Setting goals is an important part of life. Putting a plan into action and reaching those goals can be exciting and very rewarding. Setting and meeting financial goals is no different, but it might be a little more intimidating. Where do you start? We’ve identified three key questions to ask yourself to help you get on the right track to creating your financial roadmap and making the right investment choices.
These three questions can help you and your financial advisor develop an appropriate financial plan. You'll need to think about each one not only in terms of an individual goal, but in terms of your overall finances. Taking time to consider what you want to achieve as a result of your investment process will guide you in determining specific financial goals.
Question 1. What Is My Time Horizon?
In other words, when will you need the money? Your time horizon for a particular financial goal will have a significant impact on the type of investments you choose to try to achieve it. Are you investing for your young child's college education, or for your retirement 30 years in the future? Or do you hope to achieve your goal in a shorter time frame? For example, do you want to buy a house in three years, or start your own business in five years?
The general rule is: The longer your time horizon, the more risky (and potentially more lucrative) investments you can make. Many financial advisors believe that with a longer time horizon, you have more opportunity to ride out fluctuations in your investments.
On the other hand, if your time horizon is very short, you may want to concentrate your investments into solutions that fit this timeline better. These solutions may offer a lower return but also greater reassurance about whether the money will be there when you need it. The lower return is a possibility because a shorter time frame may not give you enough time to try to recoup any losses.
Question 2. What Is My Investment Risk Tolerance?
Your individual risk tolerance addresses how comfortable you are with the possibility of investment loss, or seeing the value of your investment fluctuate. Many investors would forgo the possibility of a large gain if they knew there was also the possibility of a large loss (these investors are known as risk averse). Other investors, so-called risk seekers, are more willing to take the chance of a large loss if there were also the possibility of a large gain.
It's not always easy to determine where you stand on the spectrum of risk aversion versus risk-seeking within your financial goals, but it's important to try to get an accurate assessment. Risk aversion isn't an either-or proposition; many investors consider themselves risk-seekers until they actually experience a loss that gets too painful. Before making any investment, you should try to get a sense of just what circumstances might cause you to sell an investment if it began to experience a loss. After all, a financial plan only works if you're able to stick to it—having an accurate sense of your true risk tolerance will help you develop a plan you can stay with.
Keep in mind that, as noted above, your time horizon can affect your risk tolerance. For example, if you're investing for retirement 30 years from now, you may be more willing to face greater risk in exchange for the potential for a higher return than if you're saving to send your child to college in four years.
3. What Are My Liquidity Needs?
Liquidity refers to how quickly an investment can be converted into cash (or the equivalent of cash). Real estate, for example, tends not to be very liquid; it can take a very long time to sell either residential or commercial real estate. Publicly traded stock, on the other hand, tends to be relatively liquid, though you might suffer a loss if you need to sell when the market is down. Cash and cash alternatives such as money market accounts are extremely liquid (though even here, some types of cash alternatives may be more liquid than others).
Your liquidity needs will affect the type of investments you might choose to meet your goals. For example, if you don't have short-term liquidity needs, you can probably afford to invest in less liquid investments where the potential for gain is much higher than for more liquid investments. However, if you have two children going to college in the next couple of years, you probably don't want all of their tuition money invested in less liquid assets. Like your risk tolerance, your liquidity needs are also related to your time horizon.
When considering your liquidity needs, don't forget to think not just about your liquidity needs for a given financial goal, but your overall liquidity needs. If you have a stable income, excellent job prospects, an emergency cash reserve, and no pressing financial obligations, you may have fewer concerns about liquidity than someone with a family and no emergency fund who works in an industry that's experiencing layoffs.
Once you've answered these three questions, you’ll be ready to start working on developing your financial plan with your advisor. You can then begin to evaluate the three primary investment goals—growth, income, and stability or protection of principal—to determine how to select specific investments that are appropriate for your financial plan.
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