When developing your investment strategy, it is important to select an asset allocation plan. As an example, it might be smart to split your savings into portions and to invest a portion every month, as opposed to investing it all at once. By steadily adding investments over time rather than investing everything at one specific point you can avoid timing risk (i.e. buying when the market is at the highs for example or during a particularly volatile environment).
While this strategy will change as your needs and risks change, you should have a broad sense of how much money you want to put into stocks, bonds or alternative investments like gold, real estate, etc. It may sound basic but the first step is to think about what you would like to achieve with your investing. For example, if you would like to save for your retirement and not be as involved in the investment process, you could explore options like mutual funds that adjust investments overtime based on your age, risk profile and retirement expectations.
If you are retiring in 50 years, you may want to include more equity focused investments in your investment mix, since you are able to take more risks as you will not be needing capital back immediately. On the other hand, if you are retiring in 10 years, it might be wiser to invest in safer assets like bonds since you will be looking to liquidate your investments in a relatively shorter time frame. A general rule to keep in mind: if you are looking to invest money for a short period of time (typically less than 5 years), you are better served by remaining in less-risky instruments like a savings account, bonds or treasuries. If you have more time before you would need the money you are investing, you may be able to take on more risk by investing in stocks.
In addition to your specific investment goals and requirements, be sure to also take into account the transaction costs and tax effects of your personal investments.
You can buy assets through various investment vehicles, which we can broadly classify as an investment advisor, a broker (online or a full-service one), or a mutual fund. These options all differ in how much of a role you play in choosing your investments.
Brokerage accounts are investment accounts that provide a lot of discretion to their users and leave investing decisions up to you. Discount brokers allow you to buy and sell securities and do not provide any advice, research, or planning. On the other hand, full service brokers allow the same transactions, but they do offer advice, information and additional resources that can be helpful.
With mutual funds and separate accounts, you are hiring a professional to manage your money. Mutual funds hold stocks, bonds, cash and other asset classes, and each investor owns a certain number of shares of the investment pool. All investors share the returns, and these pooled funds are traded daily based upon the share price. Professional asset managers are responsible for managing the investments within each mutual fund. Within mutual funds, you can invest in active or passive funds. Active Funds are managed with the goal of outperforming indices like the S&P 500 - this means that the fund may perform better than the index it is tracking or may perform worse depending on the decisions made by the asset managers managing the fund. Passive Funds on the other hand are managed with the goal to track the major indices such that their returns should very closely mirror those of their benchmark and so these usually have lower fees given there are no discretionary decisions being made by the investment teams.
You can also invest through an Individual Retirement Account (IRA), or through your 401k with your company.
It is important to monitor your investments from time-to-time and to make sure that they still align with your overall goals. As mentioned before, the risks you might be willing to take now will continue to change in 5, 10, and 20 years. There are also tax differences between short-term and long-term holdings that should be considered. Whenever you decide to change your allocation of investments, be aware of the transaction costs as well as tax considerations to realizing any gains or losses on investments. These can impact your returns as well as the overall efficiency of your investment strategy so decide wisely.