How A Target-Date Fund Works

A target-date fund is a great choice for those who want to invest for retirement but don’t want to spend time learning to invest.  In fact, it is better for you to use a target date fund if you don’t know what you’re doing than it is to not know and not try to learn, yet try to manage your retirement plan anyway.  Unfortunately, many people try to do so and end up jumping from fund to fund (trying to chase returns), staying all in cash (because of fear of loss), or staying all in stocks too long (trying to maximize account balances before retirement).  Each of these mistakes could leave you far short of your monetary needs in retirement.

If you are putting at least 10% of your gross pay into a 401k or similar retirement investment plan, before any employer match, you should be set for retirement.  The main reason you would not be is because you make one of the mistakes mentioned above.  Chasing returns normally means that you are buying stocks high and selling them low, resulting in returns way below those that you would have gotten if you had just stayed in the markets and rode out the ups and downs.  Staying all in cash may seem safe, but it actually guarantees that you will end up with a negative return if you include the effects of inflation and denies you all of the benefits of investing.  Being invested entirely in stocks too long, hoping to make a big score before you retire, can lead to a huge loss right before you need the money.

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So why is a  retirement date fund a good way to avoid these issues?

Think of a target date fund (TDF) like an automatic transmission in a car.  While someone who is skillful with a manual transmission can get better gas mileage or get from 0 to 60 faster than someone using an automatic transmission, someone who doesn’t know what they are doing can easily break something or get worse performance.  Someone who is skillful at investing can do better choosing funds than someone who uses a TDF, but someone choosing funds who is not willing to do the (small amount) of extra work involved or who just guesses blindly can end up breaking their retirement fund.  A decent TDF will get you 90% of the way to your retirement goals.  Choosing funds can get you that extra 10%, which could be millions of dollars, but might just mean that you retire with $4 M instead of $2 M.  Someone managing their account badly could retire with $0.4M instead, which could be a very meager lifestyle.

A TDF does several things automatically for you.  Specifically it:

  1.  Diversifies your investments among different asset classes.  In simple terms, it spreads your money around so that you’ll always have some of your money in whatever is doing well and not have all of your money in whatever is doing badly at any given time.
  2. Adjusts your investment as you get closer to retirement.  As you get closer to the time when you’ll need the money, it shifts from growth investments, which have a great long-term return but have very unpredictable returns over periods of a few years, to fixed-income assets, which return less but are more predictable.
  3. Rebalances your portfolio, selling what has done well (selling high) and buying what has not done as well (buying low).

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How to Use a TDF

Inside your retirement plan (or on the website for a mutual fund company if you’re using a private IRA to save for retirement) you’ll probably fund several TDFs with names like “Retirement 2060”, “Retirement 2070”, and so on.  The number refers to the retirement year for which it is designed.  For example, a 2060 fund would be designed for people who are planning to retire around the year 2060.

To use a TDF, just:

  1.  Figure out your retirement age (pick when you’ll be about 65 or 70 – more on that in a minute).  For example, if you’re 25 today, you’d be retiring around the year 2058, so you would select the 2060 fund.
  2. Once you find your fund, direct all of your investments there.
  3. Don’t touch anything – you’re done.

Let’s go through the reasons for each of the steps above.

Why pick 65 or 70?  What if you’re planning to retire at age 50?

Even if you’re planning to retire 15 or 20 years early, you won’t want to invest like you’re 15 or 20 years older than you are.  TDFs invest more aggressively while you are far away from retirement, then get more conservative as you start to get near your retirement date.  If you invest in a fund designed for 40-year olds when you were twenty, you would not be taking on enough risk to get the returns you need to grow your retirement savings early.

Instead, choose the fund appropriate for your normal retirement age.  If you save like crazy and do really well in the TDF in the first couple of decades, such that you think you’ll be able to retire within five years or less, shift to a TDF designed for someone five years from retirement at that point.  If the markets do not do well or you aren’t able to save like you think and you end up not having enough to retire at age 45 like you planned, you might just need to work another five or ten years.  Eventually, there will be a good streak in the stock market that will raise your returns.  If you invest too conservatively early, you’ll virtually guarantee that you will have sub-par returns and need to work that much harder to meet your goals.

Why not supplement your TDF investments with other funds?

You might be tempted to add a bond fund, small-cap fund, or specialty fund to your TDF to up your returns.  But remember what you’re doing – you’re using the TDF to automatically get you to your goals.  Adding other funds to your TDF would be like adding a clutch and gearshift option to your automatical transmission.  You might shift up into 4th gear when your automatic transmission was trying to shift down into 2nd.  A TDF fund is designed to work alone, so adding other funds makes things not work as designed.

Why not touch anything?

Let’s say that your coworkers or CNBC commentators start talking about how overpriced the markets are and how stocks are ready for a fall.  You might be tempted to sell your TDF and go to cash for a while.  The truth is that your coworkers and CNBC don’t know anything more about where the markets will go next year than anyone else.  Just because stocks are pricey doesn’t mean that they won’t go up more.  Just because stocks are cheap doesn’t mean that they won’t go lower.  If you sell out because you’re worried, you might miss a big rally that adds another couple of million dollars to your retirement account over time.  If you shift to all stocks because you think that the markets are ready to rally, you might go all-in right before a 40% bear-market decline.  It is better to leave things alone and let your TDF do its job.

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Disclaimer: This blog is not meant to give financial planning or tax advice.  It gives general information on investment strategy, picking stocks, and generally managing money to build wealth. It is not a solicitation to buy or sell stocks or any security. Financial planning advice should be sought from a certified financial planner, which the author is not. Tax advice should be sought from a CPA.  All investments involve risk and the reader as urged to consider risks carefully and seek the advice of experts if needed before investing.

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