For many Americans, the only financial goal as of late has been staying afloat.
As many as 78% of Americans report they earn just enough money to pay their bills each month. So how does one get off the hamster wheel? You start looking for other financial opportunities like investing.
Investing isn’t complicated. But I’m not going to sugarcoat it and tell you that by reading one article you’ll be ready to buy your first stock – although you could.
Like most big financial decisions in your life, investing requires careful consideration and setting some time aside to learn the basics before dipping your toe in the water.
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When talking to my peers who are not in the market, one thing kept coming up: Who do I go to for help?
Well, there are countless resources out there, but if people don’t even know what to ask, those resources are useless.
Dheerja Kaur, head of core product at Robinhood, agreed. “People perceive the tools and resources on investing are just not made for them,” she told USA TODAY.
Robinhood recently made its mark by causing a market disruption powered by individual investors betting on stocks like GameStop, AMC and Blackberry. Similar, to Acorns, Stash and Invstr, these investing apps are making the process more accessible to women, minorities and all individuals.
There’s an entirely new generation of investors drawn by apps who still haven’t developed a plan for their portfolio. But as the saying goes, you don’t have to have the answer to everything, you just need to know someone who does.
For new investors and those thinking about joining the market alike, it would be in their best interest to sit down with a professional to set some goals. Here are some steps to set yourself up on a good investment path:
1. What should I look for in a financial planner or investment adviser?
When choosing a financial adviser it’s important to conduct an interview. This is a person who will be handling your money, so you shouldn’t rely on a fancy title alone or go with the first option.
“Start by asking people you know and trust … Financial planning and investment management is very much a referral type of business,” said Monica Sipes, a certified financial planner and senior wealth adviser at Exencial Wealth Advisors.
“First, ask how investment decisions are made,” she said. “Make sure you are comfortable with that – it could be an individual adviser (making those decisions), it could be at the firm level, it could be that they’re outsourcing that. And also ask, how the adviser or the firm is compensated,” she added.
If you still don’t feel like you’ve gotten enough from them try the interview classic, “what else should I be asking you?” The answer can give you a sense of the work style, commitment and experience of the adviser.
“You want to also make sure the adviser is not incentivized to sell you certain products and that they are independent advisers,” said Brian Walsh, Jr., Senior Financial Advisor at Walsh & Nicholson Financial Group agrees. “Fiduciaries are legally bound to recommend only investments and products that are in the best interest of the client.”
He added that you shouldn’t rush a decision and that you must do your research, interview multiple advisers and go with the one that feels right for you.
There are also resources to find financial advisers if you’re the first one in your family or friend circle to take the step. Sipes recommends visiting www.letsmakeaplan.org to find advisers in your area.
2. What investment terms should I know?
It’s also good to know some investing terms before you come across them. Here’s a list of terms financial advisers recommend you know:
- Asset allocation: a strategy balancing your risk tolerance and goals by apportioning a portfolio’s assets.
- Fiduciary: the person or company that acts on your behalf.
- Brokerage account: an account with a licensed brokerage firm to place trades on your behalf.
- Retirement account: an account to be accessed after retirement (or during an emergency, in some cases).
- Investment vehicle: the products you invest in, e.g. certificates of deposit, bonds, stocks, options, or futures.
- ETF: an exchange-traded fund is a type of security made up of a collection of securities.
- Mutual fund: an investment vehicle made up of a pool of money collected from many investors to invest in securities
- Registered Investment Adviser (RIA): a person or firm who advises high-net-worth individuals on investments and manages their portfolios
3. How much money should I be investing?
This is personal, as with most investment decisions. However, there are some key points that have proven over time to yield good results.
“At a minimum, you need to be saving 20% (of your income),” said Sipes. “My more aggressive investors are saving probably closer to 40-50%.”
If you are starting out, committing that amount of money is nerve-wracking. Investing apps, like Robinhood and Acorns, have options to invest as little as $1 at a time with fractional shares, which is a great option for those who want to get familiar with the process. The amount of money you invest, ultimately, is what you decide – and dependant on your risk tolerance.
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“What I tell clients is that you want to first make sure you have three to six months of living expenses in an emergency fund, such as short-term savings,” said Walsh. “Make sure you are contributing to your employer retirement plan if one is offered, and take advantage of the match if available. From there, it will depend on how much net cash flow you have leftover each month and what your goals are.”
4. How many stocks should I own?
Before stocking up, investors would be wise to consider the investment vehicle and account that they are using since those details could play a part in the number of stocks needed for diversification.
“If you are investing in individual stocks, which I do not recommend unless the rest of your investment portfolio is constructed in a way to reach your goals, no more than 20 stocks should suffice,” Walsh said, pointing out that research has shown that more than 20 stocks in a portfolio “don’t necessarily lead to better overall risk diversification. We build portfolios using low-cost funds and ETFs and we usually have between seven to 10 funds in a given portfolio. There is no need to have more than that.”
Sipes, on the other hand, believes 35 to 50 stocks can create a diversified portfolio. “Picking individual stocks can be difficult, so oftentimes for investors starting out, I recommend index funds, like an ETF or something like that.”
Once again, this highlights the importance of sitting down with a financial planner who has your situation and goals in mind.
To that end, Sipes reminds us that consistency trumps the amount. “It’s important to set a plan and stick to it. And that’s where we see clients have a ton of success,” she said.
5. When does my portfolio start making money?
Show me the money, am I right? The scariest part of investing is risk and control. And like in all learning processes, positive reinforcement works best – especially if that reinforcement is money.
“Hopefully, your portfolio starts making money right away,” said Walsh.
“When you invest, you need to make sure you have a long-term view. No one can time the markets,” he added. “You could begin investing and the next day the market drops 10% or goes up 10%, there is no way to tell.”
6. How does investing affect my taxes?
Investing can have no impact on your taxes or it can have a lot.
“Investing in a retirement account, like a 401(k) or an IRA, will not have (much) impact for tax-deferred accounts,” Sipes said. “Whereas a $10,000 investment in Tesla last year that turned into $70,000 and was sold in less than 12 months could have a massive impact on short-term gains taxes coming into play.”
But fear not, capital gains taxes can usually be managed depending on how much and when you pull from your account.
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“If you hold your positions for more than one year, any gains are taxed at either a 15% or 20% capital gains tax rate depending on your tax bracket,” Walsh explained. “If you hold positions for less than one year, your gains are taxed as ordinary income.”
Everyone’s investing journey is different, but we all start out with the decision to make our money work for us. The entire process can be as complicated or as hands-off as you want. Only one thing remains constant for newer and experienced investors alike: It’s a risk.
Look for trusted help and don’t be afraid. We’re all “the market” in a sense so we all have the same chances to go up or down.
Josh Rivera is a Money & Consumer NOW editor at USA TODAY.
This column should not be considered financial advice. Contact a professional financial planner to determine if investing is right for you and how it fits into your personal finance goals. The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.