The oldest rule for thinking about how to start investing money is also the simplest: “Buy low, sell high.”
While it seems blindingly obvious and begs the question of why anyone would want to do anything else when investing, you might be surprised how hard it is to put into practice.
Investing is a discipline which plays not only on astute analysis and remarkable luck but also on people’s behavioral responses.
Holding onto your stocks during periods of intense stock market volatility takes a lot of courage and isn’t what the human brain is wired to withstand.
But how do you approach investing if you don’t have a background in it? Without much prior experience, it’s tough to say how to invest your money.
There’s an ocean of information out there and sorting through it requires deliberate, thoughtful reflection when piecing together what you’ve read.
When it comes to growing your wealth and working toward financial independence, investing is an important tool.
Through investing, you can buy assets which, hopefully, grow in value, whether it is real estate like your home, a tax-advantaged investment (e.g., retirement account, health savings account), stocks, bonds or alternative investments.
All of these, when balanced appropriately and included in an investment portfolio, represent the best investments for young adults.
Let’s walk through some simple steps on how to begin to invest your money.
First, Invest in Yourself
Recently, I attended a wedding with my wife and her family where my brother-in-law approached me with a conversation about how to invest money.
He wanted to know how he could replicate the performance seen by the world’s greatest investors and learn how to start investing with little money. Specifically, he yearned to turn a small sum of money into an account balance with two commas in quick fashion.
Boy, if only I knew the sure-fire way to make that path my own reality, we wouldn’t have driven to the wedding in a rented subcompact.
I cautioned him that those investors are truly gifted and the exception to the norm. While it is important for him to know how to start investing young, I told him the common trait these legendary financiers share: following a systematic and disciplined approach to investing.
Further, they learned how to invest in yourself and gained a true appreciation for studying the stock market and the players working in it. These high income skills have yielded them significant returns over time.
I followed this with saying regardless of investing style, time frame, or philosophy, these great investors all have discipline, transact based on logical, informed thinking and do not let emotions drive their decision-making.
These are the most important elements required for investing success.
The investing styles are merely a means to an end and are developed later. Any investor starting out should focus on these core principles and learn to stick to them during times of good and bad.
How to Start Investing Your Money: Develop Your Investing Approach
As I explained this to my brother-in-law, I could see his disappointment in my not knowing any shortcuts to overnight investing success.
However, we launched into a discussion around how he could develop his own disciplined investing approach by first becoming a student of markets.
Knowing that this discussion could become overly cumbersome in just one conversation, I decided to share only introductory steps, which I outline below.
Investing isn’t easy but, at the same time, it shouldn’t be seen as a frightening endeavor. If done wisely and consistently, investing can separate you from retiring comfortably at a reasonable age and working into your golden years out of necessity.
We all want a comfortable retirement, so why shouldn’t we make smart decisions to get there?
With that thinking, I will do the same here. Short of a formal education in finance, my five high-level steps for gaining familiarity with investing in the stock market are as follows:
1. Read a Lot About the Stock Market
Sounds logical, right? You may be surprised by how many people I’ve heard say they got into a stock simply because so-and-so recommended it.
This person winds up not doing a lick of due diligence before investing and often doesn’t what was happening in the stock market, nor anything about the company.
As you read more, I really suggest approaching every article with a heavy dose of skepticism.
This will make you more likely to piece together content from multiple sources and form your own thinking about markets and the companies in them.
As an exercise, take a moment to read this 2018 U.S.-China trade war article about the earnings estimates for public companies. After you’ve read it, what were the main, salient points that stood out to you? I found the following to be most important:
- Many investors seem to think lackluster stock market movement during this quarter’s earnings announcements indicates peaking corporate profits. When companies announce record earnings and the stock market barely moves, it must mean expectations were high and future earnings don’t look to get any better.
- Analysts, or those people who follow stocks and publish opinions on them, seem to disagree and are increasing their profit projections at the largest rate in 6 years. This is where the skepticism should come into play. This conflict means someone is wrong, but who? Perhaps both are right and yet both are wrong. The truth likely lies somewhere in between.
