Are you in the Retirement Danger Zone?

retirement sign

A bad investment can be a serious wealth stealer, but as much as it matters how much you lose, it can matter equally when the loss occurs. As you approach or enter your retirement years, declines in the value of your portfolio can be especially devastating.

“Dollar-cost averaging” describes how you can benefit even when the market goes backwards — if you don’t need to withdraw your money anytime soon, and continue to regularly invest when prices are low. Let’s say you invest $500 a month in a mutual fund. When the fund is $15 a share, you’re buying more share than when it’s $20. Then when the market comes back and your fund hopefully goes up, you own more shares, so your gains will be bigger.

However, dollar-cost averaging assumes that you are in the accumulation phase of life and will keep putting in fresh money toward retirement for awhile. It also assumes you have enough time before you’ll need the money to allow your portfolio to rebound from any significant downturns.

If you’re in the distribution phase of life and are taking funds out of that mutual fund, what you run up against is the phenomenon of “reverse dollar cost averaging.” If you are taking out $3,000 a month to help cover your retirement expenses, and you have to sell shares at the lower $15 apiece price, you’ll need to sell more of them, which means you won’t be holding them when they recover. And sales like that can cause you to run out of money quicker.

Enter the Retirement Danger Zone

The retirement danger zone begins when you get within 10 years of your scheduled retirement date, and lasts for the remainder of your life. Any losses you take during this phase can dramatically affect the quality of your later years. Many older people who experienced such pains to their portfolios in 2007 and 2008 found that they couldn’t afford to retire on schedule, or had to go back to work to supplement their income. According to the Federal Reserve, the median net worth for Americans ages 55 to 64 went down approximately 33 percent from 2007 to 2010.

Stock indexes are hitting records again now, and enthusiasm may be causing some people to forget just how fast the market can turn. It is critical for those in the retirement danger zone to begin to reallocate more of their retirement funds toward rock-solid products that remove any risk of market loss. Below are some places you could reallocate money from stock and bond mutual funds to places with much less volatility. The old rule of thumb is that you will sacrifice decent growth to preserve your principal. In many cases, that is true.

  • Savings accounts have a pitiful rate of growth and should be used strictly for a liquid emergency fund. The principal is protected and FDIC-insured.
  • Money market accounts are usually very safe and offer a higher — but still low — growth rate than savings accounts. They are very liquid.
  • Fixed annuities offer better rates than above but are not liquid. Annuities come built in with an early withdrawal penalty that can wipe out modest gains if funds are needed sooner than expected. Don’t confuse a fixed annuity with a variable annuity that tracks the markets and hence are subject to large losses. Variable annuities are not a place for retirement danger zone money.
  • Certificates of deposit offer more interest than savings accounts but take away liquidity. CDs are for defined periods from 30 days to a number of years. The longer you agree to not touch the money, the more interest the bank will pay.
  • Fixed indexed annuities are a hybrid of fixed and variable annuities that will protect your principal in down markets but allow you to participate in a portion of the gains in up markets. You can also buy a lifetime income rider that will assure a certain income for you and your spouse’s lifetime. They are illiquid for the first seven to 10 years, depending on the product. They could be a great place for IRA funds to grow safely.
  • Cash accounts allow people to deposit funds with some life insurance companies on a fixed rate of return that is usually more attractive than what banks offers. When banks are paying 0.5 percent, some of these accounts pay 3 percent. These accounts are generally liquid — but if you withdraw from the account, you must withdraw the entire balance.