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Start Smart: Six Financial Concepts for Young Investors

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Hey Gen Z, you’re off to a great start! Gen Zers have nearly three times more retirement assets than Gen Xers did at the same age, adjusted for inflation, according to a 2024 analysis by the Investment Company Institute. That’s a seismic shift, and it hints at good things to come for young savers and investors.

Even so, if you’re new to investing, it can be tough to know where to get started. The good news is that getting familiar with a few basic principles can help you see past the information overload and set you on the path toward a healthy financial future.

Let’s jump-start your efforts with six important concepts for young investors to consider.

Avoid the Vicious Cycle of Credit Card Debt

The debt you carry directly impacts every facet of your financial life. Put plainly, every dollar you put toward paying down a credit card bill or car loan is one less dollar that can grow to benefit Future You. That’s why minimizing bad debt is the first step toward building a strong financial future.

Note that we said “bad debt.” The truth is, not all debts are bad. Low-interest student loans, for instance, can help you receive the education you need to follow a rewarding career path and earn income. And reasonable mortgages can help you buy a home and build equity. On the other hand, high-interest credit card debt can quickly become very expensive—and severely hamper your ability to make other, more important financial moves such as saving and investing.

Why is credit card debt so bad? Credit cards are a form of revolving credit; they allow you to carry a balance from month to month. If you can pay your balance off every month, you won’t owe interest. But if you carry a balance, you’ll pay interest on that balance—often to the tune of 20% or more. That interest will be tacked on to your total bill, which will then continue to accrue interest.

What’s more, credit cards allow you to make minimum payments equal to a percentage of your total balance. If you get in the habit of only paying the minimum every month, your debt load will only grow greater over time. Using this Bankrate calculator, let’s say you have $1,000 in debt on a credit card with a 20% interest rate. If you only make minimum payments of 2%, or $20, per month, it will take you 195 months—more than 16 years—just to pay off this single debt. And in that time, you will have paid $2,126.15 in interest—more than double the amount of your original debt.

Stay Invested for the Long Haul

As a young investor, you may not have much money to invest. But what you may lack in resources, you more than make up for with time. With decades until retirement, the modest investments you make now can grow substantially over time.

This is thanks to the incredible power of compounding returns, or the return you earn on your returns. Indeed, the longer you can keep your money invested, the longer you can take advantage of compound growth to propel exponential growth in your investments. In tax-advantaged retirement accounts, these benefits are magnified as tax-deferred and tax-free growth allows even more money to compound over time.

You may be skeptical about just how important compounding can be. Consider this example: If you start with a humble penny and double its value every day in June, you’ll end up with a cool $5.37 million by the end of the month. If you started this one-month savings journey in July, which has one more day than June, you’d finish with more than $10.7 million. Of course, chances are slim to none that your investments are going to double every day. But the fact remains that compounding is one of the most powerful financial tools at your disposal. And when you pair compounding with time (remember that extra day in July?), the results can be even more impressive.

Make the Most of Tax-Advantaged Retirement Accounts

The government wants you to save for the future. To encourage you to do so, retirement savings plans, such as 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts (IRAs), offer big tax advantages that can save you money today and compound the growth of your savings for tomorrow.

Employer-sponsored plans such as 401(k)s allow you to contribute pretax income to your account. In 2024, you can contribute up to $23,000 if you’re under age 50. Better still, your employer may offer matching funds. Contribute enough to receive these matches and avoid leaving extra money on the table.

Investments held inside the account grow tax deferred. You won’t have to pay any taxes until you start taking withdrawals from that account. The result? More money is available to work for you—and to benefit from the powers of compounding. But beware that making withdrawals before age 59½ can saddle you with an additional 10% early withdrawal penalty.

If you want to save even more, check out traditional IRAs, which allow for a max of $7,000 in contributions in 2024 for those under age 50. Traditional IRAs allow pretax contributions for qualified savers. Investments in the account grow tax-deferred, and withdrawals are taxed as ordinary income. Again, taking your money out early can trigger a penalty on top of your tax bill.

There’s one more account to get to know: Roth IRAs. Unlike traditional IRAs, contributions to Roth IRAs are made with after-tax dollars. That means you can’t deduct those contributions on your tax return, but it also means you won’t owe taxes when you start taking withdrawals after you reach age 59 ½. In the meantime, investments in your Roth IRA grow tax-free along the way. This can be a great trade-off if you’re a younger investor who hasn’t hit your peak earning years and you are still paying a relatively low-income tax rate.

