Getting Started with Asset Allocation

If you're new to investing, recognize the merits of using low-cost index funds, but you're not sure how to allocate your long-term savings among various types of index funds, this information is for you.

Asset allocation basics
While there are many ways to divide investment assets into different categories, there are two main classifications: stocks and bonds.

Here's what you need to know: Stocks are riskier but have the potential for higher rewards compared with bonds. Also, stocks and bonds don't always move up or down together. That's it. That's enough info to get you started. There's plenty more to learn about stocks and bonds if you want, but you needn't wait any longer to start investing.

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When and How To Hire a Financial Planner

Typically people seek the help of a planner when they don't have the time, know-how, or desire to do create their own financial plan. In its 13 February 2006 issue, Newsweek featured a great article by Jane Bryant Quinn called “Money Guide: How to Pick a Planner”.

Even if you do most of the work yourself, you may want to check with a planner to be sure your plan will work as you intended. Some planners will use sophisticated probability calculations to determine your likelihood of achieving your goals when you are invested in markets that fluctuate. Market ups-and-downs can have a significant effect on your chances of success if you are making monthly or yearly contributions to long-term investments. By monitoring your probability of success, you can reduce the likelihood of over- or under-planning. Under-planning results in the need to make sacrifices in the future, while over-planning leads to making unnecessary sacrifices now.

Planners can also make recommendations and give advice on how to implement your plan. It is important to be mindful of potential conflicts of interest when recommendations could also stand to benefit the planner. Some planners simply do the planning and leave the implementation up to you while others will take an active role in implementing your plan.

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What is a financial plan and why have one?

Having a financial plan is a lot like having a travel plan — it identifies where you're going, how and when you'll get there, how much it'll cost, and things do along the way. Like planning a vacation, your financial plan can be loosely structured or highly detailed based on your individual needs. But having no plan at all could leave you stranded in the middle of nowhere.

A financial plan answers three primary questions:

  1. How much, when, and where should you save while you're spending less than you earn? Examine your wages, debt payments, living expenses and other budget items to determine how much to contribute to your plan (when you have a cash-flow surplus), and decide which account the money should go in.
  2. How should your savings be invested until they're needed? Identify which asset classes to invest in, how much to put in each, and which actual investments to use. Diversification helps you manage investment risk.
  3. How much, when, and from where will you access savings when it comes time to spend them? Address situations when financial needs exceed available cash from income (a cash-flow deficit) and must be supplemented by withdrawing savings from your plan. This might be a limited-term need such as paying for a child's college education, or a lifetime need such as partial or full retirement.

To properly address these questions, identify your financial goals. Questions to ask yourself include: Continue reading...

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