This is a great question, in part because it has no easy answer. Personally, I define speculation as the use of money (to purchase an asset) where the purchaser is prepared to lose 100% of the asset value, even if such an outcome is not likely. Presumably, the speculator would only accept such risk if the potential rewards were viewed as substantial and, in some sense, commensurate with the very real risk of a total loss.
An "investor," in contrast, expects with a high likelihood to preserve and enhance the overall value of the asset (or portfolio) over the relevant time horizon. Time horizon is critical here. The same asset could be viewed as highly speculative in one time horizon, and a prudent investment in another. Here's an example. Someone who buys an S&P 500 exchange-traded fund (ETF; for example, SPY) at 10 am and plans to sell it at 11 am arguably is speculating. Although a total loss is virtually impossible in the one hour holding period, conversely there is no strong theoretical or empirical basis for placing a high likelihood on experiencing portfolio growth over that hour. It's more like a coin toss.
In contrast, a 21-year old with a Roth IRA can make a reasonable argument that putting 100% of the Roth IRA in the same ETF and holding it for 50 years has a very high likelihood of leaving the investor well ahead in the end. Of course, even a 50-year holding period is not a guarantee of profit, but this is a case where I would argue that the ETF is a speculation over a one-hour hold and an investment over a 50-year hold.
The main difference between speculating and investing is the amount of of risk undertaken in the trade. Typically, high-risk trades that are almost akin to gambling fall under the umbrella of speculation, whereas lower-risk investments based on fundamentals and analysis fall into the category of investing. Investors seek to generate a satisfactory return on their capital by taking on an average or below-average amount of risk. On the other hand, speculators are seeking to make abnormally high returns from bets that can go one way or the other. It should be noted that speculation is not exactly like gambling because speculators do try to make an educated decision on the direction of the trade, but the risk inherent in the trade tends to be significantly above average.
As an example of a speculative trade, consider a volatile junior gold mining company that has an equal chance over the near term of skyrocketing from a new gold mine discovery or going bankrupt. With no news from the company, investors would tend to shy away from such a risky trade, but some speculators may believe that the junior gold mining company is going to strike gold and may buy its stock on a hunch. This would be speculation.
As an example of investing, consider a large stable multinational company. The company may pay a consistent dividend that increases annually, and its business risk is low. An investor may choose to invest in this company over the long-term to make a satisfactory return on his or her capital while taking on relatively low risk. Additionally, the investor may add several similar companies across different industries to his or her portfolio to diversify and further lower their risk.
For more on diversification, take a look at Diversification: Protecting Portfolios From Mass Destruction.
This question was answered by Joseph Nguyen.
To me, the difference is largely one of time frame.
Lets offer an example. We have 2 ten year olds with $100.
Amy uses the $100 to buy lemons, sugar, an old table, and some poster board and sets up a lemonade stand on a busy road. Business is brisk, and she reinvests her profits by buying more supplies. By the end of the summer she has turned $100 into $500. Some days (rainy, cool days) business was slow, some days (the hot sunny ones) it was brisk. She was never discouraged. She did not throw up her hands on the first rainy day and say "no one is ever going to buy lemonade again - I'm going to sell my stand". She is an investor.
Johnny on the other hand goes and spends his entire $100 buying lemons, which he hopes to sell to Amy next week at a higher price. He heard the price of lemons will go up because the forecast is calling for record heat and lemonade is popular in the hot weather. Lo and behold, the forecast is wrong, the price of lemons drops, and Johnny is wiped out. Johnny is a speculator.
Speculators are forever trying to be smarter than the market. Investors simply participate in the markets. Speculating is akin to gambling. Investing is like going to work.
The simple answer is one is saving via growth and another is gambling. A true investor takes his/her time to study the investment he/she wants to purchase and do the due diligence. It also takes time and patience to become a successful investor. If buying at a discount thrills you, then bargain hunting for your favorite investment at a right price when most people are scared to purchase may someday reward you handsomely.
Speculating on the other hand, well, is just speculating. Hope and pray whatever your purchase will be worth some value. There’s definitely no guarantee for speculating.
Investment can risky, but depending on how you spread your risks, you may not lose everything you put in.
Spoiler alert... There isn't any difference.
Any time you invest your funds, there is a risk of loss. Whether it is a CD, money market fund, stock, or piece of real estate, any investment has the possibility of losing money. Granted the possibility of loss in a CD or US treasury is small, it does exist. Even keeping cash in your home has a risk of being stolen or burned in a fire.
It is important to understand the need for proper risk management. Since every investment has a risk associated with it, it could also be considered a speculation. If you were to draw a line between the definition of speculation and investing, it would be that investing is the productive use of your capital to create more capital, whereas speculation is a gamble on the future value of the investment.
Most people consider speculating as investing in a highly risky investment. I would say this is short-sighted. A better way to characterize investing vs speculating is that investing is trying to use your capital to make more capital while using proper risk management to do so. Speculation would be investing your capital without proper risk management or gambling. For example, you might decide to invest in a highly volatile stock. Many investors would just invest in that stock and "hope" it goes up. An investor would look at that stock and say how can I manage my risk of this stock dropping. He might decide to buy insurance against it dropping, or he might add a stop loss on the stock to limit his downside, or he might employ another risk management technique. Whatever technique he uses, it is done to reduce his overall risk exposure to the stock.
I hope you found this helpful,