Different Investment Strategies For Different Life Stages

Different investment strategiesA number of people have asked me to share some different investment strategies for different life stages. What I’ll do is highlight the various investment strategies I think make sense for most people, discuss a couple more alternative investment strategies, and round up what strategy I think is most appropriate by life stage.

We all know that step one to building financial wealth starts with saving. What really widens the wealth gap over the years is HOW one invests. Before investing in anything, I encourage everyone to tell themselves five things out loud.

1) I will lose money.

2) I will feel like a complete idiot when I lose money.

3) Nothing goes up forever.

4) There are plenty of exogenous variables outside of my control.

5) No risk, no reward.

Now that you’re mentally set to invest your hard-earned savings in the stock market where one change in government law, a corrupt CEO, a terrorist attack, a natural disaster, or a declaration of war could instantly wipe out half your gains, let’s begin!

DIFFERENT INVESTMENT STRATEGIES FOR EVERYONE TO CONSIDER

1) Indexing. A simple, low-cost strategy where you pick a particular stock index to purchase through an ETF or mutual fund. The most common US index to follow is the S&P 500 index. You can buy the ETF, SPY or buy a Vanguard S&P 500 Index fund, VFINX. Given its been shown that active fund management can’t outperform their index benchmarks over the long-term, saving on fees through an ETF or index fund is a prudent way to go for everyone.

2) Smart Indexing. The S&P 500 is a market-cap weighted index. In other words, if we go through a three year bull market in technology, technology stocks will account for a greater weighting of the index than other sectors. This can be good for momentum investors, or bad as the tech sector tumbled by 80% in 2000, and the financial sector corrected by a similar amount in 2008-2009. Smart Indexing aims to keep all sector weightings equal, through constant rebalancing so that no one sector can dominate. I wrote an entire post about my discovery of Smart Indexing.

3) Target Date Funds. Target date funds are a smart invention by the money management industry that allows retail customers to allocate all their money into one specific target-date fund and forget about things until they reach that target date for retirement. For example, you could be 40 years old and have a target date to retire in 20 years. You’d therefore choose the XYZ 2034 Target Date Fund. The fund will already be diversified for you in terms of stocks and bonds. It’s up to you to read the fund prospectus and understand the allocations, holdings, and decision making process. You should also examine the fund for fees, as they will be much higher than index funds.

4) Actively Managed Funds. As a whole, actively managed funds underperform index funds. That said, there will certainly be long term winners who do outperform. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be titans in the money management industry like Capital, Fidelity, Wellington, Dodge & Cox, Oakmark, Artisan, and so forth. I used to cover many of these fund managers in my previous life-time, and am friends with many of them now. What you need to watch out for is Portfolio Manager turnover. You’re really betting on the money management skills of the portfolio manager and his/her analysts. Many of these large money management firms will lose their PMs and analysts to competitors, and try to utilize their existing brand to prevent defection. To see how actively managed funds are rated, pick up your latest Money Magazine issue and look to the back, or check out MorningStar, whose business is to rate all different types of funds for performance.

5) Combination Index + Actively Managed. In general, you shouldn’t really be thinking about how to beat the markets, because it’ll cause you a lot of stress and you’ll probably lose in the long run. What you should be thinking about is market exposure, since we can get a good idea of future equity performance based off historical performance (6%-8%). Let’s say you are comfortable with a 100% equity exposed portfolio. You can consider allocating 70% of your portfolio in an Index fund, and allocate the rest of your money in your favorite actively managed funds. Many people will like this approach because people want to feel that they are making a positive difference with their investment choices.

ALTERNATIVE INVESTMENT STRATEGIES TO CONSIDER

The above five investment strategies are appropriate for everybody who wants to invest in the stock market. We are primarily talking about the domestic stock market, but you can clearly gain exposure to international stocks through international ETFs, international index funds, and international actively managed funds as well. The following investment strategies can be considered for people with different circumstances.

