Wouldn’t it be great if you could set up a machine that constantly spits out money every single day without any manual work required on your end?
Well unfortunately counterfeiting is illegal, but learning to invest is a close second when it comes to setting up a process that turns your money into more money day in and day out.
Investing is the process of putting your money to work for you so that you can spend less time exchanging dollars for hours and instead spend your time on the things you value. However, in order to take advantage of the benefits that investing has to offer, you’ll need to put in some leg work upfront.
This initial work will prove to be well worth it in time as investing has the potential to free you from so many of the things that you don't want to spend your time on and provide the opportunity to live a life that excites you.
Similar to building a house, you’ll need to make sure you have a solid foundation to stand on before you start construction. Without a solid base to stand upon, you run the risk of a small breeze or disruption taking the whole thing down.
First, let’s start with the process of building your financial foundation, and then we’ll move on to the process of growing your wealth once the foundation is securely in place.
Before we get to the fun stuff and talk about growing your wealth, it’s important to make sure you are protected in the event an unexpected expense arises.
According to CNBC, last year 28% of Americans were hit with a financial emergency that averaged about $3,500. If you’re not financially prepared for a situation like this, you can quickly end up taking on high-interest debt to cover the cost which can really slow you down.
A $3,500 credit card balance charging over 20% in interest is a surefire way to cancel out much of the returns on your investment portfolio and therefore it’s crucial that when an unexpected expense arises, that you have funds already set aside to use.
Now while that’s certainly easier said than done, there are some strategies for setting aside funds for a rainy day that we have found to be effective.
How To Create An Emergency Fund
An emergency fund is typically 3 to 6 months of living expenses. These are non-discretionary expenses such as rent, mortgage, utilities, food, etc. To get an idea of your ideal emergency fund, you should consider creating a budget to understand your vital living expenses.
An emergency fund needs to be immediately available. Whether it’s a car repair or a medical bill, unexpected expenses will not wait around until your stock portfolio increases in value.
For this reason, it’s important that you hold your emergency fund somewhere you can have fast access to it. Our pick is a high-yield savings account.
By keeping your funds in a savings account, you’ll ensure that you’ll be able to reach them quickly in the case of an emergency. A high-yield savings account is one that pays a higher rate of interest than the big banks.
Typically they can afford to do this because they operate as small online-only banks and have much lower expenses. These banks can then afford to pass these savings on to their customers by offering an above-average interest rate.
Currently, three of the major players in the high-yield savings account space are Betterment Cash Reserve, SoFi Money, and Yotta Savings.
Betterment Cash Reserve is a part of the Betterment robo-advisor platform (more on robo-advisors later) and provides users with one of the highest interest rates on the market.
SoFi Money, on the other hand, is part of the SoFi brand which includes a wide range of financial products including ETFs and cryptos, and currently boasts over 1 million users.
Yotta Savings changes things up by offering a prize-linked savings account. In addition to offering an above-average interest rate, you’re entered into a weekly drawing to win anywhere from $10 to $10 million.
Regardless of where you choose to keep your savings account, make sure you’re earning more than 0.01% interest. Although the numbers might not seem all that high, switching to a high-yield savings account could put a few hundred dollars in your pocket each year.
Debt & Expense Management
Once you’ve got plans in place for the unexpected, it’s time to take a look at the expected and regular expenses you are incurring. Letting debt and spending get out of control is one of the biggest reasons why Americans have trouble meeting their financial goals.
The process of raising your expenses and debt as your income increases is called “lifestyle inflation” and is a dangerous habit to form. A recent study by Willis Towers Watson found that this phenomenon also affects six-figure earners, 18% of which are living paycheck-to-paycheck.
It’s natural to want to reward yourself when you get a promotion or find a better job. However, if you’re not careful, this tendency can land you on a lifelong treadmill of never quite being able to set any money aside at the end of the month for your goals (more on that later).
This is especially true if your lifestyle inflation involves taking on debt because adding debt to the picture means you’re committing to raise your expenses for a set amount of time.
How Much Debt Is Okay?
There are two general rules of thumb about debt that individuals would do well to follow.
