Ways You Can Start Investing and Getting Your Money to Work for You
By Joshua Kennon
Updated October 18, 2016
You want to learn how to start investing. Congratulations! Taking this first step is one of the most important things you can do for yourself and, in many cases, your family. Implemented wisely and with enough time to let compounding work its magic, it can lead to a life of financial independence as you spend your time pursuing your passions rather than selling your time, supported by passive income from things such as dividends, interest, and rents.
In this article, I want to explain some of the ways many new investors begin their journey. As we dive in, I cover some of the potential structures and mechanisms through which you might decide to take your first steps. I want you to remember this: Do not despise the day of small beginnings. Everyone had to start somewhere. You'll be amazed by how better off you can be over time as seemingly small steps to improve your situation result in bigger and bigger results.
The First Step In Figuring Out How To Invest Is Deciding Which Types of Assets You Want To Own
At its core, investing is about laying out money today expecting to get more money back in the future which, accounting for time, adjusting for risk, and factoring in inflation, results in a satisfactory compound annual growth rate, particularly as compared to standards considered a "good" investment. Most of the time, this is best achieved through the acquisition of productive assets.
Productive assets are investments that internally throw off surplus money from some sort of activity. For example, if you buy a painting, it isn't a productive asset. One hundred years from now, you'll still only own the painting, which may or may not be worth more or less money. (You might, however, be able to convert it into a quasi-productive asset by opening a museum and charging admission to see it.) On the other hand, if you buy an apartment building, you'll not only have the building, but all of the cash it produced from rent and service income over that century.
Even if the building were destroyed, you still have the cash flow, which you could have used to support your lifestyle, given to charity, or reinvested in other opportunities.
Each type of productive asset has its own pros and cons, unique quirks, legal traditions, tax rules, and other relevant details. You might find yourself drawn to one, the other, or some combination of investments based on your existing resources, knowledge, temperament, and even the opportunities available in one asset class at any given time compared to another. Here is a quick rundown of some of the potential investments you might make as you start your journey:
Business Equity - When you own equity in a business, you are entitled to a share of the profit or losses generated by that company's operating activity. Whether you decide to own that equity by acquiring a small business outright or buying shares of a publicly traded business through the purchase of stock, business equity has historically been the most rewarding asset class for investors. So much so that it has been wisely observed that a good business is a gift that keeps on giving. True, investing in business equity can be enormously risky - you're running a successful bookstore for decades and suddenly technology results in the rise of not only Amazon but electronic books such as the Kindle, putting your firm into bankruptcy - but it can generate wealth beyond imagining.
Most prudent people insist upon diversification because there are some significant mathematical benefits as you not only reduce your reliance upon a single business but increase your probability of finding a life-changing opportunity. Personally, as many of you know, I like owning both private businesses, such as Mount Olympus Awards, an American-based letterman jacket awards company, and public businesses, including a portfolio stuffed with everything from Diageo to Colgate-Palmolive.
Fixed Income Securities - When you buy a fixed income security, you are really lending money to the bond issuer in exchange for interest income. There are a myriad of ways you can do it, from buying certificates of deposit and money markets to corporate bonds, tax-free municipal bonds to U.S. savings bonds such as the Series EE savings bonds or Series I savings bonds, sovereign bonds such as U.S. Treasury bills, bonds, and notes to agency bonds, and commercial paper to auction rate securities.
Real Estate - Perhaps the oldest and most easily understood (though far from simple) asset class investors may consider is real estate. There are several ways to make money investing in real estate but it typically comes down to either developing something and selling it for a profit or owning something and letting others use it in exchange for rent or lease payments. For a lot of investors, real estate has been a path to wealth because it more easily lends itself, if you'll pardon the pun, to using leverage. This can be bad if the investment turns out to be a poor one but, applied to the right investment, at the right price, and on the right terms, it can allow someone without a lot of net worth rapid accumulation of resources, controlling a far larger asset base than he or she could otherwise afford.
Intangible Property and Rights - Personally, I adore this asset class when it is done right because you can create things out of thin air that goes on to print money for you. Intangible property includes everything from trademarks and patents to music royalties and copyrights. I'm particularly fond of the latter. Over my lifetime, my copyrights alone have generated a lot of money that I was able to use for other purposes, including redeploying the cash to buy stocks, taking vacations, or donating to my family's charitable foundation.
