The COVID-19 crisis has battered the U.S. economy since cases started increasing rapidly in March. March was also a miserable month for stocks, as the market plunged into bear market territory, driving down portfolio values across the board. In fact, a lot of people lost money not just in their traditional brokerage accounts, but in their retirement plans, too. Fidelity reports that the average 401(k) balance dropped 19% between the end of 2019 and 2020's first quarter. IRAs, meanwhile, saw an average 14% drop during that same time period.
Now the good news is that the stock market has managed to recover some of those March losses in the past couple of months. The bad news, however, is that your 401(k) or IRA may still be down, and that's an unsettling thing to grapple with. Here's what to do if you're looking at a lower retirement plan balance than you'd like.
1. Don't panic sell
When stock values keep plunging, you might assume that selling off your stocks is the best way to stop the bleeding. Don't do it. If you sell investments when they're down, you'll officially lock in losses, whereas if you stay calm and leave your retirement plan alone, you'll have an opportunity to let the market recover. If you're not planning to retire for at least another few years, there's a strong chance your 401(k) or IRA value will come back up, so resist the urge to check your balance obsessively, as doing so could drive you to make some very bad decisions.
2. Assess your investments
The closer you are to retirement, the more important it is to shift some of your 401(k) or IRA assets into safer investments -- namely, bonds, which aren't generally subject to the same level of volatility as stocks. If you're planning to retire in the next few years, see how your retirement plan assets are divvied up, and prepare to make some changes once the market recovers. For example, if you still have 80% of your 401(k) or IRA in stocks, and you're within five years of leaving the workforce, you may want to plan to swap some stocks for bonds once doing so doesn't involve locking in losses.
3. Keep saving
It's hard to motivate yourself to fund your 401(k) or IRA when you're less than happy with that plan's recent performance. But if you want to retire comfortably, you'll need to stay the course and keep putting money into your retirement account. And the good news is that because investment values are down, you have a chance to add investments to your retirement portfolio in a cost-effective fashion.
4. Avoid raiding your retirement account
If you're having a hard time paying bills or are feeling financially insecure, you may be contemplating the idea of tapping your retirement plan. Right now, you can withdraw up to $100,000 from a 401(k) or IRA penalty-free, regardless of your age, if you've been impacted by COVID-19. But tempting as that may be, if your plan value is down, now's just about the worst time to take a withdrawal, because doing so likely means guaranteeing permanent losses. A better bet may be to secure a home equity line of credit, if you own a home, or a personal loan, if you're a non-homeowner.
It's always disheartening to see your retirement plan lose value, but remember, until you touch that money, the loss you're seeing is limited to what's printed on your account statement or computer screen. Stick to your original savings plan and leave your investments alone, and there's a good chance you'll one day be in a position to look back on this period and thank your lucky stars you didn't do anything drastic.