How to Choose Funds for Your Retirement Account

Selecting funds for your retirement account can be frustrating. You’re faced with an overwhelming amount of financial jargon, paired with tremendous pressure to make the best decision given the importance of your retirement investments. Several of you have asked me to take this topic on directly, so let’s explore how to navigate retirement account fund selection!

Before we dive in: If you’d like a quick orientation to investing, explore how to start investing in four steps. And, if you’d like clarity on 401(k)s and IRAs, review this overview of the main differences in these common retirement accounts.

So, how do you choose funds for your retirement account? I’ll take you through four steps:

  • Decide how much of your retirement investments will be in stocks (versus other investment types)

  • Identify mutual funds that might meet your needs

  • Select the funds that are right for you (low-cost and with a strong performance history)

  • Invest (consistently and automatically) according to your asset allocation

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Let’s start with the first step - identifying the portion you’d like to invest in stocks. When you contribute to a retirement account, you need to decide how that money will be invested. This is referred to as “asset allocation.” How much will you invest in bonds (which are generally lower-returning but more stable)? How much will you invest in stocks (which tend to return more, but can be riskier)?

The asset allocation decision can seem overwhelming to many of us, who want to get the answer “just right.” However, like so much with investing, there is no perfect strategy. I suggest using one of two methods to derive your answer.

Rule of thumb. Many advisors suggest that subtracting your age from 110 provides the percentage of your portfolio you should keep in stocks. For example: If you are 29, 81% of your portfolio should be in stocks, and the remaining 19% should be in less-risky investments like bonds or cash. (Note: Advisors used to subtract from 100; I now see many shifting to 110 or 120 given longer lifespans.)

Online questionnaires. Financial institutions have easy-to-use questionnaires that help assess your risk tolerance, investment time horizon, and other elements in order to provide you with a recommendation. These questionnaires will provide a suggestion for you to consider regarding your asset allocation.

Note that most employer-sponsored retirement accounts will not permit you to invest in individual stocks. Instead, you can purchase large groups of stocks at one time by buying mutual funds. I generally like this limitation, as I do not believe the average person (or even most investment professionals) can outperform a well-designed, low-cost mutual fund. Therefore, once you determine the percentage you’ll be investing in stocks, you’ll usually be purchasing mutual funds (made up of stocks), instead of individual company stocks themselves.

Next, you need to identify the mutual funds available in your retirement plan that might meet your needs. Typically, most employer-sponsored retirement accounts limit your investment options, providing you with a list of mutual funds to select from. You can learn more about mutual funds here; since mutual funds allow us to buy many, many investments in just one purchase they are a very convenient way to invest.

When you are provided with a list of mutual funds, it will typically include the fund name and the ticker symbol, so you can easily research it. This is another step that can feel very overwhelming, and I recommend four steps to narrow your list of mutual funds down:

  • Look for index funds that mirror the market. I’ve mentioned before that my favorite mutual funds mirror a large, diverse market. One example is the Vanguard 500 Index Fund (ticker symbol: VFINX).

  • Avoid mutual funds that bet on an industry or sector. If you not 100% certain that a specific industry is going to over-perform all others, why would you place your valued money in that mutual fund? I avoid any funds that overemphasize a particular industry or region.

  • Explore target date funds if you like to keep things simple. Target date funds are designed to make asset allocation (which we discussed in the first step) easier. They are designed to get less risky as your retirement date nears, shifting from stocks to bonds. Note that, generally, their returns also drop over time (as they shift from higher-returning stocks to lower-returning, but more stable investments). Target date funds are named with the retirement year - so, if you’re 30 and plan to work until you’re 50, you add 20 years onto today’s date and select the fund with that year in the title.

  • Call your retirement account provider. Many retirement account providers (like Vanguard, Fidelity, and Charles Schwab) also offer support in identifying and exploring investment options. Taking some time to speak with them may provide additional clarity.

I suggest considering 3 - 6 mutual funds, with no more than two bond (or fixed-income) funds. Fewer funds reduces complexity and allows you to better understand what you’ve decided to invest in.

At this point, you have a list of several funds, and need to finalize your investments by checking costs and performance histories. Before investing, you should examine the 3 - 6 mutual funds you’ve identified to confirm they are low-cost and have a strong performance history relative to benchmarks.

I recommend you check at least three things; All should be available via your financial provider, but you can also search the funds on an industry site like Morningstar.

  • What's the expense ratio? This is how much the company that manages the fund charges you for their work. An average expense ratio is around .6% - meaning, for every $100 you have invested, the fund rakes in 60 cents. Sounds small - but tiny fees make a meaningful difference in your wealth over the long term. Vanguard’s average expense ratio is .12% - meaning, for every $100 you invest in a Vanguard mutual fund, they charge 12 cents. That’s much, much lower, and lets you keep more of your hard-earned money.

  • Are there other fees? It can be costly to create fancy, actively-managed mutual funds. So, look carefully for purchase or redemption fees, or 12b-1 fees (marketing or distribution fees.) Ask, ask, and ask again about fees before investing!

  • What's the 10-year return? If you’re investigating a stock fund, you’ll want to explore how it performed over the last decade, compared to the S&P 500. The S&P 500 is a very common performance benchmark because it includes the 500 largest U.S. companies. If the mutual fund seriously underperformed the S&P 500, it may not be worthy of your hard-earned money.