Farmland or Other Commodity-Producing Goods - Although it often involves real estate, investments in commodity-producing activities are fundamentally different in that you are either producing or extracting something from the ground or nature, often improving it, and selling it for what you hope is a profit. If oil is discovered on your land, you can extract it and take cash from the sales. If you grow corn, you can sell it, increasing your cash with every successful season. The dangers are significant - bad weather, disasters, and other challenges can and have caused folks to go bankrupt by investing in this asset class - but so, too, can be the rewards.
The Next Step In Figuring Out How to Invest Your Money Is To Decide How You Want To Own Those Assets
Once you've settled on the asset class you want to own, you next to decide how you are going to own it. To better understand this point, let's look at business equity. If you decide you want a stake in a publicly traded business, do you want the shares outright or through a pooled structure?
Outright Ownership - If you opt for outright ownership, you are going to be buying shares of individual companies directly so that you see them somewhere on your balance sheet or the balance sheet of an entity you control. There are all sorts of tax and planning strategies you can take advantage of by doing it this way, including the much-loved stepped-up basis loophole and tax-loss harvesting of specific lots to minimize the bite taken by the Federal, state, and local governments when you need to raise cash. The downside is they are generally more expensive and only make sense once you get up into the six-figures, typically $250,000, $500,000 or more. This isn't feasible for a lot of investors just starting out unless they've experienced a major windfall somehow.
Pooled Ownership - You mix your money with other people and buy ownership through a shared structure or entity. For example, in an article called How a Mutual Fund Is Structured, I walked you through the framework of an ordinary open-ended mutual fund. Some wealthy investors invest in hedge funds. For smaller, poorer investors, things like exchange-traded funds and index funds make it possible to buy diversified portfolios at much cheaper rates than they could have afforded on their own. The downside is a near total loss of control. If you invest in something like an S&P 500 index fund, which isn't nearly as passive as some investors have come to believe but is, instead, actively managed by a committee that makes methodology changes from time to time, you are sort of along for the ride, outsourcing your decisions to a small group of people with the power to change your allocation. You also have the risk of embedded capital gains which haven't been a problem to date but, should the major index companies ever experience a reversal of cash flows, like most investing strategies ultimately have at one time or another in the past, could mean getting stuck with someone else's tax bill.
The Third Step In Figuring Out How to Invest is Deciding Where You Want To Hold Those Assets
After you've decided the way you want to acquire your investment assets, next, you have to decide how you want to hold those assets. This can have major, sometimes life-changing consequences for your family, including your children, grandchildren, and other heirs. A little bit of good planning, in the beginning, can mean enormously beneficial outcomes later. A brilliant illustration is Walton Enterprises, LLC, which is the private family holding company of the late Sam Walton. By having his family members invest together through a consolidated entity, he effectively gifted 80% of his wealth to his children without having to deal with estate taxes. Namely, he split up the ownership of what became Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. to the kids, holding it through the entity he controlled, back when the company had little to no value compared to what it ultimately became. He was able to separate control from economic interest, resulting in the Walton family becoming far, far richer than it otherwise would have.
The decisions you make could someday be just as important. When you make an investment, how will you hold it?
Taxable Accounts - If you opt for taxable accounts, such as a brokerage account, you will pay taxes along the way but your money is not restricted. You can spend it on whatever you want, however, you want. You can cash it all in and buy a beach house. You can add as much as you want to it each year, without limit. It is the ultimate in flexibility but you have to give Uncle Sam his cut.
Tax Shelters - If you invest through things like a 401(k) plan at work and/or a Roth IRA personally, there are numerous asset protection and tax benefits. Some retirement plans and accounts have unlimited bankruptcy protection, meaning if you suffer a medical disaster or some other event that wipes out your personal balance sheet, you can walk away with your investment capital still compounding for you beyond the reach of creditors. Others have limitations on the asset protection afforded to it but still reach into the seven-figures. Some are tax-deferred, often meaning you get a tax deduction at the time you deposit the capital into the account to select investments and then pay taxes in the future, often decades later, allowing you year after year of tax-deferred growth. Others are tax-free, meaning you fund them with after-tax dollars but you'll never pay taxes on either the investment profits generated within the account nor on the funds once you withdraw the money later in life, provided you meet eligibility requirements. Good tax planning, especially early in your career, can mean a lot of extra wealth down the road as the benefits compound upon themselves.
