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How to Start Investing: A Guide for Beginners

Rent, utility bills, debt payments and groceries might seem like all you can afford when you’re just starting out. But once you’ve mastered budgeting for those monthly expenses (and set aside at least a little cash in an emergency fund), it’s time to start investing. The tricky part is figuring out what to invest in — and how much.

As a newbie to the world of investing, you’ll have a lot of questions, not the least of which is: How do I get started investing, and what’s the best strategy? Our guide will answer those questions and more.

Here’s what you should know to start investing.

Get started investing as early as possible

Investing when you’re young is one of the best ways to see solid returns on your money. That’s thanks to compound interest, which means your investment returns start earning their own return. Compound interest allows your account balance to snowball over time.

Compound interest allows your account balance to snowball over time.

How that works, in practice: Let’s say you invest $200 every month for 10 years and earn a 6% average annual return. At the end of the 10-year period, you’ll have $33,300. Of that amount, $24,200 is money you’ve contributed — those $200 monthly contributions — and $9,100 is interest you’ve earned on your investment.

There will be ups and downs in the stock market, of course, but investing young means you have decades to ride them out — and decades for your money to grow. Start now, even if you have to start small.

Decide how much to invest

How much you should invest depends on your investment goal and when you need to reach it.

One common investment goal is retirement. If you have a retirement account at work, like a 401(k), and it offers matching dollars, your first investing milestone is easy: Contribute at least enough to that account to earn the full match. That’s free money, and you don’t want to miss out on it.

As a general rule of thumb, you want to aim to invest a total of 10% to 15% of your income each year for retirement — your employer match counts toward that goal. That might sound unrealistic now, but you can work your way up to it over time. (Calculate a more specific retirement goal with our retirement calculator.)

For other investing goals, consider your time horizon and the amount you need, then work backwards to break that amount down into monthly or weekly investments.

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Open an investment account

If you don’t have a 401(k), you can invest for retirement in an individual retirement account, like a traditional or Roth IRA.

If you’re investing for another goal, you likely want to avoid retirement accounts — which are designed to be used for retirement, and thus have restrictions about when and how you can take your money back out — and choose a taxable brokerage account. You can remove money from a taxable brokerage account at any time.

A common misconception is that you need a lot of money to open an investment account or get started investing. That’s simply not true. (We even have a guide for how to invest $500.) Many online brokers, which offer both IRAs and regular brokerage investment accounts, require no minimum investment to open an account, and there are plenty of investments available for relatively small amounts (we’ll detail them next).

Here are a few of our recommendations for brokers with no account minimums:

How to Invest in Stocks

You can buy individual stocks or stock mutual funds yourself, or get help investing by using a robo-advisor.

At NerdWallet, we strive to help you make financial decisions with confidence. To do this, many or all of the products featured here are from our partners. However, this doesn’t influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own.

Steps

1. Decide how you want to invest in stocks

2. Open an investing account

3. Know the difference between stocks and stock mutual funds

4. Set a budget for your stock investment

5. Start investing

Investing in stocks is an excellent way to grow wealth. But how do you actually start? Follow the steps below to learn how to invest in the stock market.

1. Decide how you want to invest in stocks

There are several ways to approach stock investing. Choose the option below that best represents how you want to invest, and how hands-on you’d like to be in picking and choosing the stocks you invest in.

“I’m the DIY type and am interested in choosing stocks and stock funds for myself.” Keep reading; this article breaks down things hands-on investors need to know. Or, if you already know the stock-buying game and just need a brokerage, see our roundup of the best online brokers .

“I know stocks can be a great investment, but I’d like someone to manage the process for me.” You may be a good candidate for a robo-advisor, a service that offers low-cost investment management. Virtually all of the major brokerage firms offer these services, which invest your money for you based on your specific goals. See our top picks for robo-advisors .

Once you have a preference in mind, you’re ready to shop for an account.

2. Open an investing account

Generally speaking, to invest in stocks, you need an investment account. For the hands-on types, this usually means a brokerage account. For those who would like a little help, opening an account through a robo-advisor is a sensible option. We break down both processes below.

An important point: Both brokers and robo-advisors allow you to open an account with very little money — we list several providers with low or no account minimum below.

THE DIY OPTION: OPENING A BROKERAGE ACCOUNT

An online brokerage account likely offers your quickest and least expensive path to buying stocks, funds and a variety of other investments. With a broker, you can open an individual retirement account, also known as an IRA — here are our top picks for IRA accounts — or you can open a taxable brokerage account if you’re already saving adequately for retirement elsewhere.

