We’re recovering from a recession, U.S. debt has been downgraded by Standard & Poor’s, and the Dow Jones industrial average dropped more than 400 points Thursday and nearly 200 more Friday. But when it comes to retirement planning, investment experts say the news shouldn’t make you feel skittish.
“If you’re investing for retirement, you shouldn’t let this volatility scare you too much,” said Art Hall, director of the Center for Applied Economics at Kansas University.
Financial planners and business scholars agree that even in uncertain times, the basics for retirement planning remain the same: Have a diversified portfolio. Live within your means. Save.
“It’s a really challenging time to think about retirement planning,” said Felix Meschke, an assistant professor of business at KU. “At the same time, the fundamental principles of providing for your retirement really haven’t changed that much.”
What has changed, Meschke said, is investors’ attitudes and expectations. Five years ago, investor surveys revealed people wanted to accumulate as much wealth as they could before retiring. Today, people are more likely to say they just want financial peace of mind — they don’t want to be rich; they want to be comfortable.
That newfound caution may be translating into how much risk investors are willing to take on. The financial planners interviewed for this article said they had not changed their strategies much since the recession. The main difference is they are talking with clients more about risk management, the art of balancing risk and reward.
“Risk management has always been important, but it wasn’t anything people thought of in the ’80s and ’90s,” said Victoria Bogner, a financial planner at McDaniel Knutson Financial Partners of Lawrence. “It used to be you’d throw a dart at a board, pick a stock, and it’d go up.”
If that’s not the case anymore, then what should you do?
There have been three periods since World War II that have “been particularly lucrative to be invested in the stock market,” Hall said. The most recent was from 1984 to 2000, which may have given investors unrealistic expectations, Bogner said.
“The first thing we need to do is reestablish reality. The ’80s and ’90s, that was amazing growth, but that’s not normal.”
Hiring a planner
Hall said investors should consider their needs before hiring someone to manage their retirement plan.
He pointed to studies showing that over a 10-year period, passively managed retirement funds beat funds carefully tended by financial planners. That doesn’t mean financial planners do a bad job. It just shows no one really knows where the next big opportunity will be.
“We can all look back and say, ‘Man, we should have all bought Apple.’ But most of us didn’t.”
For some people, it might make more sense just to do their own research.
“You can get free advice by spending a few hours on Google,” Meschke said.
Some Enron employees had the majority of their retirement plans in company stock, Meschke said. That’s risky. Spreading out your investments will lower the chances that disaster for one company will mean disaster for your retirement.
For younger people, places like China, Brazil and India may be a good places to look to diversify. They are higher risk, but they are growing.
“You want to be looking at where is the highest rate of growth going to be coming from in the world,” said Phillip Rademacher, president of Rademacher Financial of Lawrence.
Lower your debt
If possible, people should accelerate their mortgage payments and build a cash reserve for emergencies, Rademacher said.
“The further you reduce your debt, the more flexible you are,” he said.
Look beyond the money
Meschke likes focusing on the financial side of retirement planning but said economic security is just one aspect of a fulfilling retirement. His parents are in their 70s and live on the fourth floor of an apartment building. The building has no elevator, and it’s getting difficult for his mother to walk up those stairs every day.
He recommends thinking about where you want to live and what will make your retirement meaningful.
“All of those decisions can make a huge impact on how happy you are in retirement, and they’re really not financial,” Meschke said.