Rule #1 is the 20% rule. This rule states that no more than 20% of your after-tax income should go towards consumer debt payments.
In context, if you’re making $5,000 per month after Uncle Sam gets his share, you should be spending less than $1,000 per month on all consumer debt payments. This includes car payments, credit card payments, installment payments on Amazon, and essentially any and all debt other than a mortgage.
Rule #2 is the 28% rule. This rule applies to your housing debt and ensures that you are not buying a house that is too expensive for you to afford
The rule states that no more than 28% of your before-tax income should be used on housing payments. This includes your mortgage as well as property taxes and homeowners’ insurance.
So if you are making $6,000 per month before taxes, you should keep your total housing costs below $1,680 per month.
How Much Of My Income Can I Spend?
When you receive money you can do one of three things with it: use it to pay for past expenses (debt), use it to pay for current expenses (spending), or use it to pay for future expenses (savings and investments). We already covered how much should be used on the first category, so now let’s discuss the other two.
In general, if you want to save for both long-term goals (i.e. retirement) and short-term goals (i.e. a vacation) you should be saving about 15-20% of your before-tax income. This includes both the money you personally save and any retirement contributions made by your employer.
If you’re getting started with saving later in life you’ll potentially have to aim a bit higher to make up for lost time.
Anything that’s not going towards debt payments or savings can be used for current expenses.
The benefit of defining your spending money based on these other two categories is that it presents a constrained budget for you to work with. With this constraint, you can take advantage of Parkinson’s Law and mitigate the risk of lifestyle inflation.
We find this framing of how much you can spend to be more effective than constructing a strict budget that feels restrictive and easier to follow over the long-term.
Where Am I Wasting Money?
Two of the most common ways that people end up flushing their hard-earned cash down the drain are paying unnecessary bank fees and paying for subscriptions they no longer use. Many of us have simply chalked these problems up as a consequence of our modern-day life but they don’t have to be.
By eliminating these unnecessary expenses, you can end up saving hundreds or thousands of dollars per year that you can then use to invest and move closer towards your goals. However, manually keeping track of these things is tedious because the institutions benefiting from these cash drains don’t want you to do anything about it.
We’ve found two tools to be particularly effective at solving these problems and getting more of your money back into your pocket at the end of the month: Trim and Cushion.
Trim is a useful app for those of us that are sick of the feeling we get when that free trial we signed up for 6 months ago rolled us on to a $29 per month subscription that we never knew about. By monitoring your subscriptions for you, the app makes sure that you know where your money is going and are happy with it.
Cushion on the other hand is a tool for getting your bank and credit card fees reversed. To date, they have saved users over $2 million in bank fees. By passively monitoring for fees and then dealing with the banks themselves, they provide a hassle-free way for you to avoid pesky fees.
Now that you have an emergency fund and have reigned in your expenses and debt, it’s time to put some safeguards in place to prevent against the catastrophic. There are a number of events that have the potential to financially ruin a person for decades or for life and it’s important that these are addressed as early as possible.
As the leading cause of bankruptcy in the US, medical bills can quickly become overwhelming if appropriate insurance is not in place. Nobody expects to get cancer, but it does happen and it is very expensive if you are not insured.
Most Americans get their health insurance through their employer so it’s important to make sure to review your options and fully understand what you’re getting. One of the crucial skills to develop if you want to improve your finances is your willingness to ask questions, so if something doesn’t make sense to you, speak up!
You’ll also want to ensure that you’ll be able to continue generating income if you become disabled. If your job required precise motor skills (like a surgeon) or your income would be severely jeopardized in the event you became disabled, it may be wise to look into a disability insurance policy.
Finally, at this point, it would also be productive to evaluate your existing homeowners, renters, or auto policies to ensure that they are up to date and that there aren’t any gaps in your coverage that could pose an issue.
Maximizing Your Income
So far we’ve been talking exclusively about how to play defense and establish a solid financial foundation by preparing for unforeseen events and cutting back where possible. However, this is only one side of the equation.
In order to create a prosperous financial future, you also need to play offense and look at ways of increasing your income and building your wealth. Depending on your current situation, you’ll likely have a few options to choose from when it comes to boosting your income.
