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On a recent trip, I spent some time at the airport bookstore while waiting for my flight. Browsing through magazines at the newsstand, I could not help noticing how frequently the topic of retirement investing came up. It does not seem that long ago when investing was primarily an issue for the wealthy, and company pensions took care of retirement income for everyone else.
Things have changed. Knowing how to invest for retirement has become a necessity for just about everyone, young and old. Some would even say it has become a survival skill.
When I first started teaching investment principles at a local community college almost 20 years ago, retirement investing drew little interest. Over the years, however, my students have come to realize that if they don’t think about creating retirement income, no one else will. Now, a common complaint I hear is, “Why weren’t we taught these skills in school?”
When I think back to my own education, there were no formal investment classes. But I do recall vividly a high school teacher recounting how her modest investment in one stock prepared her for retirement.
Living through the double-digit inflation of the 1970s taught a few more lessons. Mortgages were 12% and higher. Yet, the legal limit a bank could pay on a savings account was set by the government at 5 1/4% — the passbook savings rate.
Soon after that, short-term interest rates jumped above long-term rates. Money market mutual funds paying 12% to 16% returns drew cash out of banks and into money market mutual funds. Later, as rates stabilized, people accustomed to high yields started turning to the stock market, which offered a much different type of investment experience.
Mutual fund assets grew dramatically. Then the participant-directed 401(k) plan arrived on the scene, magically turning millions of American workers into new investors. And then came the internet.
My personal life lessons and a career on Wall Street made me a student of the market. And now, especially due to the massive reach of the 401(k) plan, necessity makes students of us all.
Like it or not, we all have to learn how to invest for the future — no matter what age, we all want to retire someday.
Here are the basic steps to improve the learning curve.
First, read the newspaper. Look at the financial tables. Get familiar with the treasury yield curve, bond tables and stock market charts. In time, you will start to see some relationships and trends that will help you put things into perspective.
Second, develop a foundation in basic market instruments (stocks, bonds, money markets) and the investment products that bundle those instruments (mutual funds, closed-end funds, ETFs).
Third, read timeless classics like “The Intelligent Investor” by Benjamin Graham and “The Battle for Investment Survival” by Gerald M. Loeb. Avoid trendy bestsellers and get-rich-quick books.
Fourth, as to retirement books, visit your local library to pick up copies of my books for free. Look for three: 1) “The Retirement Survival Guide,” 2) “Managing Retirement Wealth,” and 3) “Retire Securely,” all published by Sterling. (For further information, I have them listed on my website: www.juliejason.com.)
Fifth, understand that there is no substitute for experience. Trial and error is a necessary part of developing investment skills, hopefully during your youth. Don’t focus on your winning trades and forget your losers. Progress comes after you understand your mistakes and how to correct them. Keep a record, review it and grade yourself.
Sixth, remember that investment genius is trend-dependent. A good market makes investment gurus of us all. If you develop your skills in a booming market, be careful. Don’t be fooled into thinking you can do no wrong.
Seventh, discuss retirement investing with friends and peers. Talking about retirement investing at home teaches children about investing and may trigger early interest in learning the essential skills that everyone now needs to have to retire securely.