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Have you ever avoided getting advice because you were too embarrassed to ask for it?

A reader confessed recently that she’s in this position. She liquidated her investments in 2020 before the crash, but did not get back in. “I missed the big swell,” she said in an e-mail. “I have not asked you about this because I was embarrassed to do so. I have more knowledge than most about investing and I am ‘frozen’ on this one.”

Let’s spend no more than five seconds looking at what this investor did or did not do. She now knows there are two market-timing moments you have to get right when you liquidate a portfolio in scary market conditions – the point you sell and the point you buy back in. A better way is to build a sound portfolio and let it ride through all the market throws at you, provided you have a time frame of 10-plus years.

This reader, 61, is exactly in that position. She’s looking at using balanced exchange-traded funds with an emphasis on stocks versus bonds to get back into the markets, with maybe one-quarter of her holdings to go into dividend stocks.

What this reader should focus on is finding a strategy that will keep her comfortable through the inevitable twists and turns ahead for stocks. The S&P 500 stock index was up about 39 per cent for the 12 months to late last week, while the S&P/TSX Composite Index was up close to 30 per cent. There could be more upside for stocks as the economy emerges from pandemic lockdowns, but we have to recognize the risk of a pullback as well.

The tried and true strategy of dollar-cost averaging is an ideal way to navigate the uncertainty of what’s ahead. Decide on an investing schedule – every two weeks, every month or something like that – and invest equal amounts over a period of six to 12 months. Balanced ETFs are ideal for this because they’re a one-ticket solution – a single trade gets you a chunk of a fully diversified portfolio.

Dollar-cost averaging, or DCA, has been shown in academic studies to underperform lump sum investments on average over time. If we were back in 2020, the lump sum would indeed be appealing. But given how much markets have risen, and the emotional profile of this reader, dollar-cost averaging seems most appropriate. If stocks crash, this reader can take comfort from the fact that some of her holdings are still in cash. If stocks fly, she’ll be getting a share of the gains.

When to start this DCA plan: tomorrow morning sounds good. Nothing soothes regret about past investing miscues like starting along a better path forward.

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