The following is a short excerpt from Tim Ferris’ article, Picking Warren Buffett’s Brain: Notes from a Novice:
“Good afternoon, Mr. Buffett and Mr. Munger…” my voice boomed out through the sound system with a half-second delay, making it almost impossible to remember my lines, memorized word-for-word. I continued:
“If you were 30 years old and had no dependents but a full-time job that precluded full-time investing, how would you invest your first million dollars, assuming that you can cover 18 months of expenses with other savings? Thank you in advance for being as specific as possible with asset classes and allocation percentage.”
Buffett let out a small laugh and began. “I’d put it all in a low-cost index fund that tracks the S&P 500 and get back to work…”
A lot of people spend a lot of time stressing out about investing.
They worry about which funds they should pick, which accounts they should use, whether they need to be investing in real estate, or international stocks, or gold. Whether now is a good time to get into the market. Or get out of the market.
There are a million things you could worry about when it comes to investing. But there are only a few things you should worry about.
What follows is the only investment advice you’ll ever need. There’s no guarantee of success here, because investing is inherently uncertain and you’ll never be guaranteed anything (pro tip: don’t let anyone convince you otherwise, ESPECIALLY if they have something to sell).
But the five simple steps below are the only five things that REALLY matter. Do these and you’ll be in the best possible position to succeed.
1. Find your savings target
When you start out, and really for the first decade or so of your investment life, nothing else is even remotely as important as your savings rate.
You could get everything else wrong and still be in good shape as long as you’re saving enough. And on the flip side you could get everything else right and still be behind if your savings isn’t there.
So the very first step is figuring out how much you need to save to get yourself on the right track. Here’s an article that shows you how to do that:
2. Automate that savings into tax-advantaged accounts
Knowledge is only as good as the action it inspires.
Once you have your savings target, your job is to automate that savings so that it happens every single month like clockwork without you ever having to think about it again. That consistent savings will drive your investment success more than anything else.
And you’ll want to direct that savings to tax-advantaged accounts like 401(k)s and IRAs. The tax breaks they offer allow your money to grow faster than it would anywhere else, meaning you’ll be able to reach your goals even sooner.
Here’s a quick order of operations to help you decide which tax-advantaged accounts to prioritize, and you can dive deeper into all the specifics here:
- 401(k) or 403(b) up to the full employer match
- HSA, if you are eligible
- Employer plan if it has good investment options and low fees
- IRA, either Roth or Traditional
- Taxable account
If you’re self-employed, here’s some advice tailored to you: The 5 Best Retirement Accounts for the Self-Employed.
3. If you can’t save that much now…
You might not be able to hit that savings target right now, and that’s okay. You have a lot of financial responsibilities on your plate and it’s normal for it to be difficult to save the full amount immediately.
If that’s where you find yourself, here’s what I would do:
- Automate whatever savings you can right now.
- Set a calendar reminder to check back in every 6 months.
- Re-evaluate your savings target during each check-in to see if it’s changed.
- Increase your automated savings rate by at least 1% each time you check in, or increase it up to the full target if you can.
Following that process and simply increasing your savings rate by 1% each time will get you on track in no time.
4. Pick an easy and effective investment strategy
Don’t waste your time looking for the perfect investment strategy. It doesn’t exist for the simple reason that no one knows which investments will perform best over the next 1, 10, or 40 years.
Instead, focus on finding a “good enough” investment strategy. One that follows the time-tested principles of minimizing costs, asset allocation, and diversification while also being easy to implement and maintain.
That might sound like an impossible task, especially if you’re new to investing. But with the tools available to you today it’s actually incredibly simple.
Here are a few ways to do it, none of which require any investment expertise or more than 30 minutes of work per year:
5. Don’t bail out
Want to know the biggest threat to your investment success? You’re not going to like the answer…
Investing is an emotional endeavor. You will feel incredibly confident in the market at certain points and downright fearful at others, and the temptation will be to act on those emotions.
Most people do just that. When the market’s been good they get greedy and pour money in right at the peak. And when the market falls, they get scared and take money out just before things start to recover.
This cycle repeats itself over and over and it destroys their chances at building wealth.
But you can be better.
You can recognize that it’s perfectly normal for the stock market to be up sometimes and down other times. You can recognize that although there will certainly be tough stretches, over the long term the stock market has always gone up.
You can make a plan and stick to it through the ups and downs, no matter what everyone else around you is doing. It will undoubtedly be difficult. Sometimes it will even feel like the exact wrong thing to do.
But it’s the difference between being a good investor and a bad one.
Really, that’s it. There are no guarantees when it comes to investing, but following the steps above will give you the best possible chance of success.
And yes, I know that there are ways to optimize your investments beyond these five things. Asset location. Tax-loss harvesting. Fancy stuff like that.
But those are all just playing around the edges. If they’re done well, they may increase your return by a few tenths of a percent. But they won’t make or break your investments.
The real make-or-break stuff is the simple stuff. Saving enough. Automating it into tax-advantaged accounts. Investing smartly and simply. Sticking to your plan through thick and thin.
Do those things and stop worrying about the rest. You’ll be thankful you did.