Big Purchase Ahead? Think of Potential Short-Term Investment Strategies

If a big expense is staring you down, here are some important things to keep in mind when deciding how to invest for that shorter-term goal. holding a house key next to a 2021 sign: Short-term investing for big expenses
5 min read
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Key Takeaways

  • Understand the difference between long-term and short-term investment strategies

  • For short-term investing, consider establishing a timeline for your priorities 
  • It may be best to avoid forsaking your long-term retirement plan for a short-term financial goal

While wrestling with pandemic-related shutdowns and a rough economy in 2020, many investors likely found it difficult to focus on their financial goals.

Shorter-term priorities—such as finding new employment after a layoff, making sure the kids don’t play video games all day, or helping elderly parents who suddenly couldn’t be visited—might have taken precedent. 

That’s all completely understandable, considering the unprecedented circumstances. By this point, hopefully things are smoother. If that’s the case, it’s important to return to your financial goals and how long-term and short-term investing goals can vary. Investing for short-term goals (within the next one to five years) is very different from planning for the long term. 

Although most investors share the long-term goal of retirement, shorter-term goals often vary, at least once normal times return and COVID-19 is in the rearview mirror. Near-term goals might involve saving for a big purchase such as a wedding, a vacation, a home down payment, or a kitchen remodel. And anyone who recently welcomed a new baby to the family probably knows that planning for hospital costs, infant furniture, and a host of other needs is an important short-term savings goal. 

None of these short-term aspirations mean taking an eye off retirement. They require a different type of strategy and approach. For instance, a 401(k) may be a great option for retirement, but it’s likely not appropriate for a down payment on a home.

So, how do you optimize investing for short-term goals without impacting long-term plans? And what are some investment choices for money that’s directed toward those big expenses just over the horizon?

Prioritize Your Financial Goals

Establishing the timing for your short-term goals would likely be the first priority if you’re ready to get back to normal following the pandemic. Different investors likely have different time frames for their long-term savings goals. Someone might plan a big vacation a year in advance or save for a down payment on a home with a three- to five-year time frame. However, a long-term savings goal, like planning for retirement with a 401(k) or IRA, is more realistically a 30- to 40-year journey.

Next, it’s time to decide on a savings or investing vehicle for your short-term goal. It basically boils down to your choices: more aggressive investments with higher potential returns and risk, such as stocks or high-yield bonds, or more conservative choices with lower risk and returns, such as high-quality corporate bonds, money market and savings accounts, CDs, U.S. Treasury bills, or conservative exchange-traded funds.

The Pros and Cons of Investing and Savings Choices 

Both high- and low-return vehicles have distinct advantages and disadvantages. At the top of the list is risk. The more aggressive a vehicle is, the more exposure it has to risk, which means it’s more likely to experience peaks and dips in value. More conservative choices may be more likely to preserve capital but conversely offer less opportunity for growth. It’s always important to understand the balance of return and risk when considering an investment.

You may choose to keep your short-term savings in money market accounts, CDs, and other common savings products. One risk with these is that nearly all of them now pay virtually zero interest, thanks in part to the Federal Reserve’s pandemic-related monetary stimulus, which includes keeping interest rates rock bottom. Or, you may choose to look at vehicles that offer a balance of risk with more growth potential. A conservative portfolio allocation with a stock component can potentially produce a greater return than a low-risk bond portfolio, although at a greater risk.

Each vehicle has its own set of advantages and disadvantages:

Money market funds
Securities that invest in short-term, high-quality commercial paper, repurchase agreements, and Treasuries.
  • Highly liquid
  • Often low minimum balance requirements
  • Low yield, currently about 0.25-0.5%*
  • Might not be FDIC-insured
Certificates of deposit (CDs)
Savings certificates with a fixed maturity date and usually a fixed interest rate. 

