I was first introduced to the stock market through an internship in 2010. Before that, I had only heard of the stock market through TV and movie references. Neither of my parents had ever owned stocks, and neither had I at that point.
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Seven years later, I was a financial advisor working in New York City, managing more than $140 million for my clients. Even with a master’s degree and more than 11 years of experience, I still don’t know everything about investing. That’s OK. You don’t have to be an expert to build wealth in the stock market.
The world of investing is constantly shifting. Things like cryptocurrencies, NFTs (nonfungible tokens), and fractional shares, which were obscure or outright nonexistent just a few years ago, are now in more mainstream conversation. Contribution limits, the amount of money you can put into a retirement account, and tax laws can change every year. So does the list of companies that dominate the stock market.
I’ve noticed many of my clients and students second-guess or delay their first investing decisions because they fear they don’t know enough. While it is important to have a basic understanding of the stock market, I can assure you that you do not need to learn everything overnight.
Putting that level of pressure on yourself can lead to financial anxiety and could delay some of your most important financial milestones like investing in a 401(k) or opening your first brokerage account.
Today, when speaking to my clients and students about investing, I often use a metaphor comparing the difference between having a driver’s license and becoming a mechanic. You don’t need to become a mechanic to get from point A to point B, but you do need to know the basics to drive the car.
Likewise, not being an expert does not mean that you can’t get to your destination of financial freedom. Here is my best advice for getting started.
Identify what financial goals are important to you
Before you start investing, spend some time articulating what your financial goals look like. For me it was important to have long-term financial security. When I had kids, one of my goals was to begin saving and setting them up for the future.
My children are 1 and 3, and they have more now than I did when I was 18, because I started investing in index funds and individual stocks through their 529 college savings plans and custodial accounts when they were born.
Once you have your goals in mind, they can help dictate how you approach your financial education. If you want to know more about retirement, for example, then you may want to focus on learning about different retirement accounts. Start with one type of account, like a 401(k), and then move on to the next concept.
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Take your investing journey one step at a time
Learning should be incremental, meaning that one lesson or idea can build on the next to better understand more complicated or riskier investments. When I began learning about the stock market, I started by learning about index funds. Then I started learning more about individual stocks, and then eventually moved on to cryptocurrencies.
I started to feel more comfortable through practice. I used an investing simulator to see and understand what my gains and losses would be without risking my own money. A simulator was something I learned about during the internship and I used it until I started investing with real money with my first job out of college. As the years passed, I grew more confident in what I knew.
The best way to learn more is by creating solid habits around your investing education. This can be something as simple as reading one article per day or setting up push notifications on your phone from your favorite financial app or news site.
The best way to learn more is by creating solid habits around your investing education.
This is something I started doing years ago and it has become a natural part of my morning routine. Start small with something that you can do in under five minutes. You will be surprised at how much you can pick up in a few weeks.
Another way to accelerate your comfort level in the investing space is to find mentors and accountability partners. When I started practicing with the investing simulator, two of my closest friends and I formed a group to stay engaged and keep track of our progress throughout the year. You can do this by creating a group chat with friends and family or joining an online community with similar interests.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help from the experts
Investing draws on a combination of different disciplines such as economics, taxes, psychology, and financial planning. Because I graduated with a degree in economics and took classes in psychology, I felt comfortable with those subjects.
But early in my career, I relied on our tax planning specialist to answer complex tax questions and provide information to clients, just like a primary care physician referring you to a specialist. This is why you may want to consider hiring a certified financial planner or accountant to help out in certain areas.
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Should you decide to hire a financial planner, I think it is important that the planner is fee-only, which means that they are only compensated by the money that you’re paying and not being paid based on the investment recommendations. They should be held to the fiduciary standard, meaning that their recommendations are in your best interest.
It is important that the planner you choose is curious. You want them to ask you questions not only about your financial situation but your goals and past experience. This is because you want your advice to be tailored to you, and the more that your planner can understand, the better their advice can be.
Keep an open mind and stay flexible
Some of what I learned in my first year as a financial advisor is no longer applicable today, and that is OK. Tax rates change, the economy shifts, and technology can completely rewrite the rules of investing within a few years. To be open to learning more is to constantly evolve.
Early in my career, I was resistant to the idea of investing in cryptocurrencies, for example, in part because I didn’t understand them and the part they can play in a diverse and balanced portfolio. But now, I think there can be a place for a variety of different assets and investing strategies, depending on an individual’s goals and risk tolerance.
Video by Courtney Stith
Understand the value of compound interest
The investing world is built on the concept of compound interest, which occurs when your previous investments earn interest and result in a higher amount the next period. This is where a well-balanced portfolio comes into play.
Compound interest isn’t only for your money, though. There is the compounding interest in experience and allowing your previous lesson and life experience to build upon the last. Both hold tremendous value.
Ultimately, the most important lessons I’ve learned in my financial journey is that progress is more important than perfection, and never be afraid to ask for help. Just because finance is personal doesn’t mean that you have to do it all alone.
Kevin L. Matthews II is a No. 1 bestselling author and Plutus Award Winner. He has helped hundreds of individuals plan for their retirement, in addition to managing more than $140 million in assets during his advisory career. In 2017, he was named one of the Top 100 Most Influential Financial Advisors by Investopedia. Kevin holds a bachelor’s degree in Economics from Hampton University and a certificate in financial planning from Northwestern University. In 2020, he graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a master’s in technology commercialization.
The article “‘Former Financial Advisor Who’s Managed Over $140 Million: Here’s my Best Advice for new Investors” was originally published on Grow (CNBC + Acorns).