Asset allocation is an investment strategy that helps you decide the ratio of different asset classes in your portfolio, to ensure that your investments align with your risk tolerance, time horizon, and goals.
In other words the way you allocate, or divide up the assets in your portfolio helps to balance risk, while aiming for the highest return within the time period you have to achieve your investment goals.
So what is asset allocation, exactly, and how do you set your portfolio allocation so that it works for you at every age and stage? Let’s start with a quick discussion of different assets.
Understanding Assets and Asset Classes
At its heart, a financial asset is anything of value that you own, whether that’s a piece of property or a single stock. When you invest, you’re typically looking to buy an asset that will increase in value.
The three broad groups, or asset classes, that are generally held in investment accounts are stocks, bonds, and cash. When you invest, you will likely hold different proportions of these asset classes.
Asset Allocation Examples
What are some asset allocation examples? Well, your portfolio might hold 60% stocks, 40% bonds, and no cash — or 70% stocks, 20% bonds, and 10% in cash or cash equivalents. But how you decide that ratio gets into the nuts and bolts of your actual asset allocation strategy, because each of these asset types behaves differently over time and has a different level of risk and return associated with it.
• Stocks. Stocks typically offer the highest rates of return. However, with the potential greater reward comes higher risk. Typically, stocks are the most volatile of these three categories, especially in the short term. But over the long term, the return on equities (a.k.a. stocks) has generally been positive. In fact, the S&P 500 index, a proxy for the U.S. stock market, has historically returned an average of 10% annually.
• Bonds. Bonds are traditionally less risky than stocks and offer steadier returns. A general rule of thumb is that bond prices move in the opposite direction of stocks.
Recommended: Bonds vs. Stocks: Understanding the Difference
When you buy a bond, you are essentially loaning money to a company or a government. You receive regular interest on the money you loan, and the principal you paid for the bond is returned to you when the bond’s term is up. When buying bonds, investors generally accept smaller returns in exchange for the security they offer.
• Cash. Cash, or cash equivalents, such as certificates of deposit (CDs) or money market accounts, are the least volatile investments. But they offer very low (or zero) returns.
What Factors Determine Your Asset Allocation?
There are three basic factors that will affect your asset allocation — your goals, your risk tolerance, and your time horizon.
• Goals. Your goals may be short term, such as adopting a child, starting a business, or saving for a down payment on a house in the next year or two. Or they may be long term, like planning ahead for that child’s education or saving for your retirement.
• Risk tolerance. Your risk tolerance is how much volatility — i.e., the ups and downs in the market — you can tolerate. This factor is important to get right. If you take on more risk than you’re comfortable with, and the market starts to drop, you might panic and sell investments at an inopportune time.
• Time horizon. Finally, your time horizon is the amount of time you have to invest before you need to achieve your goal. This factor can help you determine how much risk you’re comfortable with and influence your portfolio allocation. For example, if you have a long horizon there is more time to ride out the ups and downs in the market — as a result, your risk tolerance may be higher.
You can see how these three factors come together to determine your asset allocation. If you have a short-term financial goal and will need your money relatively quickly — for example, if you’re about to buy that house you’ve been saving for — your risk tolerance will likely be lower, as you don’t want a market downturn to take a bite out of your investments just when you need to cash them out.
On the other hand, if you have a greater tolerance for risk — and if you think you may need more money for a down payment — you may choose a more aggressive allocation (e.g., tilting toward stocks) — in the hope of seeing more growth.
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How Do Diversification and Rebalancing Fit In?
The old adage, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” is apt for a number of concepts in investing.
Putting all of your money in one investment may expose you to too much risk. When it comes to asset allocation, you can manage risk by spreading money out over different asset classes that are then weighted differently within a portfolio.
Here is a possible asset allocation example: If your stock allocation was 100%, and the stock market hit a speed bump, your entire portfolio could lose value. But if your allocation were divided among stocks, bonds, and cash, a drop in the value of your stock allocation wouldn’t have the same impact. It would be mitigated to a degree, because the bonds and cash allocation of your portfolio likely wouldn’t suffer similar losses (remember: bond prices generally move in the opposite direction of stocks, and cash/cash equivalents rarely react to market turmoil).
Portfolio diversification is a separate, yet related, concept. Simple diversification can be achieved with the broader asset classes of stocks, bonds, and cash. But within each asset class you could also consider holding many different assets for additional diversification and risk protection.
For example, allocating the stock portion of your portfolio to a single stock may not be a great idea, as noted above. Instead, you might invest in a basket of stocks. If you hold a single stock and it drops, your whole stock portfolio falls with it. But if you hold 25 different stocks — when one stock falls, the effect on your overall portfolio is relatively small.
On an even deeper level, you may want to diversify across many types of stock — for example, varying by company size, geography, or sector. One way some investors choose to diversify is by holding mutual funds, index funds, or exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that themselves hold a diverse basket of stocks.
What is rebalancing? As assets gain and lose value, the proportion of your portfolio they represent also changes. For example, say you have a portfolio allocation that includes 60% stocks and the stock market ticks upward. The stocks you hold might have appreciated and now represent 70% or even 80% of your overall portfolio.