  • Might offer higher yield than money market
  • FDIC-insured up to $250,000 per account
  • Low yield, currently less than 1% on CDs maturing in 3 years or less*
  • Penalty for early withdrawal
U.S. Treasury bills/bonds
A debt obligation backed by the U.S. government, who borrows the funds for a defined period of time at a variable or fixed rate.

Learn more about bonds and other fixed-income securities
  • Among the safest other than cash
  • Value fluctuates before maturity
  • Low yield, currently need maturity greater than 4 years to get above 1%*
Corporate bonds
Debt issued by corporations and sold to investors. The company backs the bond with money earned from future operations.

Learn more about bond issuance, income, and risks
  • Often higher yields than government bonds
  • Greater risk
Equity ownership of publicly traded companies.
  • The highest, but most unpredictable, returns
  • Greatest risk
*Data current as of May 2021. Data source: TD Ameritrade, Bonds & CDs Overview

How to Save, Plan, and Invest in the First Place

Although knowing where to put savings is a critical first step, you might be wondering how to allocate savings in the first place beyond what you’re already putting away for retirement. Financial experts say it’s important to take the following steps.

Saving for a Short-Term Major Expense

1. Have a plan. Whether the goal is a down payment, a wedding, or a vacation, write it down and make sure you understand all the expenses involved.

You can even adjust the details and time horizons of your plans to match your financial situation, according to Dara Luber, senior manager, retirement, TD Ameritrade.

“If you’re going on vacation with $1,000 to spend, maybe it’s a car trip 200 miles away, not a two-week Alaska vacation. Stay realistic,” Luber noted. “And if you do want to hike in Denali, you still can, but maybe it’s not in two years, it’s in five. You don’t have to give up a goal completely.”

Investors should create a plan, whether it’s an electronic spreadsheet or an old-fashioned pen on paper, explained Robert Siuty, senior financial consultant, TD Ameritrade. Investors who plan their budgeting have a much better chance of sticking to it.

2. Break it down. Once you know your time horizon and understand what you’re paying for, start paying yourself. That’s right: Set up regular payments and remember to chip in a “bonus” payment when possible. For a wedding or vacation that’s a year away, perhaps it means forgoing certain expenses in the near term, such as meals out, and instead contributing that money to the event you’re planning.

“If saving for a vacation makes you happy, put it in your budget and cut down on dining out,” Luber said. This might be easier now, considering the opportunities to dine out kind of shriveled up in 2020 and early 2021. With restaurants reopening, the temptation might be to go back, and there’s nothing wrong with a treat now and then. Still, consider making these treats more special by not returning to your pre-pandemic dining out habits if you have a short-term savings goal in mind.

For a goal like a down payment on a home that’s three to five years away, make a point of using milestones such as pay raises to your advantage. A 3% pay raise, for instance, could all be funneled into that short-term goal without eating into retirement or college savings and without forcing you to make lifestyle changes. 

Another thought: Are you one of the millions of Americans who received stimulus checks? If you haven’t already thought of what to do with the money and still have some around after dealing with your bills, maybe some of that can go into your “milestone” savings bucket.

3. Set up automatic deposits. The best way to save for short- and long-term goals is to set up automatic deposits from your paycheck or through your bank or brokerage. Doing so will help ensure that you stay true to your goals as well as reduce the urge to spend money on less important things. 

Just about everyone needs to plan for long-term retirement savings, but short-term goals vary and deserve their own financial plans. Consider your short-term investment choices carefully as you put your plan into action. Then check the progress of your savings to stay motivated toward pursuing your goal. 

Carefully consider the investment objectives, risks, charges and expenses before investing. A prospectus, obtained by calling 800-669-3900, contains this and other important information about an investment company. Read carefully before investing.


Key Takeaways

  • Understand the difference between long-term and short-term investment strategies

  • For short-term investing, consider establishing a timeline for your priorities 
  • It may be best to avoid forsaking your long-term retirement plan for a short-term financial goal

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