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Summary

  • Dollar cost averaging is a process, where the same amount of funds is allocated to preset investment/s at regular intervals of time.
  • In this article I compare results of investing a lump sum at once versus dollar cost averaging.
  • In reality, few investors have a lump sum to put to work at once. Hence dollar cost averaging works best in real life.

Dollar cost averaging is a process where the same amount of funds is allocated to preset investment/s at regular intervals of time. It is widely believed that investors who choose to systemically allocate funds towards their investments are reducing their risk of investing their whole amount at the top of the price range.

Most individuals use dollar cost averaging to purchase investments. The reason behind these actions is the fact that most individuals are able to allocate funds for investing once a month or every two weeks for example, depending on the frequency with which they are able to save money. If our investor is able to save 15% of their illustrative $1000 monthly salary, which is paid every two weeks or twice/month, they would be able to allocate anywhere between $150 - $225 every month towards their retirement investments. The $225/month is derived for the situation where a person who is paid bi-weekly ends up receiving three paychecks instead of three. Either way, the typical 401(k) investor would purchase the same funds whenever they get paid. The typical dividend investor would likely accumulate new contributions with any distributions from their portfolios, before they make their stock investments. Depending on portfolio sizes, minimum amount of purchases and amount of distributions per month, dividend investors end up purchasing different dividend stocks on a regular basis, which closely mimics the practice of dollar cost averaging.

Unfortunately, few investors have large amounts of cash simply sitting around, that they need to dollar cost average. For those lucky enough to have this happen to them, dollar cost averaging can be a tool to minimize risk of purchasing at the top. It would also help them in gaining more experience in the markets, particularly if they had none whatsoever previously. For lottery winners or those lucky individuals who happen to obtain a lump sum of cash, dollar cost averaging might be a great way to handle the bounty.

In order to test whether dollar cost averaging gives investors an advantage over lump sum investing, I obtained monthly data for the Vanguard S&P 500 mutual fund (MUTF:VFINX) between 1987 and 2012. An investor can also make a similar calculation using S&P 500 SPDR ETF (NYSEARCA:SPY) or a company like Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO) or Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG). In order to calculate dollar cost averaging results for a given year, I would put $100 in investment every month beginning in the last day of the last month of the previous year, up until the last day of November for the next year. For lump-sum amounts, I would put a theoretical $1200 investment either at the closing prices for the previous year. I would then multiply the number of shares accumulated for both dollar cost averaging and lump sum investing times the ending prices by the end of the current year. Next, I would then compare which strategy delivered better results for the given year.

YearLump SumDCAResult
1981$ 1,096.25$ 1,132.79DCA Outperforms
1982$ 1,430.91$ 1,445.19DCA Outperforms
1983$ 1,404.76$ 1,230.79Lump - Sum Outperforms
1984$ 1,244.75$ 1,255.54DCA Outperforms
1985$ 1,470.59$ 1,307.08Lump - Sum Outperforms
1986$ 1,312.00$ 1,161.11Lump - Sum Outperforms
1987$ 1,272.20$ 1,079.40Lump - Sum Outperforms
1988$ 1,396.01$ 1,281.65Lump - Sum Outperforms
1989$ 1,576.53$ 1,358.14Lump - Sum Outperforms
1990$ 1,159.66$ 1,210.21DCA Outperforms
1991$ 1,562.62$ 1,364.10Lump - Sum Outperforms
1992$ 1,298.09$ 1,287.25Lump - Sum Outperforms
1993$ 1,309.69$ 1,259.67Lump - Sum Outperforms
1994$ 1,214.18$ 1,214.05Lump - Sum Outperforms
1995$ 1,649.00$ 1,414.38Lump - Sum Outperforms
1996$ 1,474.57$ 1,357.91Lump - Sum Outperforms
1997$ 1,598.02$ 1,382.72Lump - Sum Outperforms
1998$ 1,543.42$ 1,401.32Lump - Sum Outperforms
1999$ 1,453.02$ 1,357.42Lump - Sum Outperforms
2000$ 1,091.35$ 1,115.29DCA Outperforms
2001$ 1,055.63$ 1,162.53DCA Outperforms
2002$ 933.95$ 1,066.36DCA Outperforms
2003$ 1,542.02$ 1,428.79Lump - Sum Outperforms
2004$ 1,328.79$ 1,304.03Lump - Sum Outperforms
2005$ 1,257.31$ 1,255.83Lump - Sum Outperforms
2006$ 1,387.64$ 1,319.41Lump - Sum Outperforms
2007$ 1,264.78$ 1,208.97Lump - Sum Outperforms
2008$ 755.72$ 888.44DCA Outperforms
2009$ 1,518.14$ 1,476.44Lump - Sum Outperforms
2010$ 1,379.02$ 1,365.85Lump - Sum Outperforms
2011$ 1,223.41$ 1,194.23Lump - Sum Outperforms
2012$ 1,389.95$ 1,264.06Lump - Sum Outperforms
2013$ 1,586.04$ 1,392.64Lump - Sum Outperforms

Overall, lump-sum investing performed better in 25 out of 33 years. Dollar cost averaging performed better in only 8 out of 33 years. Not surprisingly, these were the years when the stock market was either flat or declined. As a result, dollar cost averaging reduces investor's risk when things were difficult, but at the expense of foregone gains when things went well. Because stocks have a historical tendency to move up over time, investors who practice dollar cost averaging might be at a disadvantage. Of course, for those who practice dollar cost averaging because they didn't have the lump-sum in the first place, this is still the best way to accumulate a sizeable nest egg.

In this exercise we did not look at other key components of investment which deals with investment selection, analysis, valuation and purchase. We assumed that these decisions have already been made. In reality however, there could be a situation where our investor might not find any potential assets that have sufficient low valuation to merit investment in them. Most index investors or savers in a 401(k) invest regardless of overall valuations.

Disclosure: I am long KO, PG. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article. I am also long an S&P 500 index fund in my 401(k)

Source: Dollar Cost Averaging Versus Lump Sum Investing