How to Start Investing: The Best Investments for 2021
Whether you're an experienced investor or just getting started, here's what you need to know about investing for 2021.
1. Individual Stocks
A stock earns you money in the form of growth (i.e. capital gains) and dividends. These earnings compound over time, helping to accelerate your investment growth.
The first step to purchasing stocks is opening an online brokerage account. Whether you choose to buy stocks yourself or have your investments managed automatically by a robo-advisor, opening an online account only takes a few clicks.
You can see our favorite online brokerage accounts below:
|Broker||Summary||Commissions||Account Minimum||Learn More|
|Vanguard||Low-cost funds, great customer service.||$0 commissions for online trades||$0||Learn More|
|Fidelity||Low costs and a wealth of found offerings, including zero expense ratio funds.||$0 commissions for online trades||$0||Learn More|
|Schwab||Great customer service. Easy to work with a financial advisor. Zero trading commissions.||$0 commissions for online trades||$0||Learn More|
|TD Ameritrade||High-quality trading platform, in-depth financial research, commission-free trades.||$0 commissions for online trades||$0||Learn More|
|Etrade||Intuitive, easy-to-use trading platform. Commission-free trades.||$0 commissions for online trades||$0||Learn More|
Once your account is open, you can choose your stocks. If you want to invest in specific company stock, you typically need enough money to purchase at least one share. Many online brokerage accounts now have the ability to purchase "fractional shares" (fractions of a stock), allowing you the ability to invest in a stock with less money.
How to Choose The Best Stocks
Remember: When investing in stocks, there's always a risk of losing your money. The market value can go down – and a company can even go out of businesses – so make sure you understand your risk tolerance and review the company profit margins before investing in any individual stocks.
If you're looking to invest in individual stocks, then as a starting point, you might want to consider world-dominating companies that consistently generate above-average growth and strong profit margins. Although past performance is no guarantee of future results, the following large-cap companies have consistently outperformed the broader U.S. market (as measured by the S&P 500) in recent years.
|Company (Symbol)||10-Year Return|
(Data as of January 2021)
These stocks could serve as a good starting point for further research. However, please consult with a financial advisor before making any investment decisions for your account.
2. ETFs, Mutual Funds, and Index Funds
You may have been warned not to put all of your eggs in one basket, and that "diversifying your portfolio" is the way to go. One of the best ways to do this is by investing in ETFs, mutual funds, or index funds.
Purchasing groups of stocks, bonds, and other securities will help spread your money across multiple investments.
Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) are a popular approach for individuals to invest in funds directly through a broker. There are usually no minimums and a fund can be purchased for as little as the current price of one share. ETFs also allow you to purchase immediately at the current market price, whereas mutual and index funds lock in the price after the market closes that day.
To purchase an ETF, you can choose your favorite online broker and make a purchase whenever the market is open. Most brokers offer commission-free ETFs, meaning there aren't any extra charges to buy them.
One way to reap the benefits of ETFs is by investing in dividend growth funds. The following ETFs invest in dividend-paying stocks that have consistently increased their dividend payments year over year, so they could be a good place to start your own research:
ProShares S&P 500 Dividend Aristocrats ETF (NOBL)
Vanguard Dividend Appreciation ETF (VIG)
Vanguard Utilities Index Fund ETF (VPU)
A mutual fund is a group of investments operated by a portfolio manager. Mutual funds help you spread your investments across dozens (or even hundreds) of stocks, bonds, and other securities. Instead of trying to pick them yourself, you can purchase them directly through the fund company.
Note: Mutual funds are managed by fund managers who try to outperform the market. This usually means their fees are higher than index funds.
Below you'll find a list of some of the largest (in terms of assets under management) and most widely-followed mutual funds in the United States:
Fidelity 500 Index Fund (FXAIX)
Vanguard International Growth Investor (VWIGX)
Vanguard Tax-Managed Capital Appreciation Fund (VTCIX)
VY T. Rowe Price Capital Appreciation Portfolio (ITCSX)
Index funds are mutual funds or ETFs that match a financial market index. This could be stocks or bonds, as there are indices for both. For example, an S&P 500 index fund will hold the companies that are part of the S&P 500 Index.
Index funds are known for having very low fees, as they are passively managed. Popular options include S&P 500 index funds, total stock market index funds, or total international stock market index funds.
The following low-cost index funds track some of the world's most widely-followed market indices:
|Fund (Symbol)||Expense Ratio|
|Schwab US Broad Market (SCHB)||0.03%|
|Vanguard Total World Stock Index (VT)||0.08%|
|Vanguard FTSE All-World Ex US Index (VEU)||0.08%|
Many funds have minimum investment requirements, so make sure to research how much you need to invest in a fund.
