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How to Invest in Retirement: A Comprehensive Guide


How to invest in retirement: A Comprehensive Guide


When you think about how to invest in retirement, what comes to mind?


Chances are, it’s something related to how to invest so you don’t run out of money. If so, you're not the only one who feels this way.


Get your Retirement Checklist of over 30 things that you need to think about for your retirement.


In a 2020 investor survey by Dimensional Fund Advisors, 11,236 investors were asked to state their greatest fear about personal finances.


On average, 49% of investors said that not having enough money to live comfortably in retirement was their number one financial concern!

Greatest fear about personal finances for retirees.

Unfortunately, many people don’t know how to invest in retirement even though they may have significant investable assets.


Before we dive into how to invest, it’s essential to identify the obstacles you face.


Here are three significant obstacles we often encounter when helping clients plan for retirement:


  • Investor behavior gap – Poor investment behavior causes many investors and professional money managers to underperform market returns.

  • Sequence of return risk – Even more important than the returns you receive, the order in which you recieve those returns can mean the difference between maintaining financial security in retirement and running out of money.

  • Income taxes – High taxes and inefficient tax management can destroy your hard earned savings.


Let’s take a look at each obstacle to help you understand what’s at stake before you learn how to invest in retirement.


Investor Behavior Gap in Retirement


Dalbar, a leading financial research firm, released its latest report on investor behavior back in 2019 and the findings, though not surprising, do not bode well for future retirees.


The study showed that the average investor underperformed the market—by a considerable amount.

For example, in 2018, the S&P 500 lost -4.38% vs. the average stock market investor’s return of -9.42% for the year. This means that investors unperformed the market by 5.04%!


The 2019 study results weren’t an anomaly, unfortunately.

If you want to know how to invest in retirement, it’s important to know that the odds of achieving good long term performance are stacked against you.


Over the 20-year period ending December 31st, 2018, the S&P 500 had an annualized return of 5.62%, while the average stock investor’s account balance gained just 3.88% per year, a significant gap.


There are a variety of reasons for investor performance lag, but poor investor behavior tops the list.


The study found that investors hung onto their stock and bond positions for just under four years before selling them for another investment. This frequent trading, or what we call turnover, can ruin the potential for long-term growth.


So much for long-term investing!


Additionally, many investors in retirement gave into “panic selling,” pulling money out of an investment at the worst possible time because market commentators stoked their fears.


Lack of diversification also contributed to poor returns.


It’s not just individual investors who underperformed the market—even professional money managers fail to meet their benchmarks despite charging high fees for their services.


Each year, the S&P Dow Jones Indices release an annual report card showing how various funds and fund managers performed against their respective index.


In 2020, 47% of small company value fund managers underperformed their benchmark, as did 63% of large company stock mutual funds.


According to Dimensional Fund Advisors, over the last 10 years, only 21% of equity mutual funds across all investment categories underperformed their index benchmark!




But, investment performance isn’t the only obstacle when it comes to knowing how to invest in retirement.


Sequence of Return Risk


Investors face an entirely different set of challenges when it’s time to turn their growth portfolio into an income portfolio in retirement.


Few investors have ever heard the term “sequence-of-returns risk,” or simply “sequence risk,” but it can have a significant impact on your ability to take sustainable income withdrawals from your retirement portfolio.


Imagine two couples, the Washingtons and Lincolns, as outlined in the chart below.


Both have identical account balances of $2 million at age 60, both wish to withdrawal $50,000 per year from their portfolio, and both receive an average return of 4.28% per year starting at age 60.


However, let’s assume that each couple receives their returns in the opposite sequence of the other as shown below in our sequence of return chart.


How to invest in retirement - 4


Example 1: The Washington Family


Mr. and Mrs. Washington begin retirement during a bear market, defined as a period when the stock market declines more than 20%.


At the time of their first income withdrawal of $50,000, the portfolio is actually generating negative returns. As a result, they have to spend over 7% of the portfolio value in year one just to meet their income needs in retirement.


Unfortunately, poor returns continue and don’t rebound until halfway through their retirement.


The result: The Washingtons run out of money by the time they turn 81!


Example 2: The Lincoln Family

The Lincoln family, on the other hand, entered retirement in an upward trending bull market. When they take their first withdrawal of $50,000 in retirement, it represents less than 2% of the portfolio value.


The Lincolns continue to have high returns in the early years and don’t face severe downturns in the market until later in retirement.


The result: The Lincolns end up with $3.8 million by the time they are 88 years old and never run out of money in retirement.


But remember, their average return was the exact same as the Washington family.