Trusts or Other Asset Protection Mechanisms - Another way to hold your investments is through entities or structures such as trust funds. As you learned in What Is a Trust Fund?, there are some major planning and asset protection benefits of using these special ownership methods, especially if you want to restrict how your capital is used in some way. For example, if you acquire a life insurance policy, you may want to name a trust fund as the beneficiary of the policy. This will result in the insurance payout going to the trust. I'd go so far as to do something like opting for a bank trust department as the official trustee instead of to the guardian of your now-orphaned children. This should make it much more difficult, if not impossible, for the guardian to squander the wealth intended for your child; a story you hear far too often in financial planning circles. Yes, the investment fees will be considerably higher but falling behind the market is not your primary concern. In fact, it's a distraction. If you have a fairly simple trust with $500,000 or so in it, no complex needs, and you expect it will be disbursed within roughly a decade after your death, I'd, personally, consider looking into Vanguard's trust department. The effective fees are roughly 1.57% per annum by my estimates. For what you are getting, that's a great bargain. I don't think it's ideal for wealthier investors or investors with specific mandates but otherwise, it gets the job done.
If you have a lot of operating assets or real estate investments, you may want to speak to your attorney about setting up a holding company.
An Example of How a New Investor Might Start Investing
With the framework out of the way, let's look at how a new investor might actually start investing.
First, assuming he or she is not self-employed, the best course of action is going to be to sign up for a 401(k), 403(b), or other employer-sponsored retirement plans as quickly as possible. Most employers offer some sort of matching money up to a certain limit. It makes sense to take advantage of this. For example, if your employer gives a 100% match on the first 3% of salary, and you earn $50,000 per year, that means on the first $1,500 you have withheld from your paycheck and put in your retirement account, your employer will gift you an additional $1,500 in tax-free money that is entirely yours. Even if all you do is park it in something like a stable value fund, it's the highest, safest, most immediate return you can earn anywhere in the stock market. To leave free matching money on the table is almost always an enormous mistake.
Next, assuming he or she fell under the income limit eligibility requirements, our investor would probably want to fund a Roth IRA up to the maximum contribution limits permissible. That is $5,500 for someone who is younger than 50 years old, and $6,500 for someone who is older than 50 years old ($5,500 base contribution + $1,000 catch-up contribution). If you are married, in most cases, you can each fund your own Roth IRA.
After this was done, a good investing program would probably involve building up a series of cash reserves including an emergency cash reserve. Too many inexperienced investors have a lack of respect for cash. It's not meant to be an investment, as you learned in Saving vs. Investing. That’s why it’s important that you work to have adequate savings on hand before you even consider adding additional investments. For more information on how much you should be saving, read How Much Should I Be Saving. On a related note, you should also read How Much Cash Should I Keep In My Portfolio?. Remember that cash is not only a strategic asset, it can dampen volatility and, during ordinary interest rate environments, provide decent yields, too.
Once this is completed, you'd probably want to start working on paying off all of your debt. Pay off your credit card debt. Wipe out your student loan debt. If you want to be extremely conservative, pay off your mortgage, too. It isn't that unthinkable. In the United States, 1 out of 3 homeowners doesn't owe a penny against their house.
After that is done, you'd want to return to your 401(k) and fund the remainder beyond the matching limit you already funded and whatever overall limit you are allowed to take advantage of that year.
Finally, you would then begin to add taxable investments to your brokerage accounts, perhaps participate in direct stock purchase plans, acquire real estate, and fund other opportunities.
Done correctly over a long career, with the investments managed prudently, it would be almost a mathematical impossibility not to retire far more comfortable than the typical worker. It is simply the nature of compounding.
