If you’re like most investors systematically saving for retirement through their employer or with an IRA chances are you’re taking advantage of dollar cost averaging. Dollar cost averaging is a method of investing a specific dollar amount, generally monthly, no matter how the market is reacting. It’s also a way for an investor to fully fund a retirement account without requiring the maximum amount allowed in one shot.
For example, let’s assume that an investor under the age of 50 wants to save to an IRA. The maximum contribution to the IRA for 2015 is $5,500. Should the investor want to save monthly and still invest the maximum allowed for the year, he would simply divide by 12 and invest a sum of $458.33 monthly.
The beauty of this strategy is that the investor takes advantage of market swings, whether high or low. If the market is considerably high (as it is as of this writing) the investor is buying fewer shares for the $458.33 invested. If the market falls, the investor (assuming he keeps investing – which he should) buys more shares for the same $458.33. Over time, dollar cost averaging allows the investor to purchase shares for an overall lower cost per share. This strategy not only works for IRAs but also for an employer-sponsored plan such as a 401(k). In fact, many individuals are already doing this via payroll deductions.
The investor is accomplishing a few things by dollar cost averaging. First, he is saving for retirement. Second, he is controlling emotions by investing consistently no matter what the market is doing. Lastly, he is not trying to time the market. By dollar cost averaging he’s actually passively timing the market by buying less when the market is high and more when it’s low, all for the same monthly amount.
Let me explain why it’s important to keep investing in a down market. I’m going to give an analogy that I think fits well. Imagine you want to purchase a flat screen TV. You’ve gone to the local store and find out that the TV you’re looking for is $1,000. After waiting a week you go back to the store to see that same TV has been marked down to $250, same TV, brand spanking new. Another week goes by and you see the TV is now priced at $1,250.
The question is: at which point do you buy?
Obviously the answer is when the TV is priced at $250. You may consider buying four TVs since you planned on spending $1,000 anyway. Paying $1,250 is absurd, isn’t it?
Interestingly enough, many investors do the exact opposite when markets are rising or falling. Many individuals feel safety and security when the market is high and invest more. Yet, those same individuals will not buy and may even sell when the market is low or on sale, which is a recipe for disaster. This is a rare example where individuals feel better about paying more – for the same thing. It doesn’t make sense.
Dollar cost averaging helps control this behavior. It systematically forces us to buy less when markets are high and possibly overpriced and more when they’re on sale. Benjamin Graham, arguably the most famous investor and Warren Buffett’s teacher advocates dollar cost averaging in his seminal book, The Intelligent Investor. It helps take the emotion out of investing by passively forcing an investor to keep investing regardless of market volatility.