The Biggest Risk in Financial Planning: Avoiding Risk

Advertising Disclosure: When you buy something by clicking links on our site, we may earn a small commission, but it never affects the products or services we recommend.

Couple reviewing financial documents – Yuri A /

Editor's Note: This story originally appeared on NewRetirement.

Research suggests that up until at least three years ago, across all generations, Americans tended to steer away from risk.

However, there is a lot of truth to the old saying, “no risk, no reward.”

Taking the right and appropriate investment risks is important to financial success.

Recent History of Attitudes Toward Risk

Worried couple talking to financial adviser about savings and retirement planning and debt
Inside Creative House /

Avoiding risk has been the prevalent attitude in all areas of American’s lives. And, a study found that risk tolerance fell between 2009 and 2019 — perhaps due to fallout from the 2008 financial crisis.

In 2019:

  • 38% of Americans were less comfortable than 10 years earlier taking a risk with their finances.
  • 65% were less comfortable taking risks in their careers.
  • 76% preferred to live in one place, even if that means passing up opportunities to make a positive career move or increase their income.

And, when it came to investing, the majority of Americans — a full 79% — preferred lower risk and more stable savings and investments.

This data is now a few years old, but is likely still relatively accurate.

FINRA reports that while the negative stock market returns in the first quarter of 2020 impacted many investors, interest in investing remained high and that the majority of people felt no change in their willingness to take risks.

Isn’t Avoiding Risk a Good Thing?

Senior woman weighing whether to file for Social Security
fizkes /

Is avoiding risk a good thing or bad?

The answer is that it depends, but avoiding all risk is definitely not good — especially in your investments.

According to experts, one of the biggest risks in financial planning isn’t investing in a volatile portfolio, but rather avoiding risk altogether.

“Let’s talk about a huge risk: the risk of avoiding risk,” says certified financial planner Leon LaBrecque, of Troy, Michigan-based LJPR, LLC. “All too often I see clients who sit in cash, paralyzed by the next ‘big downturn.'”

While investment strategies vary for each person, financial planners say taking some risks is important in maintaining a healthy — and growing — retirement portfolio, even in the worst economic times.

Tips for Keeping Risk in Perspective

Woman thinking about her job and what to spend money on holding cash
Mix and Match Studio /

Here are some things you should consider when deciding whether to take risks in your investment portfolio.

1. Are Stocks Headed Up or Down?

Hispanic businesswoman
GaudiLab /

As of August 2023, the stock market seems to be recovering from a major downturn.

This is somewhat surprising given that we are still emerging from a global pandemic, inflation has been high, and, until recently, there was talk of heading toward a recession.

Who knows what the stock market is going to do. There is no crystal ball to tell you.

The best thing to do, no matter what the markets are going to do is to know your investment goals and have a plan for what you will do if the burst happens. Learn about the benefits of having an investment policy statement.

And, if the markets crash, here are 10 surprising moves to make.

2. Remember: No Risk, No Return

Senior couple examining their finances
Monkey Business Images /

No risk, no return, that’s the mantra of the financial planner, says Rick Kagawa, certified financial planner and president of Huntington Beach, California-based Capital Resources and Insurance Inc.

“Having no risk in your investments equals no returns,” he says. “If you have no returns, then you must generate all the money for whatever your goal is. This makes reaching your goal much more difficult to nearly impossible.”

The most common no-risk account is a bank account, he adds, noting that there has never been a time when you could make money in this savings vehicle.

“The fact is, your money shrinks with inflation and taxes in a bank account,” he says.

You may be thinking a bank account is still safer than investing in stocks, which could plummet again and devastate your investments. But you’re wrong — for the most part.

3. Yes, Markets Have Gone Down, but They Have Always Gone Back Up

Couple/ working on their taxes
Syda Productions /

The stock market goes up and down in the short term. Over the long haul, it has historically done nothing but go up and to the right.

Even a worst-case year or two-year contraction of the economy will likely eventually rebound.

