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A comprehensive guide to investing in stocks for beginners

Want to get started investing in stocks? Here are 6 simple steps to follow, including helpful resources. ...
Investing Basics: how to invest in stocks featuring a laptop with three line charts and buy/sell buttons in the background
Once you've built your portfolio, you can also re-invest any earnings or dividends to help build growth over time.

Table of Contents: Masthead Sticky

  • You can start investing in stocks through a brokerage account or by using a robo-advisor.
  • But you should establish goals, review your financial situation, and determine your risk tolerance first.
  • Rebalancing your portfolio periodically will help you keep your investments in good shape.

Looking to maximize your money and beat the cost of inflation? You want to invest in the stock market to get higher returns than your average savings account. But learning how to invest in stocks can be daunting for someone just getting started.

When you invest in stocks, you're purchasing a share of a company. They're basically a slice of ownership in a company that can yield returns if it's successful. There are various ways to invest and leverage your money. But there's a lot to know before you get started investing in stocks.

Step 1: Figure out your goals

It's important to know what your fundamental goals are and why you want to start investing in the first place. Knowing this will help you to set clear goals to work toward. This is a crucial first step to take when you're looking to create an investing strategy later on.

If you're unsure of your goals, first review your financial situation, such as how much debt you have, your after-tax income, and expected retirement goal date. Knowing when you plan to retire can let you know your overall time horizon – or how much time you plan to hold onto your investments to reach your financial goal.

Based on that information, you can start figuring out your investing goals. Do you want to invest for the short or long term? Are you saving for a down payment on a house? Or are you trying to build your nest egg for retirement? All of these situations will affect how much – and how aggressively – to invest.

Finally, investing, like life, is inherently risky And you can lose money as easily as you can earn it. For your financial and mental wellbeing, you want to consider your appetite for risk. This is typically referred to as "risk tolerance" or how much risk you can reasonably take on given your financial situation and feelings about risk.

Step 2: Determine your budget

Once you've got some solid goals set, it's time to review your budget. Here are some things to consider:

  • Your current after-tax income. Many people look at their pre-tax income, but you want to know how much money you're working with after taxes which can help you create a realistic budget.
  • Your expenses. How much are your monthly expenses? How much do you have leftover each month? Is it possible to reduce or cut some expenses?
  • Overall debt. How much debt do you currently have? List out your monthly payments and compare that against what you're making.
  • Net worth. Your net worth is your total assets minus your liabilities. This number can give you an idea of where you're at financially and will allow you to get a "big-picture" snapshot of your financial health.
  • Financial goals. As we mentioned before, knowing your goals is important as it gives your money a purpose.
  • Risk tolerance. How much risk do you feel comfortable taking on? Calculating this will give you a clearer idea of what you can afford to lose.
  • Time horizon. How much time do you have before you want to reach your investing goals? This is key to mapping out your finances to ensure you're keeping pace with when and how to invest without disrupting your budget or other goals not related to trading securities.

All of these are key ingredients that can help you determine your budget.

One last thing to consider: when you expect to retire. For example, if you have 30 years to save for retirement, you can use a retirement calculator to assess how much you might need and how much you should save each month. When setting a budget, make sure you can afford it and that it is helping you reach your goals.

Step 3: Get acquainted with various stocks and funds

Now it's time to start doing research on what to invest in. There are different ways to invest in the stock market and there's a lot to know so doing your research is well worth your time.

Stocks are a good option to consider if you want to invest in specific companies. Just keep in mind that you should look into the company itself and how it's performing over time:

  • Stocks – A stock is a security that gives stockholders the opportunity to buy a fractional share of ownership in a particular company. There are many different types of stocks to choose from, such as blue-chip stocks, growth stocks, and penny stocks, so make sure you understand your options, what they offer, and what matches with your budget and investing goals.

"If you're going to pick a stock, look at the [company's] financial statements and select the stock based on the "bucket" you're trying to fill in your portfolio. For example, are you looking for a dividend stock? Look at the dividend history. Are you looking for a growth stock? Look at the earnings per share: Is it showing consistent growth? [Consider] how these indicators measure against [its] peer group," says Amy Irvine, a certified financial planner at Rooted Planning Group.

So you want to take steps to look at your income and expense balance sheets and make sure you're hitting the right bucket – which refers to the grouping of related assets or categories – for your investing needs. For example, investing in small-cap, mid-cap, or large-cap stocks, are a way to invest in different-sized companies with varying market capitalizations and degrees of risk.

