As the saying goes, there’s no such thing as a dumb question—and that’s especially true when it comes to investing.
After all, putting your hard-earned dollars into an investment account isn't the same as simply stashing it away in a checking or savings account.
You’ve got decisions to think about: What will I invest in? How do I manage my investments? What do I do if the financial news gives me the jitters?
Well, we’re glad you asked because a good way to learn about your finances is to fearlessly ask all of the things that make you scratch your head when you’re just learning to build a portfolio.
That’s why we’ve compiled ten of the most common questions we've heard about beginning investing, and then asked a few financial professionals to weigh in with some answers to help you boost your investing smarts.
1. Investing seems complicated. How do I get started?
The first step is to determine what you want to achieve with your investing, whether it’s in the short-term or long-term, says Hans-Christian Winkler, a CFP® with Seattle-based independent advisory firm ClaraPHI. Are you primarily saving for retirement, which means you may not access that money for decades? Or is there some other major goal, like an expensive dream trip, that you’d like to take in a few years?
Next, you should think about how hands-on you want to be with your investing, says David Blaylock, CFP® with LearnVest Planning Services. “And there’s no wrong answer to this," he adds. "Ask yourself, ‘Do I want to get into the nitty-gritty, evaluating multiple investments, and agree to do that regularly? Or would I rather set it and forget it?’ ”
If you're saving for retirement, for instance, you may choose to invest in a target-date fund, a type of mutual fund that automatically adjusts your investment mix based on your age and how soon you’d like to retire. If you want to be more hands-on, then you’d probably have to do more research on the types of investments that make sense for your timeline and risk tolerance, and consider rebalancing your portfolio as time goes by.
One thing you should keep in mind, however, says Blaylock, is that money in an investment account is typically better earmarked for a goal that's at least five years away because you're probably subjecting your money to some level of risk. Any shorter time frame than that, he adds, “and I would consider steering back toward safer investments, like a CD, savings account or bonds.”
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2. What type of investments are available to the average person?
Stocks are probably the most well-known option, but picking and choosing individual companies to invest in is not how most people get involved in the market. Instead, you might want to consider an index fund, which invests in the securities included in indexes like the S&P 500.
Bonds—investments in which you loan money to a corporation or government at a fixed interest rate—are another major asset category. They tend to offer lower returns than stocks, but there's typically also less associated risk because their prices are largely based on the creditworthiness of who's issuing the bond, as well as the bond's interest rate, and not market fluctuations.
Generally, the longer you have before needing the money, the more risk you may be able take on; this might mean that you hold more stock investments (like stock index funds) in your portfolio. But as you draw closer to withdrawing, the more you may want to skew toward conservative assets, like bonds, because you want to decrease the volatility in your portfolio the closer you get to needing the money.
Beyond stocks and bonds, Blaylock says, there are alternative investments, such as real estate or commodities. In the past, if you wanted to invest in real estate, you’d probably have to buy property—but you can now consider investing in real estate investment trusts, also known as REITs.
The same is true for commodities, like precious metals or oil—you don’t have to buy bars of gold or barrels of oil. You can invest in exchange-traded funds, or ETFs, that track commodity markets. Mutual funds are also a way to incorporate a variety of assets into your portfolio, because they can hold stocks, bonds, real estate and commodities.
Being a master stock-picker may sound sexy, but for most investors, picking individual stocks is probably a bad idea.
One of the main reasons to consider investing in commodities is that “they serve as inflation hedges,” Blaylock says. “During times when there’s higher-than-normal inflation, these investments tend to do pretty well. And the closer [you are] to withdrawing your money, the more inflation becomes a concern.”
3. Is it risky to pick out your own stocks?
Being a master stock-picker may sound sexy, but for most investors, it’s probably a bad idea. Studies show that choosing stocks is almost always a losing proposition—even for the pros. “The risk [versus] reward of owning stocks is simply not in your favor,” explains Winkler. Plus, the more you trade stocks, the more likely you are to incur trading fees, which eats into any money you'd make.
The bottom line: You don’t have a crystal ball. “I think we are very naïve if we feel like we have the secret to selecting which companies will perform [well] and which will fail,” says Blaylock.
4. Why is risk tolerance important, and how can I figure out what mine is?
Risk tolerance comes down to how much risk you are willing and able to stomach, and it's important to know because it can impact how you shape your portfolio. Winkler suggests a simple gut check: “If you’re up [at night] thinking about your investments and fearing that a down market may bring your portfolio down too much, then you may be carrying too much risk,” he says. On the flip side, if you’re worried that you could be missing out on earning potential, your investments might be too conservative.
You can help gain a more quantifiable measure of your risk tolerance by taking quizzes to help you figure out whether you’ve got a more aggressive or conservative mindset. Just remember that your time horizon will also be pivotal when figuring out how much risk to take on. As we mentioned earlier, the closer you are to needing the money, the more likely you should consider shifting to conservative investments.
5. I keep hearing it’s crucial to be diversified. Why?
In a nutshell, diversification means you don’t have all your eggs in one investing basket, which may help protect you if any part of your portfolio falters.
For example, if you invest in just one company whose stock goes bust, then your portfolio will go bust. “If I own 2,000 companies in my portfolio, and 10% go bankrupt, I’m still going to be fine,” Blaylock says. “For me, it comes down to the law of large numbers. I’d rather own small pieces of 2,000 companies than 100% of one company.”
