Retirement Planning – a Portfolio Approach

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I would like to start this post by pointing out a very important fact: Planning for retirement does not mean buying an investment called “Pension Fund” or “Retirement Fund”.

Many seem to think that in order to plan for their retirement they need to buy an investment that somehow has “retirement plan” or “pension scheme” in its name. This is definitely not the case. In order to plan for one’s retirement one must think of all their assets as forming part of one overall portfolio.

The principal aim of retirement planning is to have a decent income once one retires from their employment and for estate planning. It is no secret that the state aid will not be enough for many people to earn an income in retirement that is compatible with the standard of living that they would have become accustomed to during their working life. Thus, it is important to plan in order to earn supplementary income. Does this mean that everyone should start buying income paying products from a young age – NO!

The best way to plan for retirement planning is for one to structure his/her assets in an overall portfolio structure. As with any portfolio investment one needs to plan according to one’s:

  • investment objective,
  • risk tolerance
  • financial affordability
  • knowledge and experience.  

It must also be kept in mind that all the above points will evolve over time and are not static. Thus your retirement portfolio must also evolve to reflect these changes.

Investment Objective

For someone who is in their initial years of their working life their investment object is going to be quite different than for one who is close to the final years of their working life. Furthermore, it is not only an age thing, but other factors also have an effect on the investment objective. An initial objective of any investor would be protection. So a wise choice would be to acquire some form of life insurance and if affordable some form of disability insurance.

Let us assume we have an investor who has purchased their first home, has some form of insurance in place and a decent cash balance for regular expense items. Such a person would have a long term investment horizon and their investment objective would normally be to increase their overall capital. Thus, such an investor would be better off investing in products that focus on capital growth rather than income. The growth in capital possible through equity investing rather than investing in bonds is exponential. Therefore, it would not be wise to invest totally into income paying bonds when one has 30 odd years left until retirement.

On the other hand, someone who is nearing their retirement age should start shifting their portfolio more towards income paying investments. For such a person it would be more important to have something extra coming in rather than possibly doubling their capital in 10 years’ time. So the investment objective is going to have an effect on what investments one should have in their overall portfolio. Moreover, although income is important and normally is the main concern of many investors, if one would also like to leave something extra for their heirs then they should also consider this in their overall portfolio.

Risk Tolerance

This is something very specific to the investor. As a general rule most people are risk averse, meaning that they would rather avoid rather than increase risk. However, there is the risk reward trade-off to consider which basically means that the lower the risk the lower the potential return. In general, one who is still a number of years away from retirement would tend to be more able to take on risk for the potential of higher returns compared to someone who is closer to retirement. Even psychologically, investors would be more willing to take on risk when they are younger than when they are older.

However, every investor is different in the degree of risk that they are comfortable in taking on. This will affect the type of individual investments that one would put into their overall portfolio. So although a younger person might want to invest in equities to increase their capital in the long term they can buy conservative equities/equity like investments such as an ETF that tracks the overall market, or they could buy a more speculative product that for example moves 3 times the price of oil.  

Financial Affordability

As with anything else in life we should only buy investments that we can afford. The affordability factor should be considered in two main ways. The first is that certain products have a high initial cost. So for example, certain bonds trade in multiples of €100,000 meaning that one needs to buy a minimum of €100,000 in order to buy the bond. The second factor connected to affordability is the percentage of the overall portfolio that the investment will make up. What I am referring to here is the fact that although the investor might afford to buy the asset, he/she would be left too exposed to the one asset if they do in fact invest in it.

An easy way to see how this second factor could be detrimental to a portfolio is to consider investing into property. With interest rates very low and the local rental market doing well we are seeing many people investing into property with a buy-to-let setup. Let us take a hypothetical situation where we have an investor who owns their main residence which is worth around €250,000 at current market rates, has a portfolio of €50,000 in investments, has €10,000 in the bank and is now considering buying an apartment costing say €100,000 in order to rent it out. Without going into the debt factor that this will have, let us assume that the €10,000 will remain on his bank account to cater for unforeseen expenses and act as a buffer. The €50,000 will all be used to purchase the property and the balance will be borrowed from the bank. If this is the case, the assets that make up this persons’ overall portfolio would be €350,000 in property and €10,000 in cash. This would mean that over 97% of this person’s portfolio would be invested into two properties, less than 3% would be in liquid, easily accessible cash and no other investments. Through such an example it is easy to see the concentration risk of going down such a route.

Knowledge & Experience

Another important factor to consider when deciding on which assets to put into one’s overall portfolio is to invest in assets which they are familiar with. This does not mean that one should invest only in things which they have already invested into and not consider anything else. However, one should research investments which they are considering investing into before they actually financially commit themselves. There are many good investment advisors around that can help here, but supplementary research is always a plus. By searching a bit online one will find many avenues where good information can be attained on the assets they are considering investing into. So just like one would consult websites such as and trip advisor when booking a hotel, investors should also do some supplementary reading before investing their money.

Attaining a Decent Income after Retirement

For many the main goal when it comes to their retirement planning is to secure a decent return after they stop or reduce their main work activity. In my view this is best attained by slowly building a portfolio of diversified assets over the years. The accumulation of income paying products should evolve over time and one is not expected to invest all their money in capital growth products and switch all their money into income paying products on the day they retire. The ideal situation would be to have income coming from different sources so if one of the sources is negatively affected in some way one would have alternatives that they could depend on. So by having some income coming from rental income, some coming from direct bonds and bond funds and some coming from income paying equities one would have different streams of income which are affected by different things.

As one is building their portfolio over the years they should not forget to think of alternative investments to the regular bonds, shares and property mix. Such alternatives would include investing into commodities such as precious metals and oil, investing into art and collectables and also investing into private businesses. A good source where one could attain a good capital appreciation and even income through dividends is by investing into private companies. Many start-ups end up needing additional finance while many other well established businesses also would need extra financing for new projects or to get through a rough patch. It is true that the risk could be lager here than investing into regulated and quoted companies, but if one does their research well and finds a good opportunity they can attain an equity stake in a good company at a decent price which would pay-off in the future. Such an investment could offer good income opportunities and a good asset for the heirs of the person who would eventually take over these shares.

The Bottom Line

The main message I would like to convey through this post is that there is no fixed formula to use when it comes to retirement planning. Everyone has to assess their own characteristics and find the best mix of products that suits them. So called retirement plans are a good start but they are not an end in themselves. Some of these retirement plans do give you a tax break if you use them, but the amount of tax saved per year on them is ridiculously low to have any significant weight.

Kyle Debono in the founder of, a finance blog set up with the aim of providing financial education and investment ideas. Mr. Debono holds a Masters in Finance (University of London) and is the Managing Director, MLRO and Portfolio Manager at Novofina Ltd. He also offer his services as a Business Consultant to other investment services companies and is a visiting lecturer at the University of Malta in the Banking and Finance Department.