Target Date Funds

Set it, and forget it!

– Ron Popeil
(Infomercial King,
Founder of Ronco)

If you are watching your savings go up and down in the stock market with a queasy stomach, you’re not alone. The natural human reaction when this is happening is to take all your investments and cash out. But that’s exactly what fuels a downturn in the stock market, a mass sell-off when too many people cash out at the same time. Panicked investors are actually selling low, instead of selling high when the market is doing great. How do you avoid this gut reaction to follow the herd?

If you’re the type of investor who gets nervous during stock market drops, you would benefit from something called target date funds. To understand target date funds, we first need to understand mutual funds. A mutual fund, which can be shortened to a single word – fund – is a bundle of investments purchased altogether. This bundle may contain only one type of investment, like a stock fund or a blend of types, like stocks, bonds, commodities, etc. The bundle might even be comprised of multiple funds, in short, a fund of funds.

To visualize this, say you are at a farmer’s market, and you buy some carrots, celery, and lettuce. Those veggies bundled altogether are like a mutual fund. Now let’s bundle another set: corn, cucumber, and zucchini. That’s another mutual fund. Bundle the two veggie sets together, and you have a fund of funds. A huge benefit to using mutual funds is the diversification it offers in one investment. With the veggies we bought, you can make veggie soup on a rainy day or salad on a sunny day. Mutual funds offer the same variety, so that you have some investments that perform better than others at different times. They also cost less bundled together than purchasing each investment by itself.

When you select a mutual fund, you automatically accept all the investments bundled within. There is no hand-picking like you do with individual stocks or bonds. A mutual fund has one or more mutual fund managers who pick for you. It’s almost like enlisting someone to do your farmer’s market shopping for you. At times, the fund manager(s) may decide to change some investments inside a mutual fund, like switching one stock to another. This is much like picking strawberries over watermelon, based on what’s in season.

As you can guess, this carries a cost, known as the expense ratio. It is not a dollar amount, but rather a percentage (%). So if the fund averages a 10% return that year, and the fund’s expense ratio is 1%, you see a 9% return on your money. If the fund loses money, that same expense ratio still applies. Try to find an actively managed fund with a low expense ratio (around 1% or less), and you’ll still be better off than trying to match the time and expertise of a fund manager when picking investments on your own.

Now let’s get into target date funds. A target date fund is also a mutual fund, in which the investments within change from aggressive (more stocks) to conservative (more bonds/cash) as you near a specified target year. As an example, Fidelity Freedom 2055 Fund currently contains 93% stocks and 7% bonds, whereas Fidelity Freedom 2020 Fund contains 54% stocks and 46% bonds. Why switch from more stocks to less stocks? The idea is to get more return by taking on more risk when you have many years before you plan to take money out of the fund. As you get closer to your target year, being more conservative allows you to withdraw money without worrying about swings in the market and without suffering big losses when it’s time to cash out.

Although you have many choices where to invest your money, a target date fund is a simple choice that gives you the sophistication of investing in many areas while not needing to check your portfolio every minute of every day. Think of it like auto-pilot. You buy just one target date fund, which is already diversified with many investments inside, and stick with the same investment until you need to use the money. This is the ultimate investment choice for someone who wants to, as Ron Popeil put it, “Set it, and forget it!”

Homework: Are you a target date fund or an a la carte kind of investor? Where could a target date fund work well for you?

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