You’ll also want to compare each investment you are considering to one other; if an investment has a particularly high expense ratio, or low return relative to others in your short list, you may decide it isn’t worth investing in.

Finally, invest (consistently and automatically) according to your asset allocation. Remember your asset allocation? Well, now that you have your 3 - 6 total mutual funds, you will need to determine exactly how to invest across each fund.

Let’s say you have selected three funds, an S&P 500 index fund, a broader market index fund, and a bond fund. Further, let’s assume you’ve already determined you’d like to invest 10% in bonds and 90% in stocks. Then, your only remaining decision is how to divide that 90% between the two stock funds (the S&P index fund and broader market index fund) - as 10% will go to the bond fund. In a situation like this, my suggestion is keep is simple - so, start with a 50/50 split between the two stock funds, unless there is a compelling reason to do something different.

Most retirement account providers will allow you to allocate your investment dollars on a percentage basis. Typically, this is done online or by calling the customer service department. Importantly, unlike regular (non-retirement) investment accounts, employer retirement accounts aren’t subject to taxes when you change your investment allocations. For this reason, I suggest reviewing your investments at least once a year to ensure you’re comfortable with how your retirement money is invested.

I hope this overview helps you make your retirement account investment decisions faster and with greater confidence. Remember - there’s a lot of jargon that the financial industry uses - I’m here to help you cut through the clutter and grow your wealth!

xoxo,
Ms. Financier

Investing for Beginners: 21 Things You Need to Know

Investing is defined as, “the outlay of money usually for income or profit.” The idea behind investing? Put your money to work for you, in something you believe will increase in value over time. Investing your money in the stock market may seem like a foreign concept; How do you know which funds to invest in? How does trading actually work? And what the heck is a mutual fund?

There are some gender differences, too. Men are generally more confident about investing, while women are more goal-directed and trade less. Women tend to keep 10% more of their savings in cash than our male counterparts. Millennial women report a lower level of financial comfort. On average, we are less likely to feel “in control” or “confident” about our financial future. And, women generally have a smaller total invested when we retire - because we earn less.

Where to start? I’ve got you - the items below serve as a beginner’s guide to investing.

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1. Investing builds wealth

Is there anything more powerful than the idea of your money making money for you, without you lifting a finger? That’s at the heart of investing.

The power of compound interest means that the earlier you invest, the sooner your investments start growing and making money on your behalf. This builds your wealth far more rapidly than saving in a checking account.

2. The market is where companies go to attract investors

When people talk about investing in “the market” what are they referring to? Today’s markets are largely exchanges - like the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) - that allow us to buy and sell investments to others. You’ve seen photos of business executives and celebrities “ringing the bell” to open the NYSE, but it’s not the only market; others include the NASDAQ, London Stock Exchange, and many others.

The market is a general term for spaces where companies go to attract investors, and where investors buy and sell with each other.

3. Investing allows you to own a portion of a larger business

Buying stock is like purchasing a little slice of a company. Say you buy stock in consumer goods company P&G (manufacturer of Tide, Crest, Dawn, Tampax, and many other household names); that stock costs $90.98 per share at the time of this writing. If you buy that share, you are betting that P&G will continue to grow and make money. P&G uses your $90.98 to invest in its business; open new locations, fund new products, hire new staff.

4. Owners make money when the businesses they own make money

Companies like P&G that offer stock to investors often give investors some of the money they earn. Every three months, these companies tell investors how they are doing by issuing financial statements.

If they are doing well (taking in more money than they spend, which is called profit), they will often give a portion of the money to investors. These payments, called dividends, can be re-invested or cashed out by investors.

5. You need an investment account to invest in the market

Investment accounts are offered by financial services companies (like Vanguard, Charles Schwab, and Fidelity) and allow you to buy stocks and other investments. Once you’ve determined what to invest in, it’s easier to select the right investment account.

6. Investment accounts come in several forms

There are several types of investment accounts, designed for different purposes.

Retirement accounts are for the future, and include 401(k) and IRA accounts. These typically include penalties if you access them before retirement age, and the government often gives you tax breaks on them to encourage investing.

Regular investment accounts are often referred to as brokerage accounts. These aren't necessarily for retirement, so you can add or withdraw your money as you see fit. These don't have special tax benefits (unlike many retirement accounts.)

7. 401(k) accounts are provided by your employer help you save for retirement

Retirement accounts, like a 401(k) or 403(b), can only be offered through your employer. They are named for the section of the Internal Revenue Code that outlines how they work.

401(k) plans can be offered by private companies. Similarly, 403(b) plans can be offered by public education employers, some non-profits, and the like.

8. IRA accounts are for you to save for your retirement

While 401(k) plans are offered by employers, a Roth or traditional IRA is available to anyone that earns an income. This helps those that work for companies that don't provide a 401(k) benefit, as well as those who want to invest more for their retirement.

You have to open this account for yourself at a qualified bank or broker, like Vanguard or Fidelity.

Traditional IRAs are funded with wages that you have already paid taxes on. However, depending on your income, you may be able to deduct your contributions from your taxes.

9. Some IRA accounts (Roth IRAs) allow you to access money in the future, without taxes

Roth accounts are funded with money that has already been taxed, so you do not owe the government any taxes when you access it in retirement.

Some people prefer Roth accounts because they like the predictably of knowing they will not be taxed in the future. Regardless of whether you prefer a Roth or Traditional IRA, the most important step is to begin investing. Either would be better than neither!

