What Is Asset Allocation?

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April is Financial Literacy Month, and our goal is to help you raise your money IQ. In this series, we'll tackle key economic concepts -- ones that affect your everyday finances and investments -- to help you make smarter choices with every dollar decision you face.

Today's term: asset allocation.

In the most basic sense, asset allocation is simply how one's assets are divided among different asset classes, such as cash, stocks, bonds, real estate, and so on -- even insurance investments, commodities, collectibles, and other categories count.

But the term also refers to an investment strategy -- one that can reduce risk through diversification.

Clearly, having all your money in any one asset class can be risky. In 2008, the S&P 500 plunged 37 percent. If you'd held all your assets in an S&P 500 index fund, your net worth would have taken a big hit that year. (It's worth noting, though, that long-term investors who held on regained those losses.) That was also a time of falling real estate values, and had you been a big property owner, especially in some particularly hard-hit regions, you'd have suffered a big blow, with our national housing market only recently starting to pick up again.

Given the harrowing ride we've been on in recent years, you might think that holding cash is the best way to protect your assets from outside forces. Think again.

Cash's buying power tends to shrink every year, due to inflation. Given the inflation we've experienced between just 2000 and 2012, something that cost you $100 in 2000 would cost you about $132 today. Dollars stashed in a mattress are shrinking dollars.

Even dollars kept in savings accounts these days are problematic, given our low interest rates. If you're earning even 1 percent in interest, but the inflation rate is around the long-term average rate of roughly 3 percent, then you're losing ground by 2 percent annually. Bonds can offer a guaranteed return, but they too sport low interest rates today, and bond prices can fall over time, too.

Allocation in Action

There is no one-size-fits-all perfect asset allocation model. What's good for you might be less so for someone else, due to the current size of your nest egg, your risk tolerance, your years until retirement, and other considerations.

One thing that everyone should do, though, is rebalance their portfolio, to maintain the desired allocation. That's because over time, an allocation will likely change.

Imagine this simple example: If your assets are split equally between stocks and bonds, and over three years your bonds hold steady, but your stocks double in value, your allocation will no longer be 50-50. It will be 33-67, with stocks making up much more of the overall portfolio.

Some advisers may suggest rebalancing frequently, after minor changes. You needn't be that fastidious about it, as frequent selling and buying can generate unwelcome commission fees. But do keep an eye on your holdings and when any category has become meaningfully larger or smaller than you want, rebalance.

One Way to Allocate Your Assets

Tending to rebalancing is easier said than done, which is why target-date funds have grown more popular. These mutual funds are built and managed around a particular retirement date, and therefore rebalance their holdings over time, investing more conservatively as the "target" date approaches.

Keep in mind, though, that there's a lot of variation among these funds. Even with similar names, funds from different companies can give you dramatically different performance. Remember, too, to keep any target-date fund holdings in perspective by factoring in your assets that are held outside of the fund. You might think that you're all set, with half of your nest egg in a target-date fund. But if the other half of it is all in stocks -- or real estate or cash -- then your overall portfolio allocation is far from what the target-date fund is targeting.

However you do it, be sure to pay attention to your asset allocation. The stocks, funds, bonds, and investment properties you pick do determine your ultimate results, but so does your allocation.

Want to learn more? Take our course on investment strategies in the DailyFinance Learning Center.

What Is Asset Allocation?

From taxes and credit to saving and money management, you can get lost in the complexity and abundance of financial issues. But by learning some simple fundamentals, you can take control of your finances and feel secure in your money management skills.

How well do you know the basics of personal finance?

Put your knowledge to the test with this 12-question quiz.

