So you’ve been saving your pennies, listening to your friends yammer on about day trading, and you’re ready to invest.
First: don’t even think about buying stock in some newly IPO’d bitcoin startup. Stop it. Stop.
This is not the time.
The gods of the financial world, fickle as they may be, agree on a few key points, and the first point is this: when investing, start low-risk, and think long-term.
Delay the bitcoin investment for your second $10k, at least.
In the meantime, follow this expert advice on how to invest your first chunk, whether it’s $1k, $5k, or $10k.
Also: if you need help saving up that first investment chunk, see Goalsetter, SeedFi, and Brigit on this list for help saving money in easy (and fun) ways.
How to Invest Your First $1,000
“The first step is to consider your objectives when deciding where to park the money,” says wealth manager Brendan Dooley. A Traditional IRA is easy to open and can help reduce your tax burden: “Best of all, the account can be funded up for the 2020 tax year up until April 15th,” he says.
If you’re more interested in reducing future taxes (rather than cutting your 2020 tax burden), Dooley recommends a Roth IRA. “A Roth IRA allows you to pay the income taxes today, and as long as you leave the funds in the account for at least five years and wait to take a withdrawal until age 59 1/2, all the distributions of principal and earnings will be tax-free,” he says.
In a Traditional IRA, unmarried individuals under 50 years old can contribute up to $6,000, “things get a little more complicated if you are married and your spouse is covered by a retirement plan at work,” says Dooley. “For a Roth IRA, contributions are limited by their Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI), so freelancers and self-employed should discuss with their tax professional.”
Now your money’s in a IRA, how do you allocate it?
Keep it simple, says personal finance expert Logan Allec. “You’d be better off investing your $1,000 in a low-cost index fund ETF, forgetting about it, and focusing your time and energy on picking up more gigs to make more money to invest rather than obsessing about your investments themselves,” says Allec.
Even a great annual return on a $1000 investment isn’t much. “If you somehow managed to beat the market by an eye-popping 5% this year, that’s still only an extra $50 in your portfolio,” he says. “Don’t obsess about the market. Don’t check your phone every day with stock updates. Invest in an S&P 500 index fund ETF like VOO or a total stock market index fund ETF like VTI and forget about it.”
How to Invest Your First $5,000
If you’re ready to invest $5k or over, you’ll hit those contribution limits on a Traditional IRA. The alternative? “Enter the Simplified Employee Pension, or SEP IRA,” says Dooley. “You can contribute up to 25% of W-2 income, or up to 20% of your net earnings from self-employment.”
There are some maximum contribution limits and marginally more paperwork, but the SEP IRA is available (usually for free) at many financial institutions, says Dooley.
Most important: timing. “The plan can be established as late as your return due date, including extensions,” he says. “So you have lots of time to decide how much to contribute.”
A final note on the SEP IRA from Dooley: “if you have employees, you’ll need to make contributions on their behalf as well, so proceed with caution if that applies.”
With $5000 in your pocket, you can diversify your allocation a bit more.
“Instead of just throwing your money into one ETF, perhaps get a bit more strategic about it: a certain percentage of your money in a large-cap ETF, some money in an international or emerging markets ETF, and finally the remainder split between a small-cap ETF and a mid-cap ETF,” says Allec.
However, the principle of set-it-and-forget-it remains.
“It’s important for you to not obsess about your stock portfolio,” Allec says. “It’s better to make an extra $6,000 this year from your business and fund an IRA with it than make an extra $600 this year because you spent countless hours checking the market.”
How to Invest Your First $10,000
Two recommended options come with a $10k investment chunk: either stick to your $5k investment plan or split the $10k and put half into real estate.
“You may want to start thinking about buying a small two-to-four-unit property with a 3.5%-down FHA loan,” says Allec. “For example, you can buy a four-unit with 3.5% down, live in one unit, rent out the other three, and even rent out extra space in your unit. Then you can move out of your unit after a year if you’d like and still be able to keep the FHA loan.”
There are caveats to the real estate approach: if you have a family, a small unit may not be a livable option. Perhaps you’re committed to a lease or mortgage already. Or, if you’re self-employed, qualifying for the mortgage may be tough.
Still, says Allec, it’s a strategy worth considering. “Think about it: not only are you earning cash flow now (if the deal is right), but in 30 years when your mortgage is paid off, you’re sitting on what will likely be at that time a 7-figure asset, owned free and clear,” he says. “It’s a beautiful opportunity for a young person with a bit of cash to supercharge their net worth.”
If real estate investment isn’t an option at this point, stick to diversifying your IRA allotment but not at a granular level. “I would discourage a new investor from trying to select individual stocks,” says Dooley. “Look for broadly diversified, inexpensive mutual funds and Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) to build your portfolio.”
Then, stick to Allec’s advice: set it, forget it, and focus on building your business and your savings so you have an even bigger chunk to invest next year.