Some New Investors May Want To Consider Hiring a Financial Planner, Asset Management Firm, or Other Professional
If you need help, you may consider doing what many investors do and working with a registered investment advisor, financial planner, or other professional. Finding the right one for you can be a bit of trial and error but it's an important relationship so you need to get it correct. Unfortunately, many professionals won't work with smaller investors. It sounds unfair but there are reasons for it, which I can attest to from experience. (Later this year, my husband and I are launching a global asset management firm. I explained a bit about it in this behind-the-scenes essay. Many new investors won't be able to become our client even if they want to do so because we plan on setting our minimum investment at $500,000. The firm, which we are calling Kennon-Green & Co., is going to offer individually managed accounts held by a third-party custodian of the client's choice. We intend to design, construct, monitor, and maintain portfolios for clients and plan on basing allocation decisions on a handful of mandates favoring value investing with a preference for passivity. Though I've been trying to find a way to reduce our planned minimum to $250,000, it's difficult because it's simply easier to deal with larger amounts of money. The point is, it's not out of a desire to exclude for its own sake so much as it is a pragmatic business decision. We've been exploring launching a public mutual fund at some point in future years as a way to manage assets for smaller accounts.)
Some asset management groups have been attempting to go "down market", as it is known, servicing clients with as little as $50,000 in their portfolios. The newest entrant to this field is Vanguard, which threw in the towel in attempting to compete with the more preferred brands among the wealthy, slashed their minimum investable assets to the present level (from $500,000 previously) and dropped the advisory fee to 0.30% + the fees and expenses of the underlying investments the client holdings. Basically, the Vanguard advisor, which, according to one source is randomly assigned by telephone when you call the first time, helps you pick out an asset allocation using technology solutions that automate most of the heavy lifting.
Charles Schwab has a much more personalized service in its equity managed account option with a minimum investment of $100,000 and fees that start at 1.35%. That puts it among the cheapest in the industry at that price level for that calibre of service, especially if you compare them to the main brand regional management companies. Specifically, as of April 30th, 2016, its stated fee schedule is as follows:
Under $500,000: 1.35%1
Over $10,000,000: 1.05%
1. The asset-based fee covers management fees and trade executions by Schwab. It does not cover (i) certain costs or charges imposed by third parties, including odd-lot differentials, American Depositary Receipt fees, exchange fees, and transfer taxes mandated by law; (ii) charges for special services elected by you, including periodic distribution fees, electronic funds and wire transfer fees, certificate delivery fees, and reorganization fees; (iii) dealer markups and markdowns on fixed income securities; and (iv) execution of transactions in securities by other broker-dealers.
Some firms have been experimenting with so-called Robo Advisors, which are really just the automated software solutions of the 1980s once again coming around to rear their ugly heads in slightly different drag. (If you can't tell, I'm not a fan. I wouldn't invest my own money that way. I wouldn't invest my family's money that way. I wouldn't invest my friends' money that way. I don't think history has changed and placing your entire life savings in the trust of a software programmer, or more specifically, a few lines of code strikes me as patently stupid relative to the potential benefits. For the sake of curiosity, I had a model portfolio built by one of the mainline automated portfolio platforms and it came back recommending a decent-sized allocation of leveraged foreign sovereign bonds indirectly held through so-called "safe" ETFs. It's deranged. I don't think any sane investor should be participating in something like that but there is the old saying about fools and their money. People chase crazy things all the time. Human nature doesn't change.)
Learn More About How To Start Investing
To help you get started on your investing journey, here are some other resources I've put together:
The Complete Beginner's Guide to Investing in Stock
The New Investor's Guide to Investing in Bonds
The Complete Beginner's Guide to Investing in Mutual Funds
The Beginner's Guide to Investing in Real Estate
The New Investor's Guide to Building Wealth
The Beginner's Guide to Dividends and Dividend Investing
A 10-Part Guide to Investing for Income
In addition, there are more than 1,000 articles of my content on the Investing for Beginners site as well as a couple of thousands on my personal blog dealing with everything from the mundane to the esoteric. If you are looking for something, the odds are decent that I've covered it at some point, somewhere. You can also send me a message in the comments section of my blog and there's a chance I'll see it and be able to respond. In the meantime, good luck! Starting your investing journey is one of the most exciting things you'll ever do.