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Investors can learn a lot from the famous Greek maxim inscribed on the Temple of Apollo's Oracle at Delphi: "Know Thyself". In the context of investing, the wise words of the oracle emphasize that success depends on ensuring that your investment strategy fits your personal characteristics.
Even though all investors are trying to make money, each one comes from a diverse background and has different needs. It follows that specific investing vehicles and methods are suitable for certain types of investors. Although there are many factors that determine which path is optimal for an investor, we'll look at two main categories: investment objectives and investing personality.
Generally speaking, investors have a few factors to consider when looking for the right place to park their money. Safety of capital, current income and capital appreciation are factors that should influence an investment decision and will depend on a person's age, stage/position in life and personal circumstances. A 75-year-old widow living off of her retirement portfolio is far more interested in preserving the value of investments than a 30-year-old business executive would be. Because the widow needs income from her investments to survive, she cannot risk losing her investment. The young executive, on the other hand, has time on his or her side. As investment income isn't currently paying the bills, the executive can afford to be more aggressive in his or her investing strategies.
An investor's financial position will also affect his or her objectives. A multi-millionaire is obviously going to have much different goals than a newly married couple just starting out. For example, the millionaire, in an effort to increase his profit for the year, might have no problem putting down $100,000 in a speculative real estate investment. To him, a hundred grand is a small percentage of his overall worth. Meanwhile, the couple is concentrating on saving up for a down payment on a house and can't afford to risk losing their money in a speculative venture. Regardless of the potential returns of a risky investment, speculation is just not appropriate for the young couple.
As a general rule, the shorter your time horizon, the more conservative you should be. For instance, if you are investing primarily for retirement and you are still in your 20s, you still have plenty of time to make up for any losses you might incur along the way. At the same time, if you start when you are young, you don't have to put huge chunks of your paycheck away every month because you have the power of compounding on your side.
On the other hand, if you are about to retire, it is very important that you either safeguard or increase the money you have accumulated. Because you will soon be accessing your investments, you don't want to expose all of your money to volatility - you don't want to risk losing your investment money in a market slump right before you need to start accessing your assets.
What's your style? Do you love fast cars, extreme sports and the thrill of a risk? Or do you prefer reading in your hammock while enjoying the calmness, stability and safety of your backyard?
Peter Lynch, one of the greatest investors of all time, has said that the "key organ for investing is the stomach, not the brain". In other words, you need to know how much volatility you can stand to see in your investments. Figuring this out for yourself is far from an exact science; but there is some truth to an old investing maxim: you've taken on too much risk when you can't sleep at night because you are worrying about your investments.
Another personality trait that will determine your investing path is your desire to research investments. Some people love nothing more than digging into financial statements and crunching numbers. To others, the terms balance sheet, income statement and stock analysis sound as exciting as watching paint dry. Others just might not have the time to plow through prospectuses and financial statements.
Putting It All Together: Your Risk Tolerance
By now it is probably clear to you that the main thing determining what works best for an investor is his or her capacity to take on risk.
We've mentioned some core factors that determine risk tolerance, but remember that every individual's situation is different and that what we've mentioned is far from a comprehensive list of the ways in which investors differ from one another. The important point of this section is that an investment is not the same to all people. Keep this in the back of your mind for upcoming sections of this tutorial.
If you are not sure about how you would react to market movements, we can suggest one good starting point: try starting up a mock portfolio in this free investing simulator, which gives you $100,000 of virtual money in an account that tracks the real stock market. The simulated experience of investing can really help you know your head, your habits and your stomach before you invest even one real dollar.
Next: Investing 101: Preparing For Contradictions »
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