May 7, 2012

You have worked hard to establish a great career--no small feat during an economic recession--and now you are ready to put your money to work for you. But where to begin? Should you hire a financial broker, or become an independent investor? Play it safe with bonds, or play the stock market?  Before you resort to stuffing cash under a mattress, take these five steps toward investing…straight to the bank. 

1. Get Financially Literate. Some investment terms you should know include:

Stock/ Equities - If you own a stock, you own part of the company. A stock is evidenced by a paper certificate.

Securities - Includes stocks, bonds, and bank deposits. 

Bond - A bond is a debt investment in which an investor loans money to a corporate or government entity that borrows the money for a defined period of time at a fixed interest rate. The main categories of bonds are corporate bonds, municipal bonds, and U.S. Treasury bonds.

Market Capitalization - Also known as “market cap.” It is calculated by multiplying the current price per share of a stock with the number of shares outstanding.

Mutual Fund - An investment company that combines the money from a large group of investors to buy stocks and other investments.

Dividends - A portion of a company's profits that is paid out to shareholders on a quarterly or annual basis. 

These are the most commonly used terms in investment and knowing what they mean will help you understand stock roundups in The Wall Street Journal, Yahoo Finance and Dow Jones. When I first tried to calculate a company’s market cap it took me two hours, simply because I didn’t know what it meant. Now that I know the lingo, I can look at an analyst report and easily follow the progress of a stock. I’m no expert, but I know enough to play the game. 

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After brushing up on your fiscal vocabulary, read Lois P. Frankel’s Nice Girls Don’t Get Rich: 75 Avoidable Mistakes Women Make with Money.  I love the advice she offers women about diving into investment and not waiting on “Prince Charming” to take care of their finances. Use the workbooks and self-evaluations in the book to establish and monitor your progress toward financial goals. 

Another great read is Douglas R. Andrew’s Millionaire by Thirty: The Quickest Path to Early Financial Independence. Andrew claims that young professionals can achieve financial independence at an early age by investing. He suggests alternatives to the traditional 401k to make the dream of early retirement a reality.

The Richest Man in Babylon uses parables and layman terms to deliver investment basics and emphasize the importance of growing your money. My dad gave it to me when I was only seven and I often revisit the principals outlined in this book. The common sense advice helps keep me in check when I’m tempted to splurge during a sale at H&M.

Also, get in the habit of scanning Investors Business Daily, The Wall Street Journal and Yahoo Finance for the latest news and market trends.

2. Do Your Research. Before you invest in anything, do your homework. Publicly traded companies want your money, so they make it easy to find pertinent information. Check out their websites to find earnings reports, mergers and acquisitions news and stock quotes. Knowing everything you can about a potential investment is crucial to making a wise decision. Supplement your research with facts from Hoover's Company Profiles. This is an invaluable web resource that offers additional material about company management and executive profiles. 

3. Stay Connected. Once you have done your research and decided which companies you want to invest in, it is smart to stay in touch with an online financial community. Social media is a great tool for networking with investment pros and getting the inside scoop on smart buys. Try Stocktwit, a social networking platform where you can “share ideas and learn from passionate investors and traders.”

4. Don’t Invest What You Should be Saving. Investments should be a part of your overall financial strategy; however, it is important to establish good saving habits first. Create an emergency fund, open a retirement savings account and pay off outstanding credit card debt before playing the stock market. Pay yourself first and you should have extra money to invest in no time. 

5. Diversify Your Portfolio. Once you have savings and understand your investment options, it is important not to place all your eggs in one basket. Diversification is the practice of spreading money among different investments to reduce risk. A well balanced portfolio of investments is more likely to withstand fluctuations in the volatile financial market. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission offers great advice on steps you can take to diversify your investments for maximum returns. 

Investing is key to financial independence. You want the freedom to travel, buy a home or retire early, but savings alone won’t get you there. The average annual percentage gain for a high-yield savings account is one percent. Compare this to the average 10 percent earned on stocks. When you save, your money doesn’t work for you and you will only have as much money as you set aside from your salary. When you invest, your money grows by earning interest. So, determine your financial goals, study up and take your first steps toward a wealthy future.

Published in Personal Finance