What to do with your 401(k) when the market tanks
There’s one market correlation you can count on: When the markets plummet, calls to 401(k) plan providers go up.
If you’re like a lot of people, you’re also reaching for the phone — or just looking for reassurance that your nest egg will still be OK.
Monday’s eye-popping market drop is no exception. Trade war fears sent the Dow Jones Industrial Average down by more than 700 points by midday. Meanwhile, the S&P 500 and Nasdaq Composite each entered their sixth consecutive day of losses.
Despite the scary headlines, financial advisors have one message for you: Don’t panic.
“Most people should do what’s good for them, agnostic of what the market is doing,” said Aaron Pottichen, senior vice president at Alliant Retirement Consulting in Austin, Texas.
“No one can time if the market is going to go up or down,” he added. “But we do have control over what our plan is.”
Revisit your plan - If your investments match your goals, then there is no need to make a change, Pottichen said.
But if you don’t know whether that’s the case, now is a good time to reach out to your 401(k) provider and have them help you. Most plans have tools to help you track whether your portfolio mix matches the time horizon for what you want to accomplish, Pottichen said.
While most investors may view a big market drop as negative, Pottichen said investors should welcome the chance to buy lower-priced stocks.
“You’re not losing an opportunity,” Pottichen said. “You’re gaining an opportunity to buy something less expensive.”
Identify near-term goals - One key thing to consider as you’re evaluating your 401(k) and other investments in turbulent times is how soon you will need the money.
“Stock ownership should always be for a long-term hold: five plus years,” said financial advisor Scott Hanson, co-founder of Allworth Financial In Sacramento, California.
If you have money tied up in stocks that’s earmarked for your child’s tuition next semester or for a down payment for a house, now is the time to sell, Hanson said.
For goals with a time horizon of five years or less, consider moving that money to a so-called stable value or fixed income funds, said Ted Jenkin, financial advisor and CEO of Oxygen Financial in Atlanta.
While the returns on those investments are lower, you also don’t have the risk of losing 20 to 30 percent of your money, he said.
Stick to long-term plans - When making decisions as to what actions fit you best, your age is a key factor to keep in mind.
“If you’re 70 years old, you have no business having 70 percent of your money in the stock market,” Jenkin said. “You should have 70 percent of your money in fixed income.”
Financial advisor Marguerita Cheng, CEO of Blue Ocean Global Wealth in Gaithersburg, Maryland, said she encourages investors to allocate their investments in buckets.
Money for short-term goals should be in safe investments, while funds for intermediate and long-term needs can gradually get more risky.
Retirees, in particular, may want to put money for required minimum distributions in a stable value fund or short-term bond fund, Cheng said, where they likely will not have to sell at a loss. Those mandatory distributions start when you reach age 70½.
Watch for opportunities - Down or volatile markets provide an opportunity to buy stocks when prices are lower.
That means you want to keep contributing to your 401(k) or other retirement funds, where you’ll be dollar-cost averaging, or buying investments on a fixed schedule, Cheng said.
“If they’re not comfortable, they can pare down the risk in their existing dollars, but keep their ongoing contributions the way they are,” Cheng said.
Another tip to consider when markets are low: Ask your payroll department to take more out of your paycheck to put in your 401(k) for one pay period, Jenkin said.
As long as you have money in savings to pay your bills, putting more money in the market when it is low can mean a greater upside when it recovers. “That can be a really good opportunity,” Jenkin said.