If you want to put some money in the stock market, it could be as simple as downloading the Robinhood trading and investing app and pouring money into "meme stocks" like AMC or GameStop.
But a little planning can be the difference between treating stocks like a slot machine and building a portfolio to achieve financial goals.
Before opening a brokerage account, studying investment strategies and tracking price-to-earnings ratios, new investors first need to know themselves and the answer to this all-important question: What's your risk tolerance?
"I couldn't give blanket advice. Everyone's tolerance for risk is different," said Chris Kruse, a financial planner at Edward Jones. "How do you get started? It starts with the individual and the uniqueness of their situation."
Individual or retail investing — having an active role in portfolio decisions as opposed to passively contributing to a 401(k) or another managed retirement plan — had a big moment during the pandemic. Locked-down folks looking for new ways to spend money otherwise earmarked for unexpectedly paused expenses like gas or student loans turned to (questionable) Reddit advice on what stocks might be prime for making it rich quick.
"The majority of new investors — meaning those who opened a non-retirement investment account for the first time during 2020 — were under the age of 45 and had lower incomes than investors who already owned taxable investment accounts prior to 2020," according to a study by FINRA, the self-regulating agency for stockbrokers. "New investors were also more likely to be racially or ethnically diverse."
If you're just now deciding to put some money in securities for long-term investing — and have never used the term securities before — here's a guide for you:
Realizing your potential
There really is no minimum commitment needed to make investing "worth it." If you have a long-term financial goal, investing is one way to achieve it by setting aside a little money at a time.
Minneapolis-based Thrivent says $50 invested every month can turn into $7,750 through 10 years or $20,373 through 20 years, and that's a low estimate based on actual historical growth in the stock market.
"It's a common myth that you need a few thousand dollars to begin investing. It actually works in your favor to start investing early — even with as little as $50 a month — rather than to wait until you have a few thousand dollars saved up," Thrivent advises individual investors. "Keep in mind that achieving this [growth in your investment] will, however, depend on the performance of the funds you select for your investment and being invested for the long term."
Defining the basics
Owning a stock is having an ownership stake in a company, the value of which changes based on the company's financial performance and other factors.
Owning a bond is owning debt that a company or government is promising to pay at a fixed rate through a certain time period.
Investing in a mutual fund or exchange-traded fund (ETF) means putting money in a pool with other investors used to purchase a diverse range of stocks.
There are plenty of other financial instruments and types of orders to place at the stock exchange, like options and shorts, but these are the main securities that comprise the everyday stock market.
Individual investors need a brokerage account to buy and sell securities on a stock exchange. For those looking for little or no guidance — and no or few added fees — this could be a website like E-Trade or an app like Robinhood. For investors wanting help with investment decisions or to leave the whole process to a professional — which could carry fees of hundreds or thousands of dollars annually depending how much money is under management — a full-service brokerage or financial adviser is a better option.
The American Association of Individual Investors (AAII) promotes long-term investing, picking stocks or funds for long-term returns rather than short-term gains.
"Nuanced investing, which is most likely in the long run to produce strong results, requires understanding your risk tolerance and building a portfolio that aligns with a corresponding asset allocation," the group says.
A portfolio could have a range of stock types, including well-established companies with predictable earnings known as blue chips; stocks that pay dividends; expensive stocks that outperform the overall market and "cyclical" stocks that track the economy's ups and downs, according to the AAII.
And a portfolio should include bonds as a means of balancing potential losses from stocks, the organization says. The ratio of stocks-to-bonds is called asset allocation, and AAII says "the way you allocate your portfolio among these two categories will have by far the greatest impact on your performance of any investment decision you make." More bonds means less risk but lower reward. The opposite is true for a portfolio composed almost entirely of stocks.
Those wanting to become day traders are likely most interested in speculative stocks, usually lower-priced and highly volatile, meaning prices swing much higher and lower than typical across the market. Speculating can also entail buying a larger stake in a company on the belief it will outperform the market or similar stocks in a relatively short time period.
"While we are proponents of long-term investing, telling people to never speculate is akin to telling people to never eat dessert," the AAII Journal editor, Charles Rotblut, wrote in May. "If you're going to stray a bit from a long-term approach, do so in a controlled manner."
Assessing the risks
Risk tolerance is a measure of how well someone can handle the highs and lows of investing on a psychological level and weather stormy market conditions without making unwise, reactionary decisions.
Because there will be lows.
Risk tolerance means "how much volatility in portfolio returns you can withstand and still meet your goals," the AAII says. Translation: How much of your money can you watch disappear during a down day, month or year in the stock market? Can you trust that, in the long run, the money will likely return and continue to grow as it has historically in the stock market?
Kruse, the Edward Jones financial planner, said a general rule is if money is needed in the next three to nine months, you shouldn't put it in a relatively risky investment.
"For goals that are further out, you can take risks with that money," he said. But it still comes down to the individual investor type. Someone who enjoys the risk/reward of day trading is different than someone about to retire or just entering the workforce.
How aggressive or conservative a portfolio should be depends on a person's goals and the length of time they plan to keep the money invested before cashing out. For example, those nearing retirement are typically encouraged to put more money in bonds, a conservative approach that will reduce risk.
Those early in their career are more likely to want a greater share of stocks in their portfolio to maximize the potential long-term gains, since a few down years might not matter compared to the overall gains in the course of 20-plus years.
For each situation, buying stocks and bonds is not a matter of "set it and forget it," experts say. It's "set it and monitor," Kruse said.
"No matter what their level is, at least review the marketplace with somebody. Even the best of us need extra eyes to be sure," he said.
Some experts suggest setting advance limits on how much you are willing to lose on a particular investment before selling. Investors can use the same strategy to cash out when a stock grows to a certain level.
E-Trade says investors shouldn't just hold on to a stock for the sake of long-term growth at all costs.
"Try to stick to a regular schedule for viewing — and rebalancing — your portfolio. This may keep you from checking in too often and getting caught up in the emotions of the moment," the brokerage suggests. "In sum, it's all about striking a balance. Don't turn a blind eye to your investments, but at the same time, try not to emotionally react every time they rise or fall."
Robinhood, the app that introduced a new generation to retail investing, recommends setting goals, paying off high-interest debt and starting an emergency fund before users start investing.
"Why try to pay off high-interest debt before investing? Well, because it's very rare (read: practically impossible) to find an investment that can outpace how fast your debt grows," the company says.
E-Trade also offers a range of how-to resources for beginners and pre-built portfolios to take some guesswork out of those first few decisions.
"As investors today, we're incredibly lucky. We have access to more information about the markets and investing than at any other time in history," the Morgan Stanley-owned brokerage says.
Many first-time investors are drawn to mutual funds, which are pooled investments that offer pre-selected stocks and strategies tailored to different situations.
AAII and FINRA also have educational resources for individual investors, which range from investing basics to picking a strategy tailored to a person's financial goals, be it retirement, a trip, money for children to inherit or just to dabble.
But as Robinhood reminds users: "Please keep in mind that diversification, asset allocation and research does not prevent you from losing money."
No risk, no reward.