Despite what talking heads on TV, your neighborhood life insurance salesperson, or ads from financial advisory companies would have you believe, you really don't need a huge variety of financial products. When you make a plan for your finances in 2021, a great first step would be to minimize complexity. This can mean reducing the number of investments you have, consolidating accounts, or automating your retirement contributions.
The main idea, put simply, is to reduce the amount of brain space you devote to managing your financial life and instead focus on the areas of your life that actually do merit attention (areas that only you can define). Below, you'll find five minimalist tips to declutter your financial life.
1. Hold few funds
Making investing as simple as possible, regardless of your portfolio size, is a sound, research-supported approach. This means holding a few low-cost, broad-market index funds and sticking with them over the long run. For example, you could opt for a total stock market fund, a total international stock fund, and a total bond market fund -- otherwise known as the "three-fund portfolio." The central benefit to holding fewer investments is that once you've purchased the funds in the right proportion and set dividends to reinvest, there is no further action necessary other than to rebalance the account once or twice a year.
Holding a few funds also allows you to see your entire investment picture more clearly. If you have a laundry list of funds and stocks throughout your portfolio, it's much more difficult to manage taxes, fees, withdrawals, and concentration. A much better option is to hold a few funds that require little to none of your time.
2. Trade only occasionally
Try to keep activity in your account to a minimum. This can mean only trading when you either need funds to cover living expenses or have an emergency. It can also mean checking your account on a semiannual basis to ensure your asset allocation has remained on target. Trading tends to complicate your tax life, and depending on the broker you're using, it can be quite costly. One of the simplest ways to reduce taxes and fees is to not trade and let your investments do the long-term work.
Most online brokers offer the option to deposit money from your bank account at specified intervals: every week, every two weeks, and so on. Setting up automatic investments has two benefits: first, you won't waste any time or energy on an investment decision every week. And second, you won't be tempted to time the market (trying to predict where the market will trade next). Auto-investing, which essentially occurs with your 401(k) or 403(b) at work, reduces hassle and ensures you're continuously building your accounts, regardless of the ups and downs of the market, without any added effort.
4. Use one discount broker
Many discount brokers (such as Vanguard, Fidelity, Charles Schwab, and Interactive Brokers) have the capabilities necessary to accommodate most retail investors. By making a commitment to one of them, you're not only able to receive added services once your combined balance hits a certain level, but you can see your entire portfolio with great clarity. Having multiple accounts with multiple custodians is likely to complicate your life and is ultimately unnecessary. There are circumstances in which you might consider moving money to another brokerage -- say, in the event it offers a lower mortgage rate -- but it's best to at least start out in one place.
5. Only access your accounts from a computer
Is it really necessary to check your investment accounts from your phone? Investing apps tend to vacuum up your free time and don't really provide much in return, other than a temptation to trade. Obsessively checking your accounts is a futile exercise, and by only accessing your investments from a computer, you save time and improve account security. Granted, there is a level of convenience associated with apps, but it may come at the expense of your overall time and attention. If you don't want to delete the apps, try to move them to a part of your phone that's less visible.
It's difficult to imagine that you can go wrong by embracing simplicity in your financial life. Even if the investments in your accounts were to hit a rough patch, you'd still save time, money, and energy, freeing your mind so you can focus your attention elsewhere. A minimalist perspective can make for a more efficient -- and elegant -- investing and financial planning experience, and it's an approach I hope people will embrace in 2021 and beyond.