10. You need to fund your investment account in order to buy investments

Once you have selected both the type of account you are focused on (IRA, 401(k), brokerage) and the financial services provider (Vanguard, Fidelity, Charles Schwab), you need to fund the account by putting money in.

If you are just starting to invest, you can call the financial services provider or go to their website to send them your money and open your account. This money will sit in the investment account in cash until you decide which investments to purchase.

11. It is very, very hard to pick the right stock to buy.

All this knowledge is useless if you don’t put your money to work for you by selecting an investment. This is where many women, wanting to know all the details can face analysis paralysis.

Since a stock is like purchasing a little slice of a company, many people like to analyze company information (financial performance, industry trends, competitive landscape, emerging regulations), and then buy the companies they think will win.

A caution: this is very, very difficult to do. If you are buying individual stocks, it is very challenging to consistently make money.

Think about it; as an individual investor, you need to be educated enough to buy only the stocks that will continue to pay dividends OR buy (and sell) the right stocks at the right time, when they increase in price. And you’re competing with everyone else who watches the market - including professionals.

One of the money mistakes I made was trying my hand at purchasing individual stocks. I have shared how that worked out - disastrously - for me. There are over half a million companies you can invest in on public exchanges. How will we pick the right ones to buy stock in? Read the next steps to learn how.

12. Mutual funds allow you to buy many companies in one purchase

Mutual funds are one investment vehicle that allows us to buy many, many stocks in just one purchase. I prefer these to individual stocks because you can own hundreds of companies in each share.

Many retirement accounts only allow mutual funds, given they offer more companies in each purchase and are generally seen as less risky than stocks.

13. ETFs are like mutual funds, but cheaper

ETFs are my favorite type of investment. ETF stands for Exchange-Traded Fund. Like mutual funds, ETFs allow investors to buy many companies in a single share. They are nearly identical to mutual funds, save for some technical differences (how they are traded and regulated, for example).

I like these better than individual stocks and even mutual funds because they are generally less costly to the investor and have low expense ratios, as I explain in the next step.

14. Investments have costs

What's the expense ratio? This is how much the company that manages the mutual fund or ETF charges you for their work.

An average expense ratio is around .6% - meaning, for every $100 you have invested, the fund rakes in 60 cents. Sounds small - but tiny fees make a meaningful difference in your wealth over the long term. Vanguard’s average expense ratio is .12% - meaning, for every $100 you invest in a Vanguard mutual fund, they charge 12 cents. That’s much, much lower, and lets you keep more of your hard-earned money.

Are there other fees? It can be costly to create fancy, actively-managed mutual funds. So, look carefully for purchase or redemption fees, or 12b-1 fees (marketing or distribution fees.)

You can find these fees easily online when you research your potential investments, because companies are required to publish expense ratios and 12b-1 fees to their prospective investors.

Fees are taken directly out of the investment, so you do not see a “line item” of how much they are when your money is invested. This is convenient for expensive funds with high fees.

15. Returns help investors compare performance

Returns are indicators of how well (or poorly) investments perform. They help investors easily compare performance across different investment vehicles. Returns are expressed in percentages.

For example, if I invested $100 in an ETF that achieved a 4% one-year return, I would have earned $4 in that time period.

You can compare any range of time when looking at returns and compare your potential investment to a few big benchmarks.

Investment returns are from past performance and are not a guarantee of how well they will do in the future. However, they are a useful indicator.

15. Benchmarks like the S&P 500 help compare performance

How did this fund perform over the last decade, compared to the S&P 500? The S&P 500 is a very common performance benchmark because it includes the 500 largest U.S. companies. If the mutual fund or ETF seriously underperformed the S&P 500, it may not be worthy of your hard-earned money.

16. Review the 10-year return to compare performance

There are many ways to evaluate investment performance. I recommend using the 10-year return because I like a longer view into performance.

Compare your investments 10-year return to the S&P 500 10-year return so you can see if you are buying something slightly better than, or worse than, the performance of that group of companies.

Candidly, I keep my investments very simple and largely buy ETFs and mutual funds that match the S&P 500. That works well for me.

Investment experts like Warren Buffett recommend this approach for individual investors and studies show it is very difficult to beat “the market” consistently (meaning, a large benchmarked group of companies like the S&P 500).

17. Target date funds can make investing for retirement easy

Many financial services providers offer “target date funds” which are designed to help you save for retirement by adjusting over time. These funds buy less risky investments as the target date gets closer.

If you are planning on retiring in 30 years, you would buy the target date fund that is dated 30 years from today.

Keep an eye on the expense ratios and other fees associated with these funds. Many are modest, but I have seen some that are far higher than the average mutual fund (which is .6% industry-wide but .12% for Vanguard funds).

18. Investing is easier when you do it automatically

I strongly recommend a regular, automatic transfer timed with your payday. Start with whatever you can afford today, and aim to steadily increase it over time.

Automatic investing will ensure you’re always paying yourself first. Let’s take advice from Warren Buffett one more time. He says, “Do not save what is left after spending, but spend what is left after saving.”

19. Investments pay you through dividends and growth

Investments like mutual funds and ETFs make money for investors in two basic ways.

First, the company may perform well, create profits, and pay stockholders dividends from those profits as I outlined above. Dividends are a financial “thank you” for investing in the company.

