How to invest money in 2018: The best beginner’s investment plan, with funds, stocks, bonds and more
What are the best investments? How do you invest in the first place? Here’s how to grow your wealth in stocks, bonds, ETFs and more — so you can end up richer and maybe actually retire. ImageFlow/Shutterstock
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Perhaps you’ve heard that to really grow your money, you need to start investing. But does just the thought of the topic make you feel anxious? You’re not alone: 62% of younger investors say they feel overwhelmed simply by all the options available to them, according to a recent Scottrade survey.

It’s the classic problem of the tyranny of choice: Having too many options makes actually picking one feel like more work than it needs to be. And there is a lot of choice out there for investors — including stocks, bonds, real estate, mutual funds, exchange traded funds and much more. (That’s not even to mention cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, which are perhaps better thought of as gambles or lottery tickets than true “investments” at this moment in time.)

Even when you just look at stocks and all the different ways you could mix them into an index, Bloomberg notes that you’d likely have a googol of different combinations. In other words, if you wanted a list of potential equities portfolios, you’d need a one followed by 100 zeroes to count them all up — and that’s just given about 3,000 easily investable stocks; there are more than 200 times that around the world.

Some good news? Being an expert stock picker isn’t actually necessary to grow your wealth. In fact, most people get in trouble specifically when they think of investing as a way to get rich quickly, said Bruce Greenwald, a professor of finance and asset management at the Columbia Business School.

“There are deeply embedded human behaviors that are really dysfunctional when it comes to investing in financial markets,” Greenwald said. “People will overpay for the prayer and dream of getting richer. ... So if you stay away from glamour stocks, you’re going to avoid being the wrong side of those transactions.”

In other words, your road to success as an investor is less likely to hinge on whatever hot stock your friend thinks you should buy ASAP — and depends more on how smart a portfolio you put together today, as well as how you gradually tweak or rebalance it over time.

So how do you invest intelligently, if slowly? It comes down to some basic principles. Here are the key factors you’ll need to understand to grow your money for the long term, with answers to your five biggest investing questions.

1. What’s the best reason to start investing?

The main argument for putting your money in anything other than a checking account is — essentially — to avoid losing your net worth to inflation. In a checking account, your cash will still be there in 40 years, assuming you don’t touch any of it. But you also won’t be able to buy nearly as much with it: For example, $3.95 would have gotten you a new business suit in 1955. But in 2018, it’s not enough to buy a pack of retractable erasers on Amazon.

Now, if inflation were your only concern, you might be fine keeping your money in interest-earning savings accounts or certificates of deposit, or low-risk government bonds like Treasury inflation-protected securities aka TIPS — which are specifically designed to protect your buying power.

But, of course, preserving your purchasing power is only just one argument for investing money: Other crucial reasons might include growing a substantial enough nest egg for retirement and building up enough cash for a shorter-term purchase, like buying a home. For those kinds of goals, if you won’t get there by saving alone, you might want assets with higher returns — and therefore you’ll have to take on higher risk.

Those riskier assets might include stocks (which let you buy a share of a company’s future profits) and bonds (which let you lend a country, company, or other entity money to earn interest), as well as mutual funds, ETFs, and balanced funds that mix equities and fixed income.

Now, there are few investments that grow as much or as quickly as stocks: $100 invested in Treasury bonds in 1928 would be worth about $7,000 today, according to calculations from New York University finance professor Aswath Damodaran. That same money invested in the stock would be worth nearly $400,000. Indeed, that aforementioned $3.95 would have been enough to buy about 26 General Electric shares in the early 1960s, according to historical stock data on MacroTrends. That stake would be worth nearly $400 in 2018.

That said, only a psychic can know for sure which companies are going to be profitable — let alone still around — in 50 years.

That’s one reason why lots of investors have increasingly gravitated toward “diversified” investments like funds, which combine many assets together to balance risk and reward — particularly for retirement savers. Target-date funds, for example, are a spin on balanced funds that are designed to get a little bit less risky each year as you age toward retirement.

