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My 401(k) Is Losing Money, What To Do?

My 401(k) is hemorrhaging but I’m not freaking out. I’m not freaking out because I’m 28 and years away from retirement. However, several readers have emailed me recently asking me what they should do about their 401(k)’s and IRAs after recent events. Unfortunately, I told them to call up a financial adviser because I don’t really have a suitable answer. But this afternoon I spent some time thinking about it and wanted to give a more reasonable response. I tried to put myself in their shoes and say what I would do.

If you’re like me, about forty years away from retirement, the answer is that you should do nothing differently. Make your regular contributions, check your asset allocations, and do something else with your time. A lot can happen in forty years so you shouldn’t do anything rash like liquidate all of your assets. We had a recession in the 80’s, a mere twenty years ago, and since then we’ve seen the longest bull market period in a very long time. Trying to time the market is a fool’s errand and, honestly, your time is better spent enjoying life rather than fretting about your balance sheet.

If you’re slightly closer to retirement, say ten years away, now’s a good time to adjust where your new contributions are going and go towards a more conservative allocation. I wouldn’t liquidate your equity positions but any new money should go towards conservative investments that will lower the amount of volatility you’re exposed to. Check out the1-year chart of the CBOE Volatility Index [3], an index that tracks the 30-day volatility of the S&P 500 index using a variety of investment vehicles. Note the fact that since August, that index has been going insane. The enemy of a retirement in the near future is volatility. While I wouldn’t sell everything off, I would adjust my contributions to lower the volatility by going with safer investments.

If you’re a year or so away from retirement or in-retirement, hopefully your exposure to equities is limited. Either way, chances are your investment portfolio went down along with everything else. For retirees, I don’t know what the right answer is except that you might want to consider getting some supplemental income to buy more time until the market has an opportunity to somewhat correct itself. I would liquidate enough funds, from equity positions, to make it through the next three to five years and keep the rest as is. But remember, I’m 28, so I would take that advice with a very large grain of salt.

Do you have any better advice?

(Photo: silvaazniv [4])