The Most Important Investing Question We Get Asked… Where Do I Start?

After years of analyzing the markets and doling out investing advice, we’ve been asked thousands of questions.

Some are seasonal:

When can I expect a correction? What do you expect from earnings season?

Some are topical: Are you worried about China’s economy? How will this or that overseas conflict affect my investments?

But time has taught us that there is one burning question that people wrestle with more than any other in the financial world.

Where do I start?

If you find yourself in this boat, that’s okay. It’s like your third grade teacher taught you: If you have a question, there are probably a few others in the room wondering the same thing who were just too shy to put their hands in the air.

So, to someone asking how to even begin investing, the first thing we’d like to say is: Congratulations! The most valuable thing you have is not money. It is time. So starting now is a good idea.

Before You Begin…

For new investors, the first step is not to decide how much to invest. The first step is to make sure that you have a clear picture of where you stand financially. To some people, this might sound insultingly basic. But you’d be surprised by the people we’ve talked to who have absolutely no clear idea about this.

First, how much money do you take home each month? Jot down your take-home pay.

Now set that number aside for a minute, because, believe it or not, there are a few things we want to double-check. Think of it this way: You know you need to put gas in the tank, but you also need to check the oil and tires.

For the next step you need a blank piece of paper.

Draw a line down the middle. At the top of the left column, write down “Assets.” This is everything you own. Your home. Your car. A checking or savings account. A life insurance policy, brokerage account or maybe valuable jewelry or a valuable collection. Add this up. Underline that number. These are your assets.

In the right column, write in “Liabilities.” This is what you owe. Your mortgage, maybe a car loan or credit cards. Add that up. Underline that number. These are your liabilities.

The difference between the total in the left column, what you own, and the total in the right column, what you owe, is your net worth. But remember: It is just a number. Your value as a person cannot be tabulated.

Now set the assets and liabilities aside.

Get another sheet of paper. This will encompass your monthly living expenses. Rent or mortgage, insurance, utilities, food, gas, car payment if you have one, life-insurance premiums — every penny you spend.

Now set that aside.

More Kitchen Table Economics

Let’s look at your debts. Debts should be ordered by priority, and priority should be determined by the interest rate — the highest rate loan always should be paid first. After all, it doesn’t make any sense to invest in the market to capture a 12% annual return if you have credit card debt that is costing you 25%! Pay that first.

At this point, we want to go back to where you wrote down how much you are paid. If you’re participating in an employee-sponsored retirement plan like a 401(k), contribute as much as you can to obtain the maximum match from your employer (if they offer one). If they match dollar-for-dollar up to a certain amount, then congratulations — you just doubled your money.

The next step is to determine your emergency fund. This should be bare minimum three months, ideally six months to one year, of your living expenses. This is held in cash. Pro tip: stash it in a bank other than the one that you have your checking account. With electronic banking, it is way too easy to transfer some money from one account to another. So we advise you keep a good, old-fashioned savings account with no ATM card in one bank and your checking account in another.

Now’s the time for some brutal honesty: Depending on your situation, it might take you five years to fully fund your emergency fund. That’s fine. It is a long-term goal. We’re not here to tell you that you can’t both build up your emergency fund and invest at the same time. It’s worth thinking about — but at the end of the day, you’re the one in charge here.

Now Comes The Fun Part

So you have completed a household budget, you have created a personal financial statement (which, incidentally, is exactly the same as a corporate balance sheet) and you have a schedule of debts and a plan to pay them.

Now, for the fun part.

Please read this next sentence carefully: You probably won’t get rich quick in the stock market. At least, not in the short-run.

Don’t buy penny stocks thinking they will shoot up. Buy good companies with real potential that you understand. Reinvest all of your dividends. Slow and steady wins the race. Building wealth is a marathon, not a sprint.

But that doesn’t mean you have to settle.

In fact, if you’re a self-driven individual, here’s a strategy worth considering.

We’re fans of a simple 80/20 approach. This is where you put 80% of your portfolio in reliable and predictable wealth-building investments. Think index funds that track the broader market, blue-chip stocks… stuff like that. The other 20%? Well, that’s the really fun part. This is where you take your shot with high-growth potential investments. But don’t speculate — do your research.

If you have a while before you want to retire, and depending on your risk tolerance, it can offer a lot of upside.

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