5 ways to ensure the coronavirus outbreak doesn’t cripple your retirement savings

The recent market volatility may have you wondering just what to do with your retirement account.

You may be thinking of heading for the exit — or perhaps you want to buy some stocks on sale.

While stocks rallied the third straight day on Thursday, they have yet to make up the steep losses from the coronavirus sell-off. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, S&P 500 and Nasdaq all entered Thursday’s session down at least 24.9% from their respective all-time highs set last month.

Financial advisor Mitch Goldberg, president of ClientFirst Strategy in Melville, New York, said the last few days of reprieve have given investors time to think.

“When you are bombarded by a ton of information, it’s difficult to make a decision,” he said.

“It’s only after you have time to contemplate what you’ve learned and how it relates to your own situation that you can really make a smart decision.”

However, remember that it is normal to feel anxiety amid the market volatility. The key is not to immediately act on those emotions.

Before you make a move, you should take several factors into consideration.

Avoid pushing the panic button

Not acting out of panic may be easier said than done — after all, it’s a natural emotion for humans.

Just don’t panic about the fact that you are panicking, said financial psychologist Dr. Brad Klontz, associate professor of practice in financial psychology and behavioral finance at Creighton University Heider College of Business.

In other words, don’t act on your impulses just yet.

“That vacillation between excitement and panic — that is what hurts people financially,” said Klontz, a member of the CNBC Invest in You Financial Wellness Council. 

You can put some distance between your impulse to act and your behavior by taking a few deep breaths. It may sound trite, but it does relieve stress. Also, consult with a financial expert. This will not only ensure that your asset allocation is correct but allow you to pause before taking action.

It may be hard to tear yourself away from watching the daily market moves. That’s OK. Just remember, past history shows that the market always eventually recovers.

Check your portfolio allocations

Your retirement date should determine how you are invested. Younger investors should be much more aggressive because they can withstand market swings. However, if you are less than five years away from retirement, you should be more conservative with your investments.

Make sure you check on your allocations, as your original target — for example, 60% stocks and 40% bonds — may have shifted. If you are young, you may consider adjusting future purchases toward a higher percentage of stocks to take advantage of the market drop.

If you are older, you may want to consider moving some stock funds that have overperformed and buying more fixed-income investments, which are considered safer.

Examine your 401(k) contributions

If you want to up your contributions to your 401(k) to take advantage of low stock prices, only do so if you are financially sound. That means you are secure in your job and income, no credit card debt and a solid emergency fund.

If you have little or no cash cushion, consider reducing your contributions and directing that money into a high-yield savings account. However, you should continue to contribute enough money to your 401(k) to get your employer’s matching contribution.

Consider a 401(k) loan …

If you are strapped for cash, you can take a loan from your 401(k).

The stimulus bill working its way through Congress relaxes the rules around retirement-plan loans, allowing you to borrow up to $100,000 from your 401(k). That’s double the amount you can normally take.

Experts tend to suggest this as a last resort, since any cash you take out will not be earning money for you as an investment.

However, it is an option to help pay bills and have money on hand in the event of an emergency.

… Or a 401(k) or IRA withdrawal

In this time of crisis, you’ll also be allowed to take a hardship distribution of up to $100,000 from your 401(k), 403(b) or individual retirement account at any age without a withdrawal penalty, according to the stimulus package. It passed the Senate and is now headed for a vote in the House.

Normally, if you take a withdrawal from your 401(k) or IRA before age 59 ½, you are subject to a 10% penalty.