How to invest in retirement - 5

The financial consequences of retiring in a bear market are twofold:


  1. Due to market declines in the early years, the Washingtons have far less money in their portfolio in the early years.

  2. The Washingtons must withdrawal a bigger percentage of their portfolio just to meet their fixed expenses in retirement.

That’s sequence risk in a nutshell, and it’s an issue everyone must consider when planning how to invest in retirement at age 55, 60, 65, or older.


The good news is that sequence of return risk can be mitigated with the right portfolio strategy.


Tax Implications of Investing in Retirement


Many investors either don’t understand or fail to consider the tax implications of their investment choices when it comes to investing in retirement.


For example, a study by Vitali Kalesnik and Trevor Schuesler entitled: “Is Your Alpha Enough to Cover Its Taxes? A Quarter-Century Retrospective.” The authors conclude that the average actively managed mutual fund in their study lost 2.4% of their return per year to taxes!


Another study by Vanguard revealed that investors can potentially improve their after-tax investment returns by up to 0.75% per year by implementing just one tax strategy, called asset location.


Ignoring taxes when investing in retirement has many implications, including:


  • Taxes can reduce the income and earnings available for reinvestment. This hurts your ability to compound your investment portfolio at a faster rate over time.

  • Taxes can reduce the amount of money you have available to fund your goals in retirement.

  • Unnecessary realization of capital gains. High capital gains can boost you into a higher tax bracket in retirement unnecessarily.

Any investor who wants to know how to invest in retirement must understand the tax implications of their investment decisions. Otherwise, you risk paying Uncle Sam more and having less money to fund your retirement goals.


While learning how to invest in retirement may feel like rocket science for some – fortunately, it isn’t impossible with the right advice.


Here’s how to invest in retirement condensed into 7 steps:


1. Identify Your Risk Tolerance


How much risk is too much? That’s a significant question you need to ask when it comes to knowing how to invest in retirement.


Since 1973, the S&P 500 has posted an average annualized return of over 11%.

But, stocks have historically experienced massive declines of 50% or more in periods of economic uncertainty.


To help assess how much volatility you can tolerate with your investments, we recommend that you take a risk assessment quiz.


For example, here is an example of a risk tolerance quiz we created for use with our own clients. The results are generated from a series of questions designed to better understand investor preferences and tendencies when it comes to earning money and losing money.



A proper risk assessment will help you determine your willingness to lose some or all of an investment in exchange for higher potential returns.

We've found that individuals generally differ in the amount of risk they feel comfortable taking. You may embrace uncertainty, while others may tend to avoid it at all cost.


If you’d like help understanding your own risk tolerance, just contact us.


While not guaranteed, for long-term investors who are well-diversified, corrections and downturns shouldn’t be cause for panic because the market has historically always rebounded over time.


Case in point: The S&P 500 lost 37% in the financial crisis of 2008; today, it is up tremendously from its low point in March 2009. Long-term investors can weather market storms.


2. Choose Your Investment Approach


Knowing how to invest in retirement requires an investment strategy that is verifiable and defendable. It's also important to understand your retirement investment options.


Having an investment philosophy will help guide your decisions during turbulent markets. As a result, you may become a more disciplined investor.


At the least, we recommend that you ask yourself several questions to help guide your investment thinking in retirement:


  • Does your investment approach stand up to academic scrutiny?

  • Does your investment approach work in U.S. and Non U.S. markets?

  • Does the cost of implementing your approach outweigh the benefits?

  • Has your approach been tested across hundreds of time frames?


Formulating your investment approach can be a challenge. To help, here is a short video explaining our investment principles at Covenant Wealth Advisors.



While there are literally thousands of different investment strategies to choose, most of them can be divided into two approaches:


  • Active investment management

  • Passive investment management


So, what’s the difference?


Active Investment Management in Retirement


Active money managers try to outperform the market by buying what they believe to be “good" investments and avoiding the “bad” ones. This is done by attempting to forecast the direction of stock or bond markets or by timing the market. "Market timing" is the concept of trying to get in and out of the market at the “right” time.


Examples of active investment managers:


  • Franklin Templeton Investments

  • Pimco

  • American Funds

  • T. Rowe Price

  • Dodge and Cox


Passive Investment Management


Passive investment managers don’t try to beat the market.


Instead, their goal is to capture the market’s returns. Instead of attempting to outperform the market, they focus on letting markets work for them.


They seek to increase diversification and focus on keeping costs low to achieve higher potential returns. Passive managers can also be more tax-efficient than their active counterparts.


