Investing in a Three Fund Portfolio Across Numerous Accounts. Get the Spreadsheet!

I’ve written a number of times on the effectiveness and beautiful simplicity of a three fund portfolio. All you need to do is own one total stock market fund, one total international fund, and one total bond fund and you’ve got a portfolio that is incredibly well diversified and likely to perform as well or better than many far more complicated portfolios.


There’s a slight problem, though. Nobody, and I mean nobody, has a portfolio this simple.

For one thing, your money is necessarily kept in multiple accounts. You might have a 401(k) or 403(b), perhaps a 457(b), a Roth IRA, SEP or SIMPLE IRA, solo 401(k) and maybe even a cash balance plan. You also invest in a taxable brokerage account once you’ve maxed out those other ones.

Plus, those passive index funds don’t exist as options in all of your accounts. You could be stuck with a Retirement Date fund in one account and some lackluster selection of actively managed funds in another.

And that’s just you. Your spouse has a similar stack of accounts and there’s just no way you can keep track of it all. Well, you can. That’s what the free service offered by Personal Capital is for, but even they can’t compete with the versatility of your very own spreadsheet.

That’s where I come in.

 

Investing in a Three Fund  Portfolio When You Have Numerous Accounts

 

Many people want to start managing their own money, but they don’t know where to begin. “You need an IPS,” I say. “Build a spreadsheet,” I tell them. Which is about as helpful as telling someone who’s cold to build a sweater. Most people don’t have the time or the skills to do build a portfolio-tracking spreadsheet. Or a sweater, for that matter.

I’m not going to teach you sweater-building 101 (I think it’s actually called knitting if I’m not mistaken) or walk you through the creation of a portfolio-tracking spreadsheet. Sometimes it’s easier to give a fish than to take someone fishing, so I’ve gone ahead and built a highly useful spreadsheet for you.

 

Balance a Three Fund Portfolio Across Many Accounts

 

I’m not going to argue that the three fund portfolio is the ideal portfolio — I’ll let Taylor Larimore do that — but I believe it’s a great starting point and a fine endpoint, too.


Before we get to the spreadsheet, let’s talk about asset location and tax efficiency.

A total bond fund is less than optimal in a taxable brokerage account. Bond funds typically spin off more dividends than stock funds and you will pay tax on those dividends. The only bond fund I would consider holding in a taxable account is a municipal bond fund, preferably designed for the state in which I live. I have my total bond fund in a 401(k).

A total international fund is a great option for a taxable brokerage account. The fund will pay some foreign tax on your behalf, and if you hold it in a taxable account, you get a tax credit for that foreign tax paid. When held in a tax-advantaged account like an IRA or 401(k), you will not get any benefit from that credit.

Regarding the total US stock market fund (also somewhat arrogantly known domestically in the US as a total stock market fund), it’s a fine fund to hold anywhere. It’s reasonably tax efficient with a current dividend yield around 2%, and holding some in taxable may give you some tax loss harvesting opportunities.

In summary, I recommend holding the total bond fund in tax-advantaged accounts, international in a taxable brokerage account (if you’ve got one), and the total US stock market in any or all places, with the caveat of tax loss harvesting issues which I will detail below.

You do not need to hold all three funds in each and every account you own. In fact, that makes your life more complicated and is counterproductive when simplicity is what you hope to achieve.

 


Track your investments for free with Personal Capital. That's how I track the PoF portfolio.  

The Three Fund Portfolio Spreadsheet

 

Taking into account the fact that you are going to have numerous accounts and not all of them will offer the usual three funds, I’ve set up the spreadsheet to give you a taxable brokerage account, two Roth IRA accounts, and four other retirement accounts. You can use this as an individual or as a couple if you have combined finances.

Each account gives you the option of a fourth class, the “alternative” class with could be real estate like the REIT fund in the Ferri Core Four portfolio, crowdfunded real estate, or other alternative investments such as precious metals or angel investments.

There’s also a spot for a mixed fund that contains elements of multiple asset classes. If you have such a fund, look it up on Morningstar for the percentage devoted to each class. I did not create a separate class on the spreadsheet for cash, which I usually lump in with my bond allocation.

If I made this truly a one-size-fits-all spreadsheet, it would have to be much larger and it’s big enough as-is. You will have the option to download and make any modification you wish.

The white spaces are places for you enter your information. You can also change the fund and ticker names.

Any numbers in blue or gray will be calculated for you, including the annual cost of owning your funds as long as you enter the correct expense ratios. A weighted average of the expense ratios will be calculated at the bottom.

