Last week, a friend made a confession. “So this is terrible,” she said. “But I just realized that when I rolled over my old 401(k) over a year ago to a Fidelity IRA, I never invested it. It’s been sitting there as cash all this time!”
At least she caught her mistake, but the timing was unfortunate; her savings missed out on the strongest stock market year in quite some time.
“You need a Roth IRA” is common (and good) financial advice. When you begin saving for retirement at an early age, time is your ally. And with a Roth IRA, your money can compound tax-free for decades.
But in order for your money to grow, you have to invest it. Opening an IRA account is just the first step. You can open IRA accounts just about anywhere: stock brokers, credit unions, mutual fund companies, and even at alternative investment houses like LendingClub. (LendingClub is a peer-to-peer lending network enabling you to loan your money to consumers seeking alternative to bank-issued credit.)
But once you put money into an IRA, you must decide what to do with it.
An IRA is like a bucket that you fill with assets. Into the bucket you can place whatever you want. That could be cash, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, or even more exotic investments like gold or peer-to-peer notes. Because you place these investments in the IRA bucket, they reap the tax benefits of whichever account type you select (traditional or Roth).
With years ahead of you, young investors can and should be aggressive. This means investing mostly in stocks. If you open an IRA at a local bank and put your money into a 1 percent APY money market account, you will only lose money to inflation. And if you open a brokerage account, fund it, but fail to buy any investments, your cash may be sitting there not even earning 1 percent.
The problem is, there are tens of thousands of investment options, and most of us aren’t investing gurus. We fear choosing the wrong investments or simply become overwhelmed by all the choices. Here’s what to remember:
It’s possible to keep things really simple
For years, it seemed like the investing world only got more and more complex with thousands of new and exotic investment choices popping up. This benefited banks and the people who sold these investments; average investors not so much.
Fortunately, today there is an overdue trend to create investments that make it easy for regular people to invest confidently without trying to be an expert.
At the most simple is Betterment, a brokerage that indexes the entire stock and bond market and gives investors just one choice: how much to allocate to stocks and how much to bonds.
Also along these lines are index mutual funds and exchange-traded-funds (ETFs). These investments let you buy an entire market index (for example, the S&P 500), in one transaction. An example of an uber simple portfolio would be to invest in the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund and the Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund or ETF equivalent.
When in doubt, choose a popular mutual fund
Investing involves risk, and you never know for sure that putting your money into a mutual fund will be better than letting it sit as cash. But with decades to invest, diversified mutual funds have a good chance of providing healthy returns while minimizing risk.
If you’re inclined, take some time to learn about mutual funds and how to choose funds with low expenses.
If not, stick with major fund companies like Fidelity, Vanguard or T. Rowe Price. Then, look for funds that are widely diversified. Good bets include Target Date funds that you select based on your desired retirement date.
Pick up the phone and ask for help
Take advantage of your brokerage’s customer service. Some brokers have financial advisors on staff that can help you choose investments. Non-licensed customer service reps may not be able to recommend investments but may still point you in the right direction.
In most cases these advisors will steer you towards funds that company owns or has a financial incentive to recommend. To avoid overpaying, ask for “no-load mutual funds” and for the expense ratio of any funds they recommend (under 1 percent is generally good).
Be wary of a broker pushing you towards individual stocks, annuities, or life insurance as an investment product.
But above all else, take action
Failing to invest can be just as bad for your money as choosing the wrong investment. Although you want to avoid risky plays like betting big on individual stocks or getting into overpriced investments you don’t understand, try not to let fear keep your money on the sidelines.
Over the course of a decade or more, I would rather own a mediocre mutual fund than nothing at all. You have plenty of time to become a more knowledgeable investor and adjust your portfolio. But there’s no time like now to become an investor in the first place.