The Beginner’s Guide to Investing

Experts share their best advice for making your first investment


Making your first investment can feel like a daunting prospect.

Memories of the global financial crisis — and subsequent market dips — hang heavy for savers, particularly those who came of age during the 2008 downturn.

Multiple studies point to millennials' and Gen Z's skepticism toward investing: One Bankrate report found that just 23% of those between 18 and 37 years of age saw the stock market as the best long-term money store. That's compared to 33% of Gen X (those between 38 and 52 years old) and 38% of baby boomers (people between 54 and 74 years old).

But with low, and in some places negative, interest rates continuing to suppress cash savings globally, sitting on the sidelines could do more harm than good.

Analysts suspect that the savings shortfall could have major implications for long-term financial goals. A recent study from Standard Chartered, for instance, found the majority of savers in the fastest-growing economies are set to miss their retirement goals by 50%.

The good news, however, is that it's easier today than ever to invest; new technologies and a host of digital wealth managers have opened up entry into lower-risk investments from anywhere in the world.

CNBC Make It spoke to some experts to find out their top tips for getting started.

Set a goal

Before you begin thinking about your first investment, or choosing the type of vehicle to use, it's crucial to figure out what you're doing it for, experts said.

Dhruv Arora, CEO of digital wealth manager Syfe, recommended starting with a specific life goal — such as a wedding or retirement — rather than an "arbitrary numerical figures."

"Rather than throwing up a number, try and be a bit scientific about it," said Arora, noting that online calculators can help you figure out an investment strategy as a proportion of your income.

That doesn't mean you must stay with that plan: "Your goals may change over time, and that's fair," said Michele Ferrario of online wealth platform StashAway. But it creates a tangible reward to work toward.

Figure out your timeline

Next up, figure out how much time you have to reach that goal. That will help you figure out how much you need to put away each month in order to get there.

As a general rule, financial advisors recommend a 50/30/20 strategy, whereby 50% of your income goes to living expenses, 30% to discretionary spending — or wants — and 20% to savings. However, that may vary depending on your goal and time horizon.

Often the more you can put in early on, the better. That's due to compound interest, which enables you to earn interest on your returns. But Ferrario cautioned investors to be realistic.

"Understand what you can afford," he said. "If you start baking into your plan the fact that you're to have a great career, you may be disappointed. Start with what you know you have, and then over time, you can adjust it."

Emilija Manevska

Know your risk tolerance

Alongside timeline, you need to know your risk tolerance. More often than not, the two will be intertwined.

"If you're a millennial, your objectives are likely to be quite long-term in nature," said Steve Brice, chief investment strategist at Standard Chartered, noting that may give you a greater risk tolerance.

However, Brice noted there's no one-size-fits-all approach. He recommended doing a scenario analysis to see how you respond to different events to ensure future downturns don't "blindside" you.

Arora agreed, saying investors should be true to themselves: "If you're not comfortable with what you're doing this for, you will end up making the wrong investment."

Get diversified

Once you've pinned down your goal and your strategy, it's time to work out the best investment vehicle for you.

For many first time investors, that will be a passively managed index fund, which gives you access to major market indices, or a low-cost digital wealth manager which will build a portfolio on your behalf.

The most important element to look for, however, is diversification, experts said. This means building in exposure to different asset classes, such as equities, bonds and alternatives like property, as well as different geographies.

"You need to have a portfolio that's diversified and doesn't make you lose sleep," said Ferrario.

"You should be building a portfolio that's resilient to different risks," Brice added.

Their advice closely mirrors that of legendary investor Warren Buffett. The 89-year-old self-made billionaire has long advocated long-term, low-risk investing that focuses on a diversified and detached approach.

Remember fees

While digital wealth platforms have helped lower barriers to entry, the fees charged can vary across the board, so it's important to know where your money is going.

As Ferrario put it, unlike other purchases, "the thing you're buying when you invest is returns."

American online financial advisor Betterment, for instance, charges a low annual fee of 0.25% on assets under management, helping it nab the title of best platform for new investors in a recent report. The annual fees charged by U.S. robo-investors often hover between 0.25% and 0.89% — well below the several percentage points charged by traditional wealth managers.

Investors elsewhere in the world can find comparably low fees. Europe's Moneyfarm charges approximately 0.7% per year, while in Asia, StashAway charges up to 0.8% and Syfe up to 0.65% — both with no exit fees.

Forget about it

The last step for investors, new and old, is to learn to forget.

With most investment platforms now offering some form of on-demand performance analysis, that can be easier said than done. Indeed, observing your portfolio can be a good way of monitoring your risk tolerance.

But it's important not to let it disrupt your long-term strategy, said Arora, who recommended checking in on your investments on a quarterly basis.

"Investing should be as exciting as watching grass grow," Ferrario added.

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