I’ve gone ahead and entered the current (in 2018) expense ratios and tickers for a three fund portfolio from Vanguard, Fidelity, and Schwab in the first three accounts. Note that the Schwab international fund is not a true “total international” fund as it does not include emerging markets like the Vanguard and Fidelity funds.

 

PoF_ThreeFund_Tracker
As you will see, here at the bottom, the percentage of each asset class is calculated for you, as is the dollar amount and percentage by which your portfolio deviates from the desired allocation you set. I defaulted to 50% US / 30% Int’l / 20% Bond. Feel free to adjust those according to your risk tolerance and preference.

The same information is displayed in graphical donuts…. mmmm….. donuts.

 

To download this spreadsheet, enter your e-mail below and I’ll send it to you. You will be subscribed to the site and within a week, you’ll be given the option for a weekly digest rather than an e-mail with each new post.

If you are already a subscriber, enter your email to download the spreadsheet. You will not be subscribed twice or receive duplicate e-mails from me as long as you enter the same e-mail you use for your current subscription.

 

 

p.s. If you like spreadsheets, you’ll love the one I created for tracking credit card miles, perks, renewal dates, and more. You can find and download that one here.

Tax Loss Harvesting and the Three Fund Portfolio

 

The main reason I have personally deviated from a three fund portfolio in my own portfolio is the fact that I like to take advantage of tax loss harvesting opportunities. The process is described in detail with screenshots in this post, and I will summarize briefly here.

When you tax loss harvest, you sell one fund while simultaneously purchasing another fund that is not “substantially identical”– that’s an IRS term.

In my taxable account, I like to swap Vanguard’s total stock market fund for the S&P 500 (VTSAX for VFIAX) and vice versa. I also swap back and forth between two similar but non-identical international stock index funds. Total International (VTIAX) and All World Ex-US (VFWAX) make for good trading partners.


A problem can arise when you own the same funds in your tax-advantaged accounts. If you take a loss on a fund in taxable and have purchased other shares of the same fund in different accounts within 30 days before or after, the value of the purchased shares is disallowed from the loss you report. This is known as a “wash sale.”

The good news is that the entire loss is not forbidden — only the dollar amount that you invested in that window. If you’re investing biweekly or reinvesting dividends quarterly, it’s easy to inadvertently create a wash sale if you are investing in funds you own in the taxable account and plan to tax loss harvest. Trust me. I’ve done it.

To avoid this situation, I’ve chosen to own small and mid cap indexes in my tax-deferred accounts. My taxable account has the funds mentioned above and none of those are owned anywhere else in my portfolio, including our Roth IRAs, 401(k), 457(b), and even the HSA.

While it’s true that the IRS hasn’t spelled out exactly what constitutes a wash sale (although I believe they have said a purchase in your IRA or spouse’s IRA counts), I think it’s best to avoid gray areas.

If you’d prefer to stick with total stock market funds for your US stock allocation, the Vanguard fund tracks the CRSP US Total Market Index and the Schwab fund tracks the Dow Jones US Total Stock Market Index. Since the holdings are not identical, it could certainly be argued that these are not substantially identical.


For further reading on the three fund portfolio, check these out:

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If you’re not interested in a three fund portfolio or cannot remotely reproduce it with the funds you have available to you, I plan to help you out, too. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for another downloadable spreadsheet that will help you organize your portfolio no matter what you own in them.

 

Does this look like something you can handle? If you were to veer from the three fund portfolio, in what direction would you go?

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30 comments

  • I love keeping it simple. I am going to download this sheet and keep it for when I start a taxable account (when all my student loans are gone). I love a good spreadsheet!

    Appreciate you spelling out the tax implications for the different accounts. I think you’ve said it before that this is one of the reasons some carry Berkshire stock in their taxable account (since it doesn’t spit off dividends).

    Thanks for putting the work into the spreadsheet.

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  • After I sell an older Janus fund I have I will have my portfolio close to this simple. Been delaying the sale to spread out cap gains taxes, I sold another old fund last year. I do, however, have a lifecycle fund in my TSP. Since that changes it’s assets routinely (but predictably), it does make it a bit harder to track things.

  • Love the spreadsheet. I have a similar version and have one recommendation. I would add a column after “value” to discount the pre-tax retirement accounts (401K’s, traditional IRAs), etc. as there will likely be a tax impact before realizing the full value on these accounts. Depending on RMD’s / conversion ladders, etc., you’re likely going to be paying some amount of tax on these accounts. I’ve haircut my pre-tax buckets by 15% and my asset allocation is based off this discounted value.