And even if something cataclysmic were to happen to the markets for them to permanently fail, money will probably have no meaning in such a doomsday event. We’ll have much, much bigger problems to worry about.

4. You Need Some Risk to Keep Pace With Inflation

A young couple review financial documents over a laptop computer in their living room
fizkes /

When you are working, your salary is supposed to keep pace with inflation. So, if costs go up, your pay is supposed to go up too.

However, when you are retired, you are usually living to some extent off of your savings. If you are invested without risk, then you may have a hard time with the spending power of your money.

You need your investment returns to be at least equal to if not greater than inflation.

You will essentially lose money if you don’t adopt some risk.

Learn more about inflation risks.

5. Don’t Be Ruled by Fear

Happy woman looking at phone excited about her savings
aslysun /

The worst thing you could do is let fear determine where and what you invest.

“I think a huge risk is fear, and history tells us that fear itself is what we really need to fear,” says LaBrecque.

6. Taking Calculated and Balanced Risks Is Key

Woman doing taxes at computer with calculator
fizkes /

Of course, you shouldn’t dump all your money into stocks and see how it plays out. Instead, invest in a well-diversified portfolio and take calculated risks.

Roughly one-fifth (21%) of survey respondents in the Northwestern Mutual Planning and Progress Study said they prefer taking calculated risks in the pursuit of higher returns.

But these risks should also be balanced with certain “less risky” investment vehicles. Deciding which vehicles to invest in depends on when you will need your money, says Scot Hanson, certified financial planner at Shoreview, Minnesota-based EFS Advisors.

“For long-term money, go with higher risk, higher reward mutual funds and try to put those in your Roth IRA,” he says.

“For money that you will need fairly soon, do not [take] a risk. Keep this in cash, CDs [certificates of deposit], or a low-duration government bond. You will not make much, but you will not lose much either. And make sure you do not put too much in this pot of money.”

The key is to take some risks, but also put some money aside in “safer” investment vehicles.

7. Consider a Bucket Strategy

Couple meeting with a financial professional /

A bucket strategy is when you allocate your money into different buckets. Some of your money is invested with more risk while other amounts in safer types of investment vehicles.

Learn more about bucket strategies.

8. When Not Taking Risks Makes Financial Sense

Upset senior worried about bills
fizkes /

As a general rule, start reducing market risk at around age 55, depending on when you will retire.

Do this by using managed accounts in which the goal is to avoid high draw-down, says Michael Black, certified financial planner and owner of Scottsdale, Arizona-based Michael Phillips Black Wealth Management.

“Once you go into distribution mode, avoiding large market moves is critically important,” he says. “When you’re retired, the avoidance of draw-down is more important than achieving appropriate returns.”

It’s not surprising then that baby boomers (ages 51 to 69) are considerably more risk-averse than Generation X (ages 34 to 54) and millennials (ages 18 to 34).

In fact, 83% of baby boomers are more comfortable reducing risk to ensure the safety and stability of their savings, even if it means a lower potential for returns, the Northwestern Mutual study finds.

In comparison, 74% of Gen Xers and 71% of millennials feel the same.

9. Work With a Financial Adviser

Senior couple meeting with a banker
Ground Picture /

The Northwestern Mutual study found that American adults who worked with an adviser reported an average risk tolerance of 5.2 on a scale of 1 to 10, while those without advisers had an average risk tolerance of just 4.6.

Trust the experts. They can help you adopt a sane attitude toward risk.

NewRetirement can match you to a financial planning professional. Collaborate with a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional from NewRetirement Advisors to identify and achieve your investing goals.

10. Understand Diversification

Happy couple giving each other a high five
fizkes /

Different investment classes have different purposes. Stocks can be good for growth if you have a long time horizon.

At the other end of the spectrum, a lifetime annuity is designed not for returns, but to guarantee income.

You want to diversify your money into different assets that meet your personal needs.

Get smarter with your money!

Want the best money-news and tips to help you make more and spend less? Then sign up for the free Money Talks Newsletter to receive daily updates of personal finance news and advice, delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for our free newsletter today.