Simplifying your finances isn’t so simple.
That was clear from the response I got to a recent column on cleaning up a portfolio, consolidating accounts, getting rid of extraneous dribs and drabs of money and clearing out the clutter. And I got that big response without ever going into the nitty-gritty of investment performance, and closing out positions in investments that don’t deserve your money.
Ken in Vienna, Virginia, wanted specific guidelines to follow. Dorothy in Metarie, Louisiana, said she needed some actual rules. Lee in Daytona, Florida, sent me a spreadsheet showing a collection of investments rather than a portfolio, and Bill in Perrysburg, Ohio had a half-dozen questions about diversifying investments and account types.
Like many things in finances, however, there is no one right way here. Guidelines and rules result in exceptions, loopholes and unintended consequences.
That said, every investor should come up with personalized protocols that govern their own portfolio. These individual precepts will change over time and should be reviewed/adjusted every few years, but laying down ground rules and adjusting your portfolio to these self-instructions will go a long way to keeping a portfolio on point and effective.
This week and next, I will cover six areas where investors should think about setting limits and controls, and should use those thresholds to better manage and control what they own.
Here are the first three areas for which individual investors should develop rules to better manage their holdings.
Minimum position size.
Most people start investing with whatever they can afford (I know I did). No investment is too small.
That changes as your assets grow.
A “minimum position size” helps regulate your portfolio. For example, if your portfolio is worth $500,000, you might decide that 1 or 2 percent of that total is your floor level.
At that point, for any position of less than $5,000 (that amount being 1 percent of your total holdings), you must either size up or sell.
If you don’t want to increase your position and add to your holdings today, it’s a sell signal. Make a change and use the proceeds for things you’d like to own now.
Don’t be nostalgic over things you’ve held for ages. Be honest about what you’ve got. Any holding that’s below your minimum isn’t having a big impact on your portfolio. Likewise, any capital gains you incur selling it won’t break the bank.
Securities that aren’t a meaningful and impactful part of your portfolio are distractions; your guideline here should make it clear when a small position is no longer worth your time, effort or money.
Adjust your minimum position size every few years to reflect gains in your savings; anything that fails to keep up goes onto your “watch list” for future review.
The maximum number of positions you hold.
Investors can build simple, effective portfolios with five to 12 funds, less if they are comfortable putting virtually everything into appropriate target-date/life-cycle funds.
A diversified stock portfolio requires more components, but the number should be manageable.
Determine your number.
Lee in Daytona, for example, has amassed 100-plus investments over the years, and he’s almost never sold anything. He’s got faded blue chips, tiny positions in companies spun out of his holdings, and at least a dozen mutual funds (out of about 40) that seemingly were picked after gracing the cover of a magazine.
It’s a nice mess to have, mind you — some good/great investments are mixed in with a few clunkers — but it’s a garbage plate of a portfolio.
The “right number” of positions combines how much the investor can competently oversee and how many or few positions they need to feel comfortably diversified.
My late father had a tight portfolio during his working days, expanded it dramatically when he retired and had more time/energy for his investments, and then winnowed it down again as he aged and didn’t want to work so hard overseeing his money.
Lee figures he can properly manage up to three dozen positions, roughly two-thirds of them being stocks, which he feels take more time to understand and track.
Once you’ve decided on your right/maximum number of positions, cull the portfolio accordingly.
For Lee, that means that anything outside his top 36 should go.
Set your personal number based on what you can handle responsibly — staying on top of developments so that you are in control — and adjust it over time as your interests change.
The number of accounts you have.
I recently heard from Marvin in Fort Worth, Texas, who has money in every retirement plan from every job he ever has held. Each plan has a mix of funds, and in many cases those portfolios have changed dramatically — often to funds he doesn’t love – because the employer changed the plan.
Life would be so much simpler with all of those holdings in one self-directed IRA.
Likewise, many baby boomers grew up as do-it-yourself investors before virtually all funds were available at all brokerages. Thus they might have six funds from different firms, meaning six accounts to track rather than one brokerage platform with everything under one roof. (Lee has this problem too.)
Generally, accounts of the same type and registered in the same way can be held together in one account.
Use different firms for different account types if it helps you keep track (I do this), with maybe one shop for your taxable investments and another for self-directed retirement accounts and maybe a third or even a fourth for your current employer’s plan, for inherited investments and so on.
That may help you keep track of required minimum distributions, taxable events and more.
Having multiple accounts this way is appropriate for staying under the limits of protection from the Securities Investor Protection Corp., which safeguards up to $500,000 per account against the brokerage going bust.
But remember, less is more when it comes to controlling your finances.
Next week: More decision-points for better control of your investments.