1) Hedge fund. A hedge fund is supposed to bring you absolute dollar returns in a bear market or a bull market. They are actively managed funds that use leverage to juice returns, and go short to hedge or make money on the downside. Some of the wealthiest people in the world are hedge fund managers due to their performance. Names like Ray Dalio, David Tepper, and Ken Griffin come to mind. The problem with hedge funds is that they often charge 1%-2% of assets under management, and 20% of profits. Many hedge funds also severely underperform on the way up and on the way down as well. Furthermore, you often need at least $100,000 minimum, if not $1 million minimum to invest with the fund. Some funds have two or three great years and shutdown after a bad year because they know it’ll be too difficult to get back to their high water mark. If you are going to invest in a hedge fund, I would look for a fund with roughly ~10% annual returns, and a fund who looks for 10% annual returns as an easy screen. (See: How Do Hedge Funds Make So Much Money).

2) Do It Yourself Cowboy. If you just love investing your own money and picking stocks, you’re welcome to go through the entire stock picking process yourself. I just wouldn’t investment more than 25-50% of your net worth yourself in case of a blow up, which happens more often than you think. If you have several hundred thousands of dollars in assets and it takes up more than 50% of your net worth, you’re going to be very stressed out to the detriment of your relationships with loved ones. The likelihood that you will underperform is high due to the emotional nature of investing. If you insist on doing all the investing yourself, I would at least sign up with Personal Capital and run your portfolios through the free 401k/Portfolio fee analyzer to see how much you’re overpaying in fees, and the new Investment Checkup tool to ascertain your portfolio’s exposure and risk.

3) Private Equity Investments. Private equity investing is where you invest your money in private companies who you think will grow and either pay you a future dividend or have some liquidity event that will make you a solid return. Venture investing is investing in the earliest stages of company’s growth. Massive returns, but also much higher loss occurrences. Most private equity investments fail (9+ out of 10 they say), so it’s best you really know what you’re investing in before cutting a check. Seven years ago I invested about $75,000 in Bulldog Gin. They have grown very well in Spain, the UK, and NYC. Only recently have they partnered with Campari to distribute across the entire United States. It probably won’t be another five years before I get any of money money back.

4) Hire A Financial Advisor. After you achieve a certain amount of wealth, there is this mental shift that occurs where you’re no longer seeking to make maximum returns on your money. Instead, you’re happy with more conservative returns because you want peace of mind and protection of principle. The point of having money is so that you have freedom to do something else more meaningful, like spending time with your family, traveling around the world, working on your business, or volunteering. The last thing you want is to get stressed out by having so much money. Hiring a financial advisor allows you to offload your money worries on someone else for a fee. Thanks to technology, fees are under 1% a year on assets managed, and the advisor is a Registered Investment Advisor who has a fiduciary duty to look out for your best interests, instead of trying to earn a commission by selling you products. Although this is a personal finance blog, my goal is to not let money negatively affect my life. Money will make your life miserable if you cannot control your money habits. (See: How Experienced Investors Can Use A Financial Advisor)

INVESTMENT STRATEGIES AT DIFFERENT STAGES OF LIFE

My philosophy is that one should be more risk-loving up to the age of 35, risk-neutral from ages 36-60, and risk-averse from ages 61-death. Of course everybody is going to live different types of lives and have different types of risk tolerances. But for the most part, I think it’s a good idea to think about our lives in three different segments of risk.

Risk-Loving Up To Age 35

When you graduate from college, you either have very little or are in debt with student loans. As a result, there’s really nothing to lose. You can afford to pick 100% of your stocks and allocate 100% of your money into equities. If you lose half of your $10,000 portfolio, you’ll likely make it up after several months of work. If you lose half of your $500,000 portfolio, you will probably start hitting the bottle.

People in this stage should feel free to take risks not only with their investments, but with their careers. The greatest asset you have here is time. Of course, someone who is 35-40 should be more conservative than someone who is 20-30. Related: Don’t Stop Fortune Hunting

Options: All of the above.

Risk-Neutral From Ages 36-60

This is a time where you might have dependents, a mortgage, and a lot of desires because you’re finally making decent money and accumulating a sizable amount of wealth. You don’t want to go back to living like a college student, so you tone down your risks so that you’re able to just rise and fall with the markets and the economy.

