5 Mistakes That Will Ruin Your Investment Returns

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Are you thinking about investing for the first time? Whether you’re a newly minted college graduate or a late starter in your 50s, the task of plunging into the stock market can feel daunting.

While I’m sure there are courses designed to get you up to speed as a stock investor, I’m going to tell you a lot of what you need to know in this short article. The good news is that investing in the stock market seems way more complicated than it actually is.

But you’ll only do well if you avoid some key mistakes. Here are several blunders that can sink your chances of getting solid returns over your investing lifetime:

Mistake No. 1: Buying stocks with money you’ll need soon

When it comes to stocks, the longer your investment horizon — meaning the length of time that you can let your money grow — the lower the risk.

By contrast, taking a short-term approach — such as day trading or holding stocks for very short amounts of time — is exceedingly risky. Nobody knows what’s going to happen at any given hour or day.

Investing over decades carries far less risk because quality companies become more valuable over time, and so do their shares. That’s why you should never invest in stocks with money you will need within five years, minimum.

Mistake No. 2: Going ‘all in’ instead of using moderation

Because the stock market is risky, it’s not the basket for all your eggs.

Here’s the formula I’ve suggested countless times over the years: Start by subtracting your age from 100, then put no more than the resulting figure, as a percentage of your long-term savings, into stocks.

So, if you’re 25, 100 minus 25 equals 75 — meaning you should put no more than 75% of your long-term savings in stocks. If you’re 75, you should put no more than 25% of your savings in stocks.

Important: That’s just a rule of thumb. If you use the rule but still feel nervous, you’ve overinvested in the stock market.

Mistake No. 3: Investing in individual stocks instead of mutual funds

I like buying individual stocks, but it’s not necessary. For most people, it’s not even advisable. You can do perfectly well with a mutual fund, while at the same time lowering your risk and reducing your hassle.

What’s a mutual fund? It’s a giant pool of investments. It could be a pool of stocks — a stock fund. It could be a pool of bonds — a bond fund. Or it could have both stocks and bonds — a balanced fund.

The appeal of mutual funds is threefold:

  • A mutual fund allows you to spread the inherent risk of stock investing by diversifying — putting your money in a bunch of stocks instead of investing in just a few, for example.
  • Mutual funds have professionals, or sophisticated computers, that do the buying and selling.
  • Mutual funds keep track of a lot of the paperwork for you.

A stock mutual fund that I personally use in my retirement account is one of the lowest-cost, and most popular, funds in the world: Vanguard 500 Index Fund. Here’s the way Vanguard describes it:

“The fund offers exposure to 500 of the largest U.S. companies, which span many different industries and account for about three-fourths of the U.S. stock market’s value.”

Doesn’t that sound like it fits the bill nicely? Funds like this are a simple way to own a slice of the American economy. And the cost? On this fund, it’s currently 0.04%, which is way less than the average fund charges. The minimum investment is $3,000.

This isn’t a commercial for Vanguard funds, just some insight into how I happened to choose a fund. The Vanguard 500 Index Fund is not the only option.

Growing in popularity, and equally good, is the exchange traded fund, or ETF. This type of investment is similar to traditional mutual funds, but it trades on exchanges, just as stocks do.

Mistake No. 4: Trying to time the market

Yes, we’d all love to buy stocks when they’re cheap and sell them when their prices are high. But none of us is smart enough to do it consistently.

Try to time the market, and you’ll likely find yourself on the sidelines when the market takes off and overinvested when it crashes.

The best way to approach stock investing is also the simplest — dollar-cost averaging, also known as systematic investing. All you have to do is invest fixed amounts, like $100, at regular intervals, such as monthly.

This method works for a simple reason: It automatically leads you to buy more shares when they’re cheap and fewer when they’re not.

Mistake No. 5: Sitting on the sidelines forever

If the thought of plunking down cash in the market gives you the shivers, don’t worry. That’s normal.

I’ve been buying both individual stocks and mutual funds for decades. I don’t remember the trepidation I must have felt at first. But one thing’s for sure: The more I’ve learned, the fewer mistakes I’ve made and the less fear I’ve felt.

When I started down this path, there were only two ways to learn this stuff: reading books and talking to those with more experience.

These days, there’s a ton of free information out there. There are online investment clubs, websites, TV shows, radio shows, brokerage firms — everything you could possibly need to become an informed investor.

So, use money you won’t need for a while, get smart and get started. As my dad was fond of saying, “You can’t get a hit from the dugout.”

But if you do all that and still feel uncomfortable managing your own investments, you might benefit from the aid of a professional. Just make sure the financial adviser or financial planner you work with is a fiduciary, meaning they are required to put your best interest before their own.

One easy way to find fiduciaries in your area is to use Wealthramp, a free service that vets financial professionals and works only with those who are fidicuaries.

What have you learned investing in stocks? Share your wisdom in comments below or on our Facebook page.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

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