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Colleen's Corner

Asset Allocation

Often financial "experts" make asset allocation difficult to understand. My goal in this series of articles is for you to understand asset allocation thoroughly, in an easy to understand format.
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How to Build Your Own Retirement "Christmas Tree"

My wife is the Queen of decorating a Christmas tree. She picks out the perfect tree, lights and decorations. She knows exactly where to put the tree, so it gives off the right look to anyone who sees it. Day by day the bottom of the tree fills up with gifts. It shines its light and the decorations sparkle. It keeps giving off beauty and hope. On Christmas day, we'll gather around the tree and enjoy all of those gifts.

Building a retirement plan is no different from building a Christmas tree. You need the right elements to produce the right income for your retirement. And here's the best part. Your loved ones will also benefit. These benefits will come in the form of college money or beneficiary payments.

Here are the key elements you need to build a retirement plan that'll keep on giving!

The Right Tree

Some Christmas trees are better than others. I love the "fake" ones, because I don't have to worry about them drying out or catching fire. Everyone has to have a tree that fits them. Depending on the size of your house or apartment, you need a tree that will go with your home.

The first thing to consider in building your retirement plan is the plan that fits your needs. Here's a small list of "Retirement Trees" you can use.

Tree #1: Roth IRA (Individual Retirement Account)
If you're looking for a retirement account that escapes Uncle Sam's taxes, this is the one for you. A Roth IRA allows you to save money without being taxed when you retire. Even if you pass away, your beneficiary will receive tax free money. Also, you don't have to worry about an early distribution penalty or taking minimum withdrawals after age 701/2. No minimum distribution rules apply to the Roth IRA. You can steadily earn income and build your Roth IRA until you retire.

The contribution limit for Roth IRA's in 2009 is $105,000 for singles and $166,000 for married couples filing jointly. And you can put money into your Roth IRA at any age.

Tree #2: Traditional IRA
A Fir tree is the original Christmas tree. It's the one you could find in any home over the past decades. The Traditional IRA the one that started it all. You can invest $3,000 or more in it. But you have to start taking money out at age 591/2 and remove retirement dollars at age 701/2. Be careful on this one. The original IRA has a pitfall. Remove retirement funds before age 591/2 and you'll pay a 10% penalty fee.
Making $43,000 as a single or $60,000 as a couple disqualifies you from having a Traditional IRA. This is a great way to build up retirement funds if your employer doesn't offer one. You can do this through your bank or Financial Planner.

Tree #3: Traditional 401K
You most likely have this one already. Employers will match up to 50% of your contributions and up to 6% of your annual salary. The point is to encourage you to start saving for your retirement. You have several advantages with this one. The plan can be automatically deducted from your paycheck. You won't have to worry about your money getting sucked up by your checking account. It's nice to have money you're investing matched by someone else. You're basically getting free money from your employer. With the auto and financial industries getting billion dollar bailouts, it's nice to know someone is throwing you a bone! Unlike the Roth IRA your money will be taxed at current rates when you retire. But you can grow your 401K with the right funds and sectors.

The Right Decorations

After you find the right tree for your home, you've got to get the right decorations. You place them carefully on the right spots on the tree. We do this for a few reasons. One, we want it to be visually appealing. Two, it brings the tree to life. And three, it's a complete waste of time and money not to.

When you pick the right investment plan you need the right asset allocation. Like decorations on your Christmas tree you have to put your money into the right sectors and companies. Here's an example.

During the "Tech Wreck" of 2000, investors lost 44% value in their technology stocks. Today those same stocks are worth 99% less than they were in 2000! They're biggest mistake was not diversifying their investments. They put 65-85% of their capital into one sector. When you set up a Roth IRA, Traditional IRA or 401K choose a mix of sectors and companies. Some of these include healthcare, energy or commodities.

Let's take a quick look at how this can work to your advantage.

401K Asset Allocation Plan

Mutual Funds: 40% (Healthcare)
Bonds: 10% (Treasury)
Income Stocks: 25% (Utilities)
Growth Stocks: 25% (Energy)

On paper this looks pretty good. Your assets are spread out in sectors that normally perform quite well. But what if you got aggressive and moved up to 75% into your growth stocks? If that sector takes a huge hit, you could lose what most 401K folks lost. At least 20% of their 401K's value! By putting money into the right places, your retirement fund will continue to grow even when you take some losses.

In "How to Build a Strong Portfolio in Your 401K" Samuel D. Swisher, JD of Vantage Financial Partners Limited writes:

"It has been shown that 94% of the variability in a portfolios return is explained by the asset allocation mix and not by security (stock) selection or market timing."

He's saying putting your eggs into a bunch of baskets instead of one is what makes your 401K grow.

Now folks that's financial advice even Santa can't give you!

Opening the Gifts

Okay, so you've picked the right tree, decorations and put them in the right spots. Your tree is glowing and the gifts have been piling up. Your 401K, Roth IRA or Traditional IRA has done the same thing. You've picked the right plan, put money in the right spots and money's been piling up like Christmas gifts under the tree.

When it comes time to retire you'll get a gift you won't forget. Depending on how much you've invested, your employer match, etc., you'll open a financial gift of 6 or seven figures! And trust me when I say you deserve it.

Take the time to carefully build your Retirement Christmas Tree. When you do you'll have a gift that keeps on giving to you and your loved ones. From myself and the folks at www.retirementcalc.com, have a Merry Christmas!

Clyde McDade is the author of the upcoming e-book, "How to Grow More Money for Your Retirement and Child's College Fund."

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