Investing Basics

Saving builds a foundation

The first step in investing is to secure a strong financial foundation. Start with these four basic steps:

  • Create a “rainy day” reserve: Set aside enough cash to get you through an unexpected period of illness or unemployment–three to six months’ worth of living expenses is generally recommended. Because you may need to use these funds unexpectedly, you’ll generally want to put the cash in a low-risk, liquid investment.
  • Pay off your debts: It may make more sense to pay off high-interest-rate debt (for example, credit card debt) before making investments that may have a lower or more uncertain return.
  • Get insured: There is no better way to put your extra cash to work for you than by having adequate insurance. It’s your best protection against financial loss, so review your home, auto, health, disability, life, and other policies, and increase your coverage, if needed.
  • Max out any tax-deferred retirement plans, such as 401(k)s and IRAs: Putting money in these accounts defers income taxes, which means you’ll have more money to save. Take full advantage if they are available to you.

Why invest?

To try to fight inflation

When people say, “I’m not an investor,” it’s often because they worry about the potential for market losses. It’s true that investing involves risk as well as reward, and investing is no guarantee that you’ll beat inflation or even come out ahead. However, there’s also another type of loss to be aware of: the loss of purchasing power over time. During periods of inflation, each dollar you’ve saved will buy less and less as time goes on. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average annual rate of inflation since 1914 has been approximately 3%. At 3% annual inflation, something that costs $100 today would cost about $181 in 20 years.

To take advantage of compound interest

Anyone who has a savings account understands the basics of compounding: The funds in your savings account earn interest, and that interest is added to your account balance. The next time interest is calculated, it’s based on the increased value of your account. In effect, you earn interest on your interest. Many people, however, don’t fully appreciate the impact that compounded earnings can have, especially over a long period of time.

Compounding interest

Let’s say you invest $5,000 a year for 30 years (see illustration). After 30 years you will have invested a total of $150,000. Yet, assuming your funds grow at exactly 6% each year, after 30 years you will have over $395,000, because of compounding

Note: This is a hypothetical example and is not intended to reflect the actual performance of any specific investment. Taxes and investment fees and expenses are not reflected. If they were, the results would be lower.

Compounding has a “snowball” effect. The more money that is added to the account, the greater its benefit. Also, the more frequently interest is compounded–for example, monthly instead of annually–the more quickly your savings build. The sooner you start saving or investing, the more time and potential your investments have for growth. In effect, compounding helps you provide for your financial future by doing some of the work for you.

Building on your foundation

Setting investment goals

Setting goals is an important part of financial planning. Before you invest your money, you should spend some time considering and setting your personal goals. For example, do you want to retire early? Would you like to start your own business soon? Do you need to pay for a child’s college education? Would you like to buy or build a new house? In addition to these, there are several other considerations that can help you and your financial professional develop an appropriate plan.

Think about your time horizon

One of the first questions you should ask yourself in setting your investment goals is “When will I need the money?” Will it be in 3 years or 30? Your time horizon for each of your financial goals will have a significant impact on your investment strategy.

The general rule is: The longer your time horizon, the more risky (and potentially more lucrative) investments you may be able to make. Many financial professionals believe that with a longer time horizon, you can ride out fluctuations in your investments for the potential of greater long-term returns. On the other hand, if your time horizon is very short, you may want to concentrate your investments in less risky vehicles because you may not have enough time to recoup losses should they occur.

Understand your risk tolerance

Another important question is “What is my investment risk tolerance?” How do you feel about the potential of losing your hard-earned money? Many investors would forgo the possibility of a large gain if they knew there was also the possibility of a large loss. Other investors are more willing to take on greater risk to try to achieve a higher return. You can’t completely avoid risk when it comes to investing, but it’s possible to manage it.

Almost universally, when financial professionals or the media talk about investment risk, their focus is on price volatility. Advisors label as aggressive or risky an investment whose price has been prone to dramatic ups and downs in the past, or that involves substantial uncertainty and unpredictability. Assets whose prices historically have experienced a narrower range of peaks and valleys are considered more conservative.

In general, the risk-reward relationship makes sense to most people. After all, no sensible person would make a higher-risk investment without the prospect of a higher reward for taking that risk. That is the tradeoff. As an investor, your goal is to maximize returns without taking on more risk than is necessary or comfortable for you. If you find that you can’t sleep at night because you’re worrying about your investments, you’ve probably assumed too much risk. On the other hand, returns that are too low may leave you unable to reach your financial goals.

The concept of risk tolerance refers not only to your willingness to assume risk but also to your financial ability to endure the consequences of loss. That has to do with your stage in life, how soon you’ll need the money, and your financial goals.

Remember your liquidity needs

Liquidity refers to how quickly you can convert investments into cash. Real estate, for example, tends to be relatively illiquid; it can take a very long time to sell. Publicly traded stock, on the other hand, tends to be fairly liquid.

Your need for liquidity will affect the types of investments you might choose to meet your goals. For example, if you have an emergency fund, you’re in good health, and your job is secure, you may be willing to hold some less liquid investments that may have higher potential for gain. However, if you have two children going to college in the next couple of years, you probably don’t want all of their tuition money invested in less liquid assets. Also, having some relatively liquid investments may help protect you from having to sell others when their prices are down.

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