If you choose to reinvest the dividends you receive, and buy more shares, you are creating a powerful wealth-building cycle.

Second, you can make money by selling your stock to someone else. Then, you profit (or lose) the difference.

20. The best day to start investing is today

Is there more complexity we could examine? Sure. But, these basics will put you ahead of most that are hesitating to get started due to lack of knowledge or analysis paralysis. Don’t let that be you. Are you ready to get started? You've got this!

xoxo, Ms. Financier

This post also appeared on the Fairygodboss blog - I love their mission to improve the lives and workplace for women, through transparency.

Saving for Retirement: The Beginner’s Guide

When you’re starting your career, you’ve got a ton on your “must do” list: impressing your boss on your first solo assignment, successfully navigating workplace politics, preparing to ask for your first raise, curating the perfect work wardrobe...the list goes on and on.

There’s another, critical, financial to-do that you need to accomplish. You need to start investing for retirement.

Why should you care about investing for retirement? Fair question - retirement can seem like a hazy event in the future, making it feel far less urgent than other life priorities. However, let’s learn from others - not saving early enough for retirement is the number one financial regret of Baby Boomers in America. In contrast, I have never heard anyone say they regret saving too much for retirement, too early.

Further, investing a modest amount today can be more powerful than investing a larger sum later in life. The power of compound interest means that the earlier you invest, the sooner your investments start growing and making money on your behalf. You can never, ever recapture time. Starting today with smaller amounts will build financial momentum in your investment accounts.

Finally, women should care about investing for retirement because we face a retirement gender gap. We tend to live longer, face a wage gap over the length of our careers, and spend more time out of the workforce than men. On average, we need to save $1.25 for every $1 saved by men.

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What type of account is best - an IRA or a 401(k)? Once you’ve decided to invest, it’s time to identify the best type of account for your retirement investing. Let me be clear: either an IRA or a 401(k) is better than doing nothing. Both are fabulous options that are set up to encourage investing. Don’t spend months trying to make the perfect choice; you’ll lose valuable time where your money could be in the market, growing for you.

If you’d like to learn more details about investing, here’s how to start investing in four steps. I’ve also created a very simple summary of what investing in the market really means. Here’s a summary of the main differences between an IRA and 401(k):

Traditional 401(k) Account: Offered by your employer, this account allows you to invest a percentage of your wages for retirement.

  • 401(k) accounts are funded with pre-tax wages. This means you pay less in taxes to the IRS. It also means you’re investing a larger amount of money (since you’re investing a full dollar earned, not just the portion remaining after taxes are paid).

  • Many employers will “match” a portion of your savings. This is free money; never pass up free money!

  • You pay taxes on the money when you withdraw it in retirement.

  • In 2017, you can save up to $18,000 annually in a 401(k) - more if you are over 50.

  • Generally, you cannot access the funds in a 401(k) account without paying steep penalties until you reach retirement.

  • 401(k) is the subsection of the Internal Revenue Code that defines how these accounts work, hence the name of this retirement vehicle.

Traditional Individual Retirement Account (IRA): You have to open this account for yourself at a qualified bank or broker, like Vanguard or Fidelity.

  • Traditional IRAs are funded with wages that you have already paid taxes on. However, depending on your income, you may be able to deduct your contributions from your taxes.

  • You pay taxes on the money when you withdraw it in retirement.

  • In 2017, you can save up to $5,500 annually in an IRA - more if you are over 50. The limit is far lower than 401(k) limits in most cases.

  • Funds in an IRA account are for your retirement, but certain qualifying expenses allow you to skirt tax penalties. These include higher education expenses, a first-time home purchase, and medical costs.

In addition to the differences above, 401(k) and IRA accounts may come in two flavors: Traditional and Roth.

  • Traditional accounts have been funded with money that hasn’t been taxed, so you pay taxes on the money when you access it in retirement. (Traditional IRA investments receive a tax deduction, which makes it the same as a pre-tax 401(k) investment.)

  • Roth accounts are funded with money that has already been taxed, so you do not owe the government any taxes when you access it in retirement.

So, which is the right type of account for you? Like many financial answers, it depends. In general, I recommend prioritizing a 401(k) account, because it often includes both employer matching funds, and you can save far more money for your retirement, in one place.

That said, the best advice I can give you is to make an informed decision quickly, and start investing (or, increasing your investing). Every day that passes without your money in the market is another day that you’re missing out on the amazing power of compound interest. You’ve got this!

xoxo, Ms. Financier

This post originally appeared on Victori Media, a site dedicated to helping millennial women live life victoriously. I love the site’s mission and am inspired by its creator, Tori Dunlap, who built her first business at age nine and is an award-winning digital marketer, entrepreneur and blogger.

Is This Real Life!? The Feminist Financier Is Now an Award-Winning Blog!

This morning, I found out that The Feminist Financier was named Best Investing Blog at the 8th annual Plutus Awards. I was surprised, humbled, and thrilled...and subsequently spent a solid hour on Twitter eagerly exploring the other winners and joyfully reading the notes of congratulations from other personal finance gurus.

You read this blog for personal finance perspective, not blogger awards. But let me tell you why this award is so amazing, and then we’ll return to our regularly-scheduled money-focused programming.

The Plutus Awards celebrate the best in personal finance, and are affiliated with The Plutus Foundation, a nonprofit that provides, “...opportunities for the financial media to create, develop, and administer community-based programs that enhance financial literacy, education, and empowerment.”