If you're looking to go the DIY route or want the option to have your securities professionally managed, you can consider ETFs, mutual funds, or index funds:

  • Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) – ETFs are a type of exchange-traded investment product that must register with the SEC and allows investors to pool money and invest in stocks, bonds, or assets that are traded on the US stock exchange. There are two types of ETFs: Index-based ETFs and actively managed ETFs. Index-based ETFs track a particular securities index like the S&P 500 and invest in those securities contained within that index. Actively managed ETFs aren't based on an index and instead aim to achieve an investment objective by investing in a portfolio of securities that will meet that goal and are managed by an advisor.
  • Mutual funds – this investment vehicle also allows investors to pool their money to invest in various assets, and are similar to some ETFs in that way. However, mutual funds are always actively managed by a fund manager. Most mutual funds fall into one of four main categories: bond funds, money market funds, stock funds, and target-date funds.
  • Index funds – this type of investment vehicle is a mutual fund that's designed to track a particular index such as the S&P 500. Index funds invest in stocks or bonds of various companies that are listed on a particular index.

You want to get familiar with the various types of investing vehicles and understand the risks and rewards of each type of security. For example, stocks can be lucrative but also very risky. As we mentioned before, mutual funds are actively managed, whereas index-based ETFs and index funds are passively managed.

This is important to keep in mind because your costs and responsibilities vary depending on an active versus passive approach. Mutual funds are professionally managed and may have higher fees. With ETFs and index funds, you can purchase them yourself and may have lower fees. Having a diverse portfolio can help you prepare for the risk and not have all of your eggs in one basket.

"You can choose to invest in individual stocks, a stock mutual fund, or an ETF. ETFs are somewhat similar to mutual funds in that they invest in many stocks, but trade more similarly to an individual stock," explains Kenny Senour, certified financial planner at Millennial Wealth Management. "For example, let's say you open a brokerage account with $1,000. You can use that money to purchase a certain number of shares in ABC Company, the underlying price of which fluctuates while the stock market is open. Or you could choose to invest it in a stock mutual fund, which invests in many different stocks and is priced at the close of each market at the end of the day."

Step 4: Define your investing strategy

The main things to consider when defining your investment strategy are your time horizon, your financial goals, risk tolerance, tax bracket, and your time constraints. Based on this information, there are two main approaches to investing.

  • Passive investing – an investing strategy that takes a buy-and-hold approach, passive investing is a way to DIY your investments for maximum efficiency over time. In other words, you can do it yourself instead of working with a professional. A buy-and-hold strategy focuses on buying investments and holding on to them as long as possible. Instead of trying to "time" the market, you focus on "time in the market."
  • Active investing – an active approach to investing that requires buying and selling, based on market conditions. You can do this yourself or have a professional manager managing your investments. Active investing takes the opposite approach, hoping to maximize gains by buying and selling more frequently and at specific times.

Step 5: Choose your investing account

After choosing your investment strategy, you want to choose an investing account that can help you get started. Decide if you want to do it yourself or get a professional to help out.

If you want to be a passive investor and DIY, you can look into:

If you want to get started with active investing, you can use:

When considering active versus passive investing and if you should DIY it or get a professional, you want to consider several factors. Look at total fees, the time commitment involved and any account minimums as well.

The easiest way for many people to get started with investing is to utilize their employer-sponsored 401(k). Talk to your employer about getting started and see if they'll match part of your contributions.

The key is to choose an investment account that fits with your budget and investment strategy, open an account, and then submit an initial deposit. Just know that when you submit money, it's in a cash settlement account and not yet actively invested (I made this mistake when I first started investing!)

Step 6: Manage your portfolio

Now it's time to start managing your portfolio. So that means buying stocks, ETFs, or index funds with their appropriate codes from your account. That is when your money is actually invested.

But it doesn't stop there – you also want to continue to add to your portfolio so consider setting up auto-deposits each month. You can also re-invest any earnings or dividends to help build growth over time.

Diversify your portfolio by investing in different types of investment vehicles and industries. A buy-and-hold approach is typically better for beginner investors. It can be tempting to try out day trading, but that can be very risky.

Lastly, you'll want to rebalance your portfolio at least once a year. As your portfolio grows and dips, your asset allocation – or how much you've invested in stocks, bonds, and cash – will have shifted. Rebalancing is basically resetting that to the proportion you want.

"Rebalancing is the practice of periodically selling and buying investments in your underlying portfolio to make sure certain target weights are stable over time. For example, let's say you are an aggressive investor with 90% of your portfolio in stocks and 10% of your portfolio in bonds. Over time, as stocks and bonds perform differently, those weights will drift," explains Senour.

"Without periodic rebalancing, your portfolio could become 95% stocks and 5% bonds which may not be in line with your intended financial goals for the account. There's no "perfect" time frame for rebalancing as some financial professionals suggest doing so every quarter, but conventional wisdom says at a minimum rebalancing at least once per year can make sense."

Continuing to invest money and rebalance your portfolio periodically will help you keep your investments in good shape.

The financial takeaway

Learning how to invest in stocks can be overwhelming, especially if you're just getting started. Figuring out your goals and determining a budget are the first steps to take.

After that, get acquainted with various investment vehicles and choose the right ones for your financial goals and risk tolerance.

The key is to get started and be consistent. The best investment strategy is the one you'll stick with. Just be aware all investing comes with risk and do your research on any related fees.

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