Examples of passive investment managers:


  • Dimensional Fund Advisors

  • Vanguard

  • Blackrock


While the idea of active investment management can be appealing, stock-picking is a bit of a gamble; even the most experienced investors underperform the market long-term and can end up increasing risk at the same time.


So, should you choose active investment management or passive investment management?


To answer this question, you can start by looking at the evidence. As it turns out, passive investment managers have historically provided far better results.


As illustrated in the chart below, you’ll notice that only 21% of actively managed U.S stock mutual funds outperformed their index benchmark from 2010-2019.


While a few active managers were successful, the odds don’t look favorable for active management.



Mutual fund survivorship 2019
Source: Dimensional


Index mutual funds and exchange-traded funds can be a better choice for most investors.

These types of investments are passively managed, which keeps fees low, especially compared to actively managed mutual funds.


Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) are another excellent low-cost option for retirement investing. ETFs can also track an indexing or passively managed approach, but they trade like stocks on the exchange.


You can track a variety of asset classes including stocks, bonds, and commodities with both index funds and ETFs to keep your portfolio in balance and your expenses low.


The point is that investing in passively managed index funds or ETFs may improve your probability of success in retirement.


3. Choose Where to Put Your Retirement Money


Now that you understand your tolerance for risk and have an investment philosophy to guide you, you'll need to design your asset allocation plan.


Your asset allocation in retirement is simply the right mix of stocks and bonds for you and your family.


Remember, it’s crucial to take into account all of your savings and investment accounts when thinking about the allocation that is right for you, and not just your "retirement" accounts.


Many investors end up making a big mistake by keeping too much money in cash. While this can feel safe in the short-term, too much cash can slow down the growth of your total savings. Lower returns may result in running out of money in retirement.


Let’s break down asset allocation in retirement a bit further.


How should you divide your retirement savings between stocks and bonds?


Generally speaking, how much you invest in stocks and bonds should be dependent on two questions:


  • How much return do you need to fund your retirement goals?

  • How much could your investment portfolio value fall before you decide to sell and go to cash?


In the chart below, we outline seven hypothetical portfolios with differing percentages of stocks and bonds.


How to invest in retirement - 7

Which portfolio in the chart above would make you most comfortable?


Notice that average historical returns increase as the percentage of stocks increases within the portfolio. While higher returns can be favorable, you’ll also notice that portfolios with a higher percentage of stock also experience steeper declines when stock markets drop.


The right portfolio mix of stocks and bonds will depend on your own ability to tolerate market declines and your need to take risk in the first place.


Your risk assessment should help guide your thinking.


Some people have a meltdown when an investment loses 5%; others are comfortable with a 20% or 30% temporary decline.


Once you’ve established the right mix of stocks and bonds, you’re ready to select the appropriate asset classes for your retirement portfolio.


Asset classes are simply a distinct group of stocks or bonds that have similar characteristics.

For example, U.S. Large Caps are companies based in the United States that represent the largest companies available for investment.


U.S vs International Stocks


Diversifying your retirement portfolio across both international and U.S. stocks may help manage the ups and downs of your portfolio value over time.


As the leader of the free world, America is a great country to live in, but over the past several decades, the United States has never been the #1 best performing stock market in the world.


In the chart below, we rank the performance of stock markets in 46 countries across the world over the past 10 years through 2017.


Ten years ago, almost no one would have predicted that emerging countries like Thailand, the Philippines, and Denmark would do so well. Fifteen to twenty years from now, poorly performing countries of the past may very well be the best-performing countries going forward.


How to invest in retirement visual of stock market returns around the world through 2017.

Many investors fear diversifying overseas because we tend to distrust investments that aren't geographically close. This behavioral phenomenon is called "home bias."


However, you may be surprised by the number of household brands and companies that are located outside of the United States.


The truth is, nobody knows the future. Not even Jim Cramer of CNBC!


Investing is really about ownership in the future revenue of a company.


No matter what country's stock market you invest in, there will always be entrepreneurs with great ideas working hard to build a company that can implement those ideas.


By diversifying your investment portfolio across many countries, you may better position yourself to capture the potential returns when and where they occur.


Proper diversification is a key element of knowing how to invest in retirement.


Keep in mind that international stocks can be riskier than U.S. stocks, due to currency and political risks, among others.


This is why it is so important to carefully decide how to diversify your portfolio between U.S. and international companies.


A great financial advisor should be able to help.


Small and Value Companies Vs. Large and Growth Companies


In retirement, every penny of added return can matter.


But, it can be challenging to increase expected returns by forecasting or trying to predict the stock market.


Moreover, nobody wants to take a risk that you’re not rewarded for over time.


So, how can you invest in retirement to increase expected returns in your retirement portfolio?