How To Protect Your 401(k) From The Coronavirus Stock Market Downturn



As the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc on people’s health, it has also indirectly harmed their retirement savings.

From major corporations to small mom-and-pop operations, companies have lost business, halted operations and laid off employees. As a result, the stock market tumbled more than 30% from its record high in February. The damage is done across the board, with few industries unscathed. Anyone with a 401(k) has undoubtedly felt the blow of this market downturn. And it’s probably not over yet.

So what should you do? Here are the answers to your biggest questions about how to handle your 401(k) right now, according to experts.

My 401(k) Lost A Ton Of Money. Should I Pull The Rest Out While I Can?

If you’re feeling panicked about a chunk of your retirement savings vanishing overnight, that’s a valid response to the situation. But it’s not one you should act on.

You might remember experiencing a similar situation during the Great Recession. If so, it probably feels like the cruelest form of déjà vu. But remember that the market did recover eventually.

That’s not to say that what we’re experiencing now is the same as the decade prior. It’s not. And though things seem bleak, some experts believe that the financial damage caused by the coronavirus won’t be nearly as severe or long-lasting. But because the future is so uncertain, we can only rely on history to tell us what to do.

In other words, leave your money where it is. As long as you’re not planning to retire in the next couple of years, you have plenty of time to make up your losses, and then some.

Should I Stop Contributing To My 401(k) Until The Market Stabilizes?

Contributing funds to a 401(k) that’s losing value might feel akin to setting money on fire. But if you can, it’s best to keep your contributions going.

For one, if your employer matches retirement contributions, stopping now would essentially mean giving up free money.

It’s also a good time to buy in. “The market is ‘on sale’ right now,” said Ashlee deSteiger, founder and financial adviser at Gunder Wealth Management, LLC. “You will look back on this moment in time and be thankful you stuck with your retirement savings.”

However, there are a couple of situations when pausing your contributions might be for the best, according to deSteiger. “It depends on cash flow and time horizon,” she said.

For example, if you’re having trouble keeping up on your bills or at risk of losing your job, you might be better off stopping retirement contributions temporarily to free up more income. And if you’re planning to retire soon, you have hopefully been adjusting your portfolio toward lower-risk investments anyway. Still, it might be time to talk to a financial adviser about the best place for your remaining contributions.

“Leave your money where it is. As long as you’re not planning to retire in the next couple of years, you have plenty of time to make up your losses, and then some.”

Should I Borrow From My 401(k) To Cover The Bills?

Due to varying social distancing orders instituted by federal and local governments, Americans are experiencing unprecedented financial strain. Not only have the markets wiped out years’ worth of savings, but many workers have had their hours cut significantly or been let go from jobs deemed nonessential.

If you’re struggling financially, it might be tempting to dip into your retirement savings to pay bills. Though 401(k) loans can be used strategically when cash flow is tight, it’s not a great option for covering basic living expenses. That’s especially true if your financial situation is unsteady.

“I think it’s prudent to wait,” said Justin Pritchard, a certified financial planner and founder of Approach Financial, Inc. “We’re hearing about new relief efforts every day, and it would be unfortunate to cash out and then find out you have better options.”

For example, the IRS pushed back the tax filing deadline to July 15. Local governments have placed freezes on evictions and foreclosures. And Congress is currently working on a stimulus package that would send checks to qualifying Americans.

“Retirement accounts are typically protected from creditors, so they can remain intact even if things get worse and you have to declare bankruptcy,” Pritchard added.

Do I Need To Change How I’m Invested?

Considering the volatility that the markets are experiencing right now, you might be wondering if you should change your investing strategy to something lower-risk. The answer: Probably not.

“If your asset allocation was appropriate for your risk tolerance ahead of the turmoil, then there is no need to change it now,” explained Dejan Ilijevski, president of Sabela Capital Markets. “Changing your asset allocation now would be driven by your emotions, rather than on the decisions you made when you were more rational and relaxed.”

That’s not to say you should do absolutely nothing. Instead, this may be a good time to rebalance your portfolio and get it back to your target asset allocation. “It will also satisfy your strong drive to do something,” Ilijevski said. “Anything else would be speculation.”

“Discipline and consistency will always beat speculation and fear in the long run.”

– Kyle Hill, certified financial planner

How Can I Take Advantage Of This Stock Market Downturn?

If you’re on solid financial footing and looking at the market downturn as a potential opportunity, be careful about market timing or stock picking.

“It’s important to note that investment options in 401(k) accounts are limited — you can’t just invest in any stock or bond that you like, and for most of us who aren’t stock analysts, it’s not in your best interest to chase returns in industries or companies that seem ‘hot’ right now,” said Brittney Castro, the in-house certified financial planner for Mint and Turbo, and founder and CEO of Financially Wise, Inc.

For example, she said, a pharmaceutical company could announce it’s close to a vaccine or treatment option, only to have it not pan out and its stock drop sharply. “It’s a gamble, and we don’t recommend gambling with your future retirement.”

That said, you can still take advantage of the current situation. The market has likely bottomed out, or at least come close, which makes it a good time to buy low and get more out of every dollar invested. “We talk about saving in a 401(k) as a method of dollar cost averaging,” said Kyle Hill, a certified financial planner and founder of Hill-Top Financial Planning, LLC. That means you invest the same amount of money every pay period. When the market is up, you buy fewer shares of an investment, and when the market is down, you’re able to acquire more with the same amount of money.

“It averages out over time, so stick to the process,” Hill said. “Discipline and consistency will always beat speculation and fear in the long run.”

What’s The Best Thing I Can Do For My Retirement Savings Right Now?

If you feel like you need to do something in light of all this market turmoil, Ryan Sterling, a chartered financial analyst and founder of Future You Wealth, has a few suggestions. First, contribute at least enough to your 401(k) to receive your full employer match (assuming you can afford to do so). Keep those contributions consistent and keep fees low. Sterling also recommends committing to being a long-term investor. “Don’t sell out when times get tough,” he said.

And as far as staying mentally equipped to ride out these market ups and downs, Castro said you should avoid checking your account every day. “It’s very likely going to drop, just as it is very likely going to come back up in the months ahead as the world works to contain this pandemic.”



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