like confused beginners because they don’t understand the various investment options. Investing in a 401k has great advantages and can be as simple as investing gets, even for beginners. Now that I’ve told you that let me prove it.
Your 401k is the most convenient way to set aside money for retirement with a tax break, and the perfect place to start investing for beginners. You have your investment options spelled out for you, and you can make changes at will without income tax consequences every year. Plus, you automatically have money going into your account on an ongoing basis which mellows out your risk. Where else can you find such a retirement program? You can get help from human resources if you have questions. But they will not stick their necks out and get specific about investing and the investment options offered. I will.
For 2011 and beyond, your first step should be to get your hands on the literature that describes your 401k plan, its investment options AND other features available to you. The second step is to be honest with yourself in terms of your risk profile for investing your hard earned money: conservative, moderate or aggressive. Third, simplify your life by eliminating from consideration the investment options and features that are not important to beginners. Since the vast majority of you are investing as beginners (don’t follow the markets daily and don’t care to) the following features and investment options you can or should ignore.
If you have the option of investing in a brokerage account, ignore it. This is for people who want to pick specific stocks and bonds to invest money in. If your employer’s stock is one of your investment options, tread lightly because it’s just another stock in the eyes of the world of investing; and any single stock can be risky. If you have TARGET retirement funds as investment options I’d ignore them too if you are relatively safety conscious and want to control your own financial future. These funds sell themselves as the haven for investing for beginners, one stop shopping. Often they are riskier than you think.
When investing money for 2011 and beyond, what investment options and features should beginners focus on? If you have a stable account or fixed account as one of your options, use it as your safe place to invest money. The interest rate will likely be higher than you’ll find anywhere else. Otherwise a money market fund will be your best safe investment option. If your 401k has an automatic rebalance feature, investing for beginners just got better. We’ll explain later.
Now, we focus on the basic investment options in virtually all 401k plans that you really need to focus on: stocks funds and bond funds. These are simply professionally managed portfolios of securities ranging from safer to riskier. The stable account or money market fund is where you allocate money for safety, bond funds offer higher interest income with moderate risk, and stocks funds offer the greatest profit potential with the most risk. Investing money in all three of these basic investment options gives you diversification, and is your best way to get long term growth without excessive risk.
Investing for beginners guidelines: go with high quality intermediate-term bond funds, and high quality equity-income stock funds that invest in large companies and pay yearly dividends of about 2%. Now the question becomes asset allocation: what percent of your money flowing in each pay period goes to each of the investment options. Secondly, what percentage of your invested assets (the value of your 401k account) should be allocated to each of the investment options? A simple example follows for beginners who consider themselves conservative to moderate in the risk department.
Investing for beginners model portfolio: equal money (1/3 each) goes to your safe investment option, bond fund(s), and stock fund(s). Also keep the money already in your 401k account allocated the same way. If you have an automatic rebalance feature, request that your account be rebalanced each year. This way, you keep risk under control. Otherwise, you could end up with too much money in one place because the investment options will all perform differently. If you don’t have the auto rebalance feature, move money around once a year to get the investment options back to equal.
If you are conservative invest money heaviest in the safe option, followed by bond funds with the least going to stock funds. Reverse the emphasis if you are a risk taker and want to be aggressive. Investing in 2011 and beyond could be tricky, especially for beginners. In a 401k you have the advantage of money flowing into your investment options each pay period to mellow out the ups and downs of the stock and bond funds. If you follow the investing for beginners guideline we’ve covered you should do just fine over the long term.
A retired financial planner, James Leitz has an MBA (finance) and 35 years of investing experience. For 20 years he advised individual investors, working directly with them helping them to reach their financial goals.