A stable job with a stable income becomes more important than ever. Losing a job is therefore more devastating due to a higher wage loss, and the need to start over to prove your abilities.

I’ve omitted DIY from this stage because of the risk of trading your now larger portfolios into money losers. It was OK to whip around your portfolio when they were smaller and when you had much less responsibility, but not now. Based on my own experience, the experience of many other personal finance consulting clients, and the fact it’s impossible to beat the markets consistently over time, I do not recommend DIY and trying to be a stock picker to fund your retirement. Focus on the idea of managing your stock market exposure through low cost index funds or ETFs instead. That way, you can spend your time enjoy life instead.

Options: Index investing, Smart Indexing, target date funds, hedge funds, hybrid, private equity, hire a financial advisor.

Risk-Averse From Ages 61-Death

Hopefully there’s no longer a need to work for a living once you’re in your 60s. You’ve either saved up a sizable nest egg in which you can comfortably withdraw funds indefinitely to survive. Or, you have Social Security or a pension.

There’s no need to risk anything at all because you’ve already made it. To lose everything now would be a disaster, so stay away from “hot investment opportunities” and investments that just seem too good to be true. You are a target for scammers galore, and your number one priority is to protect your money like Sparta!

Options: Index investing, Smart Indexing, hedge funds, hire a financial advisor.

Different Investment Strategies Stock Market Chart

INVESTMENT STRATEGY CONCLUSION

The only three really risky moves are: 1) Doing all the stock picking yourself, 2) Over allocating your net worth towards equities, and 3) Private equity investing / venture investing.

Investing in a hedge fund or hiring a financial advisor aren’t risky moves at all if you really think about it. A hedge fund is there to hedge against downturns and make you money in bad years and good years. You just have to choose the right hedge fund for you. A financial advisor is incentivized to do what’s best for you and grow your investments. If you start underperforming badly, clients will simply withdraw their funds and go somewhere else.

The Proper Asset Allocation Of Stocks And Bonds By Age” provides a framework of what I think is an appropriate mix as we get older. The one thing we do know is that leaving all our savings in a money market account paying 0.1%-0.2% is not going to help us build wealth. At least keeping your money in savings won’t lose you any money. The only sure money maker is working for a living. But who wants to do that for the rest of their lives?

RECOMMENDATION FOR BUILDING WEALTH

Manage Your Finances In One Place: The best way to become financially independent and protect yourself is to get a handle on your finances by signing up with Personal Capital. They are a free online platform which aggregates all your financial accounts so you can see where you can better optimize. Before Personal Capital, I had to log into eight different systems to track 25+ difference accounts (brokerage, multiple banks, 401K, etc) to manage my finances. Now, I can just log into Personal Capital to see how my stock accounts are doing and how my net worth is progressing. I can also see how much I’m spending every month. The best tool is their Portfolio Fee Analyzer which runs your investment portfolio through its software to see what you are paying. I found out I was paying $1,700 a year in portfolio fees I had no idea I was paying! There is no better financial tool online.

Pic: Hot tub, tennis, beer, San Francisco.

Regards,

Sam

Sam started Financial Samurai in 2009 during the depths of the financial crisis as a way to make sense of chaos. After 13 years working on Wall Street, Sam decided to retire in 2012 to utilize everything he learned in business school to focus on online entrepreneurship.

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Comments

  1. Eric Gati says

    Nice post, Sam. Sums up the different investment options really well.

    Question for you – I believe you’ve written about peer-to-peer lending at some point in the past (e.g. Prosper, Lending Club), but I’d like to get your thoughts on it, in the context of all of these more “traditional” investment strategies.

    Where would you place it on the risk/reward scale? At what stage of life or in what mix do you find it to be appropriate?

    (Obviously there’s not a definite right or wrong answer, but I’d like to get your thoughts.)

    Thanks,
    Eric

  2. Ryan says

    Can someone explain to me what ‘Alternatives” are on Personal Capital. My portfolio allocation says I should have more there, but I can’t figure out which funds in my 401k that would fall into. I have TR Price and my wife has Fidelity. We also have IRAs (from 401k roll over) in Vanguard.

    thanks!