    I also had to weigh the tax/fee impact on keeping bonds in the 401K vs. brokerage account. While the 401K bond fund had higher expense ratios, it still made sense from a tax perspective to hold the bonds in the 401K. Probably worth a quick calculation in a situation where you have limited bond fund options with high expense ratios in your pre-tax accounts.

    • Good thought, Jason.

      WCI has talked about how keeping an asset like a bond fund in a tax-deferred account is essentially giving yourself a slightly riskier overall asset allocation.

      The sheet is as complex as I want it to be, but it might be a good exercise for the user to consider the future tax implications of the money in various account types. It’s tough because capital gains can range from 0% to over 30%. Tax-deferred money could be taken mostly in the 12% bracket or entirely in the 37% bracket. And that’s assuming the tax code doesn’t change between now and when you access the money!

      Cheers!
      -PoF

  • Michael

    I rebalance with new money. That said, my spreadsheet has the ability to tell me how to distribute the new contributions based on the desired AA. Good work, but it lack that feature!

    • I do the same, Michael.

      At the bottom of this spreadsheet, the difference between your desired allocation and current allocation is listed by both percentage and absolute dollars. So you would put the new money towards whichever class is most underweight to balance things out.

      Do you have a more elegant way of calculating new contributions?

      Cheers!
      -PoF

    • I’d also love to see how you do this calculation inside the spreadsheet. Adding new money adds to the new total, making it a tricky topic. The best I’ve been able to come up with is using this link.

      • Gasem

        That sheet is good but you should be able to do it inside a spread sheet using the ratio of ending NW to beginning NW.

        Old NW =1,000,000
        600k stocks
        400k bonds

        Let’s say stocks go up 20k and you add 10k in new dough

        nw new= 1,030,000

        ratio = 1,030,000/1,000,000 = 1.03

        new stocks/bonds allocations =
        600k x 1.03 = 618k
        400k x 1.03 = 412k

        ratio 60/40 total 1,030,000

        If the stocks went up 20k you would sell 2K of stocks and add that to your 10k new money and put it in bonds.

        The reason this is important is risk management. By performing the above you are automatically forced to sell stock when it’s expensive and put it into bonds when they are cheap. When the market crashes you are automatically forced to sell bonds and put that money into stocks when they are cheap. New money is just proportioned according to your asset allocation. This way you are always optimally growing your dough by controlling your risk. If you have dutifully tax loss harvested you can do this maneuver for free in a post tax account.

        It becomes a bit more difficult if you have bonds in pretax but you can do it by proxy, owning stocks in post tax and both stocks and bonds in pretax. Market goes up sell 2k post tax add it to10k new money, put 12 k into pretax portioned appropriately. Market goes down sell bonds in pretax and buy some stocks in pretax therefore buying cheap shares. Tax loss harvest in the post tax acct.

        • Thanks Gasem – that works. I actually arrived at the same numbers you did, but I used a different formula. I did, however, figure out what I was doing wrong to think it was too complex for the spreadsheet: I was testing my formula incorrectly. Whoops! Thanks for the confirmation that the method above will work.

  • Dan Wick

    Thank you for the spreadsheet! I have been a 3 fund investor for several years and am relieved with the complexity gone from my portfolio. I do have one mixed fund in my IRA, and see that you have addressed the balanced funds as well.

    • Yes, I wanted to make the spreadsheet versatile enough to accommodate any stock or mutual fund, so the option is there. You just have to look up the percentages of the different classes and enter them.

      Cheers!
      -PoF

  • Thanks POF! I am also a big fan of making spreadsheets and that is a beauty! Gee, that felt kind of like publicly admitting to playing Dungeons and Dragons on a Friday night, but oh well 😉

  • The three fund portfolio, for me, is ideal. I like simplicity! Thanks for getting into the weeds on the particulars.

  • Mike

    Excellent post and thanks for the practical spreadsheet. I’m currently using Personal Capital but I will be able to be more detailed with your spreadsheet.

    I’ve been using the Three Fund Portfolio for several years now but I still struggle with the asset location mentally. My current portfolio is heavily weighted towards taxable which means that at an 80/20 ratio my tax deferred accounts are almost entirely made up of bonds. This means that, historically speaking, my tax deferred accounts are less volatile than my taxable, but growing at a slower rate. I’ve been struggling with this concept and have asked opinions from others and gotten varied responses. If you would be willing to weigh in it would be much appreciated. FYI, I am about 2 years away from ER with other sources of income available for a while separate from my portfolio, hence the heavily weighted stock allocation.