In order to realign your portfolio to your desired 60% allocation, you might rebalance it by selling some stocks and buying bonds. Why sell securities that are gaining value? Again, it’s with an eye toward managing the potential risk of future losses.
If your equity allocation was 60%, but has grown to 70% or 80% in a bull market, you’re exposed to more volatility. Rebalancing back to 60% helps to mitigate that risk.
The idea of rebalancing works on the level of asset allocation and on the level of asset classes. For example, if your domestic stocks do really well, you may sell a portion to rebalance your dometic allocation and buy international stocks.
You can rebalance your portfolio at any time, but you may want to set regular check-ins, whether quarterly or annually. There may be no need to rebalance if your asset allocation hasn’t really shifted. One general rule to consider is the suggestion that you rebalance your portfolio whenever an asset allocation changes by 5% or more.
What is Age-Based Asset Allocation?
The mix of assets you hold will likely shift with age. When you’re younger and have a longer time horizon, you might want to hold more stocks, which offer the most growth potential. Also, that longer time horizon gives you plenty of years to ride out volatility in the market.
You will likely want to shift your asset allocation as you get older, though. As retirement age approaches, and the point at which you’ll need to tap your savings draws near, you may want to shift your allocation into less risky assets like bonds and cash equivalents to help protect your money from downturns.
In the past, investment advisors recommended a rule of thumb whereby an investor would subtract their age from 100 to know how much of their portfolio to hold in stocks. What is an asset allocation that follows that rule? A 30-year-old might allocate 70% of their portfolio to stocks, while a 60-year-old would allocate 40%.
However, as life expectancy continues to increase — especially for women — and people rely on their retirement savings to cover the cost of longer lifespans (and potential healthcare expenses), some industry experts and advisors now recommend that investors keep a more aggressive asset allocation for a longer period.
The new thinking has shifted the formula to subtracting your age from 110 or 120 to maintain a more aggressive allocation to stocks.
In that case, a 30-year-old might allocate 80% of their portfolio to stocks (110 – 30 = 80), and a 60-year-old might have a portfolio allocation that’s 50% stocks (110 – 60 = 50) — so, just a bit more aggressive than the previous 40% allocation.
These are not hard-and-fast rules, but general guidelines for thinking about your own asset allocation strategy. Each person’s financial situation is different, so each portfolio allocation will vary. Following are some additional asset allocation examples for different ages.
Asset Allocation in Your 20s and 30s
For younger investors, the rules of thumb suggest they may want to hold most of their portfolio in stocks to help save for long-term financial goals like retirement.
That said, when you’re young, your financial footing may not be very secure. You probably haven’t built much of a nest egg, you may change jobs relatively frequently, and you may have debt, such as student loans, to worry about. Setting up a potentially volatile, stock-focused allocation might feel nerve-wracking.
If you have a 401(k) at work, this might be your primary investment vehicle — or you may have set up an IRA. In either account you can invest in mutual funds or ETFs that hold a mix of stocks, providing some low-cost diversification without sacrificing the potential for long-term growth.
You could also invest in a target date fund, which is designed to help to manage your asset allocation over time (more on these funds below).
When choosing funds, it’s important to consider both potential performance and fees. Index funds, which simply mirror the performance of a certain market index, may carry lower expense ratios but they may generate lower returns compared to, say, a growth fund that’s more expensive.
Remember that the younger you are, the longer you have to recover from market downturns or losses. So allocating a bigger chunk of your 401(k) to growth funds or funds that use an active management strategy could make sense if you feel their fees are justified by the potential for higher returns.
And of course, you can counterbalance higher-risk/higher-reward investments with bonds or bond funds (as a cushion against volatility), index funds (to help manage costs) or target date funds (which can do a bit of both). Just be aware that the holdings within some funds can overlap, which could hamper your diversification strategy and require you to choose investment carefully.
Asset Allocation in Your 40s and 50s
As you enter middle age you are potentially entering your peak earning years. You may also have more financial obligations, such as mortgage payments, and bigger savings goals, such as sending your kids to college, than you did when you were younger. On the upside, you may also have 20 years or more before you’re thinking about retiring.
In the early part of these decades, one approach is to consider keeping a hefty portion of your portfolio still allocated to stocks. This may be useful if you weren’t able to save much for your retirement in your lower-earning years because you’d be able to add potential growth to your portfolio, and still have some years to ride out any volatility.
Depending on when you plan to retire, adding stability to your portfolio with bonds as you approach the latter part of these decades might be a wise choice. For example, you may want to begin by shifting more of your 401(k) or IRA assets to bonds or bond funds at this stage. These investments may produce lower returns in the short term compared to mutual funds or ETFs. But they can be useful for generating income once you’re ready to begin making withdrawals from your accounts in retirement.
Asset Allocation in Your 60s
Once you hit your 60s and you’re nearing retirement age, your allocation will likely shift toward fixed-income assets like bonds, and maybe even cash. A shift like this can help prepare you for the possibility that markets may be down when you retire.
