When I graduated college and landed my first full-time job, I knew I was supposed to save money. I cut costs everywhere I could—bearing a lengthy commute for the sake of living in an inexpensive neighborhood, cooking almost every meal I ate, and pregaming nights out to avoid spending tons on pricey New York City cocktails.
In time, I built up my “rainy day fund”—a savings account I could turn to in case of emergency. But after that, I didn’t really know what I was saving for. I’d heard, time and time again, that it was important to save money. But as a young 20-something with no plans of getting married, starting a family, or buying a house any time in the near future, I felt a little lost. Personal Finance 101—err, the collective wisdom various adults had imparted to me over the years—had gotten me pretty far, but I had never really learned what comes next.
Recently, I was talking to a coworker who voiced the same concerns I had a few years ago. “What now?” she asked. This article is an attempt to answer that question. Here, six questions you should know the answers to before you start investing, according to financial planners.
Quick note: Everyone’s financial situation is unique. I know I’m lucky to have landed a full-time job and begun saving right out of college; though I had bills to take care of, I didn’t have student loans to pay off. There are myriad reasons someone might not be able save money at various points in their life, and even if they can, getting the hang of personal finance is its own challenge. If you’re looking for more of a beginner’s guide to personal finance, click here.
1. What’s the goal?
Before you make moves to do anything investment-wise, it’s important to understand why you want to do it. What goals are you working toward? And how is investing going to help you reach them?
Doug Boneparth, a certified financial planner and president of Bone Fide Wealth and coauthor of The Millennial Money Fix, calls this process “earning your right to invest.” He recommends sitting down and figuring out exactly what your goals are—then determining how much those goals will cost and when you want to achieve them.
Do you want to buy a house? Great, how many years from now, and how much do homes in your area go for? When will you get started, and what do you think you’ll have to do to begin? Do you want to pay for your own wedding, start a family, or pursue continued education? Write all these things out, and give them specific price tags and deadlines. Then, prioritize your goals.
Understanding which goals are the most important (and most pressing) will guide you as you develop your investment strategy.
2. What’s your cash-flow situation?
Once you know where you want to be, you need to figure out where you are. In other words, you should spend some time tracking your cash flow—the money you’re making, spending, and saving—to see how much you can reasonably save each month.
Boneparth recommends doing this for three to six months so you can account for seasonal changes, holidays, and other anomalies. And though he loves a good spreadsheet, he says you can do this however you want; download a budget app, pore over your digital banking records, or put pen to paper—find the method that works best for you.
At the end of Steps 1 and 2, Boneparth says you should have a clear idea of: what you’re saving for, how much it costs, how long you have to save, and how much you can actually save each month. Marrying these elements is key to creating a plan that works for you, he says.
3. Where are you savings-wise?
Let’s say you’ve completed the first two steps, and you’re feeling great. “Hold the phone,” Boneparth says. Have you paid off any debt you have? Are you on top of your bills? Are you paying off your credit card in full every single month? If not, you should focus on handling these necessary expenses before you look to invest in anything new, Boneparth says. If so, keep going.
Next question: Do you have a rainy-day fund—some kind of cash reserve you can turn to in case of emergency? Ideally, you’d have between three and six months’ worth of expenses stored up that you could use if you suddenly lose your job, have a medical emergency, or otherwise need it for something unplanned, according to Jenn Imbeault, a certified financial planner and vice president and financial consultant at a Boston-area Fidelity Investments center. (Not sure how much your monthly expenses are? If you’ve completed Step 2, you should have a clear idea, Boneparth says.) If you don’t have a rainy-day fund yet, focus on saving for that first. If you do, keep reading.
Does your employer offer to make matching contributions to your 401(k), and are you taking full advantage of them? If you’re not, “get the free money,” Boneparth says. If you are, move on to Step 4.
4. How much time do you have?
It’s time to pull out that list of goals you made in Step 1. Are any of these goals just around the corner—less than four years away? If so, investing probably isn’t your best way forward because it takes it could be a while before an investment pays off. You’ll need to squirrel away cash, and do it stat.
Let’s say you want to make a down payment on a house in two years. If you invest that money, you might lose it—and you won’t have a lot of time to make up for the loss; you’d either have to delay your goal, or spend less on it than you’d hoped.
Instead of risking it, you should focus on saving for any financial goal you hope to meet in the next four years, Boneparth says. For example, if you need $100,000 in four years, you should save $25,000 per year ($100,000/four years) or $2,084 per month ($25,000/12 months).
If a goal is more than four years away, congratulations, it’s investment time. But how do you know where to put your money—or how much of it to put where? That depends, again, on your timeline.
Let’s say something is 20 years out—you can afford to be riskier and more aggressive with it, Boneparth says. What does a more aggressive investment actually look like? It’s probably something more heavily weighted in stocks, Imbeault says. That could mean an individual stock or stock-heavy mutual fund (bundle of stocks, bonds, and cash).
If your goal is more like five or six years away, you might want to take a more conservative strategy. A more conservative investment could be a bond, a certificate of deposit (CD), a money-market account, or a bond-heavy mutual fund.
5. What kind of investor will you be?
Before committing to an option, you’ll also want to figure out what kind of investor you are (or will be). You’ll first want to determine how risk-tolerant (or risk-averse) you are.
If you’re risk-tolerant, that means you’re OK playing it fast and loose—you want high returns, even if it means potentially losing the money you’ve invested altogether. If you’re risk-averse, you prefer to play it safe—you’ll take modest growth over high risk any day. You might also fall somewhere in between. And you can use free online resources—like this risk-tolerance calculator—to get a better idea of your preferences.
Once you’ve got that locked down, consider how involved you plan to be in your investment strategy. Are you planning to be super on top of it—checking your account regularly to see how your assets are performing, reading up on the latest financial news, and altering your strategy accordingly? Are you more into the idea of taking a backseat and letting the professionals handle it for you? Or do you think you’ll fall somewhere in between—regularly checking your accounts, but not doing a ton of math and upkeep?
No strategy is better than another, but you should make sure you’re investing in assets that work for you, Imbeault says. She recommends an asset allocation fund (a professionally managed mutual fund) for anyone looking to take it easy; plus, you can pick an asset allocation fund that’s heavier in stocks, bonds, or cash depending on your risk tolerance. Someone who’s more interested in the nitty-gritty of investing might be better served by individual stocks and mutual funds—investments they can stay on top of on their own and adjust as the market moves.
6. Are you on track?
Remember those goals you set way back in Step 1? You’ll want to revisit those at least once a year to make sure you’re moving in the right direction. At some point, those long-term goals will stop being so long-term, and once they approach the four-year mark, you might want to adopt a more conservative strategy. (Move away from a stock-heavy strategy and toward something more stable.)
Keep circling back to your goals, and ask yourself some basic questions about each one. Are you making enough money each month to reach that goal on time? Does the investment strategy you picked for that goal still make sense? Are you as on top of your finances as you expected? If the answer to any of these is no, it’s time to make some changes. You might have to delay some goals and adjust your expectations, and that’s OK; moving in a direction you feel good about is the key, Boneparth says.