With the recent turmoil in the financial market this is a good time to look at Dollar cost averaging. The strategy is one that helps you actually benefit from market volatility simply.
You actually are better off with wild swings in stock prices, when you dollar cost average, than if they just went up .8% every single month (if both ended with stocks at the same price 20 years later). Really the wilder the better (the limit is essentially the limit at which the economy was harmed by the wild swings and people decided they didn’t want to take risk and make investments.
Here are two examples, if you invest $1,000 in a mutual fund and the price goes up every year (for this example the prices I used over 20 years: 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 22, 24, 26, 28, 30, 33, 36,39) you would end up with $40,800 and you would have invested $20,000. The mutual fund went from $10 a share to $39 over that period (which is a 7% return compounded annually for the share price). If you have the same final value but instead of the price going up every year the price was volatile (for example: 10, 11, 7, 12, 16, 18, 20, 13, 10, 16, 20, 15, 24,29, 36, 27, 24, 34, 39) you end up with more most often (in this example: $45,900).
You could actually end up with less if the price shot up well above the final price very early on and then stayed there and then dropped in the last few years. As you get close to retirement (10 years to start paying close attention) you need to adopt a strategy that is very focused on reducing risk of investment declines for your entire portfolio.
The reason you end up with more money is that when the price is lower you buy more shares. Dollar cost averaging does not guaranty a good return. If the investment does poorly over the entire period you will still suffer. But if the investment does well over the long term the added volatility will add to your return. By buying a consistent amount each year (or month…) you will buy more share when prices are low, you will buy fewer shares when prices are high and the effect will be to add to your total return.
Now if you could time the market and sell all your shares when prices peaked and buy again when prices were low you could have fantastic returns. The problem is essentially no-one has been able to do so over the long term. Trying to time the market fails over and over for huge numbers of investors. Dollar cost averaging is simple and boring but effective as long as you chose a good long term investment vehicle.
Investing to your IRA every year is one great way to take advantage of dollar cost averaging. Adding to your 401(k) retirement plan at work is another (and normally this will automatically dollar cost average for you).