Approximating a Portfolio 2

So in my last post, TIPS and REITs I discussed a few alternate portfolio options.

I then went on to discuss how because I am part of Thrift Savings Plan, there is no exact approximation for my portfolio of choice which is Taylor Larimore’s Three Fund Lazy Portfolio.

However, not everyone will have access to these exact funds. In fact, I would guess the majority of you won’t have these exact funds available to you in your 401k/403bs. However, for a conventional IRA, you can build your own and can pick and choose exactly what you want. I tend to favor Vanguard here because their expense ratios are pretty much the lowest around. However, there are similar funds to approximate a three fund portfolio for most of the major players.

Let’s break it down in a little more in depth now.

At their core, the lazy portfolios attempt to achieve a few major things:

  1. Some kind of Stock/Bond split, based on aggressiveness. 80/20, 70/30, 67/33, 60/40 and so on. (+/- US/International Tilt for stocks)
  2. As big a diversity of stocks as possible. For example, VTSMX holds 3650 stocks as of 6/30/16.
  3. As big a diversity of bonds as possible. For example, VBMFX holds 8225 bonds as of 6/30/16.
  4. As low an expense ratio as possible.  For example, VTSMX is 0.16% for Investor Shares, and 0.05% for Admiral Shares, as of 6/30/16.
  5. No load.

So, if you try to abide by those general rules, you can approximate a lazy portfolio most of the time for just about any 401k/403b. Let’s take a real world example.

A friend of mine asked for my help in choosing his 401k. He told me that it looks like his 401k is mostly Vanguard funds, so I thought this would be a slam dunk. Unfortunately, the normal players I would use VTSMX , VGTSX, and VBMFX were not all available. His options were:

Vanguard Target Retirement Income Fund (0.14%) and its variants (2020, 2025, 2030, 2035, 2040, 2045, 2050, 2055)

Vanguard LifeStrategy Income Fund (0.12%) and its variants:
Conservative Growth Fund (0.13%)
Moderate Growth Fund  (0.14%)
Growth Fund (0.15%)

Vanguard Prime Money Market Fund (0.16%)

Vanguard GNMA Fund (0.21%) – 35 bonds
Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund (0.16%) – 8225 bonds

Vanguard Balanced Index Fund (0.22%) – 60/40 split – 3131 stocks, 6605 bonds
Vanguard Wellington Fund (0.26%) – 66/34 split – 93 stocks, 798 bonds

Vanguard Windsor Fund (0.39%) – 141 stocks
Vanguard 500 Index Fund (0.16%) – 501 stocks
Vanguard Windsor II Fund (0.34%) – 271 stocks

Vanguard Selected Value Fund (0.39%) – 116 stocks
Vanguard PRIMECAP Fund (0.40%) – 131 stocks
Vanguard Extended Market Index Fund (0.22%) – 3275 stocks
Vanguard Capital Opportunity Fund (0.45%) – 140 stocks
Vanguard Explorer Fund (0.49%) – 724 stocks
Vanguard Small-Cap Index Fund (0.20%) – 1470 stocks
Vanguard Energy Fund (0.37%) – 147 stocks
Vanguard Health Care Fund (0.36%) – 71 stocks
Vanguard Small-Cap Value Index Fund (0.20%) – 858 stocks
Vanguard Small-Cap Cap Growth Index Fund (0.08%) – 705 stocks
Vanguard Global Equity Fund (0.57%) – 946 stocks
Vanguard International Growth Fund (0.47%) – 164 stocks

That’s enough words and numbers to make anyone’s eyes glaze over. Stick with me here.

I actually went through the trouble of linking all of these if any of you want to check them out individually. Please note that I think there can be some slight variations in expense ratios for 401k/403bs depending on when your employer made a deal with the different funds. It is probably worth making sure the expense ratios match up correctly.

For those of you who want to ponder over each fund, please feel free. However, for the sake of this post and ease of reading,  I put the basic information which is the Expense Ratios (for Investor Shares, most of them have an Admiral Shares options which will be slightly lower), as well as Stock/Bond splits for funds I think are worth discussing.

Ok, so after discussion with my friend, he wanted to go with the same portfolio I like which is Taylor Larimore’s Three Fund Lazy Portfolio:

Like me, he would like a 80/20 split with 50% US stocks and 30% International Stocks.

Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund — VTSMX (.17%) VTSAX (.05%) VTI (.05%)
Vanguard Total International Stock Index Fund  — VGTSX (.22%) VTIAX (.14%) VXUS (.14%)
Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund — VBMFX (.20%) VBTLX (.07%) BND (.07%)

***(Apparently the above numbers are out of date, and the new expense ratios are lower.) I will update them both here and in prior posts later.

Ok, so here’s the problem, of those three funds, his 401k only offers the Total Bond Market Index Fund. 

So now we need to try to approximate 50% US Stocks and 30% International Stocks with as diverse a stock pool as possible, while trying to maintain low expense ratios.

The closest approximation to VTSMX would be Vanguard Extended Market Index Fund (0.22%) – 3275 stocks. Which isn’t horrible.

However, there is no great international option:

My choice, VGTSX, holds 6062 international stocks. The only international stock option available to him is Vanguard International Growth Fund (0.47%) – 164 stocks.

6062 stocks versus 164 is a pretty significant difference in diversification.

So you can either choose to forego international stocks completely, or your allocation would look like this:

Vanguard Extended Market Index Fund – 50%
Vanguard International Growth Fund  – 30%
Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund – 20%

You would rebalance this yearly to whatever allocations you like, but in general increasing your bond % as grow older with some variation of the “age in bond” adage.

So what other options are there?

Well, he could always go with a Target Retirement Fund, which is kind of the ultimate set it and forget it option, since it automatically tries to rebalance based on their own set intervals. For someone his age, who will probably work 30 years, he would be looking at a fund which matures 30 years from now, which is the Vanguard Target Retirement 2045 Fund.

It utilizes:

Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund Investor Shares – 54.2%
Vanguard Total International Stock Index Fund Investor Shares – 35.8%
Vanguard Total Bond Market II Index Fund Investor Shares – 7.0%
Vanguard Total International Bond Index Fund Investor Shares – 3.0%

The good part? These are good choices. I personally don’t see the need for International Bonds, but hey it’s fine. However…. this is a 90/10 split… pretty aggressive… maybe TOO aggressive if you ask me.

However, if you look at their 2030 and 2020 funds, you get an idea of how they try to rebalance.

For the 2030 fund, they are trying for a 75/25 split. This is pretty aggressive for a person planning to retire in 14 years.

For the 2020 fund, they are trying for a 60/40 split. This is pretty aggressive for a person planning to retire in 4 years.

Overall, I think these funds are “ok”, but they might be too aggressive for me. If you go by the “age in bonds” adage, and you assume retirement is around age 65, then these funds are very aggressive. I would think the 2020 fund should be the reverse… trying for a 40/60 split, rather than a 60/40 split at that point.

If you decide to go with this option, your allocation looks like this:

Vanguard Target Retirement 2045 Fund – 100%

Ok here’s another option, you can try to use LifeStrategy Funds.

The good news is these funds use the same funds as the Target Retirement Funds:

Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund Investor Shares
Vanguard Total International Stock Index Fund Investor Shares
Vanguard Total Bond Market II Index Fund Investor Shares
Vanguard Total International Bond Index Fund Investor Shares

As I stated above, these are all good funds.

For simplicity’s sake:

Vanguard LifeStrategy Income Fund (0.12%) is a 20/80 Fund.
Conservative Growth Fund (0.13%) is a 40/60 fund.
Moderate Growth Fund  (0.14%) is a 60/40 fund.
Growth Fund (0.15%) is a 80/20 fund.

So you would just kind of choose when to move your money over. For example:

Today, you would opt for:

Growth Fund  – 100% because you are 35 years old, and have 30 years of work ahead of you. (80/20)

15 years later, you change to:

Moderate Growth Fund -100% because you are 50 and you want to decrease your risk a little. (60/40)

10 years after that, you change to:

Conservative Growth Fund – 100% because you are 60 and planning to retire soon. (40/60)

5-10 years after that, you change to:

Vanguard LifeStrategy Income Fund – 100% because you have plenty of money for retirement and don’t need any volatility in your life. (20/80)

Of course, you can fiddle around with the ages a little, if you are more or less aggressive. However, this is a reasonable approximation for the “age in bonds” adage.

What would YOU do?

This is a tough question. All things considered, I think I would opt for the LifeStrategy plan I just outlined. It has good funds and I know the Stock/Bond allocations. All I need to do is choose when I want to rebalance to be more conservative. Most likely, I would do it exactly the way I described above, at 50, 60, and 70 years of age.

Would I prefer to rebalance yearly? Absolutely. However, I think this is a reasonable alternative.