We have a guide to opening a brokerage account if you need a deep dive. You’ll want to evaluate brokers based on factors like costs (trading commissions, account fees), investment selection (look for a good selection of commission-free ETFs if you favor funds) and investor research and tools.

Below are strong options from our analysis of the best online stock brokers for stock trading: TD Ameritrade , E-Trade and Robinhood .

The passive option: Opening a robo-advisor account

A robo-advisor offers the benefits of stock investing, but doesn’t require its owner to do the legwork required to pick individual investments. Robo-advisor services provide complete investment management : These companies will ask you about your investing goals during the onboarding process and then build you a portfolio designed to achieve those aims.

This may sound expensive, but the management fees here are generally a fraction of the cost of what a human investment manager would charge: Most robo-advisors charge around 0.25% of your account balance. And yes — you can also get an IRA at a robo-advisor if you wish.

As a bonus, if you open an account at a robo-advisor, you probably needn’t read further in this article — the rest is just for those DIY types. Here are the top picks from NerdWallet’s latest robo-advisor comparison: Wealthfront , Betterment and Ellevest .

3. Know the difference between stocks and stock mutual funds

Going the DIY route? Don’t worry. Stock investing doesn’t have to be complicated. For most people, stock market investing means choosing among these two investment types:

Stock mutual funds or exchange-traded funds. These mutual funds let you purchase small pieces of many different stocks in a single transaction. Index funds and ETFs are a kind of mutual fund that track an index; for example, a Standard & Poor’s 500 fund replicates that index by buying the stock of the companies in it. When you invest in a fund, you also own small pieces of each of those companies. You can put several funds together to build a diversified portfolio. Note that stock mutual funds are also sometimes called equity mutual funds.

Individual stocks. If you’re after a specific company, you can buy a single share or a few shares as a way to dip your toe into the stock-trading waters. Building a diversified portfolio out of many individual stocks is possible, but it takes a significant investment.

The upside of stock mutual funds is that they are inherently diversified, which lessens your risk. But they’re unlikely to rise in meteoric fashion as some individual stocks might. The upside of individual stocks is that a wise pick can pay off handsomely, but the odds that any individual stock will make you rich are exceedingly slim.

For the vast majority of investors — particularly those who are investing their retirement savings — a portfolio comprised mostly of mutual funds is the clear choice.

» Still unsure which is right for you? Learn more about mutual funds

4. Set a budget for your stock investment

New investors often have two questions in this step of the process:

How much money do I need to start investing in stocks? The amount of money you need to buy an individual stock depends on how expensive the shares are. (Share prices can range from just a few dollars to a few thousand dollars.) If you want mutual funds and have a small budget, an exchange-traded fund (ETF) may be your best bet. Mutual funds often have minimums of $1,000 or more, but ETFs trade like a stock, which means you purchase them for a share price — in some cases, less than $100).

How much money should I invest in stocks? If you’re investing through funds — have we mentioned this is our preference? — you can allocate a fairly large portion of your portfolio toward stock funds, especially if you have a long time horizon. A 30-year-old investing for retirement might have 80% of his or her portfolio in stock funds; the rest would be in bond funds. Individual stocks are another story. We’d recommend keeping these to 10% or less of your investment portfolio.

» Got a small amount of cash to put to work? Here’s how to invest $500

5. Start investing

Stock investing is filled with intricate strategies and approaches, yet some of the most successful investors have done little more than stick with the basics. That generally means using funds for the bulk of your portfolio — Warren Buffett has famously said a low-cost S&P 500 index fund is the best investment most Americans can make — and choosing individual stocks only if you believe in the company’s potential for long-term growth.

If individual stocks appeal to you, learning to research stocks is worth your time. If you plan to stick primarily with funds, building a simple portfolio of broad-based, low-cost options should be your goal.

Nerd tip: If you’re tempted to open a brokerage account but need more advice on choosing the right one, see our 2020 roundup of the best brokers for stock investors. It compares today’s top online brokerages across all the metrics that matter most to investors: fees, investment selection, minimum balances to open and investor tools and resources. Read: Best online brokers for stock investors »

FAQs about how to invest in stocks

Do you have advice about investing for beginners?

All of the above guidance about investing in stocks is directed toward new investors. But if we had to pick one thing to tell every beginner investor, it would be this: Investing isn’t as hard — or complex — as it seems.

That’s because there are plenty of tools available to help you. One of the best is stock mutual funds, which are an easy and low-cost way for beginners to invest in the stock market. These funds are available within your 401(k), IRA or any taxable brokerage account. An S&P 500 fund, which effectively buys you small pieces of ownership in 500 of the largest U.S. companies, is a good place to start.

