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Q: I’m 33 and recently received a $200,000 windfall. But I’m lost on how I should put it to work. Should I invest in phases or all at once? I'm nervous about investing at all-time market highs. – Rod in Los Angeles
A: Assuming you’re investing this money for the long term — and you have sufficient cash set aside to meet short-term needs and emergencies — go ahead and invest it all at once, says Jerry Miccolis, founding principal of Giralda Advisors, a Madison, N.J. firm that specializes in risk management. “Don’t let headlines about the market hitting new highs make your nervous because, if the market does what it’s supposed to do, that should be the norm,” says Miccolis.
Now, you may have heard the term "dollar-cost averaging." This notion of automatically investing small amounts at regular intervals, as you do in a 401(k) retirement plan, does tend to smooth out the natural ups and downs of the market. It’s one of many perks of investing consistently, come what may.
Still, if you have cash at the ready to put to long-term use, says Miccolis, it's just as well to invest all at once – and given your age primarily in equities.
This isn’t to say that short-term market corrections – even sizable ones – won’t happen again. “You’ll probably see many in your lifetime,” says Miccolis. “But you risk losing a lot more waiting around for something to change before you invest.”
In fact, investors who’ve had the bad luck of getting in at the very top of a market have ultimately come out ahead – provided they stayed the course. Consider this analysis from wealth management tech company CircleBlack: An investor who put $1,000 in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index of U.S. stocks at the beginning of 2008 (when stocks fell 37%) and again in early 2009 would have been back in positive territory by the end of 2009.
A critical caveat: This advice assumes that you actually keep your savings invested, and not panic sell when things look ugly. Hence, before you make your decision, try to gauge your tolerance for risk – here’s a quick survey to understand your comfort level – as well as your capacity for risk.
While tolerance generally refers to how risk affects you emotionally, capacity refers to how much risk you can actually afford. (You may have a high tolerance for risk but low capacity, or vice versa.)
If you have a steady income, little debt, and several months of emergency savings, the odds that you’d be forced to tap your long-term savings should be low, meaning that your capacity for risk is adequate. If the rest of your financial advice is a bit of a mess, however, you’ll want to use some of this windfall to tighten your ship before you commit to investing it.
Another exception to the advice to invest in one-fell swoop: If you can’t afford to max out on your 401(k) plan, earmark some of this money for living expenses so you can divert a bigger chunk of your salary to these tax-deferred contributions.