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Basics of Investing: What You Need to Know

Get started by knowing these investing fundamentals.

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This is everything you need to know to understand the basics of investing.

When you think of investing, you might think of Wall Street, charts and graphs, and a litany of investing terms. As a newbie investor, all of that might seem overwhelming and keep you from investing. Let’s start with helping you understand investing basics so you can fully participate in planning your retirement income and creating wealth.

Basics of Investing: Standard Definition

There are several different ways to define investing. In simple terms, it’s buying anything that you expect will increase in value and be sold for a profit. You could also think of it as a deposit in an account that earns interest. There are two types of asset classes: liquid assets or fixed assets.

Liquid Assets

Liquid assets mean that you can either access cash in an asset quite easily or convert the asset to cash by selling it off. This is also referred to as liquidity. If you have a savings account at your bank, then you already have a liquid asset investment. The money stored at the bank is easily accessible and may earn interest, albeit small until you withdraw it.

Other types of liquid asset investments include the following:

  • stocks
  • mutual funds
  • ETFs
  • most types of bonds
  • shares of other securities such as money market funds and real estate investment trusts (REITs)

The degree of liquidity can vary with these assets, but you can sell most of them if needed.

Fixed Assets

These assets tend to be more tangible than liquid assets, and they aren’t as easy to withdraw from or sell for cash. Usually, investors buy into hard assets in hopes of holding onto them for a longer period of time.

The following are usually considered as hard or fixed asset investments:

  • Real estate
  • Precious metals
  • Commodity investments
  • private business assets such as equipment and vehicles

Usually, most beginners start investing in liquid assets such as stocks through brokerage firms. In contrast, hard assets often require more knowledge and cash upfront and can come with a bit more risk and complexities for beginners.

Start Your Investment Portfolio

Your portfolio is basically the total amount of investments you have in one or more investment account. To get started with a portfolio, answer the following three questions:

1. What kind of investment account do you want to open?

2. Where do you plan to open that account?

3. How much risk can you handle?

Each type of investment account, whether it’s a 401k plan, IRA, standard brokerage account, college savings 529 plan, or health savings account (HSA) will have its advantages and disadvantages. Where you open your investment account matters because different brokerages will require different investment minimums, charge different fees, and allow for different investments in the account. You also need to know how much risk you can handle because stocks, bonds, mutual funds, ETFs, and other securities have different risks associated with market movements.

Investment Account Types

Probably the two most common types of investment accounts are retirement accounts in the form of either IRAs or variations of the 401k and traditional brokerage accounts. But there are a few others that can be used for specified purposes.

401k

A 401k is offered by an employer, although if you are self-employed, you can also set up a plan. With 401ks, the employer sets policies on employees’ eligibility and chooses the plan administrator. Plan administrators provide investment options and offer simple investment guidance. As a benefit, many employers may even make matching contributions to them.

Have a 401k plan? Check your investment allocation and projected returns to optimize your 401k.

Most employers offer traditional 401k plans where the money grows tax-deferred. A growing number of employers also offer a tax-free plan called a Roth 401k. The IRS sets the contribution limits. n 2020, you can contribute up to $19,500 annually to a 401k, and those 50 or older can contribute up to $26,000. You cannot withdraw from a 401k until you reach age 59 1/2. However, under certain limited circumstances, you can borrow money from it.

Individual Retirement Account (IRA)

An IRA is an account that’s similar to a 401k in tax advantages and follows much of the same rules such as being kept until you reach age 59 1/2. You can open it as either a tax-deferred traditional IRA, or a post-tax Roth IRA, but you’ll often have more investment choices compared to a 401k. There is an annual contribution limit at $6,000 per year (as of 2020) for those under age 50 and $7,000 for those over. Also, you usually cannot borrow from an IRA. And if you choose to withdraw can face penalties and fees.

Brokerage Account

A brokerage firm offers two account options: a standard or a margin account. There are traditional brokerages for high net-worth investors and online brokerage accounts for many others. With a standard account, you can open, fund, and make your investments to buy/sell stocks or funds. A margin account gives you a few additional options such as borrowing from other accounts to make moves such as shorting stocks (a more complex investing strategy). Usually, margin accounts will have much stricter requirements and aren’t ideal for beginning investors. You can invest, sell investments, and withdraw funds from a brokerage account any time, but you will be subject to any and all taxes on capital gains you incur in this account each year.

Search for online brokerage service in the financial marketplace.

529 College Savings And HSAs

A 529 plan is like a Roth IRA, though it’s subject to different state regulations instead of federal regulations. Basically, you invest for a specified period, usually for a child’s college education, and the funds you withdraw can be used for tuition, college materials, and other allowed purposes.

A health savings account (HSA) can be used for emergency healthcare-related costs and is usually offered through a Healthcare focused financial institution.

Different Investment Brokerages

Aside from the 401k which your employer sets up with their own firm, it’s up to you to decide who to invest with. Traditional investment firms such as banks and brokerage firms like JP Morgan usually require higher minimums to start investing and may come with higher fees and administrative costs.

Understand the difference between stock trading and Robo-advisors and micro-investing.

There are also online brokerages like TD Ameritrade which still have startup minimums, but also usually have fewer fees and give you more flexibility with your investments. One type of online investment platform is called robo-advisors that have minimal startup requirements. Some Robo-advisors like Betterment have $0 minimums and others like M1 Finance require a $100 investment. These robo-advisors are ideal for newbie investors that offer recommendations through algorithmic and portfolio theory.

This is really only the basics of investing as there are many more complex trades that can be made with options, futures, and derivatives as well. But these investing basics can serve as a stepping stone to get you into investing and give you a baseline for learning the markets.

Jason Vitug

Jason is the founder of phroogal, creator of the award winning project Road to Financial Wellness, and author of the bestseller and New York Times reviewed book, You Only Live Once: The Roadmap to Financial Wellness and a Purposeful Life.

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