5 Steps to Begin Your Investing Journey

Riley is a senior financial analyst at a Fortune 500 company with a CPA and M.S. in Applied Economics who aspires to help young professionals navigate the sometimes-murky waters of finance.  He is also the author of the blog, Young and The Invested, which is dedicated to growing an online community for young professionals looking to improve their financial literacy and develop strategies to reach financial independence. In this guest post, he will provide 5 steps to help you begin your investing journey.

The oldest rule in investing 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 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. 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 a home, a retirement account, stocks, or bonds.

Let’s walk through some simple steps on how you can begin your investing journey.

First, Invest in Yourself

This past summer, I attended a wedding with my wife and her family where my brother-in-law approached me with a conversation about investing.  He wanted to know how he could replicate the performance seen by the world’s greatest investors.  

Essentially, he wanted to turn a small sum of money into an account balance with two commas in quick fashion.

If only I knew the sure-fire way to make that path my own reality.  If I did, we wouldn’t have driven to the wedding in a rented subcompact.

I cautioned him those investors are truly gifted and the exception to the norm.  But what I then told him is the common trait these legendary financiers share: following a systematic and disciplined approach to investing.

I told him regardless of investing style, timeframe, or philosophy, they all have discipline, transact based on logical, informed thinking and do not let emotions drive their decisionsThese are the most important elements required for investing success.  But don’t just take my word for it, many folks seem to agree[1],[2],[3],[4].

The aforementioned investing strategies are merely a means to an end and come later.  Any investor starting out should develop these core principles and learn to stick to them during times of good and bad.

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.

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 retiring comfortably at a reasonable age from working into your golden years out of necessity.

So, 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 market are as follows:

1 – Read a Lot About the Market

Sounds logical, right?  You’d 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.  This person didn’t know what was happening in the market, nor anything about the company beyond it being a hot stock tip.

To counteract this, I suggest first beginning by reading reputable sources that discuss markets (e.g., MarketWatch, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, Yahoo Finance, among others). As you read more, I 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 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 markets barely move, 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, disagree, and are increasing their profit projections at the highest 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.  Therefore, the volatility merely highlights poor forecasting abilities, not necessarily anything indicative of market direction.
  • A lot of positive developments exist to push markets 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 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 your journey by researching five companies you admire and understand (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.  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 market values them. 

Cast aside companies if you uncover something you don’t like. Don’t let sunk costs guide your thinking.  Even if you are wrong in not liking the company, there are many other companies out there about which you don’t uncover anything you don’t like.  Investments in these companies will be less risky.

Ultimately, a stock represents a piece of a company, so sustainable profitability is an important factor.  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.

3 – Take Action

At this point, if 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. 

There are a number of retail brokers you may use to invest in individual stocks (e.g., Interactive Brokers, TD Ameritrade, Charles Schwab).

4 – Continue Following the Companies and Markets

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 or the environment in which that company operates changes in a way that is adverse to the company, you might consider cutting your losses short and moving on.

5 – Keep It Simple, Invest in ETFs

Investing is hard.  It’s more art than exact science.  By writing this step-by-step guide, my goal is not to simplify the act of investing.  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 use exchange traded funds (ETFs) to invest.  You can consider investing in low-cost ETFs through brokerages (e.g., Vanguard) or robo-advisors (e.g., Betterment).

Personally, I use both of those services to hold my ETFs.  I prefer Betterment because it automates my ETF holdings based on scientific research matched to my stated financial goals.

For example, I have a Roth IRA account with the stated financial goal of growing money through retirement in about 30 years.  Because of this goal, Betterment chooses to hold a diverse portfolio of 90% ETFs ranging from small cap value to globally diversified ETFs.

I recommend that you start your investing journey with ETFs, especially when you can hold these investments for long periods of time.  This allows the last real-edge in investing to work its magic: time in quality investments.

When Investing, Doing Less is More

I think about smart investing in a way that minimizes mistakes instead of pursuing maximum gains.  I don’t like taking on uncompensated risk

A portfolio requires a healthy balance of risk and reward as well as exposure to many different investments.  I keep the following items in mind when investing:

  • Steer clear of all avoidable risks. Don’t take on unnecessary risk when the probability of a better investment outcome doesn’t exist
  • Be cautious and highly skeptical of your conclusions and whether you feel you possess some edge. It is much more likely you don’t have one when compared to the deep pockets spending endless time and money seeking the next edge
  • Minimize the number of times you touch your portfolio. High portfolio turnover in search of better investments often leads to negative consequences for your returns
  • Avoid big mistakes. You stand to gain a lot more by doing nothing than thinking you have some edge (when you really don’t) and acting upon it

When investing, doing less is more.  Therefore, I recommend investing through low-cost ETFs.

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 the assets necessary 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 independence.

Learning how to invest wisely at a young age will have you maximize your youth by allowing compounding to work to your benefit.  Do yourself a favor and invest in yourself by following these five steps to begin investing.


A big thanks to Riley for writing this post. He makes many important points to consider as you get started with investing. I invited to write a guest post on investing, as I haven’t written much on that topic yet. I greatly appreciate his rounding out the breadth of topics covered on our blog.

 

Investment Options in Retirement Savings Plans

All investment decisions are a trade-off between risk and reward. In this post, I’ll focus on how risk and reward affect your decision among the investment options in your employer-sponsored retirement plans.

If you look at returns over very long periods of time, well diversified, riskier investments tend to produce higher returns with lower risk. For most of these investments, “a very long period of time” is somewhere between 10 and 30 years. That doesn’t mean that the riskiest investments will always outperform the less risky investments in every 10 or 20 year period, but, if you look at enough of them, they generally will on average.

