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5 Tips for Beginning Investors

It’s never too late and you’re never too old to start planning for your future. Sure, as savings account is the obvious go-to for when you’re trying to put away for a rainy day or retirement, but there does exist another way to stash your cash. Here are some basic steps to set up a simple, “set and forget” beginner investment portfolio .

1) Put safety first .

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Before you invest in anything, you should have money in the bank that you can easily get to in an emergency (say, your car breaks down) or that you can use for a new car, a trip abroad or even a house. Kip-linger generally recommends that you have at least enough in a cash reserve to cover your expenses for six to 12 months. Savings accounts are paying almost nothing right now, but you can eke out 1% or so in top-yielding accounts.

2) Build a solid base .

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For longer-term money that you don’t need right away—such as money in your 401(k) plan or IRA—you can afford to take risks in the stock market. The best thing to do when you’re starting out is to stick with mutual funds, which let you spread your risk—or diversify—by investing in a lot of different stocks.

The best funds to start out with, in my opinion, are index funds, which try to match a particular benchmark, such as the broad-based Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index or a total stock market index. Another benefit of index funds: They have very low fees, which means more of your money is working for you and not for the company that manages the fund.

Note: Peter, you asked about exchange-traded funds, or ETFs. An ETF is a kind of index fund. There are hundreds of ETFs that invest in all kind of indexes, some well known (such as the S&P 500) and some so obscure that you’d never need them. They are popular because their fees are even lower than those of index mutual funds, and you can trade them throughout the day like stocks.

3) Aim for a target .

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Another broad-based way to invest is a target-date fund, which you probably have access to through your 401(k) plan. That’s a one-stop fund with a mix of stocks, bonds and other assets that are tied to the date of your retirement and gradually become more conservative as that date approaches. If you go this route, a target-date fund is probably all you need.

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4) Add a little spice .

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With actively managed funds, managers use their own judgment to try to get returns that beat the stock market. That’s tough to do, and some managers are better at it than others. The trick is to pick the best ones that have staying power. At Kip-linger, we try to do this for you by choosing the Kip-linger 25, our 25 favorite actively managed funds. If you have index funds as a base, you can use actively managed funds to complement your portfolio.

5) Take a flier on stocks?

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In some ways, stocks are the most fun to invest in, but they also require a lot of research to choose the right ones. And, of course, if you invest in any single stock, you’re taking on more risk than if you invest in a mutual fund that holds shares in many companies. For someone in your position, I’d recommend starting with a solid fund foundation. Then, if you have extra money and want to take a flier on a stock (or stocks), you can do that.