If that’s the case, you might be able to use these fixed-income investments to provide income during the downturn, so you can avoid selling stocks while the markets are down — as doing so would lock in losses and might curtail future growth in your portfolio. Thus, leaning on the fixed-income portion of your portfolio allows time for the market to recover before you need to tap into stocks.
If you haven’t retired yet, you can continue making contributions to your 401(k) to grow your nest egg and take advantage of any employer match. But you may want to keep the bulk of your 401(k) allocation in bonds, cash, or cash equivalents at this stage, to minimize the odds of suffering losses as you draw closer to your target retirement date.
And if you chose to invest in a target date fund within your retirement account when you were younger, it’s likely that fund’s allocation would now be tilting toward fixed-income assets as well.
Asset Allocation in Retirement
Once you’ve retired it may seem like you can kick back and relax with all of your asset allocation worries behind you. Yet, your portfolio allocation is as important to consider now as it was in your 20s.
When you retire, you’ll likely be on a fixed income — and you won’t be adding to your savings with earned wages. Your retirement could last 20 to 30 years or more, so consider holding a mix of assets that includes stocks that might provide some growth. Keeping a modest stock allocation might help you avoid outliving your savings and preserve your spending power.
While that may sound contrary to the suggestion above for pre-retirees to keep more of their assets allocated to fixed-income, the difference is the level of protection you might want just prior to retirement. Now as an official retiree, and thinking about the potential decades ahead, you may want to inject a little growth potential into your portfolio.
It might also make sense to hold assets that grow faster than the rate of inflation or are inflation-protected, such as Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities, or TIPS, which can help your nest egg hold its value.
These are highly personal decisions that, again, go back to the three intersecting factors that drive asset allocation: your goals, risk tolerance, and time horizon. There’s no right answer; the task is arriving at the right answer for you.
What’s the Deal with Target Date Funds?
One tool that some investors find useful to help them set appropriate allocations is a target date fund. These funds, which were described briefly above, are primarily for retirement, and they are typically geared toward a specific retirement year (e.g. 2030, 2045, 2050, and so on).
Target funds hold a diverse mix of stocks and fixed-income investments. As the fund’s target date approaches, the mix of stocks and bonds the fund automatically adjusts to a more conservative allocation — a.k.a. the fund’s “glide path.”
For example, if you’re 35 and plan to retire at 65, you could purchase shares in a target-date fund with a target date 30 years in the future. While the fund’s stock allocation may be fairly substantial at the outset, as you approach retirement the fund will gradually increase the proportion of fixed-income assets that it holds.
Target-date funds theoretically offer investors a way to set it and forget it. However, they also present some limitations. For one, you don’t have control over the assets in the fund, nor do you control how the fund’s allocation adjusts over time.
Target funds are typically one-size-fits-all, and that doesn’t always work with an individual’s unique retirement goals. For example, someone aggressively trying to save may want to hold more stocks for longer than a particular target date fund offers. Also, as actively managed funds, they often come with fees that can take a bite out of how much you are ultimately able to save.
What is Risk Tolerance–Based Asset Allocation?
Risk tolerance–based asset allocation involves shaping your portfolio based on the level of risk you’re most comfortable with. For example, if you fit into the aggressive investor risk tolerance profile, that means you may commit a larger share of your portfolio to stocks and other higher-risk investments.
On the other hand, you may have a smaller asset allocation to stocks if you lean more toward the conservative end of the spectrum. The style of investor you are will likely shift throughout your lifetime. As discussed above, different life stages bring new concerns and priorities to mind, and this will naturally change how you view your asset allocation.
One thing that’s important to understand when basing asset allocation on risk tolerance is how that aligns with your risk capacity. Your risk capacity is the amount of risk you must take to achieve your investment goals. This is important to understand for choosing assets based on risk tolerance to find the right portfolio allocation.
If you have a low risk tolerance, but a higher risk capacity is required to achieve the investment goals you’ve set, then you may be at risk of falling short of those goals.
Meanwhile, having a higher risk tolerance but a lower risk capacity could result in taking on more risk than you need to in order to achieve your investment goals. Finding the right balance between the two is key when using a risk tolerance based asset allocation strategy.
While many investors spend time researching complex issues like bond yields and options trading, understanding and executing a successful asset allocation strategy — one that works for you now, and that you can adjust over the long term — can be more challenging than it seems.
Although asset allocation is a fairly simple idea — it’s basically how you divide up different asset classes in your portfolio to help manage risk — it has enormous strategic implications for your investments as a whole. The three main factors that influence your asset allocation (goals, risk tolerance, and time horizon) seem straightforward enough as separate ideas, yet there is an art and a science to combining them into an asset allocation that makes sense for you.
Like so many other things, arriving at the right asset allocation is a learning process, and one way to get started is by opening a brokerage account with SoFi Invest®. As a SoFi Member, you will have access to different tools and investments that can help you set your portfolio allocation — and you’ll have complimentary access to financial advisors.
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