    • Financial Samurai says

      This is from Brendan Erne, Portfolio strategy team,

      “Alternatives can be a lot of things, but the primary liquid investments we believe fall into this category are domestic REITs, foreign REITs, gold, and commodities (oil, non-precious metals, precious metals, agriculture, etc). However, these options won’t always be available in a 401k. The idea is that the bucket is made up of “alternatives” to traditional asset classes like domestic and foreign stocks, as well as domestic and foreign fixed income. And ideally, alternatives would be negatively or lowly correlated with the other asset classes.

      Here is an old post on the subject: http://blog.personalcapital.com/whitepapers/the-benefit-of-alternatives/

  3. SavvyFinancialLatina says

    I am currently investing in index funds, but I’m debating whether I should spend some time actively investing. Mostly through a DRIP. My biggest issue with just having a Vanguard fund like VTI is the return. It only yields about 1.7% return. That’s nothing! I would really like a yield of 3%. What are your thoughts?

    • Julian says

      I would check out XLP. it’s focused on consumer goods stocks which are more “recession proof” and it also pays close to 3% dividend.

  4. Austin says

    There are two types of hedge funds that return >15%, the lucky ones and the cheating ones.

    Private equity is basically theft. There is one group that is certain to make ~10% in private equity and that is the firm itself.

    Markets, today, are totally fed/hft driven non-sense.

    • Financial Samurai says

      If you can’t beat them, join them?

      What brings about such a negative view on hedge funds and private equity funds Austin? There are certainly lots of honest funds that have shown more than a 15% annual increase. I hit with one of the managing principles of a large PE fund called GI Partners and Tomo Bravo, and those guys have been crushing it for 10 years.

      • Austin says

        Some of these people really are doing brilliant things; some are SAC. PE, in it’s traditional sense, is a viable source of capital.

        What concerns me is the trend of activism I see. These guys can really throw their weight around to the detriment of shareholders and/or management. They can cram their LBO’s down institutional throats by bending every rule they can find. And, if it’s not behind the scenes engineering it’s extrinsic sensationalism, like Icahn and Ackman.

        • Financial Samurai says

          It is an interesting business model to be ON THE BOARD of a company and be a hedge fund. I’m not quite sure how this isn’t a type of insider trading, but perhaps it’s just promising not to sell or buy any shares in a certain window of time after a decision is made.

        • Julian says

          I’ve been toying with the idea of buying IEP. It’s like getting in on a hedge fund with no minimums. Icahn is more of a wild ride than Buffett, but IEP has outperformed Berkshire significantly over the last 10 years. So far I’ve been just selling naked puts on IEP… with the next dip in the stock i might get assigned.

  5. Mark Ferguson says

    I think you can guess my investing strategy. Real estate! I have so much more control over my investment and buying below market value is a huge advantage to me. Plus if I am getting cash flow on my rentals, I really don’t care if values drop. Usually rents don’t fluctuate as much as value and when the market crashed, many areas saw stable rents.

  6. Jay says

    I invest in RE, index funds, div stocks.

    I also have a financial adviser to manage part of my portfolio.

    BTW, what is your opinion on the universal life insurance?

  7. Even Steven says

    I’m curious would all of this drastically change for someone looking to retire early, retire at 40(less than 10 years), should the same middle ground be used from 35-40?

    • Financial Samurai says

      Probably not. In many ways, I am acting exactly like a traditional 65 year old retiree since I left Corporate America in 2012.

      The three Life Stages are partly a function of tradition college graduation, work, and retirement. But it is also divided based on the median life expectancy of around 80-85 for men and women. As we get older, we feel the preciousness of time and life even more.

  8. G says

    Right now I am focusing on working, increasing my income whilst tightening my budget so as I can save more. I did think about doing a PHD but the loss of income for at least 5 years is terrifying, and teaching is paying less than what I make now – so does not make sense. I switched to CNG (save 50% on gas), dumbed down my cell plan, got rid of cable and using Netflix, stopped eating out to 1x a week, and planning a blog :-) …Just cant seem to get a good topic or idea to get that started! I have thought art classes on weekends and I should get back to that.