The other option, as referenced above, is a robo-advisor , which will build and manage a portfolio for you for a small fee.

Bottom line: There are plenty of beginner-friendly ways to invest, no advanced expertise required.

Can I invest if I don’t have much money?

There are two challenges to investing small amounts of money. The good news? They’re both easily conquered.

The first challenge is that many investments require a minimum. The second is that it’s hard to diversify small amounts of money. Diversification, by nature, involves spreading your money around. The less money you have, the harder it is to spread.

The solution to both is investing in stock index funds and ETFs. While mutual funds might require a $1,000 minimum or more, index fund minimums tend to be lower (and ETFs are purchased for a share price that could be lower still). Two brokers, Fidelity and Charles Schwab, offer index funds with no minimum at all. Index funds also cure the diversification issue because they hold many different stocks within a single fund.

The last thing we’ll say on this: Investing is a long-term game, so you shouldn’t invest money you might need in the short term. That includes a cash cushion for emergencies.

Are stocks a good investment for beginners?

Yes. In fact, everyone — including beginners — should be invested in stocks, as long as you’re comfortable leaving your money invested for at least five years. Why five years? That’s because it is relatively rare for the stock market to experience a downturn that lasts longer than that.

But rather than trading individual stocks, focus on stock mutual funds. With mutual funds, you can purchase a large selection of stocks within one fund.

Is it possible to build a diversified portfolio out of individual stocks instead? Sure. But doing so would be time-consuming — it takes a lot of research and know-how to manage a portfolio. Stock mutual funds — including index funds and ETFs — do that work for you.

» Which is the better investment? Stocks vs. real estate

What are the best stock market investments?

In our view, the best stock market investments are low-cost mutual funds, like index funds and ETFs. By purchasing these instead of individual stocks, you can buy a big chunk of the stock market in one transaction.

Index funds and ETFs track a benchmark — for example, the S&P 500 or the Dow Jones Industrial Average — which means your fund’s performance will mirror that benchmark’s performance. If you’re invested in an S&P 500 index fund and the S&P 500 is up, your investment will be, too.

That means you won’t beat the market — but it also means the market won’t beat you. Investors who trade individual stocks instead of funds often underperform the market over the long term.

How should I decide where to invest money?

The answer to where to invest really comes down to two things: the time horizon for your goals, and how much risk you’re willing to take.

Let’s tackle time horizon first: If you’re investing for a far-off goal, like retirement, you should be invested primarily in stocks (again, we recommend you do that through mutual funds).

Investing in stocks will allow your money to grow and outpace inflation over time. As your goal gets closer, you can slowly start to dial back your stock allocation and add in more bonds, which are generally safer investments.

On the other hand, if you’re investing for a short-term goal — less than five years — you likely don’t want to be invested in stocks at all. Consider these short-term investments instead.

Finally, the other factor: risk tolerance. The stock market goes up and down, and if you’re prone to panicking when it does the latter, you’re better off investing slightly more conservatively, with a lighter allocation to stocks. Not sure? We have a risk tolerance quiz — and more information about how to make this decision — in our article about what to invest in .

What stocks should I invest in?

Cue the broken record: Our recommendation is to invest in many stocks through a stock mutual fund, index fund or ETF — for example, an S&P 500 index fund that holds all the stocks in the S&P 500.

If you’re after the thrill of picking stocks, though, that likely won’t deliver. You can scratch that itch and keep your shirt by dedicating 10% or less of your portfolio to individual stocks. Which ones? Check out our list of the best stocks , based on year-to-date performance, for ideas.

Is stock trading for beginners?

While stocks are great for beginner investors, the “trading” part of this proposition is probably not. Maybe we’ve already gotten this point across, but to reiterate: We highly recommend a buy-and-hold strategy using stock mutual funds.

That’s precisely the opposite of stock trading, which involves dedication and a great deal of research. Stock traders attempt to time the market in search of opportunities to buy low and sell high.

Just to be clear: The goal of any investor is to buy low and sell high. But history tells us you’re likely to do that if you hold on to a diversified investment — like a mutual fund — over the long term. No active trading required.

SCAM WATCH

Investment schemes involve getting you or your business to part with money on the promise of a questionable financial opportunity.

Common types of investment scams

Investment cold calls

A scammer claiming to be a stock broker or portfolio manager calls you and offers financial or investments advice. They will claim what they are offering is low-risk and will provide you with quick and high returns, or encourage you to invest in overseas companies. The scammer’s offer will sound legitimate and they may have resources to back up their claims. They will be persistent, and may keep calling you back.

