Friday, February 18, 2011

Is Dollar Cost Averaging Old School?

There is a school of thought circulating that dollar cost averaging is not smart investing. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it is how your 401(k) plan works and why it works so well. You essentially make a contribution determination - usually a percentage of income which is taken before taxes ore levied - and each paycheck, you buy share of whatever investment you have chosen in your retirement account.

The concept is basically simple enough for most every investor to understand, even embrace. One, the investment is steady and in many cases affordable and painless. Because of its automatic nature, you need only check your statement every quarter to make sure the money went into the account and went where it was supposed to go.

DCA also benefits the average retirement investor with some control over the numerous errors that plague most investors. By doling out money evenly, your investments are bought based on affordability and not on the decision of the herd. Herd decision making relies on following the rest ofthe investors as they sell or buy and experience with this sort of mentality suggests that they usually buy when the markets are on the way up and sell as they descend.

DCA does something unique. It allows the investor to buy less as the herd buys more and to buy more as the herd sells. Imagine a share of a mutual fund costing a dollar. You allocate one dollar of your paycheck and you buy one share. But the market goes up and the share now costs $2. DCA restricts your enthusiasm at joining the herd and allows you to only buy one-half a share. the shares you already own have increased in value so you aren't missing the upswing. You just aren't throwing more money at something that may be over valued.

Now imagine the opposite happening. The share falls in value to 50 cents. Your dollar buys two shares and while it is true, your other shares have lost value in the process, the investment thinking here is that over the long-term, there will be more upsides than downsides. This means that you will be buying the same share at a discount.

Are there any downsides to this investment strategy? Some think so. One gentleman I was discussing this with suggested that folks using a 401(k) plan should never forget that this is investing. I couldn't agree with him more on that point. He went on to say that even the most passive investing requires some diligence and dollar cost averaging takes that diligence away. That is a downside but not an insurmountable one.

He thought that all of the money in a given year should be sent to the most conservative fund available in the employee's 401(k) and then redistributed to funds that are doing better. While this may work for some people, few of us know how mutual funds operate, whether the markets are favorable or not and often we find out after the markets have made the decision for us, and lastly, our 401(k) do supply the rapid response some of this thinking implies.

It does require a skill level and command of all of the emotions and biases that plague even seasoned investors. It obligates us to be better educated - but for most of us, we need time to get to that point. It is always my hope that we do attempt to become better acquainted with the way our money is being invested. But in the mean time, the concept of dollar cost averaging serves far too many of the average investors too well to be discarded.

Paul Petillo is the Managing Editor of and a fellow Boomer

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