    I have some stocks invested for dividends too. That way I can have a guaranteed returns of at least 3%. My next plan is options trading – bought some books and a mentor to get myself started. Just opened an account at Interactive Brokers. All I can do now is try to earn more, spend less.

    • Financial Samurai says

      I went through the entire “Should I Get A PhD” phase after 2012, and my conclusion was: No.

      There aren’t enough teaching jobs available, and like you say, the loss of income, or the tiny amount of income generated from being a teaching assistant is very hard to swallow. Read the post above if you have time on PhD. I tried to be pretty thorough.

      Good luck with starting a blog! It’s been my biggest X factor that allowed me to break free, and my current largest existing financial buffer for financial security.

      • Ace says

        A PhD…. I have considered that too. I may do it just because I’m goal oriented; not because there is a financial advantage.

        Life is about experience. At some point, watching your brokage account go up or down, is downright boring!

  9. ap999 says

    Good post, I am looking forward to more responses from others. Personally I am a fan of Vanguard Index funds for the long haul. I just can’t seem to stomach owning single stocks right now… It’s just way to confusing for me. I rather just focus on my career and control what I can control and sleep at night. I can’t control what the market does, but I can control what I can make and invest.

    As a 30 year old, that just hit the 400k net worth mark. All my assets are in cash, index funds and international ETFs/funds. Real estate is something I would like to get into, but right now it would be hard for me to manage. Since I work overseas and I am out of the US more than 90% out of the year. I could get into REITs as a alternative for now…

    • Ravi says

      Good points. I think Sam, in various other posts, mentioned that his key to success was really his high savings (and thus investing) rate rather than squandering a high income on things that lose money.

      Great progress, btw. $400k at 30 is nothing to sneeze at. Plus, at this level, your gains will start becoming a substantial portion of your overall growth compared to how much you contribute. It’s nice to have a big wind pushing you forward.

      • ap999 says

        Thanks Ravi!

        Just trying to see what I can do more if there is anything that is. Real estate would be tough for me to manage because of location issues, I have looked into property management companies also. Might be worth the management fee, might not. I suppose that’ll all depend on the company… but then again no one will care as much about your own investment than yourself of course.

        Sam, by any chance do you have any experience with property management companies? Have you or know some one who has successfully used a management company, to deal with renting, finding tenants, collecting rent and all that on your behalf?

    • Financial Samurai says

      Nice work on 400K! Are you participating in the foreign tax exclusion or whatever it is that allows you to not pay taxes on the firs ~$96,000 in income? If so, I’m very envious!

      What percentage of your NW is in cash?

      • ap999 says

        Not too much cash right now, been very bullish on the market the past 1-2 years. So most my money is tied up in index funds and ETFs. I have roughly about 7k in cash currently, I used to keep 30k-50k in cash, but I felt that was a waste since even online banks pay no more than .20 to .40 interest, and I really do not need that large of a Emergency Fund… I have been thinking about trimming down and taking some profits off the table in my taxable brokerage accounts though, but the dilemma is were do I allocate it next?

        Yes I do get the foreign tax exclusion and also the foreign tax credit too which can be better in some cases, especially if one makes over the 96k limit. Also the tax exclusion only is good if a person actually spends more than 330 days out of a 365 day period. Can’t use it say one is returning back to states any more than 35 days a year. For 2013 I paid practically zero in federal taxes. I benefit because I really do not pay the foreign tax either, since my company reimburses me any taxes I pay to the country I pay taxes in. The only thing I can not avoid is paying Social Security Tax and the Medfica Tax.

        I am in a great position to save and invest as much as I can while I am out here. Because my expenses are extremely low since food and housing is also covered by my company. The only thing I spend my money is on extras, like my work out supplements and personal things which is not a whole lot per month. I pretty much save about 90% of all my income… the rest is spent on vacation time which I really go all out on! I have no debts, no bills, no loans, and living the single life!

