Age-specific investment advice

At Bankrate we strive to help you make smarter financial decisions. While we adhere to strict , this post may contain references to products from our partners. Here’s an explanation for

Whether you are just starting out or already in retirement, you may not be comfortable with recent market swings. That means your risk tolerance likely is low. Young investors should try to get accustomed to risk. They can capitalize on down markets by dollar-cost averaging, which enables them to buy fund shares on the cheap. Older investors can mitigate risk by limiting exposure to the stock market and making wise bond purchase decisions.

Bankrate’s article, “Managing retirement savings in down markets,” applies to investors of all ages. Below I offer age-specific advice to help you make savvy decisions about retirement investing under all market conditions.

1. Early career

It’s hard to make retirement investing a priority when you’re just starting out in the work force. So many other life goals compete for a piece of your paycheck. That’s unfortunate because the money you contribute to retirement accounts in your 20s has the longest time to grow.

Find a place for retirement savings in your monthly spending plan and you’ll congratulate yourself later in life.

You’re also at a stage in life where you can take on a fair amount of risk in how you invest your retirement accounts. Buying into the market at current levels carries less risk to you because of how long you have until retirement.

Don’t be U.S.-centric in your investments. The world is your oyster. Search for pearls everywhere. Emerging growth and developed countries should be part of your asset mix. Don’t just invest in their stocks. Invest in their bonds and real estate, too. The real estate piece is most easily managed with real estate investment trusts, or REITs.

It’s important to learn enough about investing to understand your investment options and decide on an investment allocation. Many employers now provide some measure of investment advice along with the investment options offered in their retirement plans. If you can’t get comfortable with the advice, get a second opinion. I recommend getting a second opinion from a fee-based Certified Financial Planner. Use Bankrate’s CFP search tool to find a financial planner in your area (be sure to ask upfront how they’re compensated).

Target-date funds with built-in asset allocation strategies have become a popular fund choice in retirement accounts and may even be the default investment option if you don’t pick your own funds when you sign up for the company retirement plan. With a target-date fund, you pick an investment horizon, usually around the time you plan to retire, and the mutual fund’s investment manager changes the investment allocation as you age, dialing down risk as you approach retirement.

While target-date funds are often touted as one-size-fits all funds, they may or may not be right for you, based on your needs and risk tolerance. Some offer little foreign stock exposure, for example. Read the fund’s prospectus before deciding on whether to invest in such a fund.

2. Midcareer

The midcareer stage offers its own set of retirement challenges. The competition for a piece of your paycheck increases when you consider other life goals such as funding college educations for your children, establishing a wedding fund, seeing a bit of the world or remodeling the den.

If you were able to put aside money for retirement in the early years of your career, you may feel less pressure to ramp up contributions midcareer. Still, this is the time to be building balances in retirement accounts. When you take a long-term perspective, it makes much more sense to be a buyer at current stock market levels than it does to sell at these levels.

After a stock market decline, insurance companies often begin heavily promoting equity indexed annuities and equity indexed CDs that promise to give investors some of the potential upside in stock market returns without any downside risk. These investments often don’t deliver the returns the investor expects, in part because of limits on the upside potential and often the lack of dividend payments. In addition, these products generally come with high fees and expenses. Be cautious when considering these types of investments. The SEC publication, “Equity-Indexed Annuities,” offers more information about annuities.

CD terms vary by lender. Fees are likely to be less egregious with the CD, but again, the investor needs to be cautious about the actual terms on the CD. The SEC weighs in on this investment, too, in its publication, “Equity-Linked CDs.”

3. Countdown to retirement

Conventional wisdom has you dialing down the risk in your portfolio. While it’s true you don’t have the years to rebuild your retirement portfolio after a substantial market decline, you still have to consider how your investments will keep pace with inflation-protecting purchasing power, as well as principal. You’re likely to spend almost as much time in retirement as you will have spent in the workforce. Abandoning growth for safety of principal creates an issue down the road.

Treasury Inflation Protected Securities, or TIPS, offer a fixed coupon payment plus a return based on the inflation rate, as measured by the Consumer Price Index. The Treasury auctioned a nine-year, nine-month TIPS (a reopening of the 10-year TIPS auctioned in July) on Oct. 8 priced to yield 2.85 percent plus inflation, but there are 5-year and 20-year maturities auctioned as well. Because they aren’t tax deferred, TIPS work best in tax-advantaged retirement accounts.

Series I savings bonds also offer inflation protection, along with a tax-deferral option not available on the TIPS, but currently the fixed-rate component of a Series I savings bond is zero percent. To learn more, see Bankrate’s story on investments that outsmart inflation.

Also, learn more about annuities. Some inflation-indexed annuity products can deliver an inflation-adjusted income over your lifetime.

Annuities aren’t right for everyone, but it’s easy to recommend against purchasing an annuity without getting an independent second opinion on the decision. Consult a fee-only financial adviser. Use Bankrate’s CFP search tool to find a financial planner in your area (be sure to find out upfront how they’re compensated).

4. Retirees

In today’s market environment, retirees have the biggest concerns about what is happening to their retirement portfolio. Typically, at this stage you are no longer contributing to retirement accounts and are instead depending on distributions from those accounts to meet your living expenses.

Throwing in the towel and liquidating stock and mutual fund positions for the safety of CDs and fixed-income annuities gets you away from the volatility of the markets, but eliminates the upside potential of stocks and bonds and increases the risk that the portfolio’s yield doesn’t keep pace with inflation.

It’s a good idea to establish a fund of safe, liquid money market investments to meet your expected living expenses for the next two to five years. In general, the less worried you are about being able to meet these expenses, the fewer years’ worth of expenses you’d want to have invested in these money market investments. With that part of the portfolio safely allocated, you can focus on investing the balance in a way that looks toward the twin goals of preserving principal while protecting purchasing power.

If your investment portfolio is in meltdown and you can’t figure out how you’re going to make ends meet, you may want to consider a Home Equity Conversion Mortgage, or HECM, also known as a reverse mortgage, as a financial backstop. These are a last-resort measure for getting funds, but I expect these mortgages to become more popular as boomers retire and explore this revenue source for retirement income.