Being diversified also applies to the industries and asset classes you invest in. It's important to consider not only being invested in different sectors of the economy, but also investing in a mix of stocks and bonds. Index funds are one way you might further diversify your portfolio because they can track both stock and bond indexes. Bottom line: The broader your portfolio is, the likelier you are to weather a market storm.
6. What type of retirement account should I have?
This will depend entirely on your investing goals, income level, employment status and tax situation. But consider opening a retirement account as your first order of business because retirement savings is generally described as one of the pillars of financial security. And if your employer matches contributions to a 401(k), be sure to take advantage of that match—it's essentially free money! If your company doesn’t offer this perk, you may want to consider a traditional or Roth IRA.
Make sure to keep tabs on the IRS restrictions for retirement accounts—all of them have a contribution limit that can change from year to year.
If you’re still a while away from retirement and you qualify for one, a Roth IRA could be more beneficial because you’re taxed on the money you put in versus the money you take out, and it can be hard to predict what your tax situation will be like decades down the road. Plus, because Roth IRA withdrawals in retirement are tax-free, you have an opportunity to build up your account of mostly tax-free earnings, assuming your investments have performed well.
By contrast, with a traditional IRA or 401(k), you get a tax break in the year you make the contribution, but you will have to pay taxes later on the withdrawals.
Regardless of what you choose, make sure to keep tabs on the various IRS rules and restrictions for retirement accounts. All of them currently have a contribution limit that can change from year to year, which means you may need to invest in more than one type of account if you want to contribute more than the maximums allowed. Note: The Roth IRA also has income restrictions.
7. How else can investing affect my taxes?
Retirement accounts are generally either
tax-free or pre-tax, Blaylock says. Traditional IRAs and 401(k)s are pre-tax because they provide a tax break in the year that you make the contribution by reducing your taxable income. So if you make $50,000 per year, and contribute $5,000 into one of these accounts, you’d only be taxed as if you'd made $45,000. However, your withdrawals will be taxed later as ordinary income.
A Roth IRA, by contrast, enables your money to
be withdrawn tax-free at retirement. You pay tax on your contributions, but when you retire, you aren’t taxed on your withdrawals. This means you aren’t paying taxes on the amount your money has grown over time.
529 college-savings plans also allow for tax-free withdrawals if the funds are used for qualifying education costs, and you may receive additional tax benefits, depending on which state’s plan you invest in.
If you’re investing in a taxable brokerage account, you usually won’t get tax breaks, and you’ll pay taxes on your earnings anytime you sell a holding, known as capital gains. And as an incentive to invest for the long haul, the government also charges a higher tax rate on earnings from investments you hold for less than a year, called short-term capital gains.
8. Why should I prioritize retirement over non-retirement investing?
The reason is simple: Many of us have paltry nest eggs—36% of people have less than $1,000 stashed away for retirement. “We’ll all retire someday, but most of us are under-saved for it,” Blaylock says.
And given the modern life span, you could expect to live about 30 years as a retired person. Think about your expenses each year, multiply that by decades—and you’ll start to conceptualize just what a tremendous savings goal retirement is.
And to get there, you’ll probably need the help of compound growth, which is why investing in your retirement first—and as early as possible—can be so important.
9. I have a retirement account, and I want to start investing toward another goal. How do I go about this?
If you’re investing for something other than retirement, your goal will generally dictate the path you take. For instance, if you want to save for your children’s education, you’ll probably want to open a 529 to reap the potential tax benefits.
But if you’re saving for another big goal that’s more than five years out, like a down payment on a home, Blaylock recommends considering a taxable brokerage account because you can access the money when you need it without withdrawal restrictions.
The key is not to move your investments on a whim just because you see a drop in the stock market or hear that the S&P 500 hit a new record.
Just be sure to do your due diligence before choosing a brokerage house. Check whether there’s a minimum you need to invest to open the account, whether you'll need to pay any fees and if there's a diverse array of investments to choose from.
10. How often should I check my portfolio?
It all depends—on you. Maybe you get joy from watching the numbers go up or perhaps the ups and downs seriously stress you out. “The frequency is less important than having a set schedule,” Blaylock says. Winkler suggests twice a year, or even once a year may be fine if you’re fairly comfortable with how your portfolio is performing.
The key is not to move your investments on a whim just because you see a drop in the stock market or hear that the S&P 500 hit a new record. A good rule of thumb is to consider rebalancing once a year to help ensure that your asset allocation (the percentage of your money dedicated to various types of assets) has not strayed too far from what you’re comfortable with, and if your portfolio is more than 5% off from your model asset allocation, think about making some adjustments.
“Keep from making reactionary decisions,” Blaylock says. “Set aside time to review your investments regularly, but outside that, don’t look at them. Just do it on your schedule.”
LearnVest Planning Services is a registered investment adviser and subsidiary of LearnVest, Inc. that provides financial plans for its clients. Information shown is for illustrative purposes only and is not intended as investment, legal or tax planning advice. Please consult a financial adviser, attorney or tax specialist for advice specific to your financial situation. Unless specifically identified as such, the people interviewed in this piece are neither clients, employees nor affiliates of LearnVest Planning Services, and the views expressed are their own. LearnVest Planning Services and any third parties listed, referenced or linked-to in this message are separate and unaffiliated and are not responsible for each other’s products, services or policies.