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As you know, I believe wealth equality is at the heart of gender equality. Wealth provides the holder with security, options, and power. I started this blog to be a drop in the sea of change...in order to help more women build wealth. This blog is not a business - it doesn’t earn me any money, nor do I offer any affiliate links. The Feminist Financier was created with the sole focus of supporting wealth equality.

Today, the finance industry is not set up well to serve women. Sallie Krawcheck puts this so well - she says the investing industry has been, “by men, for men,” and has historically kept women from achieving their financial goals. That’s problematic because investing early and often is at the heart of building wealth.

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The power of compound interest means that the earlier women invest, the sooner our investments start growing and making money on our behalf. And, today, women invest less than men. We tend to keep 10% more of our savings in cash than our male counterparts. Millennial women report a lower level of financial comfort - on average, we are less confident in our financial future, and less likely to feel “in control” or “confident” about our financial future.

This blog is all about changing that trend, and that’s why I’m so thrilled to receive acknowledgment that this is the best investing blog out there! It means that no-nonsense straight talk that cuts through the jargon is providing you with the information you need to succeed.

You can easily browse all the blog posts on the site, or view only those related to investing. An easy way to start is the “investing in four steps” series, which includes:

As always, I welcome your feedback and am honored that you spend some of your valuable time with me. I’m looking forward to continuing to support financial literacy and help more women improve our finances and build wealth.

xoxo, Ms. Financier

My Money Mistakes: Buying GM Stock

We all make mistakes! In these posts, we’ll explore money-related mistakes. Shame and embarrassment cause many of us to avoid talking about money. However, we learn just as much (if not more) from our financial screw-ups. Sharing our mistakes can help others avoid making similar moves in the future. And we’ve all had them - making a misstep with your personal finances is inevitable. Here’s one of my many money mistakes:

I purchased my first investments in the summer of 2000, at 19, with money I had been squirreling away from part-time jobs. I had $8,000 to invest. To spread my risk, I invested $4,000 in one mutual fund and $1,000 each in four individual companies. One of the companies was General Motors (GM).

I bought GM stock because I knew they’d never go bankrupt. I’m a native Michigander and am very proud of our auto industry. I also considered buying Ford stock but didn’t because I had more family and friends that worked there. My rationale was that by investing in GM, I’d be spreading my risk. Also, there’s a common saying in Detroit - “what’s good for the country is good for GM.” This would prove oh so true eight years later.

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I invested at just over $60 / share, shortly after the GM’s all-time high on April 28, 2000, at $93.625. My $1,000 purchased 16 GM shares, after commissions and fees. Over the next several years, GM stock puttered along, generally declining, but regularly spinning off dividends.

Between 1999 and 2003, I was working my way through the University of Michigan and subsequently, focused on starting my career in Washington, D.C. As a staunch “buy-and-hold” investor, I didn’t act on the general decline of this individual stock in my small portfolio. Enter the 2007 financial crisis. My little portfolio was not immune to the tidal wave of bad news.

As consumers struggled to keep their homes and jobs, GM was hit hard. They offered a wide portfolio of expensive, large vehicles that relied on readily-available credit and low gas prices. With foreclosures steadily rising, Americans weren’t rushing out to buy $54,110 2007 Hummer H2’s which boasted an average MPG of 15. At this time, I was also struggling to keep my job, and largely ignored my portfolio, which was in the toilet.

On June 1st, 2009, GM went bankrupt and my shares converted into Motors Liquidation Company stock (ticker symbol: MTLQQ). Because I stupidly did not sell my GM shares before they converted to MTLQQ, nor did I act on the MTLQQ shares, they became worthless. I had to complete and sign a form entitled “Request for Removal of Worthless Securities” to get them out of my account. Ouch! GM issued new stock in 2010. I did not line up to purchase.

This money mistake cost me both the original investment and the opportunity cost associated with the several years I held a losing stock. But, I’m grateful for the lesson. I’ve since sold all individual stocks and now only invest in low-cost mutual funds and ETFs. It’s very difficult for us individual investors to pick winners and losers in the stock market, and I no longer try. 

This isn’t my biggest money mistake, by far. Stay tuned as I share even more financial stumbles! What money mistakes have you made?

xoxo, Ms. Financier

Start Investing in Four Steps

In the last few posts, we’ve explored investing, mutual funds, and ETFs. Understanding these will help you effectively save and invest. But you need to take four steps (and make four corresponding decisions) to start investing and building serious wealth.

1. Choose an account type. Decide the type of account you will invest in, aligned to your financial goals. We talked about this decision when we explored saving and investing money.

If you don’t have an investment account for retirement, start there first. If you already have a retirement account and are looking to invest even more - congratulations! You’re ready for a general investing account that will allow you to build even more wealth.

Common account types include:

  • Retirement accounts, like a 401(k) or 403(b) offered through your employer; or a retirement account that you manage, like a Roth or traditional IRA.

  • General investing accounts, which don’t offer specific tax advantages but are also more accessible than retirement accounts

  • Educational investing account, like a 529 college savings account

Select the right account type so you can get your money in the market, growing for you. Make the best decision you can and move forward to identifying where you’ll invest. Here’s even more on the difference between an IRA and 401(k) to help you explore your options.

2. Select a financial institution. This company will service your account, report investment performance, and help you make trades and access your money. I invest with the low-cost industry leader, Vanguard. The company is client-owned, and every strategic decision they make is focused on lowering investor costs and fees.