3. Real Estate
Yes, you can invest in real estate without a 20% down payment or a huge mortgage.
Real estate investment trusts (REITs) are a great way to enjoy returns in real estate investments without the headaches. You can purchase them just like regular stock and your funds are used to invest in real estate assets (such as buildings, land or real estate securities).
By law, REITs are required to distribute 90% of their taxable income back to investors in the form of higher dividends. This comes from rent, management fees, and leasing of properties. Investors receive more predictable returns from real estate – and with greater liquidity than if they owned a piece of real estate themselves.
4. Bonds and CDs
If you're looking to balance your investment portfolio with something less volatile, you might want to consider investing in bonds or CDs. These are considered fixed-income investments, as they typically provide a fixed return over time (until a set maturity date).
Bonds are essentially loans to companies or government entities that pay you regular interest payments during the length of the bond term. To invest in bonds, you typically need to use a broker to purchase them.
Offered by banks and financial institutions, certificate of deposits (CDs) provide a fixed rate of return for a cash deposit. Interest rates vary by institution and the term length of the CD, with longer-term CDs usually offering the highest rates.
To invest in a CD, you'll open one at your bank or via an online CD account. Select your desired CD term length, the amount you want to invest, then deposit the money (and let it collect interest).
Remember: There are usually penalties for withdrawing your CD money prior to maturity. Make sure you won't need access to the money deposited.
Investing for Beginners: The Basics You Need to Know Before You Start
Investing is an important part of creating a financially secure life, but how does investing work? Here, we cover the basics of investing for beginners.
What Is Investing?
Investing is the act of putting your money into an asset with the expectation that it will return a profit. This can be anything from buying stocks to purchasing real estate.
The idea is to buy an investment, let it grow in value over time, and sell it at a higher price than you initially paid. No matter what you choose to invest in, setting a specific goal will help inform your investing strategy. Common goals include:
Buying a house
Paying for college
Growing a business
How Much Money Will I Need to Retire?
The million-dollar question: How much will you need to retire?
There are many factors that go into calculating your retirement goals, but there's a simple way to determine what you need, based on the famous 4% rule for safe withdrawal rates. If you save 25x your annual spending, you can live off 4% of your total investments every year (adjusted for inflation) and never run out of money.
If you need $40,000 per year in annual spending, you'd need to have 25 x $40,000 invested. This means your retirement number would be $1,000,000.
This requires you to anticipate your retirement expenses and compile a budget that reflects your spending.
Related: Check out our million dollar investing calculator to plan out your retirement and make sure you're on track to become a millionaire!
How to Start Investing If You're A Total Beginner
Investing doesn't have to be complicated or scary – but how do you get started?
There are plenty of places to start, including your workplace 401(k) plan, an IRA, or even through an online broker.
How Investing in Stocks Works
When you invest in stocks, you're buying shares of ownership in a company. As the company grows, your shares may increase in value and the company may also distribute some of their profits to you in the form of dividends.
Stocks are considered more volatile than fixed income securities such as bonds and CDs, but also offer a greater growth potential over the long term. Always consider your risk tolerance before making any investment decisions.
To start investing in stocks, open a brokerage account and purchase shares directly through that brokerage platform. You can either pick a company and invest in their stock directly, or you can buy a group of stocks by investing in a mutual fund. Once you purchase the stock, you can also choose to reinvest your dividends to purchase additional shares of stock. This is called dividend reinvestment (DRIP).
If you want a good place to start investing, review our top picks for 2021 above and learn how to open your own online brokerage account below.
How to Invest with Online Brokers
One of the most popular ways to invest is opening an online brokerage account and investing yourself. There are many ways to invest online, including standard brokers, robo-advisors, and investing apps.
What Is a Brokerage Account?
A brokerage account is used to buy and sell securities like stocks or bonds. Brokerage accounts are considered taxable investment accounts (compared to tax-deferred retirement accounts like an IRA) since the income from the account is taxed.
There are different types of brokerage accounts, from full-service accounts (that manage your investments) to simple online brokerage accounts (where you can open an account yourself).
How To Open An Online Brokerage Account
To open an online brokerage account, you'll need to find the right one and apply. Typically, you'll need the following information:
Name, address, and phone number
Social security number (SSN)
W-9 form (for tax purposes)
Other identification (if required)
You'll also need to fund your account through a connected bank account or other method (e.g. ACH, checks).
Are Investing Apps Safe?
