Perhaps the best place to begin for new investors is to define the difference between saving and investing.
- Saving is the process of putting cold, hard cash aside and parking it in extremely safe, and liquid (meaning they can be sold or accessed in a very short amount of time, at most a few days) securities or accounts. This can include FDIC insured checking accounts, savings accounts, short-term certificates of deposit, or United States Treasury Bills. It can even include FDIC insured money market accounts (but not money market funds, which are not insured). The highest goal for these funds should be captial preservation, with a secondary goal to keep pace with inflation, if possible.
- Investing is the process of using money (called “capital”) to buy an asset that you think will generate a safe and acceptable return over time, making you wealthier with each passing year. An investment can include anything from a small business to fine art, rare wines to gold coins, comic books to stocks, mutual funds, bonds, real estate, and antiques, just to name a few. It can also include song rights, patents, trademarks, or other intellectual property, as it is often called. Good investments are the soundest way of growing wealthy but can take time, perhaps even years, to work out because we live in an uncertain world.
How Much Should I Save Versus How Much Should I Invest?Saving always comes first. Think of it as the foundation upon which your financial house is built. The reason is simple - unless you inherit a large amount of money, it is your savings that will provide you with the capital to feed your investments.
There are two primary types of savings programs you should include in your life. They are:
- As a general rule, your savings should be sufficient to cover all of your personal expenses, including your mortgage, loan payments, insurance costs, utility bills, food, and clothing expenses for at least six months. That way, if you lose your job, you’ll be able to have sufficient time to adjust your life without the extreme pressure that comes from living paycheck to paycheck.
- Any specific purpose in your life that will require a large amount of cash in five years or less should be savings-driven, not investment-driven. The stock market in the short-run can be extremely volatile, losing more than 50% of its value in a single year. Purchasing a home is a great example as we discussed in Best Places To Invest Your Down Payment Money.
Only after that these things are in place, and you have health insurance, should you begin investing (this really is vital – for more information on why, read Investing in Health Insurance – One of the First Lines of Defense for Your Portfolio. The only possible exception is putting money into a 401(k) plan at work if your company matches your contributions. That’s because not only will you get a substantial tax break for putting money into your retirement account, but the matching funds basically represent free cash that is being handed to you on a silver tray.