Financial institutions provide a service, and rightly charge fees and make money. I urge you to select a company, like Vanguard, with a low-cost reputation.

3. Pick your investments. I do not recommend investing in individual stocks, but instead ETFs and/or mutual funds. Warren Buffett, considered one of the best investors in history, speaks regularly on the power of investing in an index like the S&P 500. Don’t reinvent the wheel or think that you can do better, start with a market-matching fund like the Vanguard S&P 500 ETF (ticker symbol: VOO).

Eventually, you’ll want to create a portfolio of investments - picking a few different investments to balance your risk. We’ll explore that in the future, as it is important. But, I subscribe to the KISS principle: Keep it simple, stupid. Start with one, maybe two, mutual funds or ETFs you’re comfortable with. You can add to them over time to balance your portfolio.

Look carefully at the fees associated with your investments, particularly the expense ratio. Examine the 10-year performance (don’t be excited or dismayed at 1- or 5-year results). Some investments may require a certain minimum amount before you can start investing. Don’t get discouraged; start saving diligently and you’ll be there before you know it.

If you’re interested in going beyond the fundamentals, I have even more detail on how to choose funds for your retirement account for you to explore.

4. Fund your account automatically. This is the final and most critical step to building wealth. Don’t just open the account and hope for growth. Decide how you’ll continue to fund it. I strongly recommend a regular, automatic transfer timed with your payday. Start with whatever you can afford today, and aim to steadily increase it over time.

Automatic investing will ensure you’re always paying yourself first. Let’s quote Buffett one more time: “Do not save what is left after spending, but spend what is left after saving.”

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You may be curious about the role that financial planners can play. A great planner can serve as a valued advisor and help you build wealth, but beware advisors that are tied to a type of investment or institution - how unbiased can they be? Read more about what planners do here.

That’s it! Those four steps (and corresponding decisions) will put you on a path to create real wealth. Is there more complexity we could examine? Sure. But, the basics will put you ahead of most that are hesitating to get started due to lack of knowledge or analysis paralysis. Don’t let that be you. Are you ready to get started? Let me know!

xoxo, Ms. Financier

What the Heck is an ETF?

I know, I know...the financial industry loves acronyms! ETF stands for Exchange-Traded Fund. Like mutual funds, ETFs allow investors to buy many companies in a single share. I like this better than individual stocks, remember?

The biggest difference between the two is how often they can trade. Nerdy, I know. Mutual funds are priced once each day, after the market closes. In comparison, ETFs act like stocks and trade throughout the day. They often have lower fees than mutual funds. We love lower fees - it means we get to keep more of our hard-earned money.

In our last post, we explored the Vanguard 500 Index Fund (ticker symbol: VFINX). That mutual fund currently has an expense ratio of .14%. For every $100 you invest, you’re charged 14 cents. Let’s compare that to the Vanguard S&P 500 ETF (ticker symbol: VOO); it has an expense ratio of only .04%, so you’ll be charged only 4 cents for every $100 you invest. That’s an extra dime in your account for each Benjamin invested - pretty good.

So, why would anyone ever buy VFINX when VOO is similar, with a lower expense ratio? First, many employer-sponsored retirement plans don’t allow ETF or stock investments, and only permit investing in mutual funds. Additionally, many regular investors don’t understand ETFs and are ignorant of their differences from mutual funds.

Here’s what to watch out for when picking ETFs:

What's the expense ratio? Keep a close eye on what the expense ratio is, and compare it to other similar ETFs. Recall, the expense ratio is how much the company that manages the ETF charges you. An average expense ratio is around .44% for ETFs (lower than .6% average for mutual funds). These recurring fees make a meaningful difference in your wealth over the long term. Vanguard’s average expense ratio is consistently lowest in the industry, letting you keep more of your hard-earned money.

Are there other fees? Since ETFs are traded like stocks, you’ll want to understand commissions you’ll pay to buy or sell, and investigate any other fees associated with the investment, like account service fees. Vanguard account holders can trade ETFs commission-free.

What's the 10-year return? Just like a mutual fund, compare how the ETF performed over the last decade, compared to the S&P 500? If it didn’t come near the S&P 500, it may not be worthy of your hard-earned money.

So that’s an ETF, in a nutshell. Fidelity also has a useful article on mutual funds compared to ETFs if you’d like to learn more. In the next post, we’re going to explore exactly how to get started, now that we have all this information about investing. I’d like to know: What are your favorite ETFs? Are they new to your portfolio or are you a long-term fan?

Mutual Funds: Smarter than individual stocks

We just explored what a stock is, and why investing in individual stocks is an extremely difficult growth strategy. Let me be clear: I love investing as a  way to grow wealth.

But...there's a smarter way than betting on individual stocks, hoping you magically selected the winners from the losers. Mutual funds are one investment vehicle that allow us to buy many, many stocks in just one purchase. I prefer these to individual stocks because you can own hundreds of companies in each share. This helps you avoid one of the money mistakes I've made - investing in one company and losing everything.

However, there’s a twist. All mutual funds are not equal. Mutual funds can be designed to fit different types of investment goals. My favorite are mutual funds that mirror a large, diverse market. One example is the Vanguard 500 Index Fund (ticker symbol: VFINX). In full candor, I prefer Vanguard and most of my million-plus of invested assets are in Vanguard funds and ETFs (we’ll explore those next.) 

