Asset Allocation for Investors Under 30

I have written a lot about the importance of contributing to a 401(k) or IRA on this site, but rarely about how you should invest that money. Truth is, getting money out of your paycheck and into investments is only half the fight. Now it’s time for the second round: As a twenty something investor, how should you allocate your funds?

A note for investing newbies: By asset allocation I am referring to how the money you contribute to your retirement plan, or individual brokerage account, is divided up.

For example, you may only make one monthly IRA contribution, but these funds can then be divided between various mutual funds, stocks, bonds, cash, and other investment vehicles.

Asset Allocation Strategy 101

At its most basic level, a solid investing strategy is to make riskier investments when you have a longer period of time to invest, scaling back your risk as your time to invest passes.

In terms of retirement, this means you should make riskier investments when you are young, and more conservative investments as you age. If done properly, you will have enough invested towards the end of your career so that a very-low risk investment yielding 5 – 7% a year will be all you need to maintain your retirement goals.

Therefore, if you are able to invest in your retirement before turning thirty, it is wise to make relatively risky investments. By risky I do not mean using 100% of your retirement contributions to speculate on penny stocks. By risky I mean investing mostly in growth stocks and funds as opposed to income stocks and funds, or bonds.

Measuring Investment Risk

There is no sure way to know the true risk of any particular investment (if there were the market wouldn’t work). There is, however, information available online about every particular stock, fund, and bond out there. You can quickly get a sense of an investment’s capitalization and prior returns.

For researching mutual funds, my favorite site is Morningstar, which rates funds on a scale of up to five stars, and provides an at-a-glance “style chart”, showing the fund’s relative size and income to growth mix.

In general, small-cap stocks and smaller funds are riskier than large ones, and stocks and funds classified as “growth” are riskier than ones classified as “income”. A growth stock is a company usually focused on reinvesting profits to rapidly expand and increase revenue, whereas an income stock is typically a larger, often diversified company that distributes profits to shareholders via dividends.

While growth stocks are riskier, they are also the stocks than can turn $10,000 into millions. (Think about WalMart, Starbucks, Microsoft, and eBay, for example).

Foreign investments also tend to be riskier than domestic investments, in part because of foreign markets’ increased susceptibility to political changes. Foreign investments can also yield impressive returns, however.

Finally, certain investments are almost unilaterally more conservative (though conservative does not mean no risk). More conservative investments include bonds and ETFs (exchange traded funds).

Finally, there are insured, no-risk investments like certificates of deposits and money. While no-risk investments provide a great way keep liquid savings (like an emergency fund), or save for short-term goals, they should never be a part of a young long-term investor’s allocation strategy.

An Under Thirty Asset Allocation Strategy

I strongly believe young investors should be as aggressive as possible with their investments before turning thirty, and possibly into their mid to late thirties. An aggressive strategy might include investing between 50-75% of funds in foreign stocks or mutual funds, 20-40% in domestic growth stocks or funds, and 5-10% in bonds.

One fund I invest in and recommended two years ago is the Fidelity International Discovery Fund, which has continued to do very well. Given today’s economic climate, I think foreign investments make more sense than ever before. A weaker dollar and domestic troubles like the mortgage crises only serve to bolster the value of foreign holdings.

The most important part of any investing strategy – especially when you are just starting out – is to shrug off short term fluctuations, even losses. No matter what strategy we are following, most of our investments have taken a beating in the last six months.

That does not mean it’s time to pull out of aggressive investments and open a savings account. We will not be able to retire on 2%, 3%, or even 5% annual returns. We need to get an average of an 8%, 9%, or 10% annual return, and the way to do that is to invest aggressively early on and scale back to more conservative plays as we get closer to retirement.

How do you allocate your retirement investments? Are you super-aggressive with your investments? Or do you disagree with an aggressive strategy?

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About David Weliver

David Weliver is the founding editor of Money Under 30. He's a cited authority on personal finance and the unique money issues we face during our first two decades as adults. He lives in Maine with his wife and two children.


  1. I just wanted to thank you for writing an article that goes beyond the basics for those in our age group. I’m very interested in finances, am constantly reading books and magazines about it, but often have a hard time finding articles which go beyond the typical advice for younger adults. For instance, I subscribe to Money magazine and over half of the articles are geared towards those on the verge of retirement.

