Getting Started in Stocks

Historically, investing in stocks has handily outperformed investing in bonds, treasury bills, gold, or cash over the long term. In the short term, one or several other assets may outperform stocks but, overall, stocks have historically been the winning path.

However, there are so many ways to invest in stocks. When choosing among individual stocks, mutual funds, index funds, or ETFs—domestic or foreign, investors may feel overwhelmed by the many different choices.

Key Takeaways

  • Stock investments have historically outperformed other types of investments, such as those in bonds, cash, gold, or treasury bills. 
  • It is important to assess your tolerance for risk before deciding how to invest in stocks. 
  • You should make sure that you have enough time to properly manage and monitor your stocks. 
  • Diversification can be an excellent way to reduce risk in your stock investments. 
  • If you need help with your investments, be sure to consult a broker either online or at a local office.

Being a Risk-Taker

You may be eager to get started so that you, too, can generate positive returns, but consider some simple questions: What kind of person are you? Are you a risk-taker, willing to throw money at a chance to make a lot of money, or would you prefer a more "sure" thing? What would be your likely response to a 10% drop in a single stock in one day or a 35% drop over the course of a few weeks? Would you sell it all in a panic?

The answers to these and similar questions can lead to considering different types of equity investments, such as mutual or index funds versus individual stocks. If you’re not up for taking risks, but still want to invest in stocks, the best bet might be mutual funds or index funds—both are well-diversified and contain a variety of stocks. This reduces risk and doesn't require individual stock research.

It is important to be aware of both your own personal predisposition toward risk and the different styles of stock investment before making any major stock investment decisions. 

The Time Commitment 

Should you invest in funds, stocks, or both? The answer depends on how much time you can devote. Careful selection of mutual or index funds would let you invest your money, leaving the hard work of picking stocks to fund managers. Index funds are even simpler in that they move up or down according to the type of index they are designed to track.

Individual stock investing is the most time-consuming because it requires you to make judgments about management, earnings, and future prospects. As an investor, you are attempting to distinguish between money-making stocks and financial disasters. You need to know what they do, how they make their money, the risks, future prospects, and more.

Therefore, ask yourself how much time you have to devote to investing. Are you willing to spend a couple of hours a week, or more, to read about different companies, or is your life just too busy to carve out that time? Investing in individual stocks is a skill that, like any other, takes time to develop.

Diversify Your Portfolio

It’s best to own a variety of investments or assets, called diversification. For instance, don't put all of your money in small biotech companies. Yes, the potential gain can be high, but what happens if these stocks take a quick plunge when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) starts rejecting a higher percentage of new drugs? Your entire portfolio would be negatively impacted.

It’s better to be diversified across several different sectors such as real estate (a real estate investment trust is one possibility), consumer goods, commodities, insurance, etc., rather than focus on one or two. Consider diversifying across asset classes as well by keeping some money in bonds and cash, rather than being 100% invested in stocks. How much you have in these different sectors and classes is up to you, but being invested more broadly lessens the risk of losing it all at any one time.

Portfolio for Beginners

If you are just starting out, think seriously about investing most of your money in a couple of index funds, such as one tracking the broad market, like the S&P 500, and one that gives some international exposure. Adding another index fund that tracks small companies, like the Russell 2000, would boost returns, but would increase risk.  

A portfolio consisting of various index funds would offer diversification, providing the steadier performance of large companies and upside with both international companies and small caps.

Building a Stock Portfolio

If you are investing in individual stocks, a portfolio of 12 to 20 well-chosen ones will give you sufficient diversification while not overwhelming you with too many companies to follow and research. However, you will need to ensure that you fully understand each company, from its businesses to its risks. If you plan to invest in stocks alone, spread the funds across different sectors such as health care, technology, small-cap, and large-cap.

If you don't have the time or desire to pick a number of stocks, consider investing in a mixture of index funds and individual stocks. Another consideration, especially if starting out with limited funds, is that investing in 12 to 20 stocks may not be feasible. Therefore, having the majority of your money in funds would provide the stable returns that they tend to generate. 

Find a Broker

Once you've determined the shape of your portfolio, it’s time to invest. Find a broker you’re comfortable with, either online or with a local office. Call and talk with this person if necessary. Then fill out the paperwork, deposit some money, and open an account.