Here’s another benefit of Roth IRAs: After your account has been open for five years, you can access your principal contributions penalty-free, though you will pay a penalty if you tap into your investment gains before age 59½. We’d add a caveat here: Tapping your retirement funds should typically be a choice of last resort. Since the point of any IRA is to save for retirement, your Future You will thank you if you avoid thinking of your Roth as a resource for pocket money along the way.

Get Diversified

In the short term, stock market swings can test even the strongest-willed investor. But over the long term, the market has historically shown a remarkable ability to smooth out performance and head in an upward direction. Holding a diversified basket of many different types of investments helps your portfolio weather short-terms bumps in the market and benefit from the market’s growth over time.

What is diversification? In a general sense, it’s about spreading your risks around. In investing, that means it’s more than just ensuring you have many holdings. It’s also about having many different kinds of holdings.

While this may make intuitive sense, many investors come to us believing they are well-diversified when they are not. They may own a large number of stocks or stock funds across numerous accounts. But upon closer analysis, most of their holdings are concentrated in large-company U.S. stocks, or similarly narrow market exposure. Diversification works because different types of investments react differently as market conditions change. When one investment falls on hard times, others might be performing well, and can buoy the overall performance of a portfolio. If all of your holdings are too similar in nature, diversification is unable to work its wonders over time.

So how do you get diversified without overcomplicating your life? Invest in one or a few basic index and index-like ETFs and mutual funds. Seek funds that track and hold a broadly diversified basket of stocks similar to those in broad market indexes, such as the S&P 500 or the Russell 2000. Favor those with relatively low expense ratios. You can build a well-diversified portfolio with just a handful of these sorts of low-cost holdings.

As your wealth grows, you may decide to add an exposure to systemic market factors that have been shown to enhance portfolios over time, like quality, size, style, or even momentum factors.

Avoid Speculating

Focusing attention on broad market indices can also help you avoid speculative behaviors that tend to have a negative impact on your long-term returns. These include market timing and stock picking.

Attempts at timing the market—buying and selling stocks based on breaking news and short-term market movements—often turn out poorly. Because you’re typically buying into hot trends and selling when conditions are scary, you end up buying when prices are high or selling when prices are low. In both cases, that behavior can take a big bite out of your savings, causing major setbacks as you work toward your long-term financial goals.

Meanwhile, stock picking can leave your portfolio with too-few individual securities. This reduces your diversification and introduces something known as concentration risk. Investors are typically rewarded for taking on systematic risk, or risk inherent to the entire market. Concentration risk is not systematic. Rather, it’s particular to the stock you hold, and as such, you cannot expect to be consistently rewarded for taking it on.

If you hold a large portion of your portfolio in just a few stocks, each holding can have an outsized effect on your portfolio. Should something happen to just one of the companies you happen to hold—bankruptcy, for instance—you could lose a big chunk of your savings.

It’s also exceedingly difficult to pick stocks that will outperform the broader market over time. Consider that in 2023, more than 70% of companies in the S&P 500 Index underperformed the index. These results vary from year to year. But since a handful of companies often drives most of the stock market’s returns, choosing just when to sell the future losers and buy the next big winners can end up becoming an impossible—and often losing—game.

Follow a Plan That Fits Your Goals

So how should you divvy up your diversified investments? Start with your asset allocation, which is how your portfolio is spread among asset classes including stocks, bonds and cash. Then base your asset allocation on your personal goals, tolerance for risk and the length of time you have to invest.

If you search the internet, you’re likely to instead come across various rules of thumb to help you choose how to allocate your funds, such as the “your-age-in-bonds” rule. This rule suggests you hold a percentage of bonds equal to your age. A 30-year-old would supposedly hold 30% of their portfolio in bonds and 70% in stocks, for example.

Be wary of rules of thumb like these. They depend on broad averages, not your individual circumstances. Also, it can be ill-advised to reconfigure your portfolio too frequently or based on something as distracting as whether you’re 29 or 31 years old. With years ahead of you, if you’re able to remain calm and invested during the market’s inevitable rough patches, a healthy dose of stock market returns can take you far.

Interested in learning more about how to take the first steps toward meeting your personal financial goals? We are happy to be a resource for you.

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