2. When should I begin investing?

There are many advantages to getting an early start as an investor. Just to name a couple, you have more time for your money to grow — and more time for (inevitable) market downturns to correct themselves.

Still, you might feel unmotivated. You might know, for example, you need to be investing for old age already. But when you start queuing up your monthly financial to-do list, it might be tempting to skip the step of creating or checking on your portfolio — and go straight for the step where you shop around for a cool new credit card. Indeed, recent data suggests more American households are enrolled in credit card rewards programs than they are in a retirement plan.

But it pays to get focused: The advantage of a long investment period is powerful. A person who starts investing in a portfolio with an average 7% return at age 25 needs only to save about $50,000 to end up with $600,000 by the time they’re 65, as the below calculation from JP Morgan shows. But if that person waited until age 35, they could invest three times that figure and still wind up with less money in the long run.

An early start is more powerful than simply saving more.
An early start is more powerful than simply saving more. JP Morgan /JP Morgan

Now — while this is certainly a case for beginning retirement savings right away — it is not to say you should be putting every last dime into an investment portfolio just yet. Young savers often have other financial priorities to consider alongside (and even above) investing, certified financial planner Michael Kay said in a phone interview.

“Don’t forget to make sure your emergency funds are funded,” Kay said. “If there’s a problem and the only asset you have is your retirement or other long-term investments, you’re going to have to cash it in and pay taxes, or take the loss if you don’t.”

In other words — while there are always exceptions to rules of thumb — you’ll want to follow a basic order of operations. You might first make sure you have a checking account that lets you pay your normal bills without incurring overdraft or other fees; a savings account with enough to cover three to six months of emergency expenses; and, if you have high-interest (like revolving credit card) debt, you wouldn’t be wrong to pay that down before investing.

One possible exception is if foregoing retirement savings would cost you extra — like if you work in a job that matches your contributions, explained Maria Bruno, a certified financial planner and retirement strategist at Vanguard.

“For investors just starting out, if you have a company match, you don’t want to leave money on the table,” she said. “If you don’t have one, a Roth is a way to get tax-advantaged growth.” (More on Roth accounts below.)

To be sure, everyone is going to have different financial situations and goals, which is why it’s never a bad idea to run your priorities by a financial advisor if you’re not comfortable doing the math yourself. But here’s a cheat sheet if you’d rather DIY your priority ranking first.

3. How do I literally start investing?

There are many vehicles for investing your money, many of which come with important perks, like being able to deposit and grow your cash tax free. Because of the tax benefits, many investors first choose to invest up to the maximum in retirement accounts, which come in a few forms.

Through retirement accounts

401(k)s

You might be a stock market investor already without even realizing it: About two-thirds of the largest U.S. employers automatically enroll their employees in 401(k) retirement accounts, according to a recent survey from AARP. According to a recent report from Wells Fargo, nearly 60% of millennials have a 401(k).

The 401(k) was invented in the late 1970s as corporations began looking for a more cost-effective alternative to pensions. 401(k)s come in a variety of structures: Sometimes they include matching funds from your employer, and sometimes they are used primarily to dish out shares of a company’s stock to its employees. Typically, though, you’ll grow your savings through one or more funds that you’ll choose from a set menu.

You can contribute $18,500 annually into a 401(k) — more once you hit the age of 50 — and the money won’t be taxed until you start making withdrawals. Talk to your manager or HR professional at work if you need help boosting your contributions, or making changes to your investment mix.

Individual retirement accounts

Perhaps you can’t or don’t want to trust your employer to do all the work. Rolling over your 401(k) when you change jobs can be a pain — or, if you’re really lucky, you have more than $18,500 annually to put away for retirement each year. In any case, you may also consider investing on your own through a traditional or Roth IRA — which you won’t have to roll over from job to job.

