5 Things You Can Control In Investing

Posted on September 1, 2014 at 12:39 PM PDT by

A lot about retirement investing can be depressing. Stocks rise, and we worry about when they will fall. Stocks fall, and we worry about when they might rise.

It can wear you out, and the worry largely isn’t worth the mental energy we expend on it. After all, do you worry about the weather that way? “Of course not,” you say, “I can’t control the weather!”


Nor can you control the value of your investments. Nobody can, which is why so many active mutual fund managers lag their benchmarks. They labor under the delusion that it’s possible to pick stocks successfully and profitably over long periods, while the research shows that it is not.

So what can you control in investing? Lots of things, really. Here’s a look at five investing factors that you can and should attempt to manage as you build up a retirement portfolio:

1. Cost

This is huge. Investors pay far too much for the advice they receive, and it shows up as a lower overall return. The relationship between cost and performance is so clear that, to quote Vanguard Founder Jack Bogle, “You get what you don’t pay for” when it comes to retirement investing.

2. Trading frequency

Once upon a time, investors would buy and hold stocks for decades. Now they flip them in hours, only to repurchase them a day later. The result of all that activity, too often, is not a superior return but simply a lot of money moving around, all with trading fees attached.

3. Taxes

If you are saving for retirement, the place to do it is inside an IRA or workplace 401(k) account.  That way, any selling you feel moved to do won’t result in capital-gains taxes. If you trade in a taxable account, be careful to avoid the hit on short-term capital gains. Hold investments for at least a year in most cases.

4. Your emotions

Most people who are long-term savers have 2008 indelibly etched in their minds. Many investors, too, remember 2000 and even 1987 as particularly bad times for investors. Yet those who stayed invested and didn’t panic out of their positions tended to recover those paper losses in time.

5. Your risk level

Decades away from retirement? You can probably withstand a bear market or two. Only a few years to go? You likely don’t want to be quite so exposed. The key question is, “How many years until you need this money?” Adjusting your risk level accordingly will do a lot to keep you out of trouble in investing, and you’ll make more money in the end.

The key to controlling your investments is to control yourself using simple guidelines and philosophies that keep you grounded and less prone to emotions. Once you control those things, the market’s ups and downs can be seen for that they are — matters out of our control, like the weather, that we shouldn’t sweat so much.