Beyond the ideas we’ll cover here, there are a number of personal finance YouTube channels that provide effective strategies on how to find ways to boost your income that will leave you feeling fulfilled and satisfied. If you’re looking to keep the ideas flowing and the motivation high, we recommend picking a few to subscribe to.
Getting A Raise At Work
If you currently have a job, getting a raise, or finding a higher-paying position can be one of the fastest ways to significantly increase your income.
Here are three of our top tips for getting paid more at work.
- Know your worth. Know why you deserve to be paid more and have facts and figures ready to support your case.
- Have a positive outlook. When people at work like you they’re going to fight harder to keep you around.
- Just ask! If you never ask for a raise, the chance that one just falls into your lap is next-to-none.
Obviously, there is much more to getting a raise than those three points, but it is worth noting that a raise or promotion can be one of the fastest ways to see a significant boost in your income.
If your efforts to get a raise or promotion are unsuccessful, a second option is to add a part-time job to the mix. Now while it might not seem the most appealing, there are dozens of part-time jobs that you can do from home and that you’ll actually enjoy.
For a full breakdown of our favorite part-time jobs (that don’t involve picking up shifts at McDonald’s), check out this article on the 71 best part-time jobs right now.
Making Money Online
If you’re looking for a more scalable route for increasing your income, turning to the internet is going to be your best bet. There have never been more opportunities to start your own side hustle online and new avenues for creating a significant income online are always emerging.
We’ve put together a comprehensive list of our top 47 methods for making money online that spans from teaching English online, to renting out your spare room on Airbnb, to monetizing an Instagram page that will help you get the gears turning. When it comes to finding a method for creating an income online that aligns with what you like to do, there has never been a better time to get started.
However, a word of caution: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The allure of generating passive income has the potential to make otherwise rational people make totally irrational decisions.
There are many scammers and predators online looking to sell you a pipe dream so make sure to watch out for larger-than-life claims and always do your research before giving over any of your hard-earned money.
Determining Savings Goals
Now that you’ve accounted for the worst-case scenarios and increased your income, it’s time to think about why you’re doing this in the first place. Money is purely a means of storing value and until you use it on things you value it’s just a number in your bank account.
If you're thinking about getting started with investing you probably already have a few ideas about what your goals might be. Maybe you’re starting to think about retirement, maybe you have some kids you’re thinking about sending to college, or maybe you’re trying to find the cash to go on vacation a couple of times a year.
Whatever goals you have for the future, it’s important that you clearly lay them out now. Not only will they help keep you on track and motivate you throughout the process, but saving for some goals like college and retirement can be done in special accounts that allow you to pay less in taxes.
Once you have your goals clearly laid out, write them down and put them somewhere you’ll see every day. Either a sticky note on your computer or a piece of paper on your wall will serve as reminders for why you are making the decisions you are and keep you accountable to yourself.
How To Save More Money
Knowing what you’re saving for is the easy part, it’s the act of saving money that requires willpower and dedication.
However, there are a number of tools and strategies that can simplify the process and make it easier to start moving towards your goals. For starters, our article on how to save more money in your 20’s outlines dozens of strategies that can end up saving you thousands of dollars per year in some pretty sneaky ways.
Additionally, one of our favorite tools for moving towards savings goals is called Qapital. By allowing you to segment your savings towards different goals and watch your process along the way, this free app helps you create and work towards goals effortlessly.
Whatever methods or tools you decide to use, the important thing is that you stick with them. There are a virtually unlimited number of tools or strategies for saving money, but they only work if you use them. So pick something and stick with it for at least a few months before trying something new.
Investing To Meet Your Goals
Now that you know where you’re headed, it’s time to make a plan to get there. Investing provides you with a means of meeting your goals by growing your money over time.
Saving your way to a million-dollar retirement would be a monumental feat for most people because it would require them to make well over a million dollars during their working career just so that they could set aside a million dollars over time.
What’s more is that by the time you retire, that $1,000,000 will be worth far less than it was when you started saving thanks to inflation.
Thankfully, to reach a million-dollar retirement you don’t need to save a million dollars and you can make sure that inflation doesn’t eat away at the value of your cash. This is done through investing.
