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How to start investing in your 20s: 6 keys for beginners

Kickstart your portfolio now to wield the power of compound interest.

Investing in your 20s can be equal parts thrilling and daunting. The good news? You don’t need to be debt-free to start building your investment portfolio. Even if you don’t have much to contribute, a little can go a long way.

1. Analyze your finances

First thing’s first: You must have an accurate picture of your finances. And the best way to do this is to sit down and document your current income, expenses, debt and available savings. If the thought of plotting your finances feels daunting, opt for a budgeting app to help you navigate the process.

Once you have a better idea of where your finances stand, you’ll know exactly how much you can afford to allocate toward potential investments. Thanks to compound interest, a little can go a long way — especially when you start early.

Doing the math: the magic of compounding interest

Think you need a lot of cash to start investing in your 20s? Think again. Enter the power of compound interest.

Let’s say your goal is to build a $1 million nest egg by age 65. At 20 years old, if you put $188 per month into a tax-deferred investment account with an interest rate of 8%, you’ll have over $1 million to your name by the age of 65.

Now, let’s say you wait until you’re 30 to start investing. To reach that same $1 million milestone by age 65, you’d need to bump your monthly investment up to $433 — more than double the amount required of your 20-year-old self.

That’s compound interest at work. And it’s at its most powerful when given ample time to perform.

2. Start an emergency fund

An emergency fund is a powerful, practical investment for your future. Before opening an IRA or self-directed brokerage account, consider building out your emergency fund.

An emergency fund can help you cover unexpected expenses, from medical bills to sudden unemployment. It can act as a financial safety net, lending reassurance that your expenses will be covered should you need a sudden influx of cash or find yourself without a consistent source of income.

The question is: How big does your fund need to be? Many advisers suggest an emergency fund capable of covering three to six months of living expenses.

Break down your monthly accounts and isolate your expenses. Aim for a minimum of three times that amount in your emergency fund.

Where should I store my emergency fund?

While the movies would have you believe stashing cash under mattresses or floorboards is a viable approach, it may not be the most practical option — especially since mattresses and floorboards don’t generate interest.

Consider a high-yield savings account or money market account for an emergency fund that’s easy to access and generates interest.

WATCH: How to start investing for retirement (in your 20s)

3. Open a 401(k) or IRA

Once you’ve assessed your finances and established an emergency fund, it’s time to look at opening a retirement account. Think it’s too early to worry about retirement? Remember: Compound interest is your friend, and retirement accounts can be a powerful asset as you begin building a nest egg.

401(k)s

A 401(k) is a retirement account that offers tax-advantaged savings. They’re offered exclusively by employers, which means the only way to get a 401(k) account is if you’re offered one through an employer. But if you’re self-employed, you can open one for yourself.

Employees contribute to their 401(k)s through automatic payroll withholding. Some employers will match all or part of employee contributions — though this isn’t always the case. If your employer offers contribution matching, make the most of your 401(k) by contributing at least enough money to maximize your employer’s match. That’s free money.
IRAs

If you don’t have access to a 401(k), consider opening an individual retirement account (IRA). These accounts can be opened through online trading brokerages and come in two types: traditional and Roth IRAs.

The biggest difference between traditional and Roth IRAs is how they’re taxed. Traditional IRAs allow for tax-deductible contributions, but you’ll pay taxes on any withdrawals you make at retirement. For many 20-somethings, the Roth IRA is the way to go, as it taxes your contributions but allows for tax-free distributions — an important distinction if you suspect you’ll be in a higher tax bracket come retirement and will save for a long time before you retire.

4. Apply for a self-directed brokerage account

Self-directed brokerage accounts have fewer limitations than retirement accounts. You can move money into and out of a brokerage account at any time and for any reason. The biggest drawback is that it isn’t equipped with the type of tax advantages offered by 401(k)s and IRAs. Namely, you’ll owe capital gains tax on any profit you turn from selling an asset in your brokerage account.

But if you’re looking for free rein to invest in stocks, bonds, ETFs and the like, you may want to explore your brokerage account options.

When assessing your platform options, consider:

  • Fees. Commission-free stock trades have become the norm, but be on the lookout for fees when swapping mutual funds, options or futures. Account transfer fees are also common, typically ranging from $50 to $75.
  • Available securities. What do you plan to trade? Most platforms offer access to stocks and ETFs, but if you’re seeking something a little more niche — like forex or crypto — your platform options may be limited.
  • Learning curve. Some platforms, like SoFi, were designed with the beginner investor in mind. Others, like Interactive Brokers, are tough for newbies to navigate.
  • Customer support. If you’re new to trading, you may want to opt for a platform that offers robust, round-the-clock support, like Fidelity.
  • Research tools. Experienced traders rely on sophisticated research tools to help inform their trades. If you anticipate making numerous trades, opt for a platform with powerful charting tools, like TD Ameritrade.