IRAs also have key tax advantages beyond the way they grow: Traditional IRAs can be tax deductible when you make your contributions, while funds put in Roth IRAs are taxed going in, but untaxed when you take them out.

The total contribution limits for both types of IRAs is $5,500 annually, or $6,500 for those older than 50. To take tax deductions against your traditional IRA contributions, you’ll need to meet conditions, earning below certain income thresholds or not having access to a retirement plan at work. Learn more by checking out the Payoff guide to opening an IRA.

SEP IRAs

Simplified employee pension IRAs are designed for small business owners, but they’re also increasingly relevant for the self-employed, a demographic that’s projected to grow to a full 43% of the workforce by the year 2020, according to projections from Intuit. Using a SEP IRA, employers can deduct up to 25% of their salary and qualified expenses into a retirement account.

The contribution limits for SEPs are the same whether you run a small business with employees or are simply self-employed: $55,000 annually, or 25% of your total compensation, whichever is less.

Through a (cheap or free) brokerage account

Quite the overachiever! Unless you are already maxing out your retirement accounts, it’s not necessarily advisable to invest your money directly into the stock market through a taxable brokerage account like those available through TD Ameritrade or (free) Robin Hood: It’s essentially leaving money on the table.

But if you’ve already taken advantage of your company’s corporate 401(k) match, have slayed all your debts and maxed out your individual retirement accounts — then, sure, you could put some cash in a brokerage account as well. Brokerages enable you to buy and sell individual stocks, as well as diversified investments like exchange-traded funds, and even alternative assets like real estate and sometimes cryptocurrencies.

Many brokerages charge a small fee per trade, though they generally offer generous sign-up bonuses, meaning it’s worth it to shop around.

4. What are the best mutual funds, ETFs and other investments to choose?

Once you follow the steps above, you will realize how wide the menu of “best investments” is. You might be limited to a few mutual funds or ETFs through your 401(k), in which case you’ll want to maximize diversification (more on that below) and age-appropriate risk — and minimize fees. Look out for each fund’s “expense ratio,” and aim for a number below 0.5% or 0.25% for passive funds.

However, in an IRA or brokerage account, you’ll have a lot more options. How do you begin to choose? Remember that a great, diversified portfolio can be super simple, containing just a few mutual funds or ETFs.

Three sample portfolios with Vanguard, Schwab, Dodge & Cox and Oakmark funds recommended by Money magazine each have 5, 7 and 8 funds, respectively, for example — but they let you invest in a wide range of assets, including domestic and international stocks and bonds, plus real estate. For more ideas, you might check out MarketWatch’s “lazy portfolios,” as well as Morningstar’s model retirement saver portfolios.

In general, a lot of how you wade through your options boils down to the way you weigh risk and reward — between a potentially large payout and the possibility your money could be gone tomorrow.

A simple rule of thumb: The longer your time horizon, the more of your cash can be in riskier assets like stocks as opposed to safer ones like bonds, said both Kay and Bruno. That’s because the more years you have to meet your goal, the more likely you will be able to recover from market crashes.

Within a single year, average stock returns might range from an (encouraging) 47% to a (scary) -39%, according to a data analysis from JP Morgan. But over a 20-year horizon, returns average a less stressful range — between 7% and 17%.

The longer your time horizon, the less likely you are to be drastically affected by a downturn.
The longer your time horizon, the less likely you are to be drastically affected by a downturn. JP Morgan/JP Morgan

“It’s very conceivable that someone should have 80% to 90% equities as they’re starting out, and then shift,” Vanguard’s Bruno said.

The reason you change your mix as you age is that the closer you get to retirement and actually needing your money, the higher the risk of one of those -39% years coming along and obliterating 40 or 50 years of savings.

To decide how much to have in stocks versus bonds, a common “birthday” rule of thumb is to take your age and subtract it from 100: So a 25-year-old might have 75% of their savings in equities or more, while a 75-year-old would want 25% of their holdings in stocks at most.