When you invest your money, you are putting your money to work for you. In his well-known book Rich Dad, Poor Dad, Robert Kiyosaki describes each dollar invested as an employee that goes to work for you, each day earning you more money without your active involvement
Your investments feed on two inputs: time and money. The longer you allow your investments to grow, the greater your ability to take advantage of compound interest. When you invest more money you’ll allow your portfolio to grow faster as well. $100 invested with a 10% return earns you $10, while $1,000 invested with a 10% return earns you $100.
Another lesson from the book is the difference between assets vs. liabilities. An asset is something that puts money into your pocket (i.e. stocks, real estate, etc.). A liability is something that takes money out of your pocket (i.e. credit card debt, loans, etc.). The objective is to maximize your assets so that the income they generate is more than enough to cover your liabilities.
Beyond these basics, there are a few other introductory investing terms that will serve you well.
If you’ve heard of legendary investor Warren Buffet, chances are you’ve heard his famous quote “Buy low, sell high”. While it might seem like common sense to buy something when it is lower in price and sell it when it is higher, our natural tendencies often lead us to do just the opposite.
When we see our investments fall in value we assume that something is wrong and we decide to sell and cut our losses. Then when our investment has rebounded and is going up we decide to buy in again only to realize we bought in at the top.
In order to avoid this all-to-common phenomenon, many investors follow a dollar-cost-averaging strategy. This is also a recommendation that Buffet makes to investors.
Dollar-cost-averaging consists of investing a consistent amount on a consistent basis into a consistent investment. For example, if you invest $250 per month into an S&P 500 index fund you are practicing dollar-cost averaging.
By investing a consistent amount on a consistent basis, you are ensuring that you are buying in when the price is high, low, and in the middle. As opposed to investing a lump sum all at once where you run the risk of the investment falling tomorrow and leaving you with an initial loss.
If you’ve ever been told not to put all your eggs in one basket, you’ve been told to diversify.
Diversification means that your investments are spread over different asset classes (stocks, bonds, real estate, etc.) as well as different assets within each asset class. Because not all assets move together, you want to ensure that your portfolio is not too dependent on any single investment to reduce volatility.
For example, when the stock market is doing well and stock prices are increasing bond prices are typically decreasing and vice versa. By spreading your portfolio across multiple asset classes, you’ll mitigate the risk of wild price swings and the temptation to panic sell at the bottom.
If all of your money is invested in Amazon stock and Amazon starts facing hard times, you might see a dramatic reduction in your portfolio. However, if Amazon only made up 1% of your portfolio, a significant drop in Amazon could be offset by your other investments.
As humans go, we’re not very good at getting a sense of how the fees charged on different investments will impact our returns over time. When we see a 1% or a 2% fee, we’re conditioned to think “oh that’s not so much”. Turns out it is.
What makes investment fees particularly dangerous is that they compound over time. Similar to the ways compound interest can allow you to grow your investments at an increasing rate over time, investment fees work the same way but in reverse.
For example, if you started investing $5,000 per year today and continued to do so for 40 years at an 8% interest rate, you would end up with just shy of $1.4 million.
Now if that same investment held a 2% fee, you’d instead end up with $820,000. That’s a reduction of over 40% from “just” a 2% fee.
Chances are you’re going to end up paying investment fees with most investments out there, but there are a number of newer platforms like M1 Finance and Webull that are popularizing the idea that investors shouldn’t have to pay any fees.
Investing In Stocks
When most people think about investing, their minds immediately go to the stock market. Recently, apps like Robinhood and Webull have rapidly popularized stock market investing for many people who previously had no investing experience.
Since these apps came out, a host of other investing apps have hit the market and are creating more and more lucrative offers and features to attract your business. Webull for example offers new users a free stock when they sign up for the platform.
At its most basic, a stock represents an ownership stake in a company. If you buy Apple stock, you are now a part-owner of the company that created your iPhone. Stocks trade between investors on open markets where prices are dictated by supply and demand, future expectations, and a number of other factors.
In order to collect all of this information, you’ll likely need a research tool to help you filter through thousands of stocks to find those that align with your investing philosophies. Our pick for this is Atom Finance because it is completely free to all investors and rivals many of the well-established paid programs.