    I was glad to see that you also invest in Fidelity’s International Discovery Fund. I found that about a year ago when rolling over my old 401K to a Roth. I have been happy with it so far, especially considering the markets right now.

    I look forward to reading what you post next!

  2. Wow, thanks for giving me a good first look into investing. As an 18 year old ambitious high school student the only people i ever get any info from are my teachers, some of them dont know what they are talking about, others are pretty knowledgeable. Im am now thinking about going with the good aggressive strategy.

  3. The standard caveat “past returns are no guarantee of future results” ought surely to apply to the question of political stability as well. Are “foreign” countries really likely to be less stable than the USA over the next 30 years? For one thing, at the risk of stating the obvious, not all “foreign” countries are created equal. (By “foreign” did you mean Somalia? or Brazil? or Japan?) And secondly, I wouldn’t be smug about assuming that the USA is the single-least likely country to have major domestic unrest over the next 30 years.

    Around 1/2 of the world’s market cap is in US companies… which means around 1/2 is NOT in US companies. Am I the only one imagining that the latter proportion is likely to go up significantly over the next 30 years?

  4. The author of this article probably shouldn’t be giving this advice or, at least, people should take it with a grain of salt. The author presents a false dichotomy between growth and income assets when its actually growth and value that are opposing forces (although, still not a true dichotomy). This concept is very basic to investing and the lack of understanding or knowledge about value stocks that the author demonstrates is a huge gap because Small Value stocks have been the most rewarding asset class – even more than Small Growth – over the last 50+ years.

    That said, I like the idea of heavy foreign investments.

  5. I think the author needs to make clear what exactly ETFs are – specifically that they can be based on a bond exchange or a stock exchange, and can be extremely risky or very conservative. You can’t really say that a conservative portfolio usually contains ETFs or that an aggressive strategy will only have 5-10% ETFs and bonds. I am 25 and have a very aggressive asset allocation, but my holdings are all held in ETFs (40% us stocks, 40% foreign, 10% bonds, 10% TIPs). There are even companies filing to run the first actively managed ETF.

  6. @Jon – Actively managed ETF? That’s a bit counter-intuitive. The main benefits of ETFs are they are traded like stocks, act like mutual funds, and have low low Expense Ratios. I think I’ll be staying away from those ETFs. Also, if you don’t know what ETFs are, check out “The ETF Book”, that’ll explain it in great detail.

  7. If you are investing in your own IRA and you are under 30, having an aggressive stock portfolio makes long term sense.

    But in my personal experience, an aggressive strategy in an employer 401K (which most of us have) is essentially a giant gamble.

    Any time you change jobs or get laid off, you have to “cash out” and roll your money into either an IRA or another employer’s 401k. You lose all benefits of an aggressive long term strategy. If your investment lost 25% there is no way of waiting until your fund shares bounce back.

    How many of us can say we will be at the same job/401k for 40 years?

  8. My comment is a bit late to this original posting, however I wanted to add my $0.02. I agree with the aggressive approach when you are younger, have a longer investment horizon and strong future earning capacity to make up potential losses. Of course, that probably only makes sense if you can handle the ups and downs, and can “stay the course” with your allocation, gradually reducing risk over time. If you sell all of the riskier assets at the first BIG drop and put everything in cash, it may not work out as well in practice.

    Regarding specific asset classes, I prefer to have a decent exposure to foreign (about 25% total, with 10% in emerging), however am hesitant to go much beyond that because of the currency risk you alluded to. I’m don’t want to try to time currency markets, as I have no clue whether a weakened dollar over the last ten years means the trend will continue, or its due for an uptick against the world currencies, nor do I want to guess. I find some added safety in 75% of my portfolio being in investments that are in US dollars, so that I don’t have to worry too much about it. I do, however, have larger exposure to small and mid-cap stocks approaching 40% (typically Index funds) expecting that this may be a potentially higher risk/reward class compared with large cap stocks.

  9. I’m 23 and I just started my first job post college. I have about $5,000 with no debt and can afford to add $300 a month. I want to invest in 2012. I want to set up a nice plan for myself. I don’t mind taking moderate risks but I also don’t want to lose everything. How shoulld invest my money over the next 7 years. What percentage should I keep where?