Compare stock trading platforms

1 - 5 of 5
Name Product Asset types Stock trade fee Minimum deposit Signup bonus
eToro
Stocks, ETFs, Cryptocurrency
$0
$10
$10
when you sign up and deposit $100
Trade stocks in the app or online with $0 commissions. Not available in NY, NV, MN, or TN.
Client disclaimer: US Brokerage services through eToro USA Securities Inc, member of FINRA, SIPC. Crypto assets through eToro USA LLC.
SoFi Invest
Stocks, ETFs, Cryptocurrency
$0
$1
$10 - $100
when you open an account and place a first crypto trade of $50 - $5,000+
A free way to invest in most equities.
Tastyworks
Stocks, Options, ETFs, Cryptocurrency
$0
$0
$200 in US stocks
when you open and fund an account with min. $2,000 for 3+ mos.
Trade stocks, options, ETFs and futures on mobile or desktop with this advanced platform.
Robinhood
Stocks, Options, ETFs, Cryptocurrency
$0
$0
Get a free stock
when you open a Robinhood account
Make unlimited commission-free trades in stocks, funds, and options with Robinhood Financial.
Axos Bank Self Directed Investing
Stocks
$0
$1,000
$150
when you open an account and deposit at least $1500.
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Compare up to 4 providers

*Signup bonus information updated weekly.

5. Explore robo-advisors

Whether using a 401(k), an IRA or a brokerage account, you’ll have to decide what to invest the money in. Retirement accounts usually offer ETFs or mutual funds, and index funds like those covering the entire market, or the S&P 500, are ideal for beginners. Brokerage accounts will also offer individual stocks, and there are much more specialized funds as well. Use caution. Even professionals have a hard time beating the market’s return.

If making your own trades sounds overwhelming, but you’re still interested in investing, you can always place your investments with a robo-advisor. Robo-advisors are digital, algorithm-driven programs designed to manage your portfolio on your behalf.

When you sign up for a robo-advisor, you answer questions about your risk tolerance and investment goals. And based on your responses, the robo-advisor will pick investments on your behalf and rebalance your portfolio as it sees fit.

Not all trading platforms offer robo-advisors, but some — like SoFi — do. Others, like Betterment, only offer robo-advisors and nothing else. Either way, if you decide to use one, be prepared for an annual advisory fee of 0.25% to 0.5% of your account balance.

6. Monitor your investments

No matter your portfolio’s size or location, regularly monitor your investments to see how they’re doing. And the frequency with which you check your investments depends on your trading strategy.

If a robo-advisor manages your portfolio, you may want to check in once per quarter. Even passive investors should check in on their investments from time to time. If you’re an active investor taking a hands-on approach to managing your investments, you may want to check in more frequently.

But be careful: Financial experts warn that over-monitoring your investments is potentially harmful. There’s nothing wrong with keeping an eye on things — but don’t get consumed. Too-frequent checking can lead to impulse trading, and frequent buying and selling tend to damage returns — at least for new traders.

Disclaimer: The value of any investment can go up or down depending on news, trends and market conditions. We are not investment advisers, so do your own due diligence to understand the risks before you invest.

Risk tolerance

Successful investors understand how much risk they’re willing to take, as it allows them to plan, make smart investment decisions and maximize their returns.

The amount of risk you’re willing to take is known as risk tolerance. That is, how much risk you’re able to tolerate to achieve the returns you need to accomplish your investment goals — because, generally speaking, there’s a positive correlation between risk and returns.

Everyone’s risk tolerance is unique and specific to them. But age, income, investment timeline and comfort level are all factors that are generally considered when determining risk tolerance.

Investors who start young have more time on their side and can typically carry more risk. Younger investors have more time to recover from market fluctuations that lead to investment losses. Long-term investors who have time to weather market fluctuations may choose to carry more risk in their portfolios.

Older investors who are closer to retirement or investors who need their money within a couple of years may choose an investment strategy of low risk tolerance — one of safer investments with more consistent returns, like bonds and certificates of deposit (CDs). However, the trade-off of riskier investments is the potential for high returns.

Here are some investment types by risk:

Low-risk

  • High-yield savings accounts
  • Treasury bills, notes and bonds
  • CDs
  • Money market accounts
Medium-risk

  • Index funds
  • Blue chip stocks
  • Dividend-paying stocks
High-risk

  • Cryptocurrency
  • Small-cap stocks
  • Initial public offerings (IPOs)
  • Venture capital
  • Foreign emerging markets

Investors can manage and potentially reduce investment risk by investing in a diversified portfolio. Portfolio diversification is the practice of spreading investments across different securities of the same asset class, and — for further diversification — across different asset classes.

So how many stocks should you have in your portfolio?

Most US investors hold between 10 and 30 stocks in their portfolio, but the ideal portfolio size depends on your risk tolerance and investing goals.

Bottom line

Investing in your 20s offers the opportunity for growth and gain. It’s never too early to start thinking about your future, and an investment portfolio is a practical way to start building up your financial security. To get started, explore your brokerage account options by features and fees to find the platform that can help you meet your financial goals.

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