For more information on properly valuing a stock, check out our article on how to use fundamental analysis to value a stock.
Individual stocks can be quite volatile as news stories about companies or earnings reports can cause dramatic price swings both up and down. For many beginner investors, this can create anxiety and lead to bad decisions like selling a stock when it is at the bottom.
In order to avoid scenarios like that, there are a number of other ways to invest in stocks that reduce volatility. One of the most popular of these is through investing in funds.
Investing In Funds
A fund is simply a collection of stocks that you can buy a slice of as an investor. For example, a fund could hold shares in 1,000 different companies so that when you buy a slice of the fund you are getting exposure to all 1,000 of the companies within it.
Typically the minimum requirement to buy shares in a fund is anywhere from $50-$1,000. This can allow beginners to diversify their portfolio without needing to have tens of thousands of dollars ready to invest.
Two of the most popular types of funds are mutual funds and index funds.
A mutual fund is actively managed, meaning there is a portfolio manager or team of managers who are tasked with outperforming the market. Even expert investors like Warren Buffet will tell you that this is a significant feat and so these managers will expect to be well-compensated.
As a result of this compensation and increased expenses, mutual funds will typically charge higher fees than index funds. Mutual funds also typically have higher minimum investments required.
Index funds on the other hand are typically passively managed. This means that instead of trying to outperform the market, the fund will attempt to track the market by buying and holding the entire market or sector it is tracking. This often results in index funds carrying lower fees for investors.
Types of Accounts
When investing in the stock market, you can choose from a variety of account types to invest within. The most common type of investing account is a brokerage account. Think of this as your basic Robinhood account with no bells and whistles or tax breaks.
For investors looking to invest for retirement, there are a number of accounts available that will allow you to reduce the tax burden that you’ll face on your investments. Two of the most common types of retirement accounts are 401(k)s and Roth IRAs.
A 401(k) is a retirement account created by an employer to help their employees save for retirement. You’ll typically put money into your 401(k) before paying taxes on it so you’ll need to pay taxes on the money when you withdraw it in retirement. Sometimes employers will also provide matching dollars for your 401(k) which is essentially free money if you contribute.
A Roth IRA is an individual account that anyone can open and start saving for retirement provided they don’t make too much money. Generally, if you’re making over about $140,000 per year you won’t be able to contribute to a Roth IRA.
That’s not all bad though because with a Roth IRA you pay taxes before you put the money in so you’re best off using this account type when you’re in a lower tax bracket.
Now there’s a lot more to investing in the stock market than what we covered here so if you want to dive deeper make sure to read our beginner’s guide to investing in the stock market.
Note: read this article if you’re a foreign investor looking to invest in the US Stock Market.
Note: read this article if you’re looking to get started investing as a teen/minor.
Investing In Real Estate
In the past, real estate investing that went beyond owning the home you lived in was reserved only for high net worth individuals who had a minimum of tens of thousands of dollars to make a down payment on a rental property.
Today, the landscape has changed dramatically and a number of innovations have made it possible for the everyday investor to add exposure to real estate into their investment portfolio with only a couple hundred dollars. This is primarily thanks to crowdfunded real estate platforms and REITs.
Investing In Crowdfunded Real Estate
Crowdfunded real estate is an arrangement where a large group of investors can pool their money to purchase larger deals than any of them could afford on their own. This allows investors to own slices in multiple properties and diversify their portfolios.
Fundrise is the platform that brought crowdfunding into the mainstream in 2010. Not only do they allow investors to get exposure to dozens of real estate projects across the country, but they also began letting investors get started with only $500.
This innovation truly changed the game for average Joe investors across the nation and has spurred hundreds of other crowdfunded real estate platforms to pop up in the last decade.
Investing In REITs
A REIT is a real estate investment trust and is a financial vehicle that has been around much longer than Fundrise and other popular crowdfunding platforms. The REIT structure was created by congress in 1960 to allow everyday investors the opportunity to participate in larger real estate projects.
REITs are companies that purchase real estate and then sell shares to the public. These shares typically trade on the open market just like stocks making them highly liquid.
