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Plan for the long haul — and don’t panic

For most people, putting aside money for retirement or the proverbial “rainy day” is no easy chore. When the price of just about everything — particularly food and fuel — seems like it’s going through the roof, saving money is that much harder.

But it would be a mistake to stop saving and investing now, despite what the Consumer Price Index is telling us these days.

That’s the advice of Howie Pentony, who has been guiding investors professionally for 45 years.

Pentony recognizes that today’s economic climate brings with it plenty of challenges, but his advice to would-be investors never changes.

These are his three rules: work hard, save your money and invest. “If you do that throughout your lifetime, through periods of high and low inflation or depression, you’ll do quite well over time,” he said.

“So there’s no secret to it. If you say, ‘We have high inflation — what should we do?’ I can’t answer that. I never stop what I’m doing. I’m 75 and still saving every day of my life and investing every day of my life. My money doesn’t sit out there not doing anything.”

Still, it’s not easy finding money to invest. A look at the Consumer Price Index underscores how difficult that can be for many people.

Although gasoline prices came down in July and continue to fall — albeit too slowly for most — the index for all items aside from food and energy rose 0.3% in July. Indexes for things such as housing, medical care, household furnishings and operations, and recreation increased in July.

The energy sector is where consumers continue to get slammed. Gasoline prices climbed 44% over the 12-month period that ended July 31, while fuel oil prices rose 75.6% over that same stretch, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

If you think buying that electric vehicle might prove an effective work-around, just note that the index for electricity rose 15.2% over the 12-month period that ended July 31 — the largest 12-month increase since the period ending February 2006.

Trips to the grocery store carry with them a double-whammy of sorts. Not only are you paying more to get there and back, but food prices at home are 13.1% higher than they were a year ago as of July 31, the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows.

Collin Randall

Collin Randall, a senior financial adviser for Bennett Associates Wealth Management, acknowledges that saving money during periods of high inflation is difficult.

“With savings account interest rates barely above 0%, inflation erodes the value of your liquid cash,” Randall said.

Randall said during times of high inflation, it’s smart to curb spending whenever possible. While it’s virtually impossible to avoid the basics — food, gas and utilities among them — Randall said it’s wise to “put off big-ticket discretionary purchases until prices stabilize.”

For those determined to put money away, Randall said people can make changes to their investment portfolios in response to inflation.

One investment that benefits from inflation is Series I savings bonds, which are issued through the U.S. Treasury. Series I bonds offer an interest rate that is tied to the inflation rate and adjusts every six months.

According to TreasuryDirect.gov, the initial interest rate on the new Series I savings bonds is 9.62%, and they can be purchased through October at that current rate. A maximum of $10,000 in Series I bonds can be purchased in a single calendar year.

Randall said Series I bonds must be held for one year, and you must own the bond for at least five years to receive all of the interest that is due.

“If you cash out after one year but before five years, you must forfeit three months of interest,” Randall said. “But you never lose your principal.”

Randall said commodities are another investment that can be a hedge against inflation.

“Commodities like energy, agricultural, precious metals and industrial metals typically perform well in inflationary environments,” Randall said. “The most efficient way to add this exposure is through a diversified mutual fund or Exchange Traded Fund with underlying exposure to commodities.”

Investing in anything can be stressful, particularly when hearing that the New York Stock Exchange or NASDAQ dropped for the third straight day. There’s a tendency to want to make changes in such a climate, but Pentony said it’s better to fight that urge.

“The No. 1 thing that most investors do not have is patience,” he said. “And they want to do exactly the opposite — without help from a professional — of what they should be doing. When the market goes down, they want to sell instead of buy. But they should be buying.

“Historically — and this is key — the markets have always recovered.”

Howie Pentony

That doesn’t mean Pentony can guarantee anything. “I cannot tell you personally what the stock market is going to do tomorrow,” he said. “But I can tell you that we live in the greatest country in the world, and the opportunities to invest are vast. So there are lots of places you can invest your money, although I would caution people about trying to do it by themselves.”

While Pentony’s basic rules — work hard, save money and invest — never change, a person’s age could play a role in the approach to take when it comes to investing.

“If you’re a young person and you work and have a good job, and you’re adding money to your investments every month, you can afford to take higher degrees of risk because you have time on your hands,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean older folks should completely refrain from “active management,” as Pentony put it, because the markets change.

One of the key things that people do is use asset allocation, which means splitting money between stocks, bonds and cash. “That becomes more important the older you get,” he said. “Most people would probably cut their allocation to stocks back a little the older they get.”

For example, if an investor had 100% of his or her nest egg tied up in the stock market, that investor might cut back to 80% when approaching retirement age.

“But it’s all about the individual and all about how much risk the individual wants to take,” Pentony said. “I have 80-year-old people who are 100% in the stock market ... They’re not worried about it.”

Pentony said investors make mistakes when they get scared.

“When you’re fearful, you make dumb decisions,” he said. “Don’t worry about what’s going on in the world. Don’t worry about inflation. The country is doing well. Keep working, keep saving and keep investing.”

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