In general, most investing apps are safe. The best ones are registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), as well as the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA). Additionally, popular apps (such as Robinhood or Webull) are typically protected by the Securities Investor Protection Corporation (SIPC) for up to $500,000 in securities and up to $250,000 in cash.
But that doesn't mean there aren't issues with investing apps.
For example, Robinhood had widespread outages in 2020, locking users out of their accounts. More recently, many large online brokers experienced slowdowns and outages during high periods of trading activity. Losing access to your investing funds is worrisome, so make sure to research any investing apps before signing up.
Investing apps are secure – but that doesn't mean they are 100% safe.
If you want a more "hands-off" approach to online investment, a robo-advisor automatically invests your money based on your goals and risk tolerance. These programs use advanced algorithms to manage your funds and include services like rebalancing and tax loss harvesting.
The major advantage of robo-advisors is that they manage investing services for a fraction of the cost of full service brokerage accounts. Their fees are typically below 0.50% of your assets under management (AUM), which is well below the industry standard for a fee-only financial advisor.
One of our favorite services, Wealthfront, doesn't even charge a fee until you have more than $5,000 invested with them.
To get started investing with a robo-advisor, you simply pick one that fits your investing strategy and open an account directly with them.
To learn more about our favorite robo-advisors, click here.
How to Invest With Your Employer
Many employers offer the ability to invest either in company stock or through an employer-sponsored retirement plan.
Here's what you need to know about investing with your employer.
Investing in Company Stock
If your employer offers an Employee Stock Options (ESO) or Employee Stock Purchase Plan (ESPP), this allows you to purchase discounted company stock.
If your company is performing well, it's a great way to get an immediate return on company stock (as you'd be buying the stock at a discount). Even if your company stock isn't on the rise, you may be able to earn money by purchasing the stock at a discount and selling right away, depending on your plan.Beware of the tax impact before making these decisions.
Once you make a purchase, be wary of holding company stock during a volatile market: You might end up holding stock that loses value – and loses you money.
Investing in an Employer-Sponsored Retirement Plan
Even if you don't have access to discounted company stock, many employers offer sponsored retirement plans, allowing you to invest directly from your paycheck (and save on taxes, too).
One of the most important benefits of an employer-sponsored plan is the option of a company match. These matching funds are typically a percentage of your income and are seen as one of the best investing benefits available.
These plans are typically managed by a third-party investment firm and come with limited investment options. They may also charge excess investment and management fees, so make sure you understand all of the terms before investing in a work retirement plan.
What Is an IRA – Should I Get One?
Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) are investment vehicles designed to incentivize investing for retirement. This is done via tax breaks on your investments within the account.
Choosing the right account depends on your current income and your anticipated future tax rates. No matter which one you choose, it's best to open an IRA sooner than later. Allowing your investments to grow and save on taxes helps compound your earnings over time.
There are 2 types of tax incentives in an IRA:
1. Traditional IRA
You don't pay taxes on the money invested into the IRA during the same year it is invested. Taxes are charged as ordinary income when withdrawn at retirement. This is also known as a tax-deferred account.
2. Roth IRA
You contribute after-tax dollars into the Roth IRA and the account growth is tax free when withdrawn.
Roth IRA vs 401(k): What Should I Know?
Whether you're considering a work 401(k) plan or looking at the benefits of a Roth IRA, there are a few things to consider:
1. A 401(k) is Tied to Your Job
Yes, you can save on taxes and possibly get an employer match, but ultimately your 401(k) plan is tied to your employer. If you leave (or get fired) from that job, you can no longer contribute to your 401(k) plan. However, the vested amount will still "belong" to you, and you can roll it into a personal IRA and continue to contribute.
And if you leave the job before you are fully vested, your former employer can take back some (or all) of the matching funds they invested. Make sure you understand the implications of leaving your job and what to do about your 401(k) when you leave your job.
2. A Traditional 401(K) Is Pre-Tax, a Roth IRA Is Post-Tax
When investing in a traditional 401(k) plan, your contributions are not considered taxable income. In fact, you won't pay taxes on your traditional 401(k) plan until they're withdrawn after retirement (or rolled over into a Roth IRA account).
A Roth IRA, on the other-hand, is a post-tax retirement plan, meaning you're investing money that's already been taxed. While this sounds less appealing, the Roth IRA grows tax-free and the money withdrawn is not taxed at retirement (starting at age 59.5).
3. Roth IRA Contributions Can Be Withdrawn Anytime (Without Penalties or Taxes)
If you invest any money into a Roth IRA, that money is considered your "principal investment." This principal amount can be withdrawn at any time (and for any reason) without any penalties or taxes. A great advantage of the Roth IRA is that it doubles as an emergency fund.
