Simple, Time-Tested Ways to Protect Your 401(k) from a Crash

Markets have been on edge for months, and so are retirement savers. To safeguard your savings, follow these investing golden rules.

A stock trader holds his head in disbelief as stocks fall.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

You’ve saved all your life to build up your 401(k) plan, and now in this period of stock market turbulence you’re worried about substantial losses. What can you do?

Of course, you can’t control what happens in the stock market, so focus on what you can control: yourself. Follow these simple tips to minimize your losses and maximize the chances that you’ll stay on track for a secure retirement.

Tip #1: Diversify (Duh!)

Yes, you’ve heard it before, but it bears repeating: One way to protect your portfolio is to stick with the tried-and-true strategy of staying diversified.

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It’s very unlikely that if you’re spread out over a number of different investment asset classes that they’ll all fall the same amount, and you might even see some go up. The idea in being diversified is to increase the odds that your overall return will do better in a market drop than if you overweighted in a small handful of investments that happened to fall hard.

Be sure to rebalance your portfolio once a year to bring the percentage of money invested in the different funds back in line with your original asset allocation. This will prevent overweighting in areas of the market that may do well for a while but then end up dropping, which could subject you to bigger losses.

Tip #2: Keep Contributing During Downturns

Another important thing you can do to mitigate market losses is to continue contributing on a monthly basis into your 401(k) plan even as the market is going down. This allows you to buy stocks at a cheaper price to compensate for some of the stocks that you may have bought at a higher price.

This is a form of dollar cost averaging, which most of the time will help you get an average price on your shares that will be lower, compared to someone who gets rattled and discontinues buying shares every time the market goes down.

Tip #3: Know Your Risk Factor

One of the best remedies to make sure you don’t panic and pull your money out of the market after a big drop is to assess your risk tolerance, preferably before you start investing in your 401(k) plan. There are a number of risk-assessment tools, such as Riskalyze, that can help you do this.

For example, if the risk assessment shows you cannot tolerate more than a 10% drop in your portfolio, you can invest more heavily in bonds and cash equivalents and less in stock. If it still turns out your portfolio has fallen more than you can stomach, the best thing to do before you bail out, is to pause and think about it. Perhaps even talk to a friend with more experience investing in stock.

If you do pull out near the bottom, you may miss the market recovery if history repeats itself and the market rebounds, which so far it always has.

Tip #4: Don’t Bet Too Much on Your Employer

To reduce the chances of getting in the unfortunate situation where your company stock has a severe drop or actually becomes worthless, do your homework and learn some things about your company’s financial condition before you buy company stock in your 401(k).

Even if you conclude that the company you work for is in good financial shape, it’s still a good practice to not put more than 5% or 10% of your 401(k) funds into your company stock. Just ask the employees of Enron who did this and saw their company stock become worthless.

Nothing in life is ever 100% certain, and that certainly includes investing in a 401(k) plan, but if you follow these time-tested principles of investing, the odds are you will be prepared for a comfortable retirement.

This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

Mike Piershale, ChFC
President, Piershale Financial Group
Mike Piershale, ChFC, is president of Piershale Financial Group (opens in new tab) in Barrington, Illinois. He works directly with clients on retirement and estate planning, portfolio management and insurance needs.