        Been doing some research on single stocks though, because I would like to possibly at least allocate 15 to 20 percent of my net worth to them. Just want to make a good educated and technical decision on why I will invest in say X stock, don’t really want to just pick some stocks because that’s what Cramer said today on Mad Money, or my buddy said so. That seems to end in disaster for most people. But most stocks that seem interesting to me seem very overvalued currently and of course I expect a correction in some of these high flyers sooner or later.

        Parents live in Monterey, CA. I grew up in the Bay area also… left the Bay Area when I was 19 when I enlisted in the US Army and then been all over the States and the world since then. I’ll be back in the Bay Area for a few weeks in August though, to visit family since its been a while! Looking forward to it, especially the weather and food!

  10. krantcents says

    Investing is a personal choice! There are numerous choices including collectibles, art, classic cars, antiques, commodities etc. It gets back to your individual investment goals which is highly personal. The real issue is to start saving and investing in order to reach your investment goals.

  11. Chris says

    I love the old VFINX, which is available in my 401k!

    With that said, my smaller portfolio outside of the 401k is where I “play” what-if scenarios when it will result in a positive growth of the portfolio. I generally choose dividend stocks and buy/sell them within ranges (i.e. buy low, sell high), and if I get a dividend it’s icing on the cake … or at least a good backup in case it goes down lower than the low I bought it at. Just sold a few hundred shares of SDRL after it went from $34.16 up to the $39 price I sold it for today, to lock in the gain. Did I hit the top? probably not, but I’ll take increases like that any time! :-)

    • Julian says

      If you are into dividends and like picking stocks then I recommend a newsletter called “the dividend machine”. I really enjoy the analysis and recommendations by Bill. I don’t buy every stock he recommends but use it as a springboard for ideas.

  12. Ace says

    Sam,

    I’m generally in agreement with this post. I am a big fan of keeping things simple and low cost. I frequently recommend SPY for equity exposure, but if not possible, then low cost index mutual funds are best. Although, there are a few very excellent active fund managers whom are a worthwhile addition to a portfolio.

    Also, call me old fashioned, but owning your own home is supported by much empirical evidence as a good way to build wealth (I can confirm this anecdotally). Everybody has to live somewhere. You may as well pay yourself instead of rent.

    If a person has any real interest; I think DRIP plans in high quality blue chip companies are also an excellent option for longterm wealth. As I have said before: I don’t know if Twitter will exist 10 or 20 years from now, but I know a GE will still be here!

  13. AC says

    I saw a fun article about alternative ways of investing that could lead to huge payouts. One was investing in broadway shows. You never know if you are helping to get the next “Stomp” or “Rent” off the ground. The caveat is that 70%-80% of the time your investment winds up a huge loss. Another, way to invest outside the stock market is becoming a private lending partner.

    • Julian says

      I’m pretty sure there was a movie/show about this called The Producers… springtime for Hitler and germanyyyy. Too funny!

  14. Jamie@DegreeSource.com says

    I don’t like taking massive risks and I’m not yet at the medium age band. I know that means I’ll never be a millionaire but I’m just not quite in the position to be playing the stock markets right now.
    I do agree with this post and it is certainly very helpful and inciteful towards explaining the different styled risks.

  15. Bikramjit Singh says

    Hiring a financial adviser could be a good thing to do but sometimes individual investors may not afford it.Learning some basics and taking the decisions by yourself should be the priority as nobody knows your risk profile better than you.Little homework before investing can make big difference.

  16. El Budget Nerdo says

    Hey Sam,

    I’ve been mostly looking into dividend growth investing lately, since my company matches at 5% for my Roth IRA. Since I already have my savings where I’d like it, my goal is to increase my passive income for the future when I retire in 20+ years. Besides this, I think real estate is a great way to increase passive income at a young age. I’ve dabbled in that a bit, and made plenty of mistakes on the way, but I’m always learning!

  17. Jef Miles says

    Hey Sam,

    Wow that is very comprehensive on the investment strategies that are around. Was not aware of the smart indexing or target date funds.. There really is plenty of choice even in the options that are available..

    What are your thoughts around investment properties? Here is Aus, a lot of people focus on investment property

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