4. You Can Have a 401(K) and IRA at the Same Time
Though both accounts are treated differently (tax-wise), you can open a 401(k) account and Roth IRA at the same time. 401(k) plans are only offered through employers (or through self-employment if you are a sole proprietor) and the Roth IRA does require earned income for the year, but there are no restrictions on having both accounts open (as long as you qualify).
What Is ESG Investing?
When you invest in stocks, mutual funds, or index funds, your money will help a company (or companies) grow. But what if you don't like how that company is run or what they stand for? What if your favorite index fund included companies you would never personally invest in or support?
In addition to evaluating a company's financials, ESG investors (Environmental, Social, and Governance) consider how the company handles environmental issues, social issues, and governance matters.
ESG investing has become a popular way to invest and grow your money while aligning with your personal values.
There are 2 ways to get started with ESG investing:
1. Do-it-Yourself ESG Investing
If you want to personally pick the companies and choose your investments, you can use an online brokerage account. Some brokerages allow you to filter out ESG companies that match certain criteria.
Just make sure to look through the company's initiatives and policies to make sure they align with your values and goals.
2. Robo-Advisor ESG Investing
Many robo-advisors now offer ESG and other "socially responsible investing" options within their platforms. Simply pick the investing methodology that aligns with your values and let the robo-advisor service invest your money in those funds.
Each robo-advisor has a different methodology and criteria for their ESG investing options, so read up on how they choose to work with companies.
What to Watch out for with All Investments
No matter how you choose to invest, there are a few common elements to consider before getting started:
Commissions and Fees
Perhaps one of the most important things to understand is how much you pay in fees and commissions. Paying too much can severely impact your overall investment performance. For example, did you know a simple 2% annual fee on your portfolio can eat up almost 40% of your total returns over 25 years?
Before you invest in anything, ask these questions about fees & commissions:
How does the investment company make money?
What is the expected return after fees are deducted?
Are there any up-front charges for this investment (also known as front-loaded investment fees)?
Are there any low-fee alternatives to this investment?
Always research and be aware of the costs of investing and look for the lowest cost option to achieve your investing goals.
Minimums Required to Open an Account
When you open any type of investment account, look to see if there's a required minimum balance. While many brokerage firms don't obligate a minimum balance anymore, some require clients to have at least $1,000 (or more) to keep an account open.
What's more, even if there isn't a required minimum balance, some investment accounts require a regular monthly deposit.If you fail to maintain the minimum balance (or regular deposits) on your investment account, you may be subject to fees or other penalties.
Company Matches and Vesting
When investing in an employer-sponsored retirement plan, one of the most profitable benefits is the employer match: funds that your employer will invest as a match for your contributions. A typical company match on a 401(k) plan will match 50% - 100% for every dollar contributed up to a certain percentage of your income.
Example: Savvy Sally has a 401(k) plan at her work that gives her a 50% match on her contributions up to 5% of her salary. If her salary is $100,000 per year and she contributes $5,000 to her 401k, her company will invest matching funds of $2,500 for the year.
This is an immediate 50% return on her investment and is widely considered the best investment available to employees.
But those matching funds are not hers yet.
Standard Vesting Schedule
Most companies have a vesting schedule for the matching funds (and earnings) on their retirement plans. Sally doesn't own those funds until she is employed for a certain amount of time.
Example: Savvy Sally's employer has a 4-year vesting schedule on the 401(k) matching funds. If she leaves the company (or is fired) before 4 years of employment, she won't be fully vested and won't receive all of the matching funds.
Graded Vesting Schedule
Some companies offer a graded vesting schedule which allows employees to retain ownership of a percentage of the matching funds over time. They would be able to keep some of the matching funds, even if they separate from their employer before becoming fully vested.
Example: Ian Investor is employed at Vested Ventures which offers a graded vesting schedule for their 401(k) matching funds. Ian owns an additional 25% of the matching funds (and earnings) for each year employed with Vested Ventures. Here's what his vesting schedule would look like:
|Years With Employer||Amount Vested|
|Less than 1 year||0% vested|
|After 1 year||25% vested|
|After 2 years||50% vested|
|After 3 years||75% vested|
|After 4 years||100% vested|
Understanding your employer-sponsored retirement plan vesting schedule will help you make more informed investment (and career) decisions.
Your Portfolio Diversity
Age-old investing wisdom says to diversify your portfolio – but what does that actually mean?
