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How to Cope with Financial Anxiety in Your 401k


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No one likes uncertainty. We want to maintain at least the illusion of control. But that's almost impossible to do today, given the volatility of the stock market and employers' belt-tightening. Even the steadiest hand is shaking just a little. It is imperative to avoid letting your emotions get in the way of making smart investment decisions. In times of doubt, it might be in your best interest to follow these steps for re-examining your current financial strategy.

Reassess Your Risk Tolerance: Today's investor is living those “hypothetical” questions that appear on risk-tolerance questionnaires. If you haven't checked your risk tolerance (the degree of uncertainty that you can handle in your investment portfolio) in more than a year, you're most likely due—especially if you're uncomfortable right now. Maybe you've taken on more risk than is prudent. If so, it might be in your best interest to change your asset mix. If you find that you're taking on the appropriate amount of risk for your goals, just sit tight.

If You Have to Do Something, Review Your Expenses: When dealing with uncertainty, some people feel compelled to act. Instead of trying to time the market (which even the professionals can't do with any consistency), focus on things you can control with certainty: expenses. Identify where you can tighten your belt. Try to identify unneeded or underused services. After such cuts, you’ll have some extra cash to invest each month. Expenses also matter in investment accounts. Do you know what you’re paying in expense ratios, 12b-1 fees, front- or back-end loads? Burn up some of your nervous energy by making sure those expenses aren’t eating up what little positive returns you might have.



Create a Shopping List of Investments: Research stocks or funds that would complement your portfolio, then see where they are currently trading. This could be a great opportunity to pick up some of your favorite picks at rock-bottom prices. However, make sure they are trading at historical lows because of investor overreaction and not because they are no longer financially sound.

Win the Psychological Battle: Don't let the financial media scare you into making poor investment decisions. Times of great uncertainty are usually bad times to be making major decisions. What is healthy is knowing how the human mind works and factoring that into your investment decision-making process. Researchers and academics in the field of behavioral finance attempt to better understand and explain how emotions and perceptions influence investors and their decisions. If you are interested in learning more, there are plenty of publications devoted to this relatively new field.

Consider all of the complex financial decisions faced by investors today. Without experience in different market environments or knowledge of market history, how might investors make such decisions? Potentially through their perceptions or based on their emotions. Thus, it is imperative that investors understand and combat the myriad of illusions to which they might be prone.

When the markets are doing well, people tend to think the trend will continue indefinitely. During the recent crisis when the market was struggling, we witnessed overreaction: Investors were running away from the stock market. However, if you think U.S. companies are still fundamentally strong and will profit in the next five to 10 years, then you should still have a stake in the stock market. Just make sure you set your asset allocation policy first, and then stay the course with an appropriate mix of stocks, bonds, and cash. Investing is a long-term proposition—don’t let your emotions overpower your sense of reason.

Stocks are not guaranteed and have been more volatile than bonds. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Diversification does not eliminate the risk of experiencing investment losses.

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