- A growing economy and corporate tax reform have benefited companies but trade war activity makes for an uncertain outlook. To illustrate uncertainty, reporting companies have seen the most volatile trading in two years immediately after announcing earnings results. However, it appears this trading reaction could be the result of poor understanding of the effects of the recent tax reform legislation and clouds the visibility for accurately forecasting future earnings. So the volatility merely highlights poor forecasting abilities, not necessarily anything indicative of market direction.
- A lot of positive developments exist to push the stock market higher but looming risks serve to temper optimism usually present with such strong earnings growth. Bottom line: there doesn’t appear to be a strong case for a plummeting stock market but neither for a sustained rally.
As you read more pieces like this, reflect after each one and begin to piece together content from what you’ve read. Building this understanding won’t happen overnight.
2. Start Looking into Individual Companies
Naturally, you will come across individual companies. You should identify companies consistently performing well or making strides to improve.
I recommend starting by researching five companies you admire (preferably in different industries) and cultivating ideas about the strategies of each firm, their competitive advantages, and the core value they provide.
If you don’t believe any of these items to be durable over time, I would suggest moving on. You should recognize:
- what sets these companies apart from their peers,
- the prospects for the markets in which they operate (e.g., growing market vs. declining market), and
- how the stock market values them
The last item remains particularly important as the asset doesn’t so much matter but the price paid for it does. You can buy the most dogged companies for a fantastic price and earn a positive return while you can buy the most overpriced fantastic companies and lose money.
The point is you should pay considerable attention to the price companies trade for as this will be the greatest predictor of you potential returns: pay too much and risk losing money or paying too little and extracting some value the stock market didn’t assign the stock.
As far as the underlying businesses themselves, you should cast aside companies if you uncover something you don’t like. Don’t let sunk costs guide your thinking.
Ultimately, a stock represents a piece of a company, so sustainable profitability is an important factor.
Companies who continually produce losses, by definition, cannot survive without endless investor appetite for losses (a rare occurrence as long-term investors are in the business of buying profitable companies).
You really want to assess how profitable these companies can be, because before you decide how much to pay for a stock, you need to understand how much money that company makes.
If the company makes a lot of money consistently, you will likely have to pay more to acquire the stock.
The best stock picking services consider all of these variables when making their selections to subscribers.
3. Consider Investing in Index Funds and Mutual Funds
Investing is hard. It’s more art than exact science. By writing this investing step-by-step guide, my goal is not to simplify it. In fact, what I want to convey as clearly as possible is just how difficult it is to invest in individual stocks.
Investing is so much more than following some rules of thumb. Getting an edge is difficult, so you shouldn’t develop irrational self-confidence and think you have an investing edge when you really don’t.
Usually, being humble and saying to yourself that you don’t really know can be great to steady your decision-making.
If you don’t have confidence in selecting individual companies to outperform the market, another strategy is to invest in index funds like exchange traded funds (ETFs), mutual funds or some combination of the best target date funds.
What is an Exchange-Traded Fund (ETF)?
An ETF is a marketable instrument that tracks an index or collection of assets. ETFs function like stocks, which you can buy and sell at any time on the market.
ETF prices fluctuate based on supply and demand, just like any security. ETFs are a type of investment that can be passive or active.
Passive ETF investments automatically go to work for you by purchasing a basket of underlying assets in an index as you invest your dollars, while active ETFs give investors options with custom management and even exposure to indexes as well.
ETFs don’t need to track stock market indices—they may also invest in specific industries or sectors. Because of the various investment options available through passive and active ETFs, holders face varying charging for having their funds managed by ETF managers.
Management, administrative, and operational costs are common expenses for the fund.
What is a Mutual Fund?
Mutual funds are a great way for investors to diversify their portfolio and receive the benefits of professional management. When many people put their money together and pool it, they can buy a common portfolio of assets to achieve the mutual fund’s objective.