Diversification is the act of owning several different types of investments in your portfolio to mitigate risk. To achieve this, investments need to balance each other out, so when some go down in value, the others go up (or stay the same).
Most investors achieve this kind of diversity by investing across several asset classes (such as stocks and bonds). In fact, the usual inverse correlation between stocks and bonds help balance out their portfolio and reduce volatility over time.
How Much Should You Diversify Between Asset Classes?
This depends on your investing goals and timelines, as well as your risk tolerance for investing.
This process is how you create your asset allocation for your portfolio. Figuring out a percentage to invest in stocks, bonds, real estate, or international funds defines your allocation and allows you to set a target to shoot for as you invest.
Your Risk Tolerance
As you develop your asset allocation and investing strategy, everything you choose has to be tested by how much you are willing to risk. This is called your risk tolerance and it helps inform all of your investing decisions.
To understand how much risk you are willing to take – and to build a proper asset allocation for your investing goals – ask yourself a few questions:
How much can I afford to lose?
How much am I willing to see my investments drop in value?
What are my long-term investing goals?
How to Start Real Estate Investing
Real estate investing can help you build wealth – but it can also feel overwhelming. Following these simple steps can help you get started with confidence.
1. Start Saving Money for a Down Payment
If you are looking to invest in real estate, you'll need to bring some money to the table. This is usually in the form of a down payment. Start saving this money before you go looking for a property to buy, as you will typically need to put 20% down on the purchase of a home.
2. Decide What to Invest In
While most beginner real estate investors start with single-family homes, you may be interested in multi-family properties or even commercial real estate.
Whatever you choose to invest in, try to focus on one thing at a time so you can succeed.
3. Learn as Much as You Can
Investing in real estate requires that you know what you're getting into. There are many risks associated with real estate investing, and not understanding your market, lending, or legalities of your rental can quickly get you into trouble.
There are plenty of online resources (like the BiggerPockets forum) to help you learn about real estate investing.
4. Consider an REIT Instead
If you want the benefits of real estate without becoming a landlord or dealing with contractors, consider investing in a real estate investment trusts (REIT) instead.
REITs are a great alternative to traditional real estate, allowing you to invest in real estate projects without doing any of the work.
More Resources on Real Estate Investing
For more resources on real estate investing, check out our real estate resource page here.
Frequently Asked Questions About Investing
At InvestingAnswers, all of our content is verified for accuracy by certified financial experts. Our experts also take the time to answer your questions at the end of each article.
How Often Should I Rebalance My Portfolio?
Whether you're rebalancing your 401k at work or a standard brokerage account, a balanced portfolio is an important part of managing investments.
This process includes buying and selling assets to reset the weighting of your investments to match your target asset allocation. While it may sound complicated, it's actually quite straightforward:
Example of Rebalancing a Portfolio
Let's say you have an asset allocation of 60% stocks and 40% bonds in your investment portfolio. During the year, the stock market goes up and now stocks make up 70% of your portfolio. To get back to your target 60/40 mix, you'd sell some stocks and buy bonds with the proceeds.
How Often Should You Rebalance a Portfolio?
There are a few schools of thoughts on when to rebalance:
When investments move 5% or more off their target asset allocation
Many financial professionals recommend rebalancing your portfolio once a year to keep it simple. A more prudent approach, however, would be to rebalance when your portfolio moves off target by 5% or more (as often as needed).
This keeps you on target with your risk tolerance and asset mix and also lets you keep selling high and buying low along the way.
Are Annuities an Investment I Should Consider?
An annuity is a financial contract (typically from an insurance company) that offers a guaranteed stream of income. There are many types of annuities available, depending on the buyer's needs.
These investments are best for retirees looking for a steady stream of income. They are also a good option for those with an injury settlement or lottery winnings who want to lock their money away for future guaranteed income.
Note: Annuities can be very complex financial instruments and it can be hard to understand how they work. In addition, they are known to have very expensive fees that can eat into your returns. Make sure to meet with a trusted financial advisor if you are considering an annuity who can explain exactly how it works and how much it costs.
Table of Contents
- 1. Individual Stocks
- 2. ETFs, Mutual Funds, and Index Funds
- 3. Real Estate
- 4. Bonds and CDs
- Investing for Beginners: The Basics You Need to Know Before You Start
- How to Start Investing If You're A Total Beginner
- How to Invest with Online Brokers
- How to Invest With Your Employer
- What Is an IRA – Should I Get One?
- What Is ESG Investing?
- What to Watch out for with All Investments
- How to Start Real Estate Investing
- Frequently Asked Questions About Investing