How Should I Choose Investments for My Retirement Account?

Money Girl gives an easy tip for how to pick the best investments in your retirement account.

Laura Adams, MBA
2-minute read

How to Choose Investments for Retirement AccountQ. "I contribute 5% of my income to a retirement account at work that offers 5% matching. I’m disappointed with the plan’s custodian because when I ask him for advice about choosing investments, he isn’t helpful. I’m 31 years old and am comfortable with a moderate amount of investment risk. How should I choose investments for my retirement so I get the best return?"

A.  Although choosing investments can seem confusing, don’t let it overwhelm you. Think about the investment menu for your retirement plan being similar to a restaurant menu, with 3 major sections.

Instead of choosing from appetizers, entrees, and desserts, you get to pick from stocks, bonds, and cash. You simply need to choose the right combination for your situation. Here's a summary of each investment type:

Stocks are inherently the most risky investment option because prices can fluctuate wildly—but they also have the most potential to grow and give you the highest returns. Almost every investor should own stocks, stock mutual funds, or stock exchange-traded funds (ETFs). If you’re young or have a high tolerance for investment risk, the majority of your portfolio should be in stocks.

Bonds are less risky than stocks because their value doesn’t fluctuate so much and you receive a fixed investment return. Owning bond mutual funds or bond ETFs gives you a lower investment return, but more stability. Owning some amount of bonds is a smart way to dial back the risk in your portfolio.

Cash is the least risky option because the value never changes; however, it can lose value due to inflation. Most workplace retirement menus include a money market fund, which is a very safe, but low-return cash-equivalent.

All investors should have a cash emergency fund equal to at least 6 months' worth of living expenes. However, my advice is to keep it in an FDIC-insured bank account so you can access it easily and without a penalty. Tapping most traditional retirement accounts before age 59-1/2 comes with a steep 10% early withdrawal penaly, in addition to ordinary income tax.

Here’s a quick and dirty tip: Subtract your age from 100 or 110 to figure the percentage of stocks that should make up your portfolio. For instance, a 31-year-old investor should own approximately 79% (110 – 31 = 79) to 69% (100 – 31 = 69) stocks. That means a portfolio valued at $100,000 should have a maximum of $79,000 in stocks. The remaining $21,000 would be held in bonds and perhaps a small amount of cash. 

Other Articles You Might Like:

8 Tips to Invest Without Too Much Risk

Smart Moves to Start Investing on Any Income

5 Simple Steps to Build Your Perfect Portfolio

6 Retirement Accounts You Should Know About, Part 1

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Where to Invest? image courtesty of Shutterstock

About the Author

Laura Adams, MBA

Laura Adams received an MBA from the University of Florida. She's an award-winning personal finance author, speaker, and consumer advocate who is a frequent, trusted source for the national media. Money-Smart Solopreneur: A Personal Finance System for Freelancers, Entrepreneurs, and Side-Hustlers is her newest title. Laura's previous book, Debt-Free Blueprint: How to Get Out of Debt and Build a Financial Life You Love, was an Amazon #1 New Release. Do you have a money question? Call the Money Girl listener line at 302-364-0308. Your question could be featured on the show.