Each REIT will typically only invest in one type of property (i.e. shopping malls, apartment buildings, etc.) and is legally required to pay out at least 90% of all income as dividends to shareholders.
An accredited investor is someone who makes either $200,000 per year or has a net worth of over $1,000,000 excluding their primary residence. If you meet these criteria, you’ll be able to participate in a wider array of real estate investments through a number of accredited-only crowdfunding platforms.
One of the most popular of these is EQUITYMULTIPLE. On this platform, you’re able to invest in crowdfunded deals, REITs, and individual projects. When investing in individual projects it’s important to keep in mind that you lose out on many of the benefits of diversification that crowdfunding has to offer.
However, investing in individual projects as an accredited investor provides you with greater freedom and flexibility to scout out deals that align with your investment philosophies.
For a full breakdown on how beginners can get started in real estate (beyond just crowdfunding and REITs), check out our full beginner’s guide to investing in real estate.
Investing In Bonds
When a company or a government needs to pay for something, one of the ways they can choose to do so is by borrowing money. They can choose to either borrow money from a bank or from individual investors like you and me.
If they choose the latter route, they’ll sell bonds to the public. A bond is essentially an IOU where the borrower promises to pay back the money you gave them in addition to paying you interest periodically.
The interest rates on bonds typically go up when the borrower is seen as riskier because there is a greater chance that they will default on their debts and the investors will not be paid back.
However, the rate of return on bonds has historically been lower than that of stocks because in general bonds are seen as much safer investments.
Investing With Robo-Advisors
While it is possible to invest in bonds directly, you’re typically going to be better off getting exposure to bonds through robo-advisors. A robo-advisor is a cross between being a complete DIY investor and working with a financial planner.
By using algorithms and questionnaires to analyze your situation and goals, the robo-advisor will create an optimal course of action for you to follow and build you a portfolio.
Depending on your situation, your portfolio will likely include stocks, bonds, real estate, cash, and other types of investments. Going down this route can simplify your process for building a portfolio that meets your needs, saving you both time and worry that you are doing things wrong.
Two of the most common robo-advisors currently on the market are Betterment and Personal Capital.
Betterment is a platform built for passive investors of all shapes and sizes. By applying advanced investing strategies to your investments automatically you’ll be able to let your portfolio grow on autopilot.
Personal Capital on the other hand is reserved for higher net worth investors as their robo-advisor service has a required minimum of $100,000 to start.
With either platform, you’ll have access to tools and strategies that were previously only available to individuals wealthy enough to work with a financial planner while paying only a fraction of the cost.
For more information on robo-advisors check out this article we wrote on the 10 best robo-advisors currently on the market.
Tracking Your Investments
Once you’ve created your whole portfolio of stocks, bonds, real estate, cash, and any other investments you choose to pursue, you need a way to keep track of it all. In order to create a truly diversified portfolio that matches your investment style, you’ll likely have multiple investments across multiple platforms.
Most people don’t want to spend hours every month just logging on to all of their different platforms just to try to piece together a snapshot of how their investments are doing or to figure out their net worth.
The two most popular portfolio management apps are Stock Rover and Personal Capital. With these platforms, you can link all of your investment accounts and see the big picture all in one place. Both of these platforms currently provide this feature for free which is a huge time saver for all investors.
How To Start Investing Your Money: Final Thoughts
Now that you know how to construct your financial foundation to protect against unforeseen circumstances and know about asset classes you can invest in, you’re ready to get started.
We couldn’t teach you everything there is to know about investing in this one article, but if you waited to get started until you knew everything there was to know then you’d never get started in the first place.
Sometimes you just need to jump in and get your feet wet even though you’re not completely sure of the next steps. In this case, a good next step might be trying out paper trading. This is essentially simulated stock market investing where you have a fake balance and can experiment with how investing works without having any real money on the line.
One of our favorite free apps that offers paper trading is Webull. If you’ve got your financial foundation in place and are ready to venture into investing, this could be a perfect next step for you.
Additionally, our team uses a whole host of tools to save more money and invest more money that we write about almost every day so if you’re interested in keeping up with the tools of the trade make sure to join our email newsletter where we’ll keep you in the loop.
Until then, happy investing!