One more possibility would be to use either:

Vanguard Balanced Index Fund (0.22%) – 60/40 split – 3131 stocks, 6605 bonds
Vanguard Wellington Fund (0.26%) – 66/34 split – 93 stocks, 798 bonds

These are essentially already 60/40 stock splits, with Balanced being more diversified than Wellington. This is a conservative allocation for when you are younger than 40, and then becomes more aggressive for every year after 40. For this reason, at some point later in your career, like between 40 and 50 years old, you will need to rebalance your portfolio yourself into something else, such as a LifeStrategy or Target Fund or one of the above options.

You can also try talking to your human resources department about getting you the funds you want. 

Someone, somewhere decided to add these funds to the list for their employees to use. This someone could potentially add the funds you want if your argument is compelling enough. They may not even talk to you, but it might be worth a shot if the funds available to you are really bad with high expense ratios.

One last thing:

These asset allocations, portfolio types, and rebalancing are mostly just to educate yourself.

Research has shown the most important thing about saving retirement is saving early, saving often, and using index funds. Stay the course.

The exact allocation or portfolio style you choose does not matter nearly as much as the first three items.

I always think to myself… oh this will be a short post, but then I actually write it and it’s always 1500+ words.


Approximating an asset allocation and portfolio type you like can be difficult.

Just remember the important parts: No Load, Expense Ratio, # Stocks, # Bonds, Stock/Bond Split.

Save early. Save often. Index Funds. Stay the Course.


Agree? Disagree? Questions, Comments and Suggestions are welcome.

You don’t need to fill out your email address, just write your name or nickname.

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2 thoughts on “Approximating a Portfolio

  • Dmarigs

    Hello Dr. Nguyen,
    I am a graduating Medical Student who recently matched into ortho and a dedicated follower of your site. Thanks for all the good work you do, it is a very informative and easy to learn collection of valuable information. I am beginning to brainstorm my portfolio for my time in residency and was wondering if you had any thoughts.

    The TL;DR version: What funds do i pick between my Roth 401k from employer vs Roth IRA

    Quick Bio
    – 25 year old 4th year medical student with no undergraduate or medical school debt
    – I plan to dedicate around $11-12k annually / $1k monthly on investing.
    – Will definitely max out my Roth IRA which I will open at vanguard @ $5,500 annual / $458.33 monthly.
    – My employer does not match for residents, but offers a 401k or 403b with a Roth option under fidelity.
    – My presumptive plan is to open a Roth 401k which I am planning to contribute $6k annually / $500
    – This is the link of limited funds available

    Asset Allocation
    – 85/15 (stocks and bonds) for my 5 years of training + 1 in fellowship, then plan to reassess goals and likely reallocate as an attending. I occasionally think if I should go 90/10 as I am relatively young and typically don’t think of myself as risk averse, however this is my first time investing.

    I have narrowed down the options to what I think is reasonable from my readings but still have questions.
    For my US equities do I simply go with the total stock market index fund vs S&P500 with the lowest ER?
    – R401k (Fidelity) – Vanguard Institutional Index Fund Institutional Plus Shares (VIIIX) – ER 0.02%
    – R401k (Fidelity) – Vanguard Institutional Total Stock Market Index Fund Institutional Plus Shares (VITPX) – ER 0.02%
    – RIRA (Vanguard) – Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund
    Investor Shares – 0.15%
    Admiral Shares (VTSAX) – 0.04%

    What about International stocks, once again lowest ER?
    – R401k (Fidelity) – Fidelity International Index Fund – Institutional Premium Class (FSPSX) – ER 0.045%
    – RIRA (Vanguard) – Vanguard Total International Stock Index Fund Investor Shares (VGTSX) / Admiral (VTIAX) –
    Investor Shares – 0.17%
    Admiral Shares (VTSAX) – 0.11%

    Finally Bonds?
    – R401k (Fidelity) – Fidelity U.S. Bond Index Fund – Institutional Premium Class (FXNAX) – 0.025%
    – RIRA (Vanguard) – Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund Investor Shares (VBMFX) / Admiral (VBTLX)
    Investor Shares – 0.15%
    Admiral Shares (VTSAX) – 0.05%

    • Sensei Post author


      Congrats on matching into ortho! In general, it seems you have a good grasp of your plan with considerations for both a Roth IRA and a Roth 401k/403b as a resident. However, rather than just reply here, I’m going to dedicate a whole post to your question on Friday. The reason for this is that I can imagine that many other medical students will have similar question(s).

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