Investing 101: How to get started on the stock market

Investing on the stock market can be intimidating, but we're here to help

Millennials don't trust the stock market.

That is the finding from the most recent Merrill Edge Report, which found 66% of Millennials trusted their savings accounts would be reliable in 20 years. In contrast, 71% Gen-Xers trust in their 401(k), while 54% of Baby Boomers believe in their pension. Generationally, it makes sense. Rock-solid pensions of the distant past were a foolproof reward for a life's work. The rise of the stock market from the 1980s-2000s made the same 401(k) seem like a safe profitable bet. And, the financial crisis of 2008–spurred on by massive institutional fraud rewarded with federal taxpayer bailouts—combined with years of stagnant wage growth, ever-increasing income inequality, and ever-higher cost-of-living expenses, means younger workers trust their saving accounts and nothing else. Can you blame them?

(Once and for all, avocado toast plays no role in whether Millennials save for a starter home. It's the impenetrable big-bucks-or-GTFO economy, not the breakfast food, stupid.)

It's understandable, but it's not necessarily prudent.

It's good to have savings, of course, but more as a short-term emergency fund. Long-term, there simply isn't enough of a reward. The national percentage yield average of traditional banks is only .07%, going up to 1.0% or a bit higher at at online banks. Look at it this way, banks take money from savings accounts and loan it out at much higher rates, so you're making it easier for fat cats who already live on easy street.

Investing is smarter for future financial health, and it isn't just for the wealthy. Here are some tips to get started, even with a small amount. Warren Buffett defines investing as "the process of laying out money now to receive more in the future." Your portfolio probably won't get up to $87-billion, but a little piece of Buffet's pie will offer future peace of mind. The "Oracle of Omaha" bought his first stock at 11, you've got catching up to do. Thus:

Get Started Today:

Investing can be intimidating, and nobody likes a no-fun eat-your-vegetables spending scold. (See: toast, avocado.) However, adding a few nip-and-spending-tucks, could give you an extra $10 a week, which is $40 a month to invest, almost $500 a year. Start with whatever you can afford because the longer you're in, the more money you'll make. Even if you start out with a saving account, getting in the habit is the important thing.

Collect Change in a Coffee Can:

If formal budgeting of some sort is too tough, try throwing loose change, crumpled dollar bills, and random poker winnings into a coffee can designated for investments. It sounds silly, but it adds up. It takes diligence not to treat the can as a beer slush fund, but it's an easy way to contribute more to your starter investment kit. There are also more options available if you start out with $1,000 than $100, so whatever gets you there.

Talk to a Professional:

Once you've decided investing makes sense, go to your bank and talk to someone about basic investment strategies. You may grasp the difference between low-initial-investment mutual funds (investments in a portfolio of stocks and bonds) and Treasury securities (savings bonds), but it helps to get outside advice on what is a better starting point. For a lot of us, financial literacy begins and ends with our bank accounts, so seek out those who know the basics of expanding your portfolio.

Enroll in Your Employer's Retirement Plan:

Here's a quick story about a stupid Gen-Xer, me. I once spent a year at a company without investing in my 401(k) until a co-worker told me "You know that's free money, right?" (Ron Howard voice: He did not.) The term "free money" is somewhat fungible, but many employers match whatever you contribute to the 401(k), which compounds over time. Start at 1% of your salary if it's all you can afford and increase it over time until it's a full match. Whatever you contribute, the retirement fund doubles. Call your HR department today.

Get Set Up with a Roth IRA:

If you're part of the gig economy and have no 401(k) option, then consider a Roth IRA, a retirement account that can be opened online in a matter of minutes. If you're single, under 50, and make less than $120,000 a year, you can sock away up to $5,500 a year. The beauty of a Roth IRA is your money grows tax-free and can be withdrawn tax-free. There are a number of benefits for Roth IRA enrollees, including for first-time home buyers, which is something you may become even if it seems impossible at the moment. Because down the line, you will have been investing for years, right?

Invest Online:

You don't have to wade into the murky bitcoin waters to get into investing online. There are much more basic websites and apps to help you learn and grow as an investor. One to try if you don't trust your ability to pick stocks and bonds at this point, sign up with Betterment, an automatically managed investment account that's user-friendly and charges an annual fee (as opposed to per transaction).

Good luck! And many happy returns.

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