Since his twin daughters were 4 years old, Robert Gallery has done what he was supposed to do to save for college. He routinely put money in their 529 investment account. He weathered the ups and down of the stock market. Over time, he socked away quite a bit, helped along by the buoyant stock market of the last few years.
Now, with his daughters heading off in the fall, the market has turned. The S&P 500 is down more than 20 percent so far this year. And that 529 is $80,000 smaller than it was just a few months ago. Gallery doesn’t know what to do.
“It couldn’t have been worse timing,” said the Canton resident, who also has a son going into his junior year of college. “Here I thought I had plenty of money to pay for them for four years [of school], now that’s not the case. ... You don’t know whether you should take [the money] out now or not, and it’s frustrating.”
Like many people, Gallery can’t even look at his retirement portfolio now — even at 51, seeing the decline is too unsettling. And with markets plunging, financial planners say, an influx of new and old clients are reaching out for advice.
“We’re definitely getting a lot of inbound calls from people looking to work with a financial adviser who maybe never have in the past,” said Michael Murray, president of Peabody Wealth Advisors in Danvers. “I think all clients are concerned when the market drops so quickly, especially if they have children approaching college, or they’re approaching retirement.”
Paul Doyle, 63, is planning for retirement after working for 35 years at utility giant Eversource, long enough that it was called Boston Edison when he started there. His pension and 401(k) are in good shape thanks to years of investments, but the volatile state of the economy has him on edge. He’ll continue working to pay for renovations on his house on Cape Cod, where he moved last fall from Abington, as well as a home equity loan with an adjustable rate that could be more difficult to pay off as interest rates rise. Doyle doesn’t want to work past 65 and will reevaluate his retirement plan in the fall.
“It’s still scary because I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Doyle. “But I don’t think this will change my [retirement] plans.”
As they typically do during down markets, financial advisers are reminding clients that investing is a long-term endeavor. Still, it’s “uncomfortable” to experience paper losses so close to retirement or college, said Chris Boyd, founder of Asset Management Resources in Hyannis.
“What’s important for investors to be thinking about is that they should be gradually preparing for these things when it comes to their portfolio, and graduating their risks as they get nearer to retirement or college,” said Boyd.
At 66, Kevin O’Connor of Salem is approaching retirement after 28 years as a business owner. A seasoned investor, he’s no stranger to the ups and downs of the market and says he won’t be changing his retirement plans despite the current downturn.
“I’m very confident the market is going to come back, always have been,” said O’Connor. “I’ve never sold anything that I’ve owned and have always been a buy-and-hold investor.”
Gallery, the Canton father, is also sticking to his original plan when it comes to paying for the college tuition of his children. He still puts money into the 529 plan every month and hasn’t cashed any out — yet. He’s reached out to multiple experts for advice on how to pay for tuition during the downturn but has been frustrated with the assortment of solutions he’s heard, ranging from investing in bonds over stocks to taking money out of the account.
“The market is so volatile that nobody can really predict it, and you hear so many different stories that you don’t know what to believe,” he said. “It’s just tough to get an exact right answer, and I don’t think there really is one.”
Selling now solidifies the losses people have seen so far this year, said Mark Scribner, managing director of oXYGen Financial’s Boston office. With share prices lower, it’s actually a prime time for those with cash and a longer time horizon to invest more in college and retirement plans, he said.
“When we get into a bear market or recession, people just cash out, and then they’ve lost that opportunity to get back to where they started,” he said. “So cashing out means locking in the losses and missing out on recovery.”
Still, those who need to convert their stocks into cash soon could be “caught in a rock and a hard place,” said Scribner, and may need to tap home equity — at newly higher interest rates — or work longer. And if the bear market drags on, more people could push their retirement back, said Patrick Nee, a partner at Boston Retirement Group.
“We’re seeing a national trend with folks who are retired returning to the workforce because there’s such a demand for labor, and in some cases it’s part-time work,” said Nee. “And with prices being higher, you may see people saying, ‘Well, if I work 10 hours a week, it’ll offset these increased expenses.’”
But economic downturns are part of a normal financial cycle, advisers say, and a good reminder to stay on top of financial plans and build up an emergency fund.
“Events like this don’t surprise us, but they never feel good while you’re in them,” said Murray. “Whether the weather is sunny or stormy, people still need to save for retirement and college, so you still need to have a plan whether the markets are up or down.”
Annie Probert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.