One share of VFINX includes just over 500 companies, including Apple, Berkshire Hathaway, Procter & Gamble, Starbucks, Goldman Sachs, and Southwest Airlines. Funds like VFINX are low cost because they don't employ lots of people trying to analyze stocks and beat the market. Instead, this fund automatically includes the 500 largest US companies. This saves you money!

Here's what to watch out for when picking mutual funds:

What's the expense ratio? This is how much the company that manages the fund charges you for their work. An average expense ratio is around .6% - meaning, for every $100 you have invested, the fund rakes in 60 cents. Sounds small - but tiny fees make a meaningful difference in your wealth over the long term. Vanguard’s average expense ratio is .12% - meaning, for every $100 you invest in a Vanguard mutual fund, they charge 12 cents. That’s much, much lower, and lets you keep more of your hard-earned money.

Are there other fees? It can be costly to create fancy, actively-managed mutual funds. So, look carefully for purchase or redemption fees, or 12b-1 fees (marketing or distribution fees.) Ask, ask, and ask again about fees before investing!

What's the 10-year return? How did this fund perform over the last decade, compared to the S&P 500? The S&P 500 is a very common performance benchmark because it includes the 500 largest U.S. companies. If the mutual fund seriously underperformed the S&P 500, it may not be worthy of your hard-earned money.

What are the initial and ongoing investment minimums? Funds typically have initial minimums, or a certain sum of money to start investing. VFINX has a $3,000 minimum for general investors, meaning you first have to save $3,000 before you can begin investing. Don’t let minimums discourage you! Save up and once you get that minimum, invest. On an ongoing basis, VFINX has a very low “additional investment” minimum; you can add to your account in increments as low as $1. So, clearing that initial minimum hurdle is worth it.

It's easy to get overwhelmed. We explored markets and stocks, and are digging into different types of investment vehicles. But, think about it like this: if you stop reading now, pick a mutual fund with low fees and good long-term performance to regularly invest in, you're seriously ahead of the game. Do not let your quest to make perfect decisions paralyze you (or your wealth). In fact, I’ve broken down exactly how to start investing in just four steps.

What other mutual fund advice do you have? Which fund(s) do you own? I look forward to seeing you build your nest egg with smart, low-cost investing! You got this.

xoxo, Ms. Financier

What does investing in the market really mean?

Investing is defined as, “the outlay of money usually for income or profit.” The idea behind investing? Put your money to work for you, in something you believe will increase in value over time.

As usual, the devil is in the details. Where do you invest? How much? How often? There are some gender differences, too. Men are generally more confident about investing, while women are more goal-directed and trade less. Women tend to keep 10% more of their savings in cash than our male counterparts. Millennial women report a lower level of financial comfort. On average, we are less likely to feel “in control” or “confident” about our financial future. And, women generally have a smaller total invested when we retire - because we earn less. Increasing your income will help close that gap.

I believe we can jump many of those gender-based investing barriers by improving our understanding. So, let’s get started and tackle the basics together.

When people talk about investing in “the market,” what are they referring to? Today’s markets are largely exchanges - like the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) - that allow us to buy and sell investments to others. You’ve seen photos of business executives and celebrities “ringing the bell” to open the NYSE, but it’s not the only market; others include the NASDAQ, London Stock Exchange, and many others.

Okay, we’ve figured out markets...but what can we invest IN? Just like when you go shopping, you have a lot of options. We’ll start with individual stocks.

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What the heck is a stock? Buying stock is like purchasing a little slice of a company. Say you buy stock in consumer goods company P&G (manufacturer of Tide, Crest, Dawn, Tampax, and many other household names); that stock costs $86.22 per share at the time of this writing. If you buy that share, you are betting that P&G will continue to grow and make money. P&G uses your $86.22 to invest in its business; open new locations, fund new products, hire new staff. So, it's a win-win.

Stocks make money for investors in two basic ways. First, the company may perform well and create profits (taking in more money than it spends). In this case, P&G may choose to pay stockholders dividends from those profits. Dividends are a financial “thank you” for investing in the company. In May 2017, P&G paid stockholders 69 cents for every share they owned. (Dividend payments are announced as part of their quarterly earnings reports, where they summarize financial performance for stockholders.)

Second, you can make money by selling your stock to someone else. Then, you profit (or lose) the difference. In our example, you bought P&G at $86.22. Over time, if the company continues to do well, more investors will want to buy that stock. This can push the price higher. If the stock hits $90, and you sell, you’d earn $3.78 for each share you owned. Very popular stocks can be like a Hermès Birkin bag - very expensive because they are limited in quantity and hard to get.

A caution: if you are buying stocks one by one, it is very difficult to consistently make money. Think about it; as an individual investor, you need to be educated enough to buy only the stocks that will continue to pay dividends OR buy (and sell) the right stocks at the right time, when they increase in price. And you’re competing with everyone else who watches the market - including professionals. One of the money mistakes I made was trying my hand at purchasing individual stocks and I’ve shared how that worked out - disastrously - for me. There are over half a million companies you can invest in on public exchanges. How will we pick the right ones to buy stock in?

I have great news for you. We don't have to. There’s a better way to invest in the market by purchasing groups of stocks in mutual funds and ETFs (we’ll explore mutual funds next). Buying groups of stocks won’t give you an amazing story like someone who invested in Google at $85 per share (now worth $937.50); nor will it wipe out all your investments like Pets.com (the company went bankrupt less than 300 days after starting to sell its stock).