A mutual fund is a collection of investments, typically stocks and bonds. Many investors come together by pooling their money to invest in this group instead of purchasing them separately or through an investment advisor, stock brokerage or other means of purchasing investments.
They can be managed by either a professional investing team or passively as an index fund. Active funds tend to have more input from the manager while passive ones have less reliance on managers’ decisions because the investments track an index.
Unlike ETFs, investors can select different mutual funds with unique features and operational fees.
Mutual funds also come in two varieties: closed-ended or open-ended.
- Closed-ended mutual funds: Closed-ended mutual funds work in a similar manner as ETFs by issuing a fixed number of shares through an initial public offering. From there, these closed-ended mutual fund shares trade openly on the market like stocks or ETFs.
- Open-ended mutual funds: Open-ended mutual funds differ by offering new shares to the investors who place money with the mutual fund or redeeming them from investors who sell their shares back to the mutual fund.
Are ETFs and Mutual Funds the Best Way to Invest Your Money?
My preferred investing strategy involves investing in low-cost index fund ETFs or mutual funds for the long-term through brokerages which don’t charge trading commissions like M1 Finance or Public.
Index funds are the best way to invest your money if you aren’t sure of how best to invest in stocks. They allow you to invest your money in the stock market without it being extremely hard.
So, if you have little experience or confidence in your own judgement, index funds through ETFs and mutual funds are great options.
It’s also advisable to hold some of the best ETFs and mutual funds for diversification purposes.
Diversification is a way to invest your money in the stocks of multiple companies at once, reducing your direct risk or exposure to any one company’s actions or profit potential.
As an example of diversification and how it can reduce uncertainty and come in alignment with your risk tolerance, consider investing in stocks of multiple companies versus in just one.
You could invest your money among the top 100 best companies in the market or choose to invest in 5 companies grabbing headlines.
The former is what I recommend as it provides you exposure across many more industries and makes for a diversified portfolio.
By limiting your concentration in only a handful of stocks and opting for a broader portfolio, when one company underperforms, it has less drag on your returns. As a counterpoint, if one stock outperforms, your broadly-diversified portfolio will lag behind.
On the whole, this should converge to average annual expected returns, minimizing the volatility and hopefully orienting toward a steadier return upward in the long-term.
While no returns are guaranteed and past performance isn’t a predictor of the future, with time, choosing to invest your money in stocks should perform well in a diversified portfolio.
4. Take Action
Once you’ve gotten a decent handle on the overall market’s activity and analyzed a set of attractively-valued companies you think stand out from the rest, it’s your time to pull the trigger.
Alternatively, as I mentioned in step 3, consider investing in low-cost index fund exchange traded funds through a robo-advisor like M1 Finance, a self-directed broker like Public or a micro investing app like Acorns.
5. Continue Following the Companies and the Stock Market
By doing your due diligence, you will be able to follow these companies and see if they continue to perform as you expect. If a company makes a decision you don’t agree with or think will adversely impact its value going forward, it might be a good idea to cut your losses short and move on.
Investing well can produce very rewarding experiences you share with those you love. For me, it allowed me to buy my first home and now to grow my assets enough to purchase my next one together with my wife to start our family.
In general, developing your own disciplined investing approach based on rational, informed decision-making can lead to financial peace of mind.
Learning how to invest wisely at a young age will have you maximize your youth by allowing compounding to work to your benefit and see how to build wealth.
Do yourself a favor and invest in stocks by following these 5 steps on how to start investing money.
Finishing the conversation with my brother-in-law, as I laid out this process to meet his interest in becoming a student of markets, I stressed how these are the first steps to developing a disciplined investing approach.
Taking the mindset that informed investing can lead to real gains, I saw he wanted to jump in and work toward developing his own investing approach and investment plan.
He may not become the next Warren Buffett but following through will allow him to have his (wedding) cake, and eat it too.
How to Invest in Stocks for Beginners with Little Money
Below, read more questions and answers about how to invest money in stocks, including the considerations you should make for the time to start investing in the stock market.
When Should I Start Investing in the Stock Market?
