Five Steps to a Minimalist Portfolio

A guide to building an effective, low-maintenance portfolio. Plus, some sample portfolio mixes to help you get started

Christine Benz 15 June, 2023 | 7:20AM
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Even if you’re not an investment collector (ahem, you know who you are) it’s a good bet that the number of holdings and accounts in your portfolio have grown right along with your age and net worth.

As assets grow, it’s natural to want to diversify across investment types and perhaps even delve into investment arcana, such as commodities or private real estate. Accounts can also stack up as the years go by, especially if you add up registered and unregistered accounts.

Thanks to all of these forces, investors can readily end up with what I think of as "portfolio sprawl": too many accounts and too many holdings within them.

Diversification is desirable, but when taken to an extreme, it can become difficult to keep tabs on what you have. That’s particularly true if you have individual stocks and actively managed mutual funds, which require at least some level of ongoing oversight.

Portfolio sprawl can also make portfolio maintenance a heavier lift, since it’s harder to get your arms around your total asset allocation. Tax time may be more complicated than it needs to be, too.

The good news is that with a little bit of effort, it’s possible to arrive at a minimalist portfolio with fewer moving parts – both accounts and holdings.

Step 1: Check What You Have

The first step in the process is to conduct an inventory of your financial accounts. You can stick narrowly to your investments, but I’d recommend you broaden the inventory process to encompass all of your financial relationships – banking, insurance, and so on.

As you do so, document all of your account information (account numbers, passwords, financial professionals you deal with, and so on). You can use a spreadsheet for this job.

Encrypt the document or, if it’s something that you plan to print out, keep it under lock and key. It will help you identify streamlining opportunities and, if you keep it updated, can be a guide for your loved ones to know what you own if they ever need to step in.

Step 2: Consolidate

The next step toward a minimalist portfolio is to identify opportunities to merge accounts of the same type. If you’ve been saving and investing for a while, you probably have assets in registered accounts like ISAs and Sipps. 

While it’s usually not advisable and may not even be possible to combine assets held in different types of tax wrappers, duplicate accounts of the same type provide prime opportunities for streamlining. By carefully following the rules for combining like account types and letting the firms deal with one another to execute the transfer of funds, you should be able to streamline without causing a taxable event.

From a practical standpoint, this part of the job can be a bit of an administrative headache. If you need assistance in executing a transfer, it’s often easiest to get help through the "receiving" firm (that is, the company that you’re transferring the assets into) rather than the one you’re exiting.

Step 3: Revisit Your Target Asset Allocation

Once you’ve finished the account-consolidation process, it’s a good time to reconsider your portfolio’s asset allocation, particularly if you haven’t done so for a while. If you have your portfolio saved on, use the X-Ray functionality to examine your current asset-class positioning and compare it with your targets. If you don’t have targets and expect to use the assets for retirement, Morningstar’s Lifetime Allocation Indexes and/or good target-date funds can help you get in the right ballpark.

Step 4: Populate With Simple Building Blocks

Armed with targets for your portfolio’s asset allocation, you can then switch into an ultrasimple, minimalist portfolio mix. The goal of a minimalist portfolio is to use the fewest number of holdings to achieve diversification.

Broad-market index funds and exchange-traded funds lend themselves particularly well to this effort, providing broad asset-class exposure in a single shot and with very low expenses. I’ve made them the linchpins of my four minimalist portfolio groups for investors at various life stages and for taxable and tax-deferred accounts. Each portfolio grouping below includes an aggressive, moderate, and conservative version.

Note that some of the portfolios use funds from multiple providers – for example, the tax-efficient portfolios employ Fidelity municipal-bond funds and Vanguard exchange-traded funds. You could easily stick with a single provider, though, as big firms like Fidelity and Vanguard field worthy, low-cost core funds in all the major asset classes.

One thing to note: you’ll want to take care when making changes to your taxable accounts because selling appreciated assets can result in a tax bill. If your taxable accounts require a major overhaul, be sure to get some advice and/or calculate the tax bill before proceeding.

Step 5: Plan How You'll Keep it up to Date

Establishing a minimalist portfolio will mean few oversight obligations on an ongoing basis. But unless you’re sticking a self-managed option, you’ll still need to keep tabs on your portfolio’s asset allocation as the years go by.

I like the idea of using an investment policy statement to document the parameters of your portfolio: your asset allocation, how often you’ll monitor your portfolio, and what the catalysts will be for making changes. With a minimalist portfolio in place, a good annual checkup is all you really need, and you’ll probably have to make changes even less frequently than that.

This article originally appeared on our Hong Kong website and has been edited and republished for a UK audience

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The information contained within is for educational and informational purposes ONLY. It is not intended nor should it be considered an invitation or inducement to buy or sell a security or securities noted within nor should it be viewed as a communication intended to persuade or incite you to buy or sell security or securities noted within. Any commentary provided is the opinion of the author and should not be considered a personalised recommendation. The information contained within should not be a person's sole basis for making an investment decision. Please contact your financial professional before making an investment decision.

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About Author

Christine Benz

Christine Benz  is director of personal finance at Morningstar and author of 30-Minute Money Solutions: A Step-by-Step Guide to Managing Your Finances.

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