As I’ve interviewed hundreds of people about money over the years – both people with money and those with not so much – there is always an obvious difference: The people with money are investors.
What makes them different? Rather than simply spending every penny, investors use their money to acquire things that offer the potential for profitable returns, either through interest, income, or the appreciation of value.
As you approach managing money, you’ll learn to devote your limited resources to the things with the largest potential for returns. That may be paying down debt, going back to school, or fixing up a two-family house. Of course, it may also mean buying stocks and bonds — either individually or as mutual funds or exchange-traded funds.
Thanks to modern technology, the investing world offers enormous possibilities to anybody with a few bucks and an Internet connection. It’s our job to help you filter out the noise, learn the basics, and make good investment decisions from the start.
Investing vs. gambling
All investing involves risk. But there’s a big difference between smart investing and gambling. Trading a few stocks without knowing what you’re doing is gambling. Diligently setting aside money, putting it the best stocks or funds for your goals, and leaving it put for the long run. That’s investing.
If you love researching stocks and making fast trades in search of short-term profits, fine. It’s fun. I just don’t recommend doing it with more than 10 percent of your money.
How to start investing (my advice)
Investing is like religion – people have some strong opinions and may even belong to one of many “sects”.
There are the doomsday preppers who are convinced our financial system will collapse, so they stick all their money in gold and real estate. There are the optimistic and opportunistic day-traders with their Batcaves covered in wall-to-wall monitors. And there are the indexers, those that simply invest in everything in order to take advantage of the slow and steady increase in the overall value of the markets.
If you already belong strongly to one of the above camps, you may not find the investing resources on Money Under 30 useful. If, however, you have an open mind and are interested in learning simple strategies for successful lifelong investing – without any gimmicks – then read on.
My personal investing philosophy is quite simple: Create broad diversification through a mix of low-cost mutual funds and ETFs, while keeping it fun by holding individual stocks with up to 10 percent of my assets.
To start investing, you’ll need to make a few choices:
First, you’ll need to choose a platform with which to invest. Available platforms include:
- Online brokerages like TDAmeritrade, Scottrade, or Fidelity
- Full-service brokers or financial advisors
- Specialty brokerages like Betterment
- Direct mutual fund accounts
- Dividend reinvestment programs (DRIPs)
Until you become a comfortable investor, we recommend buying mutual funds or ETFs, either through an online broker or direct mutual fund account. For anybody who’s not interest in choosing individual investments, Betterment offers a very simple way to gain exposure to the total stock and bond market (you just deposit money like a savings account, choose your risk tolerance on a scale of 1-10, and it invests in the overall market for you).
Your account type
Next, you’ll need to choose whether you’re investing in an individual retirement account (IRA) or a general, taxable account. An IRA or Roth IRA provides certain tax advantages as an incentive to save for retirement. The downside is there are limits on how much you can contribute to the account each year and when you can withdraw the money. If you’re new to investing and can afford to begin putting money away for retirement, I recommend everybody begin investing with a Roth IRA.
If you already have a retirement account or need to invest money for another goal (like buying a home or starting a business), a regular brokerage account will do. Keep in mind that your capital gains – the money you earn when you sell a security for more than you paid for it – are taxable, as will certain dividends you receive.
Finally, you’ll need to select your investments.
This is where it gets overwhelming. My advice is to stick with mutual funds or exchange-trade funds rather than individual stocks and bonds until you get your feet wet. Funds enable you to invest in a broad portfolio of stocks and bonds in one transaction rather than trading them all yourself. Funds are not only safer investments (because they’re diversified), it’s often far less expensive to invest this way because instead of paying trading commissions to buy a dozen or more different stocks you will either pay just one trading commission or nothing at all (in the event you buy a mutual fund directly from the fund company).
Here are some posts to get you started choosing investments:
- Getting started investing with mutual funds
- How to pick a mutual fund
- 5 mutual funds to get you started
- 15 top no-load mutual funds
- Good mutual funds and ETFs for new investors
- Index funds vs target date funds: How to decide which is right for you
Some final advice
The most important factor in being a successful investor is not the stocks and funds you pick. Successful investing depends on:
- Proper asset allocation — the overall mix of bonds, stocks, and cash you hold — and
- Avoiding making terrible, emotionally-charged decisions (like selling at the bottom of a market crash). To avoid this, I recommend creating and sticking to an automatic investment plan.
The investing information on MoneyUnder30 barely scratches the surface of the world of knowledge out there about investing, but that’s OK. We’re not trying to train the next class of hedge fund generations so much as give the average person enough knowledge and confidence to begin investing on your own. I hope the investment strategies here are helpful.