This is a guest post from Edwin Choi, the founder of Mariposa Capital Management. Edwin is a fee-only investment advisor in Los Angeles and a long-time reader of GRS. Prior to starting Mariposa, Edwin Choi spent several years as a portfolio manager with Merrill Lynch in New York.

So, you find the lazy way to invest very appealing: You like the simplicity and the long-term results. But you don’t want to bother with building your own lazy portfolio of index funds and adjusting it as you get older (same as creating your own target-date fund). At this point in your life, you just want a set-it-and-forget-it solution, at least until you feel more comfortable building your own investment portfolio. Target-date funds seem perfect for the job, but which one is right for you?

Choosing the Fund Family
The first step is to choose the fund family (Fidelity, Vanguard, etc.). This decision cannot be overlooked since each company manages its funds differently; a 2040 target-date fund from T. Rowe Price will be different from a 2040 target-date fund at Fidelity. Each company has its own philosophy and methodology. Let’s compare the three biggest players in this market: Fidelity Freedom Funds, T Rowe Price Retirement Funds, and Vanguard Target Retirement Funds.

The first criteria you can use to compare the fund families is cost, specifically the expense ratio (the total annual cost for things like advertising and managing the fund). As an example, let’s look at the 2040 funds:

Fund Family Expense Ratio
Fidelity 0.79%
T Rowe Price 0.79%
Vanguard 0.20%

Amazingly, Vanguard’s expenses are roughly a quarter of the other two. This is largely due to the use of actively-managed mutual funds by Fidelity and T Rowe Price; Vanguard only uses low-cost index funds in their target-date funds. If you think 0.59% a year is a pretty small difference, remember that the rough rule-of-thumb for withdrawing money in retirement is only 4% a year. That “small” difference in expense ratios is almost 15% of your potential retirement income!

Another important criteria to consider is the asset allocation used by the target-date fund — how much is invested in stocks, and how much is invested in bonds and other instruments. In particular, you want to look at how that allocation is expected to change as you get older. Investing geeks like me call that the “glide path”.

Let’s compare the stock portion of the glide paths used by the three fund families:

Stock Glide Paths, Click for full size

As you can see, although all three glide paths have roughly the same shape, the differences are material. T Rowe Price is consistently the most aggressive; Fidelity is generally the most conservative except for the strange kink around 2005-2010. Ten to fifteen years into retirement, your allocation to stocks can vary from 20 to 40% based on the fund family you choose.

Choosing Your Target Date
Once you select the fund family, you need to decide on the specific fund to buy. Target-date funds are labeled by retirement year, generally assumed to be when you turn 65. So the 2040 fund is designed for the “typical” person who’s currently 35 and is expected to retire in 2040.

Obviously, no one is forcing you to buy the fund that corresponds to the year you turn 65. There are at least two very good reasons to adjust your target date:

  • If you plan on retiring much earlier or later than 65, you should consider adjusting your target date. Let’s say you’re 35 and want to retire at 55. Should you buy the target-date fund for 2030, since that’s when you’d retire? Not necessarily. Although the 2030 fund fits your retirement plans, it also assumes people retire around age 65, so your life expectancy is probably much longer than the target audience for the fund. A good compromise might be the 2035 fund, which respects both your early retirement plans and your longer life expectancy relative to others you retire with.
  • Even if you expect to retire at 65, the amount of risk you want to take is probably not “typical”. An easy way to reduce risk is by selecting a fund with a target date that is five to ten years before when you turn 65. (So, if you plan to retire near 2040, you might choose a 2030 target-date fund.) This lowers the level of risk by holding less in stocks while still considering your investment horizon. And if you want more risk, you can select a target date that is five to ten years past when you turn 65. (If you plan to retire around 2030, you could increase risk by choosing a 2040 target-date fund.)

Even though they’ve received some bad press lately due to their poor performance during the recent stock market crash, target-date funds are still useful investments for many people. They’re certainly better than other strategies commonly used by beginning investors: equal-weighting all funds within a 401(k) plan, picking stocks, or just leaving everything in a money market fund.

If you already use target-date funds, which funds do you own and how did you choose?

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