Neither one of my parents know how to invest in the stock market, nor was learning how to invest a part of my formal education, so I know how intimidating it is for people who are new to investing. Where do I start? What do I invest in? How am I doing? There are just so many questions. In this post, I am going to attempt to make it as easy as possible for someone brand new to investing to get started.

Investing in 4 Steps

1. Money

Investing is unlike putting money into savings or CDs, there is risk involved. So you need money that you can afford to lose. This means that if you owe any money that you are paying interest on — i.e., credit card debts, student loans, car loans, etc. — you need to pay these off first. The only exception is your mortgage.

2. Brokerage Account

You can invest through three main types of financial institutions: a bank, a discount brokerage firm, or a full service brokerage firm. Out of the three, I recommend discount brokerage firm, because banks and full service firms generally overcharge their client and push products that are not always the best. Personally, I use TD Ameritrade, but you can also use Charles Schwab. I have used them both and I am comfortable recommending them.

You can find a list of top 10 brokers on my site,

3. Taxable Account versus Tax-Advantage Account

You will also have to decide if you want to start a normal taxable account where you can liquidate your investment and get your money back at any time, or start a tax-advantage account like Roth IRA or Traditional IRA where you are investing long-term for your retirement. You will not be able to access this money without penalty until you turn 59 and a half — you can invest the money however you like, you just can’t withdraw the money.

4. Invest

I have over 10 years of experience and I have made my fair share of mistakes, so believe me when I say don’t start with individual stocks. As a first time investor, I would recommend that you start with exchange traded funds, or mutual funds, instead. Let me briefly explains how each works:

  • Stocks — Each share represents part ownership of a company. For example, if you buy 100 shares of AAPL, you’ll own a tiny part of Apple Inc. When you purchase shares, you have to pay the brokerage firm trade commissions which can be as low as $0 to somewhere around $6 to $30 for discount brokerage firms. Usually, you’ll have to pay more if you purchase through banks or full-service firms.
  • Mutual Funds — Each mutual fund is a collection of many stocks. Throughout the year, the fund manager can buy and sell stocks inside the fund on your behalf. In essence, you buy the underlying stocks and pay for the fund manager’s services. When you buy shares of mutual funds, you could potentially pay 4 kinds of fees: (1) Trade commission, (2) Front-end load, (3) Back-end load (or redemption fee), and (4) Expense ratio. The ones that you should stick to is low expense ratio, no load, and no transaction fee mutual funds — meaning you are not paying anything but the expense ratio.
  • ETFs — I believe this is by far the best investment vehicle. Similar to mutual funds, an ETF is a collection of many stocks; however, the stocks are more defined and they are rarely traded. Likewise, there is an expense ratio, but it’s generally lower than similar mutual funds. But like stocks, you have to pay trade commission each time you buy and sell shares.

The strategy that I believe is best for new investors is to build a globally diversified portfolio of low expense passively managed ETFs. For example, if you have $6,000, you could potentially split it up in $2,000 chunks and buy 3 ETFs: Large US Stocks ETF, Small US Stocks ETF, and International Stocks ETF. The subject of asset allocation — i.e., how you should divide your money across multiple types of investment is fairly complex, and I will not be explaining it here. If you are interested, you can take a look at my 401k asset allocation to get a better idea.

Exchange Traded Funds

How to find the right ETFs?

There are several ways to do this. Brokerage firms like Charles Schwab and TD Ameritrade offer online tools where you can do your research. For example, you can use their online tools to find “low cost, Large US Stocks ETFs,” but it takes a bit of time to learn the web interface. The good news is that you can visit one of their branches and ask for help, or you can just ask one of the representatives to help you make the purchases. Remember, you are not looking for ETFs with the best performance (this is called chasing past performance), you are looking for ETFs that:

  • Have a low expense ratio
  • Represent the asset class well — i.e., small-cap, large-cap, international, etc.

How to buy the ETFs?

Once you identify which ETFs you will be buying, you will need their ticker symbols. For example:

  • IVV is the ticker symbol for “iShares S&P 500 Index,” a Large US Stocks ETF
  • VB is the ticker symbol for “Vanguard Small Cap ETF,” a Small US Stocks ETF
  • VEU is the ticker symbol for “Vanguard FTSE All-World ex-US ETF,” an International Stocks ETF

At this point, you can enter a buy order through the online form, or ask the representative, to buy X shares of IVV, Y shares of VB, and Z shares of VEU. If you want to invest $2,000 in each, you just divide $2,000 by the latest ask price to get the number of shares.

What’s Next?

Read as many books and web sites that you can to learn about investing. My caution is to avoid hot tips and hot stock picks. What you want to learn is how the market works, effect of expense on investment performance, asset allocation, risk management, investing for specific goals, etc. If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment and I will do the best I can to answer them. Please note that it’s also worthwhile to pay a fee-based financial advisor to help you through your first investing experience.