Summary of Life-cycle Stages
We can summarize the features of the life-cycle hypothesis by looking at how investment goals,
personal circumstances, investment knowledge, time horizon, financial circumstances and risk
tolerance change as people age.
First, investment goals for Stage-1 people tend to be short-term but might also have a longer-term
component. Stage-2 goals are shorter-term with a medium-term component. In Stage 3, goals
are medium-term with a substantial long-term component. By Stage 4, retirement is approaching
and goals tend to shift to the medium term. In retirement (Stage 5), goals are medium-term in
the sense that the existing investment portfolio must continue to earn income over the medium
Second, stage 1 clients have no family constraints. They become very heavy in Stage 2. By
Stage 3, these commitments have moderated to a certain extent. In Stage 4, family commitments
are once again light. Stage 5 might see an increase in family commitments to help grandchildren.
Third, as far as financial circumstances are concerned, Stage-1 clients tend to have a small
investment portfolio and small financial commitments, such as car payments. Stage-2 clients
might find that whatever they have been able to save in Stage 1 might be needed due to
substantial Stage-2 financial burdens, such as mortgage payments and possibly family expenses.
They tend to have little liquidity. By Stage 3, financial circumstances have greatly improved. It
is during Stage 3 that most of the increase in a client’s wealth will occur. More attention must
be devoted at that point to attaining an asset allocation in keeping with the client’s level of
risk tolerance. Stage-4 clients have substantial investment portfolios with little in the way of
day-to-day liquidity requirements. Retired clients’ financial commitments are light and their
portfolios must be able to maintain living standards.
Finally, risk tolerance changes with age. Young people are more psychologically able to bear risk.
This willingness to bear risk declines with age, since as the time horizon shortens, the level of risk tolerance decreases.
Asset allocations vary with each changing stage and are affected by all of the constraints indicated
above. However, it is important to note that the single most important determinant of clients’
asset allocations at any stage is their psychological ability to bear risk. There are some retirees who
have a very high tolerance for risk and some 25-year-olds who do not. As a result, there are some
retirees with investment portfolios containing a substantial equity fund component and some
much younger investors who refuse to invest in anything other than money market funds.
The life-cycle Hypothesis Is not Perfect
Using the life-cycle stage as a tool for understanding clients is also made much more complicated
in cases of single-parent households. Single parents must manage with one salary even though
support payments might be available. One could argue that the asset allocation for single
parents should correspond to the lack of income support (by way of a second salary); that is, the
investment portfolio should be lower in risk.
You should use the life-cycle hypothesis as a tool in understanding clients’ overall needs. At the
same time, you should listen carefully to what your clients have to say. You might find that the
hypothesis is not always of use.