Step 1: Investing in Stocks is Long-Term; Focus First on Today’s Needs
First, you shouldn’t save anything for the long-term if you’ve got needs that must be addressed today. Behind on bills? Need to eliminate costly credit card debt? Have to fund an emergency savings fund to guard against backsliding into debt even further?
Don’t let these expenses get out of hand. Instead, you need to build a solid financial rock upon which you can grow.
- Establish an emergency fund: This entails saving a minimum of 3-6 months (or even 12) of your on-going monthly expenses. While this might sound like a lot if you’ve got nothing currently, start small with $100, then $1,000 and eventually $5,000. Make sure you’re realistic with your budget and fully fund this personal finance priority before contributing anything meaningful toward retirement.
- Pay off credit card debt: You’re not alone if you’ve got credit card debt that’s been piling up. Paying off your credit card debt is a must before saving for retirement because it will save you money in the long-term. The interest rates paid on credit card debt almost always outweigh what you could receive by investing for retirement in stocks and bonds. Credit cards usually charge in excess of 15% APYs, sometimes north of 20%. While stocks and bonds can have years where they return this amount, over very long periods of time, you’re more likely to encounter returns between 7-10% per year on average with a well-diversified portfolio of equities and fixed income. If you have any amount of credit card debt, make sure to pay it off as soon as possible so you can start saving for retirement without worrying about this emergency expense.
- Get current on bills: You might be thinking that you should save for retirement before paying off your bills, but this is a mistake. If you’re behind on your monthly bills then you need to take care of these past due expenses before saving for retirement. Getting current on all of your financial obligations is important because it will make sure that if anything were to happen in the future where you couldn’t work or had emergency expenses come up, then there would be no debt hanging over your head.
You can lower your credit card debt quicker by signing up for an app like Tally, which extends a lower cost line of credit to cover your existing credit card debt and putting an end to late payment fees.
For student loans, you may have received a reprieve from governmental orders during the COVID-19 pandemic, but payments will resume in early 2022.
Now, you’ll need to resume payments but can lower the interest rate you pay by using a student loan refinancing marketplace like Splash Financial.
The service pulls real-time quotes from several refinancing lenders in the market to give you a sense of the best refinancing option available to you.
My wife used a loan refinancing marketplace when her first round of student loans required payments to start and she dropped her rate from 8.00% to 2.85%, reducing her average rate by 515 basis points and saving us thousands in interest!
If you’re in a similar situation with high-cost student loans, consider using Splash Financial to find your best rate and lowering your cost of repayment.
Depending on the savings you can receive, this guaranteed savings often makes for a wise financial decision.
Once you can get a handle on your high cost debt and student loans responsibly, you should look to invest money in your retirement accounts, like a 401(k) or IRA, and taxable brokerage accounts to grow for the long-term.
Step 2: Invest Early, Invest Often (and Diversify)
I’m a huge believer in working toward financial independence, or having the financial resources to make decisions not guided by money.
That means you need to have enough saved and invested. To get there faster, you’ll need to save more now.
I suggest saving more than the standard 10-15% of your income per year if you can afford. This will give you either A) a more comfortable and secure retirement at the traditional age (65-68) or B) a chance to retire earlier.
How much earlier depends on when you start saving, how much you contribute, the portfolio you choose and the investment returns you receive.
To get started, consider the following investing strategy:
- Pay off debt, save an emergency fund. This again? Yes. These short-term needs aren’t something you can avoid. Prioritize the now in this instance as the costs of being behind on bills, credit card debt or student loans is far greater than the upside you’d see long-term for investing from retirement. Those costs you see in your mail are certain. You can always save more if you get started a bit later on your retirement with a chance to catch up.
