Tax Season’s Silver Lining

As the old adage goes, “be careful what you wish for.” Though it may seem counterintuitive, one thing you shouldn’t want this tax season is a large refund. It actually signals that you’ve given the government an interest-free loan for the last year. Although it feels good to get a sizeable amount back, it’s not the wisest way to manage your money.

Just take a minute to think about it. Last year, the average tax refund was roughly $2,300. If that sounds good, doesn’t $15,750 sound even better? That’s approximately how much $2,300 would grow to in a mutual fund, if left untouched for 25 years–assuming an average annual return of 8%. That is actually a conservative estimate. Over the long haul, stocks historically have returned more than 10%. If you consider a 10% average annual return over this same time horizon, that $2,300 refund could grow to $24,900. It’s precisely why I am such a big proponent of investing in the stock market.

People often tell me that they want to be better about saving and investing, but they just don’t have the extra cash or even know where to start. Well, the IRS doles out around 100 million tax refunds, which means three out of every four taxpayers get something back. As tempting as a new flat screen or anything else on your wish list may seem, your refund can be a great way to boost your retirement savings and financial security. And you don’t have to be rich or a stock jockey to get started. Many mutual funds have very low monthly minimums, as little as $50 a month–that’s roughly the cost of cutting out dinner and a movie each month.

By definition, a mutual fund is simply a collection of stocks, bonds, or other securities owned by a group of investors and managed by a professional. The portfolio manager’s job is to select the different securities he or she believes will offer the best returns for investors. Frequently, money managers start by looking at companies and industries they already know well. Take Clorox as an example, it’s a stock Ariel holds in some of our portfolios. Can you even name any other brand of bleach? It’s hard to, because almost everything else is generic. But The Clorox Co. makes other products as well, such as Glad bags, Hidden Valley salad dressings, and Formula 409, products people use every day. Portfolio managers take these factors into consideration as well as the strength of a company’s financials, management team, history of innovation, etc. When you invest in a mutual fund, you are actually buying a small piece of all the companies in the portfolio. All told, mutual funds offer four benefits that I particularly like:

1. Instant diversification: Shareholders are invested in all the companies in the fund. This limits risk because your life savings is not resting on the success of only one or two companies. Although the performance of different securities varies, when some are up they can help