The scammer may claim that they do not need an Australian Financial Services licence, or that that they are approved by a real government regulator or affiliated with a genuine company.

The investments offered in these type of cold calls are usually share, mortgage, or real estate high-return schemes, options trading or foreign currency trading. The scammer is operating from overseas, and will not have an Australian Financial Services licence.

Share promotions and hot tips

The scammer encourages you to buy shares in a company that they predict is about to increase in value. You may be contacted by email or the message will be posted in a forum. The message will seem like an inside tip and stress that you need to act quickly. The scammer is trying to boost the price of stock so they can sell shares they have already bought, and make a huge profit. The share value will then go down dramatically.

If you invest you will be left with large losses or shares that are virtually worthless.

Investment seminars

Investment seminars are promoted by promising motivational speakers, investment experts, or self-made millionaires who will give you expert advice on investing. They are designed to convince you into following high risk investment strategies such as borrowing large sums of money to buy property, or investments that involve lending money on a no security basis or other risky terms.

Promoters make money by charging you an attendance fee, selling overpriced reports or books, and by selling investments and property without letting you get independent advice. The investments on offer are generally overvalued and you may end up having to pay fees and commissions that the promoters did not tell you about. High pressure sales tactics or false and misleading claims are often used to pressure you into investing, such as guaranteed rent or discounts for buying off the plan.

If you invest there is a high chance you will lose money.

Visit ASIC’s MoneySmart for more information about investment seminar scams.

Superannuation

Superannuation scams offer to give you early access to your super fund, often through a self-managed super fund or for a fee. The offer may come from a financial adviser, or a scammer posing as one. The scammer may ask you to agree to a story to ensure the early release of your money and then, acting as your financial adviser, they will deceive your superannuation company into paying out your super benefits directly to them. Once they have your money, the scammer may take large ‘fees’ out of the released fund or leave you with nothing at all.

You cannot legally access the preserved part of your super until you are between 55 and 60, depending what year you were born. There are certain exceptions such as severe financial hardship or compassionate grounds – but anyone who otherwise offers early access to your super is acting illegally.

Visit ASIC’s MoneySmart for more information about how super works.

Warning signs

  • You receive a call, or repeated calls, from someone offering unsolicited advice on investments. They may try to keep you on the phone for a long time, or try and transfer you to a more senior person. You are told that you need to act quickly and invest or you will miss out.
  • You receive an email from a stranger offering advice on the share price of a particular company. It may not be addressed to you personally, and may even give the impression it was sent to you by mistake.
  • An advertisement or seminar makes claims such as ‘risk-free investment’, ‘be a millionaire in three years’, or ‘get-rich quick’.
  • You are invited to attend a free seminar, but there are high fees to attend any further sessions. The scammer, posing as the promoter, may offer you a loan to cover both the cost of your attendance at the additional seminars and investments.
  • You see an advertisement promising a quick and easy way to ‘unlock’ your superannuation early.

Protect yourself

  • Do not give your details to an unsolicited caller or reply to emails offering financial advice or investment opportunities – just hang up or delete the email.
  • Be suspicious of investment opportunities that promise a high return with little or no risk.
  • Check if a financial advisor is registered via the ASIC website. Any business or person that offers or advises you about financial products must be an Australian Financial Services (AFS) licence holder.
  • Check ASIC’s list of companies you should not deal with. If the company that called you is on the list – do not deal with them.
  • Do not let anyone pressure you into making decisions about your money or investments and never commit to any investment at a seminar – always get independent legal or financial advice.
  • Do not respond to emails from strangers offering predictions on shares, investment tips, or investment advice.
  • If you feel an offer to buy shares might be legitimate, always check the company’s listing on the stock exchange for its current value and recent shares performance. Some offers to buy your shares may be well below market value.
  • Never commit to any investment at a seminar – always take time to consider the opportunity and seek independent financial advice.
  • If you are under 55, watch out for offers promoting easy access to your preserved superannuation benefits. If you illegally access your super early, you may face penalties under taxation law.

Have you been scammed?

If you think you have provided your account details to a scammer, contact your bank or financial institution immediately.

We encourage you to report scams to the ACCC via the report a scam page. This helps us to warn people about current scams, monitor trends and disrupt scams where possible. Please include details of the scam contact you received, for example, email or screenshot.

Scams that relate to financial services can also be reported to ASIC.

Spread the word to your friends and family to protect them.

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