It’s an age-old joke—one that makes its rounds on memes on the internet constantly—but its sentiment always rings true: in school, we learned all about the quadratic formula, but never how to write a check or file our taxes.
For those of us who didn’t study anything business or finance-related in college, that theme pretty much can sum up the entirety of much of our financial knowledge. It’s easy to feel like we’re so far behind in the financial world that we don’t even know what we don’t know—especially when it comes to investing.
But here’s the thing: it’s not too late, and while being a first-time investor can be daunting, it doesn’t need to be scary. The key to a non-intimidating investing experience is a non-intimidating, inclusive platform to actually do the investing on, and that’s why as a first-time investor myself, I’ve turned to Public.com. Public combines investing with social media for an investing experience that’s informative, accessible, and completely understandable, even to beginners.
We’ve turned to the experienced investors at Public to answer all of the most commonly-asked questions our audience of first-time investors had, from when the best time to start investing is to how you even go about beginning the process. Consider this your ultimate guide to finally feeling like you have the know-how to be an investor.
The following is for educational purposes only and is not investment advice.*
1. Why should I start investing?
Investing your money means that you are putting aside money now with the expectation that it will grow over time. Say you put $100 away each month in a shoebox under your bed. Over time, that money will lose value due to inflation. (Inflation just means that the value of the dollar is decreasing over time; a latte at Starbucks costs $5 today but may be $7 in a few years.)
When you invest your money, the goal is to put it into something now because you think the value of the asset will appreciate over time. This could apply to a real estate property, an index fund (collection of stocks), shares of stock in a single company, or even a collectible or piece of art.
Investing is a powerful tool for wealth creation because of compounding. An asset that appreciates 10 percent a year over many years has a snowballing effect because the interest applied becomes larger and larger as your investment grows. Type some amounts into a Compound Interest Calculator to see for yourself.
2. Should I pay off my debt before investing?
Personal finance, as the name would suggest, is personal, and your specific approach will be specific to your own financial situation, goals, and risk tolerance. Sadly, there isn’t a one size fits all answer to this question. Many experts suggest looking at the specifics of the debt you owe, specifically the interest rates, to decide how you may want to balance debt repayments with investing goals.
When deciding if you want to pay off your debt or invest first, it’s important to look at how high the interest rate of your debt is. For example, if you have a loan with 5 percent interest, but could invest somewhere that would give that money a 7 percent rate of return, it would make more sense to invest while paying off your debt. You should also keep an extra eye on your credit interest, as the amount you owe can add up quicker than you might think, leaving you in a worse financial situation than when you started.
One thing to keep in mind is that you can start small when investing thanks to fractional shares. Fractional shares allow you to gain experience in the market and learn about investing by owning small “slices” of stock. For example, if one share of Amazon is currently $3,000+/share, you can still purchase a portion of a share of Amazon stock for $5 or $10. You can get thousands of stocks and ETFs fractionally on Public, with no commission fees on standard trades.
Balancing debt repayment and investing is possible, and the combination can be a smart move for your money if you go about it in the smartest way for your situation.
3. I know very little about investing. Where do I begin to learn and how can I feel confident in this space?
A Public survey found that 55 percent of investors are self-taught. This is not surprising, since the fundamentals aren’t something that’s usually taught in school. Only 52 percent of U.S. households have any positions in the stock market, according to data from Pew Research, so many people don’t grow up in an environment where investing is the norm.
The good news is that there is an abundance of materials out there for educating yourself on the basics. You don’t have to get into the depths of investing subreddits or sit in front of the CNN stock ticker with a notebook and pencil to get the information you need. One book that covers a lot of the basics is “The Bogleheads Guide to Investing,” but there are hundreds more. You might also subscribe to newsletters like Morning Brew, or find creators who share educational content on these topics, like Mrs. Dow Jones, all of which approach investing in a conversational, understandable way.
Beyond empowering yourself with basic knowledge, communities like Public can help take your financial literacy to the next level because they allow you to learn through hands-on experience. It’s similar to studying a language in school, and then visiting a place where that language is spoken.
Participating in a community of investors can help you navigate in ways that are accessible and in the context of your actual investments. Not only can you interact with real people talking about how they’re investing their money, but you can tune into Public’s investing suggestions based on themes. For example, when quarantine began in full swing, they suggested investments under a “Stay at Home” theme, which included companies thriving in the new world quarantine, like Peloton and Blue Apron. Both of these combined make it easier to make informed investing decisions without needing to tune into investing cable news or jargon-filled articles.
4. How is investing in a 401(k) different than investing with a brokerage account? What are the benefits of each?
401(k)s are retirement investments that are designed to help you grow a nest egg for when you enter retirement age. These accounts are tax-advantaged, meaning you can put pre-tax money into them with the expectation that you will pay taxes on the funds when you start using them later in life. A Roth IRA is an individual retirement account (IRA) that allows qualified withdrawals on a tax-free basis provided certain conditions are satisfied. Roth IRAs are taxed differently than regular IRAs, as they’re funded with after-tax dollars and the contributions are not tax-deductible.
Brokerage accounts don’t have the same tax benefits, but offer greater flexibility in terms of when you can take money out without penalty. Unlike retirement investments like 401(k)s and Roth IRAs, there’s no ceiling on how much you can invest in a brokerage account.
Many investors choose to use a combination of the two, with brokerage accounts used for money you want to invest after maximizing retirement contributions. This is different for everyone and will vary, so definitely do your own research and/or consult a financial advisor to determine what’s right for your specific situation.
