Does Dollar Cost Averaging Work?

In my post about beating the S&P 500, I mentioned regular contributions as a factor that helped me. Over the weekend, I examined precisely how regular contributions helped. This led me to the subject of Dollar Cost Averaging (DCA), which until recently I thought was the same as regular contributions. They are not!

Dollar Cost Averaging versus Regular Contributions

DCA and regular contributions are similar in a sense that an amount of money is added to an investment portfolio on a regular basis. However, with DCA it is an intentional act of investing only a small part of a lump sum; whereas there is no lump sum involved with regular contributions.

Dollar Cost Averaging does not work!

Based on my research, DCA — at least the way that brokers try to sell it — is just a gimmick to get nervous investors to take the plunge. DCA actually does not work all that well and only works if the market is volatile or trending down. However, the market has been trending up as long as it has been in existence. Because of this upward trend, you almost always come out ahead investing the entire lump sum at the beginning.

This is the chart from “Introduction to CAGR,” showing S&P performance for the past 30 years.

S&P 500 Chart with CAGR

DCA Scenarios Review

Take a look at the scenarios below.

DCA Scenarios

  • If I invested $10,000 in 1978, I would have $159,138. A lot more money than using dollar cost averaging, because the market was trending up and my money has a lot more time to grow.
  • If I invested $10,000 in 2000 before the market went down, I would have only $9,653 in 2007. However, I would come out ahead if I use dollar cost averaging and spread my contributions weekly, monthly, or even yearly.

However, Regular Contributions Work

So in my case where I contributed to my 401k twice a month, regular contributions really did help me between 2000 and 2007. Regular contributions (not DCA) has many merits:

  • More realistic way to save and invest, since most investors do not have lump sum
  • When the process is automated — e.g., 401k contributions or automatic investment plan — regular contributions requires very little discipline and effort
  • Works well in down or volatile markets
  • Help ease fear for nervous investors

Here are some more about dollar cost averaging:

About the Author

By , on Sep 3, 2007
Pinyo
Pinyo is the owner of Moolanomy Personal Finance. He is a licensed Realtor specializing in residential homes in the Northern Virginia area. Over the past 20 years, Pinyo has enjoyed a diverse career as an investor, entrepreneur, business executive, educator, and financial literacy author.

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Leave Your Comment (9 Comments)

  1. Horlic says:

    No doubt, that will be the ideal case if you able to fork out one lump sum money to entry/invest at low price and wait till good price to make good profit from the investment.

    For me, i treat DCA as a habit to do monthly savings due to the consideration of poor disipline in money control. I believe youngster and fresh graduates nowadays facing the same problems too. There are just too many entertainment available outside there.

    From Dollar cost averaging practice, i success to save lump sum of money to entry higher returns (ofcos higher risk too)investment tools like gold investment and property investment.

  2. Pinyo says:

    @Clifford – I don’t disagree that regular contribution is very similar to DCA. And I also agree that DCA lose its effectiveness over the long term because your invested asset is a much larger percentage when compared to your new contributions.

    However, the focus of this article is on the INITIAL investment of lump sum — specifically, the way DCA is being “sold” to the public. It simply tries to answer is it better to invest, say $10,000, all at once or spread it across 10 months at $1,000 each. In this instance, you’re usually better off investing the entire amount.

  3. clifford says:

    Sorry to say this Pinyo, I don’t think that you researched this very well. If you start reading investment books instead of looking at internet web sites, You will discover that when you do regular contributions into a stock or mutual fund you are doing what is called dollar cost averaging, or DCA.

    Lately on the web there has been a attempt to separate regular contributions from the special case of putting a lump sum in all at once or spacing it out over X periods. The mathematical formula is exactly the same in both cases. That formula is called dollar cost averaging.

    If you want to look in to the problems of dollar cost averaging over a long term may I suggest finding a copy of Practical Formulas for Successful Investing by Lucile Tomlinson. Miss Tomlinson goes into the most depth on long term DCA as anyone I have read so far.

  4. Mrs. Micah says:

    I think if I had a big sum to invest, I’d do it all at once. But unless I do, I’ll probably do some form of dollar-cost-averaging. As opposed to buying X shares every time…

  5. Pinyo says:

    @Luis – welcome to Moolanomy. I like your comment — very well said. I especially like the two principles and the subsequent summary. That’s exactly how I would do it as well. Thank you for contributing to the conversation.

  6. Luis says:

    I agree with Rick above. There’s another flaw in the criticisms I’ve seen of DCA: they declare that lump sum investments are “better” simpley because they have larger returns. But this assumes that the way to compare portfolios is just the return, instead of risk-adjusted returns. The argument that lump-sum is better than DCA because it has a higher return is no better than the argument that DCA is better than lump sum because it has lower risk.

    In the end, I do think the whole issue is a distraction. The two important principles should be:

    1. Invest incoming cash flows as soon as they arrive, according to a clear, careful budget plan.

    2. Divide your investments between stocks and bonds to reflect your risk tolerance.

    When you apply these principles, you invest lump-sum when you receive lump-sums and you DCA when you receive smaller regular payments, and you manage risk by maintaining a constant asset allocation, not by holding money back.

  7. Pinyo says:

    Rick – Welcome to Moolanomy. I believe we agree more than disagree here.

    What you called “my version of CDA” is what I called “Regular contributions”. The distinction I made is that DCA (or CDA) meant you already had a big lump sum – e.g., inheritance and you purposefully invest only a small portion of it. In this case, DCA does not make sense because more likely than not, investing that entire lump sum upfront will produce better result.

    As far as point B, I would never recommend that to anyone because nobody can accurately predict the market.

  8. rick says:

    Many of the criticism of DCA are misguided. Comparisons with lump sum investments made up front make the faulty assumption that that this option is open to many small investors. If your investable money comes from a salary it will come in small amounts. Then you have two options:
    (a) invest small&fixed amounts regularly (regardless of market conditions) (my version of CDA)
    (b) accumulate a larger sum and try to pick the time to spend it when the market is right

    I suspect if many of the DCA critics looked at the performance of these two strategies DCA would look more sensible

    regards, rick

  9. Steve Austin says:

    Concur. You might be interested in Edleson’s Value Averaging. I consider DCA to be “accidental” averaging, whereas VA is “intentional” averaging.

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