How to Make Rational Investing Choices During Stressful Times

Updated: November 8, 2023

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You’ve probably heard the advice that you should make an investment plan in case there’s a bear market or the economy takes a downturn, but nobody could have been prepared for the arrival of the coronavirus. The public health toll is already devastating, and there’s no end in sight. What the final coronavirus economic impact will be is anybody’s guess.

If you have investments and you’re trying to decide whether to pull all of your cash out or if you’re considering putting some money into investments while there are some deals to be had, there are a few things you should consider first.

1. If You Have a Financial Plan, Stick to It

a woman takes notes while looking off into the distance with a computer in her lap

Staying the course is easier said than done, and if you’re getting close to retiring, being told to remain calm can make you a nervous wreck.

Quarantined at home with nothing better to do than to watch 24/7 horrific financial news shows covering the peaking pandemic and plunging stock market can encourage investors of all ages to get off their couch and suddenly take swift and substantial actions with their money,” says Jon Ulin, owner of Ulin & Co., a wealth management company in Boca Raton, Florida

If you have a financial advisor, now’s a good time to pick up the phone and get some professional advice or the pep talk you need. If you don’t have a financial advisor, don’t do anything drastic with your money. Most, if not all, experts will tell you that even older investors should be staying the course and not pulling their money out of their retirement investments.

“This is not a time to panic or do anything irrational,” says Jesse Hurst, founder of Impel Wealth Management, an affiliate of Cetera Financial Group. Hurst is based out of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, which is near Cleveland, which has seen a lot of coronavirus cases.

Hurst says, “As markets rise in the future, retirees should be very diligent in looking at their cash flow needs over the next one to two years and use peaks in the market to sell high. That will avoid future bouts of panic during times of volatility like this.”

You may want to note that Hurst did say “as markets rise,” and not if markets rise.

2. If You Don’t Have a Financial Plan, It’s a Good Time to Create One

An older couple sits at a computer and discusses their finances in a serious manner

If you haven’t started to save for retirement, you know you should, and that still holds true even during the coronavirus crisis. Greg Hammond, president of Hammond Iles Wealth Advisors, with offices in Connecticut, Virginia and Vermont, says that there are three basic rules to investing:

  1. Own stocks/equities for part of your portfolio
  2. Be globally diversified
  3. Systematically rebalance

And if you do have a financial plan, Hammond says, “Stay invested, don’t panic, and allow your diversified portfolio to do what it was engineered to do.”

A diversified portfolio is one that will get investors through bad times. If it is a truly good one, one you put together after a lot of forethought or one that a trusted financial advisor created, then it’s almost certainly going to be fine in the long run.

But it’s that “almost certainly” language that causes people to worry. Sometimes our decisions are based on what anxieties our imagination is feeding us. Coronavirus has had a negative impact on the economy. Still, some experts have suggested that most sheltering-in-place orders may end in a month or two, if not sooner. A $2.2 trillion stimulus package known as the CARES act should also help bolster the economy.

Hammond says, “We will all get through this. Investors shouldn’t focus on the next five or 10 days or even the next five or 10 months, but on the next five to 10 years.”

3. If You’re Older, Be Wiser

a woman looks at her phone and considers her retirement investments

What should you do if you’re an older investor, and you don’t feel like you can wait for the market to pick up in another five or 10 years?

When asked what retirees should be doing with their investments now, Hurst says, “As the stock market has dropped, the Federal Reserve Bank has aggressively cut interest rates, which has pushed bond prices higher. Instead of selling stocks low to create the income you need in retirement, you could sell bonds high. I know that this feels somewhat counterintuitive. However, you don’t want to follow the crowd, as most people in the crowd are neither wise or wealthy.”

4. Whether You’re a New or Established Investor, You’ve Got Two Moves

a woman has a cup of coffee while sitting on the couch looking at her computer on the coffee table. She is shown from above

Ulin has some ideas that can work for any investor — steps you can take right now.

“Run a year-to-date ‘performance check’ against a similar ‘target’ risk blended benchmark of your portfolio and not against the SP 500 index,” Ulin says. “Active investors often incorrectly commit a framing error of mentally comparing their investment returns to the S&P 500 when watching the headline news, when, in fact, their balanced portfolio may have held up quite better than expected.”

That’s the key — having balance in your portfolio. If your portfolio has a healthy mix of safe investments and risky ones, even now, your financial portfolio may be better than you thought.

If you don’t have balance, talk to your financial advisor. Maybe there’s a move you can make, but often it’s this next, harder, step that you’ll need to take.

Do nothing. It’s often the smarter play, Ulin says.