5. How much money do I need to start investing?
One of the roadblocks to investing is that sometimes, single shares of stock can cost thousands of dollars. If you aren’t in the market to do that, some platforms, like Public.com, are making investing more accessible by removing account minimums and offering fractional shares. This means that you no longer need thousands of dollars and full shares to invest and participate in the market.
Even if you’re starting with an investment that’s $20 and a small portfolio of stock slices, it will give you hands-on experience as a beginner, without needing to stretch your comfort level before you’re ready.
6. Is there a bad time to start investing? The stock market is at an all-time high, should I wait?
Long-term investing is about finding investments you believe in over the long term. Rather than thinking about how you’re going to be making money immediately, you think about what you’ll make in one, five, or even 20 years. If you’ve heard the phrase, “Time in the market, not timing the market,” it means that a long-term investor is focused on the horizon and is less concerned with short-term movements in the market or within a specific stock price.
A good way to visualize this is to look at a view of the Dow Jones Industrial Average over time. Toggle the chart between shorter windows of time (one day, one week) versus longer periods and you will see how the line squiggles up and down, but over time it has gone up.
The U.S. stock market has produced returns of about 9-10 percent annually to investors. This doesn’t mean that every individual stock sees these numbers, but it does mean that the market as a whole has continued on an upward trajectory over time. Past performance does not guarantee future results in the market, and all investments come with risk, but long-term investors will look to these trends rather than day-to-day.
7. What are some tips or strategies for beginners?
Everyone has a different financial situation, so everyone’s goals and risk tolerance will be different too. Before you invest, consider all aspects of your finances and how investing will impact you, not someone else on the internet who’s giving you advice. No two investors are the same in these regards, so Googling, “What stock should I buy?” isn’t a great place to start. Start with what makes the most sense for you.
Another thing to keep in mind as a beginner is to understand the differences in investment styles. Day traders are short-term investors who make frequent moves in the market. These trades come with greater risk because they require technical analyses and the right timing. For that reason, many day traders are unsuccessful and actually lose money.
Long-term investors are focused on investing in companies or funds that they believe in over a year or more. They do not fret as much about ups and downs during shorter periods, because they are focused on a longer-term target.
Knowing these differences is vital to deciding what investing strategy you want to use as a beginner, and so you understand when you should begin seeing your money grow as a result of your investments.
8. How should I think about evaluating different investment opportunities? What are some things to look for?
Investors look to several signals when determining if they want to make an investment. For stocks, this includes the financial health of the business (these are shared in quarterly earnings reports); the company’s growth prospects (for example, Peloton in the middle of a pandemic when gyms are closed); and even its values. Many investors want to put their money in companies they feel good about, and may choose to factor in things like sustainability, diversity, and other things as they make a decision.
Every investor will weigh their decisions differently. Experts will advise you to do your homework when making a decision.
One thing to consider is that exchange-traded funds, or ETFs, make it possible to invest in collections of stocks based on a theme or trend, meaning you don’t need to pick one “winner.” For example, there are ETFs for the major indexes, green energy, eSports, gender diversity, real estate, healthcare—the list goes on.
9. What does diversification mean exactly?
Simply put: diversification means allocating your money across different types of investments to reduce risk. Say for example you have $100 to invest and you put all of it in a single company, or into companies that are all in the same sector. An isolated event affecting that business or sector could put your entire portfolio at risk.
Now, say for example you split that $100 across 10 investments. These reflect a combination of stocks or funds across different sectors. If a single event impacts a business or sector, only 10 percent of your portfolio would be impacted, versus 100 percent. Investors diversify to spread, and therefore, reduce, risk.
10. What are capital gains?
Capital gains are profits you make through investments. Say you bought one share of stock for $100, and in six months that stock is worth $120. You sell the share for $120, which means your profit is $20. Since you sold the stock and realized the profit, you would owe taxes on that $20. This is an example of short-term capital gains tax, and the taxes you pay would be the same as you would on other income based on your tax bracket.
Now, say you bought that same stock for $100 but sold it 18 months later, and at that point, it’s worth $150. Your profit is $50, but you’d pay a lower tax rate (~15 percent) in this case because you had held the stock for a year or longer. This is long-term capital gains tax and the reason why many investors take a longer-term approach to investing.
One important thing to keep in mind is that you only realize gains (or losses) when you sell. If you buy a share of stock for $100, and a few months later it’s $80, you didn’t “lose” the $20. That stock could recover, so you only lock in losses when you sell.
11. What is a realistic growth time frame when investing money?
Experts will say a good place to start is to write down your financial goals, and to be more specific than “build wealth.” For example, your goals may be:
- Short-term: Purchase a car in six months
- Mid-term: Own a home within five years
- Long-term: Retire by age 65 with $XYZ in savings to live comfortably
Investing is a marathon. Each of these goals will have different strategies for achieving them. In general, the shorter the time frame, the less risk you may want to take on. For example, as many investors get closer to retirement age, their investment choices get more conservative than they may have been a decade before. Keep in mind, there is no one correct answer here and you should do your own research and/or work with a financial expert to come up with the plan that’s best for you.
If you’re at a place in your life that you’re thinking about investing for a home down payment, it’s important to talk with a financial expert about all of the facets that will be a factor for you personally—where you live, how much money you have available, your timeline, etc. This is a situation where everyone is different in several different ways, and having professional guidance is key.
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This post is sponsored by Public.com, but all of the opinions within are those of The Everygirl editorial board.