5. How can I protect my invested money?

The best way to protect your money in the long term is to focus on the factors you can control. You can’t control whether the market goes up or down, Kay noted, but you can control how you react to downturns, and how much of your income you’re spending, saving, and allocating to different accounts.

That’s one reason you should be extra careful around shorter-term goals — like saving for a car, home or baby. On one hand, you might be able to afford the risk and put at least a portion of your “house” savings into the stock market in the hopes it might grow faster. But if you cannot at all afford the chance of it disappearing, maybe investing that money isn’t actually the right move.

“If three of the next five years are down years, you’re... in trouble,” Kay said. “If that goal five years away is vital, don’t risk it. You find a [certificate of deposit], a money market or the best interest-bearing account you can find that’s liquid and safe, because that short term goal is vital to you and it has to happen.”

As for longer-term goals — whether that’s retirement, a decade-away purchase, or something else — how can you protect your investments? These three principles can help.

Stay diversified

The idea behind diversification is that it’s risky to put too many of your eggs in one basket. Companies go out of business, industries face years-long declines, and countries enter periods of political instability.

The more uncorrelated assets you have exposure to, the better you’re going to be able to balance risk and reward: That’s why you want international stocks in addition to domestic ones, and bonds as well as stocks.

“During the global financial crisis, the last really big market correction we had, the market was down about 55%,” said Vanguard’s Bruno. “But a balanced investor, someone with anywhere between 40% to 60% equity, would have been down about half that.”

Reduce fees

Another factor you can control are your investment fees. You might be charged every time you initiate a trade, for example, or a small percentage of the assets managed. The way fees are assessed matters.

Kent Smetters, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and host of SiriusXMU’s personal finance show, said in a phone interview he never brings financial planners on his show unless they are “fee only,” meaning the compensation they take is a simple hourly rate for their services — so they don’t have an incentive to push bad products on clients.

“There’s about 285,000 financial advisers and only about 5% of them are truly fee only, meaning they’re required to put the interest of their clients first... they can’t be conflicted by commissions,” Smetters said. “They also have to agree to my approach of using low-cost investing.”

So how can you put that into practice — beyond making sure any advisor you hire is fee only and accredited?

Want to manage your money like a rich person? The richer you get, the easier it is to diversify your investments and cut out fee-earning middlemen — one reason wealth tends to beget more wealth.
Want to manage your money like a rich person? The richer you get, the easier it is to diversify your investments and cut out fee-earning middlemen — one reason wealth tends to beget more wealth. Visual Capitalist /Visual Capitalist

Again, keep an eye out for those expense ratios. Vanguard’s popular S&P 500 ETF, for example, charges just 0.04%, meaning that you pay $4 for every $10,000 invested. But it’s not unusual for actively managed funds to charge 1% — which can eat up thousands of extra dollars of your money over time. You can use an expense ratio calculator to see the difference.

You might also look at other sources of hidden costs to investors, like ETFs that don’t track their underlying index as efficiently as they should, and other more qualitative problems: Morningstar has helpful profiles of most popular funds.

Keep your psychology in check

Finally, while you can’t really control whether the market goes up or down, you can control how you react to these events. Odds are, market psychology — and news headlines — will be prompting you to sell when it’s actually time to buy, and vice versa. That’s why so many financial advisers tout the importance of a long-term plan, which you can “set and forget” until it’s time to rebalance it once or twice a year.

“Mob behavior is really destructive,” Columbia’s Greenwald said. “If you buy whenever everybody is buying and sell when everyone is selling, you’ll do really badly.”

In short, the best path to a wealthy future as an investor is to first learn what you can — then relax, and keep it simple. While you might feel too young and broke to consider yourself an “investor” just yet, remember not to sell yourself short. Millennials are actually ahead of their predecessors in Gen X when it comes to retirement readiness, according to a recent study by Fidelity.

Want to learn more? Check out our previous investing guides on key terms and principles — and get help tracking down more help with our primer on finding a financial planner you can trust.

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