Has this introduction to markets and stocks helped you? What other questions do you have?

xoxo, Ms. Financier

I Have an Emergency Fund and am Investing in Retirement, What’s Next?

Strong work - you’re putting your money to work for you! A healthy emergency fund and retirement account are crucial to step 4 of the Five Fabulous Steps to Financial Freedom. Let’s explore a few other ways to save and invest your way to real wealth.

Are you saving for upcoming large expenses? A regularly funded “save-to-spend” account can ease future financial burdens. I have a save-to-spend savings account for travel, home projects, and car maintenance. I estimate the annual costs of these items, and automatically transfer a monthly amount into my save-to-spend savings. This is separate from my emergency fund, which I only touch in the event of a real emergency. No, a Caribbean vacation in the dead of winter does not count as an emergency!

Have you started college savings plans for your kids? You should only begin investing in this once you have secured your own retirement investments. Kids can take loans, work while attending school, start at a lower-cost community college to offset the tuition burden, and pursue scholarships. You cannot do any of those to fund your retirement!

Are you ready to invest outside of retirement? This is where you create additional financial security and flexibility. Investing in a “regular” (non-retirement) account means that you can access the money with ease at any point in time, which is a pathway to powerful financial freedom.

I intentionally shared saving and investing ideas in a specific order. First, get the “basics” nailed down in your emergency fund and retirement account. Then, focus on large expenses, college savings, and other investments. You may choose to split your efforts - for example, if you have $250 extra to save in your monthly budget, put $100 towards a save-to-spend account, $100 towards a college fund, and $50 to an investment account.

To recap, here’s the order I recommend:

1. Emergency Fund Savings Account: Cash savings account that could cover at least 3 months of bare-bones expenses (housing, food, utilities).

2. Retirement Investment Account: Investment account (often available through your employer) where you are investing the maximum amount allowable in low-cost index funds

3. Save-to-Spend Savings Account: Cash savings account funded automatically for larger expenses like travel, home projects, and car maintenance or replacement.

4. College Savings: Investment account like a 529 plan that is dedicated to funding future higher-education needs for your kids. (For those of you with children.)

5. Investment Account: Investment account that you open and fund with post-tax money where you are creating wealth.

Which savings or investment accounts do you currently have? What's next on your list? Do you agree with the order I’ve suggested? What's next? Go get saving and investing to build wealth, ladies!

xoxo, Ms. Financier

Save & Invest Your Money: Step 4 of 5 Fabulous Steps to Financial Freedom

What’s the goal of this step? Make your money work hard on your behalf to give yourself a financial cushion and grow your wealth.

Why is this important? Remember the two big levers to creating wealth? Money in and money out. In this step, we’re going to put the cash from the difference to work.

Women tend to keep 10% more of their savings in cash than men. Millennial women report a lower level of financial comfort - on average, we are less confident in our financial future, and less likely to feel “in control” or “confident” about our financial future. Knowledge is power, so let’s create a smart plan to save and invest your money. This will improve your financial control, confidence, and (most importantly) your results.

When and how do I do it? Start with the basics - do you have an emergency fund?  

We talked about this after you did your financial inventory - it is the single most powerful cushion you can create for yourself.  

If you don’t have one, start by automatically transferring a set amount into a savings account immediately. Why a savings account? You aren’t looking for amazing growth; this is your safety net. Don’t put your emergency fund at risk. Schedule automatic transfers on pay day. You won’t get to 3 months bare-bones savings immediately, but you’ll never get there if you don’t start now.

Next, let’s talk investing - are you investing in a retirement account? Your employer may offer a tax-advantaged plan like a 401(k), or you may elect to fund an IRA for yourself, which can be tax-free if you’re under a certain income limit.

There are many, many ways to save for retirement. As a general rule, look for one of two things:

Pretax Contributions: Accounts where you can invest pretax dollars - earnings that you have not paid any taxes on. 401(k) and 403(b) plans are common options that allow employees to invest pretax. You will need to pay taxes on these in the future, when you withdrawal.

Tax-free Upon Withdrawal: These accounts allow you to invest money that has already been taxed, and you will not need to pay taxes on these in the future. Roth IRAs are a common type of retirement plan for tax-free future withdrawals in the US.

Many women get paralyzed at this point - which is better? Pretax or tax-free upon withdrawal? The most important step is to invest, and get your money working for you as soon as possible. Educate yourself and make the best decision you can, but don't let analysis paralysis slow you down. I have a post that breaks down investing into four simple steps - explore it if you'd like more detail. And, here's more on the difference between an IRA and 401k - it's pretty simple once you cut through the jargon.   

Many employers also match a certain percentage of your retirement investments - that’s free money! If your employer offers a match, I strongly recommend you take advantage of it. Your long-term goal should be to invest the maximum amount allowable into the retirement vehicles that are right for you. We’ll dig in and explore what and how to invest in future posts.

A strong emergency fund and regularly-funded retirement account create a very strong start to your savings and investing strategy. And, if investing is new to you - start exploring what investing in the market really means

In the next post, we’ll explore more saving and investing techniques to grow wealth. Where do you keep your emergency fund? How are you saving for retirement? I’m curious to hear!

xoxo, Ms. Financier