- Work your way up the retirement savings account ladder. This means starting with an order of investment accounts to capture the greatest return for yourself. It starts with an emergency fund but then quickly goes into investment accounts. If you work for an employer who offers a retirement match, or money they agree to contribute alongside yourself into a 401k, 403b or 457 plan, you should start here. Make sure the investment options provided make sense and are lower cost. If they have index funds in the employer-sponsored plan menu, you’ve found a good set of investments to hold for decades to come. If you get a match, take full advantage of it! That’s free money you can call yours risk-free. Invest up to the match at a minimum. That means if your company offers a 4% match on your contributions, invest at least 4% of your annual pay.
- Contribute to an IRA. Next up are individual retirement accounts, or IRAs. These accounts come in two types: traditional and Roth. Traditional IRAs allow you to deduct your contributions in the year you make them (subject to certain income limitations) and pay taxes when you withdraw money in retirement on a tax-deferred basis while Roth IRAs work the opposite: pay taxes upfront and see your investments grow tax-free. If you’d like to open an IRA, consider whether you think you’re paying higher taxes now or whether that’ll happen in retirement. If you think taxes are higher now, contribute to a traditional account. If you think they’ll be higher for you in retirement, contribute to a Roth IRA with M1 Finance or other investing companies that don’t charge commissions.
- Standard brokerage accounts. If you have all these bases covered and you’re hitting the maximum for all of them, consider investing in a taxable brokerage account deemed as one of the best investing apps for beginners. This after-tax money isn’t tax-efficient, but it does provide you with liquidity if you need money before retirement.
Step 3: Rinse and Repeat (and Repeat)
Micro investing is an easy way to start investing because of the low capital commitment and minimal (if any) investment minimums. Though, for it to really make a difference for your financial needs, it can’t be the only way you save for retirement.
In fact, you’ll need to supercharge these contributions in short order to take advantage of compounding returns over time on increasingly larger sums of money.
Said differently, you want to contribute as much as you can as early as you can to allow compounding returns in diversified investments to do the heavy lifting if you want to actually live out your retirement dreams.
The great news is that the earlier you get started, the more time you have to put your money to work. That’s the power of compound growth! Here’s what that could look like for you:
Let’s say you’re 30 years old, making the average household income of around $66,000. You decide to invest $600 per month in your retirement accounts, all inclusive of any employer match you’d receive.
That amounts to just over 10% of your income every year. If you retire at age 67, you could have over $2.1 million in your retirement savings.
This assumes an average 9% annual return, which is a bit under the inflation-adjusted average annual return of the S&P 500 of the last 50 years.
In short, a realistic growth rate if you leave your funds investing in a S&P 500 index fund over multiple decades.
That sounds pretty great, right? But it gets even better. Of that total $2.1 million, your contributions only make up around $266,500.
That means 90% of that total is money provided by the market—not your wallet!
But, if you made the same decision to start investing $300 per month at age 22, you’d have $2.2 million. $600 a month? $4.4 million!
And if you really want to save and retire early, say at age 55, consider investing $1,000 per month starting at age 22. Certainly a steep contribution to start, but if you can manage it, that decision will pay off significantly: $2.4 million.
If you can manage $2,000 per month, you could retire at 50 with $3.0 million.
The lesson here: start early and invest as much as you can as early as you can.
Where Should I Keep Money Outside of the Stock Market for Short-Term Needs?
Set aside money in an emergency fund and short-term financial goals like buying a house by opening savings accounts. This money is FDIC-insured, meaning there is low risk of your funds getting lost if the amount if below $250,000 at one bank.
You can even earn passive income from short-term interest rates paid on these savings accounts.
About the Author and Site
In 2018, I was winding down a stint in investor relations and found myself newly equipped with a CPA, added insight on how investors behave in markets, and a load of free time. My job routinely required extended work hours, complex assignments, and tight deadlines. Seeking to maintain my momentum, I wanted to chase something ambitious.
I chose to start this personal finance website as my next step, recognizing both the challenge and opportunity. I launched the site with encouragement from my wife as a means to help younger generations learn how to invest, manage and plan their money with confidence.
I have not been compensated by any of the companies listed in this post at the time of this writing. Any recommendations made by me are my own. Should you choose to act on them, please see the disclaimer on my About Young and the Invested page.