When I Take More Risk

Very briefly, three characteristics I use to help decide whether I want to lean towards a more or less risky investment are:

    • With only a small amount to invest, I will tend to be purchase less risky investments than if I have a larger amount because I have less of a cushion and I want to protect it.
    • When I know I will need the money very soon, I invest in less risky investments (or possibly keep it in a savings or checking account). With longer time periods, riskier investments have more time to recover if they have a large decline. If I need the money soon, I might not have enough money for my purchase if the values declined.
    • If I have almost as much money as I need for a purchase that isn’t going to be made for a while (for example when I had enough money saved for my children’s college education), I will purchase less risky investments as I don’t need a high rate of return to meet my objectives and also want to protect my savings.

     

  • If you aren’t comfortable with the concept of risk, I suggest looking at my post on that topic.

    Common Choices

    Commonly available investment options in employer-sponsored retirement plans are listed below. I have put them in an order that roughly corresponds to increasing risk.

    • Money market funds – Money market funds invest in what are considered short-term, liquid (easily sold) securities. They are similar to, but slightly riskier than, interest-bearing savings accounts.
    • Stable value funds – A stable value fund usually buys and sells highly-rated corporate or government bonds with short to intermediate times to maturity. The return on a stable value fund is the sum of the changes in the market value plus the coupon payments on the bonds held by the fund.   Because stable value funds tend to buy bonds with shorter times to maturity than typical bond mutual funds, they often have lower returns and be less risky.
    • Bond Mutual Funds – Bond mutual funds buy and sell bonds. The return on a bond mutual fund is the sum of the changes in the market value plus the coupon payments. Although they don’t track exactly, the market values of bonds tend to go down when interest rates go up and vice versa.
    • Large Cap Equity Mutual Funds – These funds buy and sell stocks in large companies, often defined as those with more than $10 billion of market capitalization (the total market value of all the stock it has issued).
    • Small Cap Equity Mutual Funds – These funds buy and sell stocks in smaller companies.
    • Foreign Equity Mutual Funds – These funds buy and sell stocks in foreign companies. Every foreign equity fund is allowed to define the countries in which it invests.   You’ll want to look to see in what countries your fund options invest to evaluate their level of risk.
    • Emerging Market Equity Mutual Funds – These funds buy and sell stocks in companies in countries that are considering emerging markets. Morocco, the Philippines, Brazil and South Africa are examples of currently emerging markets.
    • Retirement Date Funds – These fund managers buys bond mutual funds and equity mutual funds.  Each fund has a range of retirement dates associated with it.  The fund manager selects the allocation between bond funds and stock funds based on its evaluation of the amount of mix you should take given the length of time to retirement.  The key advantage of a retirement date fund is that you don’t have to make any decisions – the fund manager does it all.  The disadvantages of retirement date funds include the fact that they ignore your personal risk tolerance, they don’t consider other assets you may own outside the retirement date fund and some of them have fairly high fees, since the retirement date fund manager receives a fee on top of the fees charged by the mutual funds selected by the fund manager.

    Other Choices

    Some employers offer index funds which are variations on equity mutual funds. An index fund’s performance tracks as closely as possible to a major stock market index. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, the Standard & Poors (S&P) 500 or the Russell 2000 are examples of indices. The first two indices have risk and return characteristics somewhat similar to large cap equity mutual funds. The Russell 200 is more closely aligned with a medium or small cap equity mutual fund.

    Increasingly, employers are offering Target Retirement Date Funds as an option. The fund manager not only selects the individual securities that will be owned by the fund, but also chooses the mix between equities and bonds.   In theory, the number of years until the target retirement dates for that fund determines the mix of investments. For example, a fund with a target retirement date range of 2021 through 2025 might be invested more heavily in bonds than a fund with a target retirement date range of 2051 through 2055. People who are close to retirement are often more interested in protecting their investments (i.e., want less risk). On the other hand, people who don’t plan to retire for many years are often more willing to take on additional risk in exchange for higher returns. You can accomplish the same mix yourself using bond funds and equity funds, but some people prefer to let the fund manager make that decision.

    Some employers allow or require you to invest in company stock in their defined contribution plans. Many of these employers consider an investment in the company’s stock as an indication of loyalty. I view it as a very risky investment option. I discuss the benefits of diversification in this post. If your investment portfolio is diversified, it means that a decline in value of any one security will not adversely impact the total value of your portfolio too severely. If you purchase your employer’s stock, you are investing in a single company rather than investing in the larger number of companies owned by a mutual fund. In a really severe situation, you could lose your job and the stock value could drop significantly, leaving you with much smaller savings and no salary. As such, you take on much less risk if you select a mutual fund than company stock.

    How I Decided

    As I made my 401(k) investment selections, I thought about what other investments I had, if any, and used the 401(k) choices to fill in the gaps. That is, I used my 401(k) investment selections to increase my diversification. When I was young, I selected two or three funds that had US exposure to each of small and large cap equities. As I had more money both in and out of my 401(k), I still selected two or three funds, but invested in at least one fund with foreign or emerging market exposure to further diversify my holdings.

    Fine Print

    As a reminder, I am not qualified to give investment advice for your individual situation. Nonetheless, I can provide insights about the types of investment options I’ve seen in employer-sponsored retirement plans. I’ll describe the characteristics of most of these investment vehicles in more detail in later posts, but want to touch on them now as many of you will be making employee benefit elections before then.