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An overactive imagination could be the biggest threat to your financial security

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How to start investing in the stock market

It's easy to tell yourself stories about the dangers of investing your money.

And you can always find good reasons not to do it: It's too dangerous. Too hard. Too confusing.

These are the common excuses for not putting your money where it will do you the most good: the stock market.

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Yes, the scary, risky, confusing stock market. It's just for rich people, right? Warren Buffett-like investing geniuses and super-smart math brains.

In fact, highly educated people — even doctors, lawyers and MBAs — can be anxious about investing. "I've found that someone's level of education or intelligence plays little or no role in their apprehension when it comes to capital markets," said Lauren Anastasio, a certified financial planner at SoFi, a New York personal finance company.

Anastasio says no one needs to be especially math wizards to be a good investor. "Many of the best investors are the ones who make a plan, stick to it and avoid overanalyzing day-to-day market performance," she said.

Safe may not be so safe

You may think you're protecting yourself by keeping your money out of the stock market. "But playing it too safe may actually be the riskiest thing you can do when it comes to achieving your long-term goals," said Brent Weiss, a CFP and co-founder of Facet Wealth in Baltimore.

Keep in mind, your portfolio can balance safe assets with riskier investments for long-term growth, Weiss says. "People often think there is no middle ground," he said, "but they need to know that 'safe' has its place and so, too, does 'risk.'"

It's important to educate yourself and develop a plan that fits your goals.
Marcello De Pascale
Barnum Financial Group

"After you account for taxes and inflation, many safe investments may actually lose you money in terms of real dollars, also known as reducing your purchasing power," Weiss said.

For shorter-term needs, a cash reserve for emergencies is critical. "But in order to maintain the buying power of your cash, you have to at least keep pace with inflation: the cost of living," said Marcello De Pascale, an accredited investment fiduciary at the Barnum Financial Group in Shelton, Connecticut.

"There is a reason that loaf of bread that used to cost 15 cents in 1950 now costs closer to $4," De Pascale said. "That's inflation at work."

Nothing to fear but fear itself

The stock market can be scary. When prices go down, people get jittery.

To calm your nerves, De Pascale recommends setting a plan with the right timeline.

Say you have a goal you'd like to meet in 30 years. Over that time, the stock market will go up as well as down. Sometimes way down. Since you have so many years to achieve your goal, see those big dips as excellent buying opportunities: You get to buy assets at a discounted price.

"We would never suggest someone with a shorter time frame to retirement be so aggressive, which is why it's important to educate yourself and develop a plan that fits your goals," De Pascale said.

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As you get some investing experience, your perspective will also widen. Look at the two most recent recessions and market downturns. "The only people that, in theory, lost it all were those not properly diversified in their investments," Weiss said.

Learn about diversification. That's stock market speak for "don't keep all your eggs in one basket."

Heavy concentration in one or a few companies is not a good investment strategy, Weiss says. "Look at Enron or Lehman Brothers," he said. "A well-diversified portfolio, with appropriate risk, may lose some value from time to time, but it will not lose all of its value."

Let's say you own 3,000 stocks and one goes out of business. "You still have 2,999 that are good and that still have growth," Weiss said.

Get skills

Turn to friends, family, online communities and industry professionals to help you achieve your money goals, says Priya Malani, founder of New York-based advisor Stash Wealth.

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The key is learning, Malani says, and in this age, there's almost no limit to the type and amount of information you have access to. "All you have to do is want it and believe you deserve it," Malani said.

Chris Kampitsis, a CFP at the Barnum Financial Group in Elmsford, New York, believes that taking someone out of their comfort zone ultimately makes for an unhappy investor.

The best way to combat those fears so you can evolve as an investor is to learn. Work with a financial advisor who can be a sounding board — and a hand-holder when the market is volatile. "Read books on the subject," Kampitsis said. The more familiar investors become with the equities market, the better. "The data shows, over a long period of time, equity investing works."

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