  • Just wanted to know if this is the smart thing to do ? Or should i add another fund to my roth for greater return in that tax advantaged space. Maybe a large or small blend US fund or just another TSM fund.

    • Gasem

      look at IWY if you want to add some more return. It will pay you an extra 1.25% at slightly less risk than VTI. It’s cost is .2 instead of .04 but that gets diluted in the overall portfolio mix.


  • Track your investments for free with Personal Capital. That's how I track the PoF portfolio.  
  • I’ve simplified our investments over the years, but it is still a big mess.
    I have the bond funds in our 401k/traditional IRA so at least that’s set.
    Our taxable account has dividend stocks.
    The US and International funds are spread across 401ks, Roth, and traditional IRA. It’s not as bad as the cables behind my TV, but pretty close…

  • new at this

    PoF —

    I’ve been bingeing on your blog – which is way out of my norm.

    Why is this?

    It’s because I hear you asking (or even pleading) for someone to “stop you” from making a terrible mistake.

    You’ve got all this fantastic education. You are good at what you do. And you are very well paid for it. You are so young.

    Yet, you can’t stand it!

    This is where I got hooked.

    What is the “it” that you can’t stand?

    For you, I think it boils down to a bunch of bureaucrats sitting in an ivory tower somewhere treating you like a marionette.

    You have serious passion in your retelling of the recent example of having to take a ridiculous test.

    Believe me, doctor, I get it!

    We share the same gene. The one that just can’t stand having someone tell us what to do.

    So as your armchair psychologist, here’s my unsolicited advice.

    First, keep the blog going – eh hem, this is more for my benefit than yours.

    Second, acknowledge that the reason you keep talking about “$10,000,000” in all sorts of different ways, is because that’s what you actually “want” to accumulate.

    Can you live on less? Absolutely! But wouldn’t it just be awesome…?

    Its within your power to achieve, so can you really stop short?

    Your history of going all the way to becoming an anesthesiologist, instead of stopping short along the way, suggests it will be difficult for you to stop short in the money category as well. (This is where the psychologist in me joins the conversation).

    So sorry to act as that little devil on one shoulder egging you on, but at the most primordial level – you know you want the full-meal-deal.

    So keep talking about it, dreaming about, rationalizing to others about your bullet-proof logic.

    But as an echo deep inside your cranium, my vote is that you fly the ivory tower-types your longest digit in some other way!

  • Bill Y

    Thanks PoF! Just what the doctor ordered!

  • Gasem

    Great post PoF Super informative. I checked out personal capital. I’ve had it for a while, but I use different aggregation software. It has a section on efficient frontier based allocation values which actually works very well. It also uses monte carlo to predict portfolio longevity as opposed to 4% x 25 which is excellent. With those kind of tools I might become a three fund fan!

    I’ve spent a lot of time optimizing my portfolio with professional software and I put my optimized numbers into PC, and my graph matches their prediction almost perfectly. Wow! You can use PC therefore to create an allocated portfolio that has the highest yield at the lowest risk for a give set of assets. NO GUESSING I recommend!

    Probably won’t get a copy of your spreadsheet since I’m not a signer upper but it looks very complete! Bravo

  • I have Google Sheets automatically calculate the value of each holding. I input shares and the last price updates using ‘=googlefinance(C4,”price”)’, where C4 is the ticker symbol (as on your spreadsheet). The product of those two cells is your value, though you gotta update shares if you’re reinvesting dividends, etc. It’s less updating than manually typing in values whenever you want a current snapshot.

    Anyway, I really like how you laid out your spreadsheet, thanks for sharing! It’s inspired me to pretty up my own 🙂

  • Thanks, POF for a very helpful article as usual and even better spreadsheet!

    Question about the advice to put Total International Stock Market Fund in a taxable account – I get that you benefit from the foreign tax credit, but you then have to pay taxes on ordinary dividends earned. If you put it in a tax-protected account, you don’t get the credit, but you don’t pay taxes on the dividends either. Do we know that one strategy is always better than another, or does it really depend year to year depending on the actual yields? Last year was my first year with a taxable account, so I haven’t had the benefit of experience.

    For what it’s worth, I have kept the majority of my international stock holdings in my 403(b) because it has a slightly lower expense ratio than what’s available in my taxable account (VTSNX vs VTIAX, both Vanguard funds); if it were the other way around, I’d put them in taxable. Curious how others have approached this?

  • Milly Arroyo

    Excellent article. Can the spreadsheet be used or coverted to be used in MacBook?
    Thank you

  • H

    Just wanted to thank you for sharing the 3 fund portfolio spreadsheet! Really helpful to keep things simple.

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