“Consider the adverse reaction of cashing out of your portfolio while the market is down,” he says. “If you capture a 25% loss — for example, a $125,000 loss on a $500,000 portfolio — you may never make up for that loss nor get back in at the correct time. Market timing is a fool’s game, as you would need to make two correct decisions of when to sell and when to buy back in. Studies show that trying to time the market and missing just the best 10 days will more than halve your long-term returns over time.”

In other words, this is painful, but if you’ve lost $125,000, you won’t get it back by pulling out your money. You almost certainly will — maybe several years from now — if you can be patient and wait.

5. The Economy Has Been Here Before

a stock trader is sitting at a desk in front of a computer in a stock exchange

That’s very important to remember. Yes, we have never seen anything quite like this pandemic where the entire country is essentially staying home, and many businesses are closed or semi-shuttered.

But the economy has certainly tanked in scary ways before.

Khunshan Ahmad is an investor and entrepreneur based out of Lahore, Pakistan, and runs a tech website called He’s also a pretty good student of financial history.

After the stock market plunges, Ahmad says, “The stats show, on average, after two years, the stock market started becoming better, and interest increased dramatically in almost every case.”

He points out that global health scares have hammered the economy before, like the AIDS crisis coming on the scene in the early 1980s, and that the market has always bounced back.

Ahmad says that he wouldn’t invest money now unless you’re willing to wait, say, five years before seeing positive returns.

“It is severely damaging the economy of giant countries,” he says.

Jonathan Brogaard, an associate professor of finance at the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah, agrees. He feels that it’s fine to invest right now, as long as you aren’t looking to get rich quickly.

“If you were comfortable being in the stock market a month ago, you shouldn't change anything. The stock market has always been prone to large fluctuations, that is why it is only a place to invest for the long term,” Brogaard says, adding: “If anyone tells you they can time the market, they are lying.”

6. Con Artists Know You’re Scared

a man sits at a computer and looks concerned

The North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA) recently put out a release reminding investors that you really want to think about your investments, especially if you’re working with somebody you’ve never worked with before.

NASAA advised investors, "In light of the ongoing developments related to the current coronavirus (COVID-19) situation, and its impact on financial markets, state and provincial securities regulators are reminding investors to beware of con artists seeking to capitalize on fear and uncertainty.”

Christopher Gerold, NASAA president and chief of the New Jersey Securities Bureau said, “Never make an investment decision without understanding what you are investing in, who you are doing business with, where your money is going, how it will be used, and how you can get it back.”

Gerold offers great advice at any time, but especially now. If you find yourself gravitating to an argument that’s starting to sound good to you, keep in mind that this is the perfect time to get taken.

7. Understand the Price of Fear-Based Decisions

a man looks anxious while looking at a computer

Even rashly making what seems like a smart choice — like putting all of your money in certificates of deposit, historically a very safe and stable financial vehicle — could be a poor move, Ulin notes.

Sure, you may not lose money when times are bad, but you could lose money to inflation over time, Ulin says.

“With just an average 3.4% inflation rate over time, your cost of living will increase by 50% over 10 years and double in about 20 years,” Ulin says. “In context, $500 thousand in cash would be worth $250 thousand in 10 years based on a 3.4% inflation rate if not invested.”

8. Take Care of Your Immediate Needs, and Look to the Future

a family consisting of parents and teenage children has a meal together at a table in the kitchen

These are scary times but remember — people in frightening situations don’t always make the best choices. Think of the people in a movie who end up going into that dark, haunted house, and you’re screaming at them, “What are you thinking? Get out of there!”

There is a strong connection between our finances and our emotions, but when we’re scared about our futures and worried about our health and the health of our loved ones, it can be hard to look at money rationally.

What’s most important right now is to take care of your immediate health and financial needs while also looking toward your future. During a fearful time like the coronavirus outbreak, it’s easy to sell investments at a loss or change your investment strategy out of fear, but establishing and executing a sound financial plan can help you maintain financial strength for you and your family.

About Geoff Williams

Geoff Williams headshot

Geoff Williams has been a freelance journalist since the 1990s, mostly specializing in personal finance and small business issues. Over the years, his articles have appeared in, Consumer Reports, The Washington Post, Entrepreneur Magazine, LIFE, Ladies’ Home Journal, and with American Express Business Trends and Insights. Williams is also the author of several books, including "Washed Away: How the Great Flood of 1913, America's Most Widespread Natural Disaster, Terrorized a Nation and Changed It Forever" and "C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America."

Born in Columbus, Ohio, Williams lives in Loveland, Ohio, with his two teenage daughters and is a graduate of Indiana University. To learn more about Geoff Williams, you can connect with him on LinkedIn or follow his rarely used Twitter page.