“Should I Start Investing?” A Financial Planner Answers Your Basic Questions
Many articles on investing assume you’ve invested before. But what if you haven’t? Sometimes, it’s best to start from scratch.
So, why do we invest?
Put simply, we invest because if we stack cash under a mattress (or almost as bad, in a savings account with little to no earned interest), we’ll lose money over time to inflation. Have you ever heard an older family member play the “remember when” game? Remember when gas was $0.50 a gallon, remember when bread was $0.25, etc. What they’re talking about is the effect inflation has on the buying power of a dollar over time. If they had put money under the mattress back then and believed that it would buy the same thing today, they’d be pretty disappointed!
While we are currently in a very low inflation cycle, in any given year inflation can eat away substantially at your savings. In 10 of the last 16 years, inflation was above 2%, and as high as 3.85%. So, your earnings and portfolio growth needs to match that number just to stay even. Just to give you an idea of what happens to your hard-earned money if you don’ match that: At a 3% per year inflation rate, $1 million in today’s dollars will deflate to about $412,000 in 30 years.
In a nutshell, that’s why we invest.
Okay, how am I supposed to keep up?
Historically, over the long run the best place has been in the stock market. A broad index of the U.S. large company stock is the S&P 500 Index. Over the last 50 years, it has returned an average of 9.7%.
Stocks are fairly liquid (easy to convert to cash, compared to real estate, for example). And if you put them in an IRA, 401(k) or other tax-advantaged account, it’s a strategy that is hard to beat. They can grow on a tax-deferred or tax-free basis, depending on what type of account you pick.
But, the stock market can also be fairly volatile at times. That’s why it’s important to have a long-term time horizon for investing (10+ years), otherwise a bearish market cycle could wipe out some of your portfolio’s value. In any given year, the value of a portfolio can be sharply lower or higher (2008 saw a loss of 38%, while 1954 saw a gain of 45%).
You can also help make your portfolio more stable by including other asset classes, like bonds (see below).
Be sure that you’re receiving professional advice to help target the right portfolio for your risk tolerance and time horizon. Many investors don’t actually get the returns that are cited because their risk tolerance doesn’t match their portfolio choices and they get nervous and sell when the going gets tough. In that case, you miss out on the rebound as markets improve.
What actually happens when we invest?
Well, let’s break it down by stocks (equities) and bonds (fixed income). There are other asset classes but we’ll stick to those two today. Let’s talk stocks first.
When you purchase the stock of a company, you are giving them cash to use for their business. In return, you become a partial owner in the business. When they do well, the stock goes up. When they underperform, the stock goes down. That’s why it’s also important that you don’t ever buy just one or a few stocks, but invest in a variety of different types (like index funds or target date funds offer). It’s better to have enough stocks to give you a balance, that is, where some go up while others go down. This helps keep your portfolio more stable.
For the bond side, it’s easiest to think of it as a loan that you’re giving the company (or government). You give them your cash, they tell you when you’ll be paid back, and give you interest payments in the meantime. There are plenty of variations on this theme, but that’s the vanilla version. The interesting thing about bonds is what happens to their value if you decide to sell them prior to their maturity. If rates have gone up, you could lose money. If rates have gone down, your bonds could be worth more than the value when you purchased them.
How can I get started?
Anyone can invest anytime, but some accounts offer tax advantages for specific purposes like education and retirement savings. As soon as someone has earned income, they can start contributing to an IRA, and opening an IRA can be a great way to start investing. See the IRS table here: IRS.gov – IRA Contribution Limits.
Most people really start saving when they get a job with an employer-sponsored retirement plan. A 401(k) is one version, but there are several variations on that theme. The great thing about those plans is that contribution limits are higher than IRAs and there’s no income limit on contributions—unlike Roth IRAs or deductibility for traditional IRAs. Also, many employers offer a match on employee contributions. Definitely take advantage of this opportunity if you have it!
For small business owners, you have some pretty good options too: SEP IRAs, SIMPLE IRAs and other accounts that are made just for you.
The most important thing…
The most important thing is to start. Back when a bottle of Coke was a nickel, most employees could rely on pensions. Those days are gone and you’re mostly on your own for retirement savings. The value of starting early is undeniable. Just check out this recent article. Some may need more for their financial goals, some may be happy with less, but the numbers speak for themselves when it comes to investing early.
If you need some help determining the amount you should invest, and which investments are best for you, you should consider contacting a designated, certified professional.
Something for women to consider:
As women, we tend to live longer than men, earn less, and to be the ones who take time away from our careers to raise children or care for aging parents. We also make a lot of the household purchasing decisions. For us, it’s that much more important that we take time out to create a saving and investing plan. It’s the only path to reaching financial stability and independence, and our dreams.
Do you feel like a confident investor, or do you feel like you want to learn more? We’d love to hear your feedback in the comments below.
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Jennifer Harper is the Founder and Director of Bridge Financial Planning, LLC, which provides fee-only financial planning & investing services. She is also an adjunct instructor for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga College of Business, teaching Small Business Finance, and the founding director of Common Cents Financial Literacy, Inc., a nonprofit organization founded in 2005 to promote and encourage financial education. Connect with Jennifer at BridgeFinancialPlanning.com or on Twitter @BridgeFinPlan
All written content is for information purposes only. Material presented is opinion, is believed to be from reliable sources and no representations are made as to accuracy or completeness. All information or ideas provided should be discussed in detail with a licensed/certified financial planner, accountant, or legal counsel prior to implementation for your unique situation.