After deciding what to buy—don't buy all at once—enter slowly via dollar-cost averaging (DCA). What if you invested all your money just before a market downturn? Being in the red that quickly wouldn't do much for your confidence. Plan to take several months to invest all of your money to minimize any market timing risk. Finally, remember to set aside time each week to review or catch up on the news for your investments.

 Pros and Cons of Using a Roboadvisor

One of the latest innovations that is allowing ordinary individuals to get started in investing in stocks is the advent of so-called "roboadvisors." These are digital platforms that automate portfolio and trade decisions on behalf of users via a mobile app or web interface. By following well-established formulae like Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT), roboadvisors' algorithms optimize portfolio allocation based on time horizon and risk tolerance, leaving users to simply set it and forget it. This automation translates not only into an optimal investment strategy, but also cost savings: many roboadvisors charge far less than a human advisor and often have very low minimum investment amounts to get started.

Of course, automation will also mean giving up control of the portfolio decisions and can minimize the human contact or personal touch that comes with a person to manage your money. If you want to buy shares of a hot stock or IPO, go short a stock, or if you want to sell call options against some holding, a roboadvisor will not allow you to do this. Still, for most new investors, these speculative or higher-risk strategies may not be appropriate and so a roboadvisor that adheres to an indexed investing strategy could be the better choice.

  • Low-cost and low minimums to get started

  • Typically follows indexing strategies, best-suited for most long-term investors

  • Automation eliminates human error and can continuously monitor portfolios

  • Expanding set of choices, such as ESG-focused portfolios

  • Reduced personal touch or human interaction

  • Very little control over portfolio or trading decisions

  • Limited investment options; cannot trade whatever you want

Make Portfolio Adjustments Regularly

As your experience grows, your asset allocation decisions will probably change. You could adjust your portfolio on a regular basis say, every year or so—by selling some of one investment and buying more of another. You could also adjust your portfolio by adding additional funds to those areas in which you want to increase exposure.

These additional funds can be used to expand the number of securities you hold or can be added to existing holdings. Do this on a regular basis and before you realize it, you'll have a substantial portfolio that will help fund your retirement, pay for a second home, or meet whatever financial goals you set when you started your investing journey.

Getting Started in Stocks FAQs

How Much Money Do I Need to Start Investing?

Today, most individual investors can start with very little. Many financial experts advise beginning early, especially for long-term investments for goals like college savings or retirement. Adding weekly or monthly contributions to your portfolio can help grow a smaller seed planted early on grow into a mighty tree.

How Do You Start Investing in Stocks With Little Money?

Today, ordinary individuals can get started with literally $1 to invest. Online brokerages like Robinhood or E-Trade offer commission-free trading and fractional shares, meaning that the unit price of a share is no longer a limiting factor. Similarly, roboadvisors, which automate long-term investment portfolios, are low-cost and many require as little as $5-$100 or less to get started, depending on which provider you choose. Either of these options entails opening an account online and transferring money from your bank, which can be accomplished with just a few short clicks.

How Can I Get Started in Penny Stocks?

Penny stocks are highly risky shares of sometimes questionable companies with share prices below $5 and often below $1. Generally, penny stocks trade on the so-called Pink Sheets or the OTC Bulletin Board (OTCBB). Penny stocks should be approached with extreme caution. That's especially true for the Pink Sheets since the companies traded on it aren’t required to file with the SEC, unlike OTCBB stocks. Some online brokers will restrict trading in penny stocks.

What is the CAN SLIM Method for Investing in Stocks?

CAN SLIM, created by Investor's Business Daily William J. O'Neil, is an aggressive system for selecting growth stocks using a combination of fundamental and technical analysis techniques. It is intended for investors with a high-risk tolerance and relatively short time horizons.

The Bottom Line

Before you jump into the stock market, spend some time thinking about what you want to accomplish and how to do that while staying within your risk tolerance levels. Also, consider how much time you have to devote to investing. Doing this before committing those first dollars will go a long way toward protecting you from the emotional roller coaster of investing.

Careful thought before and during your investing career will do more to help your results than trying to chase the latest hot stock. After all, it's your money, which means you should know what you are doing with it and why.

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