CMU: How much money should you keep in your trading account

By Jani Ziedins | Free CMU

Dec 06

Cracked.Market University

On Monday I wrote about how many stocks a trader should keep in their trading account to protect themselves from unexpected drawdown while also making the most from their best ideas. Today I will cover another portfolio question I frequently get from subscribers, how much money should they keep in their trading account. Again I start with the same disclaimer the following are just guidelines and only a licensed investment advisor can give you individual advice specific to your situation, goals, and risk tolerances.

The first thing to understand is trading is risky. You can and will lose money. But this isn’t always a bad thing. Losing trades are simply an expense of trading and is no different than the cost of inventory for a retailer. And just like a small business, the goal is to keep our revenues larger than our expenses.

Making a profit is an obvious goal, but it is more than just making money. We need to make more money than the alternative, which for most people is buy-and-hold index funds. A 20% return sounds great, but what if the S&P500 made 25%? Does that 20% still sound good?

And more than that, our goal is to make enough extra that it is worth our time. Beating an index fund by $30k sounds great, but if you traded full-time, is $30k enough to be worth your time if you could make $150k doing something else?

Trading is definitely a tricky business and for most people it makes more sense to keep it a hobby and not rely on it as their primary source of income. Trade because it is fun, not because you think you can replace your day job. Beating the market is hard enough. Beating it by enough to pay all of your living expenses is a much larger task.

As I already alluded to, there are different ways to make money in the market. The first is trading. The other is diversified, buy-and-hold investments. What does a savvy person do, trade or buy-and-hold? That’s a trick question because this isn’t an either/or question. Both is the best option for most traders.

It is hard to beat the stability and consistency of buy-and-hold investments. Even after market crashes like the dot-com bubble or the 2008 housing meltdown, the market always comes back. Sometimes it takes a while, but buy-and-hold investments have long time horizons and patient investors are always rewarded for at the end of the day.

That said, a trader can do better than buy-and-hold during sideways and down markets. The hard part is knowing precisely when the market is transitioning from up to sideways or down. But just because something is hard doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing.

I will assume everyone reading this blog is doing so because they are interested in trading, so that means a portion of your investable funds should be allocated to a trading account. The key question is how much. This is where things get highly individualistic and many of these decision need to be made between you and a financial advisor, but here are some guidelines to think about.

Buy-and-hold is the safest and most proven way to grow rich slowly. This should be a cornerstone of everyone’s long-term investing plans. For most people this comes in the form of a 401K retirement plan. This is the slow money that you will live off of after you stop working. And because this money is so important to our financial well-being, we need to be careful with it. That means not taking unnecessary risks. For the average person, that means keeping at least 80% of your investable assets in safe, long-term, buy-and-hold investments. Something that you put away and only trade once every few years.

With a big portion of our retirement money invested safely, that means we can put the rest into more speculative investments that can produce much higher returns, but also come with greater risk. For a new investor, I would suggest allocating no more than 5% of your investable assets to trading. For more experienced traders, 20% to 25% is reasonable. But even the best traders should not speculate with a larger percentage of the money they will need later in life. While it is possible to produce larger returns in your trading account, it is also possible to crash and burn. The key to surviving the market is always protecting yourself in such a way that you can live to fight another day. That means making sure you always have plenty of money left over even if a trade fails in a spectacular way. 

The thing about the market is sometimes one strategy works better than another. In years like 2017, buy-and-hold works brilliantly because every dip bounces and any defensive sale turns out to be a mistake. But other years the market is flat or even declines. That is when our trading accounts outperform buy-and-hold investments. But the great thing about using both strategies is we benefit when either one of them are doing well.


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About the Author

Jani Ziedins (pronounced Ya-nee) is a full-time investor and financial analyst that has successfully traded stocks and options for nearly three decades. He has an undergraduate engineering degree from the Colorado School of Mines and two graduate business degrees from the University of Colorado Denver. His prior professional experience includes engineering at Fortune 500 companies, small business consulting, and managing investment real estate. He is now fortunate enough to trade full-time from home, affording him the luxury of spending extra time with his wife and two children.