A. Under your mattress
B. Stocks
C. Bonds
D. Bank savings account
You want money you plan to use within the next three to five years to be safe and easily accessible. Lock it up in a savings or money market account. You won't earn much interest on it with rates so low, but you also won't lose any of it to the volatility of the stock market. You can find search for which accounts are offering the best rates on Bankrate.com.
A. Suck up to the boss
B. Get a second job
C. Adjust your tax withholding
If you typically get a tax refund each spring (and most of you do), file a new Form W-4 with your employer to increase the number of exemptions you claim - and lower the amount Uncle Sam takes from your paycheck. Try our easy-to-use tax withholding calculator to help you figure the right number for your situation.
A. Pay bills on time and keep credit-card balances low
B. Limit applications for new credit and keep old accounts open
C. Sweet-talk the credit-card company phone rep
The simple act of paying bills on time and keeping your balances low accounts for 65% of your credit score. New credit and the length of your credit history make up 25% of your score. The remaining 10% factors in the types of credit you use. Sorry, sweet-talking will get you nowhere.
A. Treasury bonds
B. Money market account
C. Stocks
D. Residential real estate
Stocks fare best over long stretches of time. Take the 20-year period through 2012, for example. The average taxable U.S. money-market fund returned 2.8% annualized. Residential real estate, as measured by Standard & Poor's Case-Shiller index, did just slightly better with 3.0% annualized. Barclay's U.S. Treasury index earned 6.3% a year, on average. And the S&P 500 trumped them all, delivering 8.2% annualized.
A. Life insurance
B. Health insurance
C. Auto insurance
You only need life insurance if you have someone depending on you financially. Bob is unwed and childless, so he doesn't need it. However, he will need health insurance and auto insurance to protect himself against disaster.
A. 401(k)
B. 529 plan
C. Municipal bonds
D. Certificate of deposit
E. None of the above
A bank CD falls under federal protection if it's FDIC insured. That means up to $250,000 is protected in case a bank goes under, and you get up to $250,000 of insurance at each bank where you buy CDs. Municipal bonds, 529 plans, 401(k)s and other investments are not covered. You invest at your own risk.

Ashley, age 20, contributes $3,000 per year to an individual retirement account for ten years, then stops, letting her money sit in the account. Adam, age 30, contributes $3,000 each year to an IRA for 35 years. Who will have more money at age 65, assuming they get identical investment returns?

 

A. Ashley
B. Adam

Ashley comes out ahead, thanks to the magic of compounding. Even though she stopped contributing after only ten years, her money will grow to about $694,000 by the time she retires, assuming an 8% annual return. Adam, who got a late start, but pitched in more money out of pocket, will amass about $558,000.
A. Your credit score
B. Your car make and model
C. Your car color
D. Your address
Insurers look at a variety of factors to calculate your risk, but the color of your car isn't one of them. Your financial habits, the type of car you drive and where you drive do matter.
A. At age 16
B. At age 18
C. When they get their first job
D. When their income reaches certain levels
A child's age or job has nothing to do with it. Rather, the IRS cares about how much the child made and the source of the income. For example, children who have investment income of more than $950 or have wage income of more than $5,950 in 2012 need to file a return. Children who receive a paycheck and have taxes withheld may want to file even if they don't have to - they could reclaim most or all of their income taxes.

You can withdraw contributions you made to a Roth IRA at any time, for any purpose without paying any taxes or penalties, and without having to pay it back - ever.

 

A. True
B. False

Any money you put into your Roth IRA is yours for the taking - even if you aren't retired. The money your account earns, however, cannot be touched until you're 59½ and have had a Roth for at least five years. Otherwise, you'll owe taxes and a 10% early withdrawal penalty on earnings. An exception: Once the money's been in your account for five years, you can tap your earnings to buy your first home.
A. Cry
B. Notify your bank and credit-card companies
C. Contact the credit bureaus
D. Call the Social Security office
Put your tears of frustration on hold. First, notify your credit-card companies and bank to monitor your accounts for fraudulent charges, just in case your wallet falls into the wrong hands. Second, contact the credit bureaus and put a fraud alert on your report. This will require lenders to make an effort to verify your identity before issuing new credit in your name. It also gives you a free copy of your credit report so you can review it for suspicious activity.

A. Upgrade your lifestyle: You've been pinching pennies for too long. It's time to reward yourself and live it up.

B. Maintain your lifestyle: Take this opportunity to pay off your high-interest debts and boost your savings. It's time to get ahead. 

Sure, it's tempting to spend the money, but using it to strengthen your financial footing is the smarter choice that'll pay off exponentially in the long run.

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More money terms:
Net worth
Sunk cost
Opportunity cost

See all money terms to know
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