Investing Explained: Types of Investments and How to Get Started (2024)

What Is Investing?

Investing, broadly, is putting money to work for a period of time in some sort of project or undertaking to generate positive returns (i.e., profits that exceed the amount of the initial investment). It is the act of allocating resources, usually capital (i.e., money), with the expectation of generating an income, profit, or gains.

One can invest in many types of endeavors (either directly or indirectly), such as using money to start a business or in assets such as real estate in hopes of generating rental income and/or reselling it later at a higher price.

Investing also differs from speculation, as evidenced by the investor's timeframe. Speculators are typically looking to gain from short-term price fluctuations that occur in weeks, days, or even minutes. Investors usually consider that a greater period of time, like months or years, is needed to generate acceptable returns.

Key Takeaways

  • Investing involves deploying capital (money) toward projects or activities expected to generate a positive return over time.
  • The type of returns generated depends on the type of project or asset; real estate can produce both rents and capital gains; many stocks pay quarterly dividends; bonds tend to pay regular interest.
  • In investing, risk and return are two sides of the same coin; low risk generally means low expected returns, while higher returns are usually accompanied by higher risk.
  • Investors can take the do-it-yourself approach or employ the services of a professional money manager.
  • Whether buying a security qualifies as investing or speculation depends on four factors—the amount of risk taken, the holding period, the frequency of the investment activity, and the source of returns.

Understanding Investing

Investing is to grow one's money over time. The core premise of investing is the expectation of a positive return in the form of income or price appreciation with statistical significance. The spectrum of assets in which one can invest and earn a return is vast.

Risk and return go hand-in-hand in investing; low risk generally means low expected returns, while higher returns are usually accompanied by higher risk. At the low-risk end of the spectrum are basic investments such as Certificates of Deposit (CDs); bonds or fixed-income instruments are higher up on the risk scale, while stocks or equities are regarded as riskier.

Commodities and derivatives are generally considered to be among the riskiest investments. One can also invest in something practical, such as land, real estate, or delicate items, such as fine art and antiques.

Risk and return expectations can vary widely within the same asset class. For example, a blue chip that trades on the New York Stock Exchange will have a very different risk-return profile from a micro-cap that trades on a small exchange.

The returns generated by an asset depend on its type. For instance, many stocks pay quarterly dividends, whereas bonds generally pay interest every quarter. In many jurisdictions, different types of income are taxed at different rates.

In addition to regular income, such as a dividend or interest, price appreciation is an important component of return. Total return from an investment can thus be regarded as the sum of income and capital appreciation.

Standard & Poor's estimates that from 1926 to 2023, dividends have contributed approximately 32% of total return for the S&P 500 while capital gains have contributed 68%. Capital gains are, therefore, an important piece of investing.

Note

Economists view investing and saving to be two sides of the same coin. This is because when you save money by depositing in a bank, the bank then lends that money to individuals or companies that want to borrow that money to put it to good use. Therefore, your savings are often someone else's investment.

Types of Investments

Today, investment is mostly associated with financial instruments that allow individuals or businesses to raise and deploy capital to firms. These firms then rake that capital and use it for growth or profit-generating activities.

While the universe of investments is vast, here are the most common types of investments.

Stocks

A buyer of a company's stock becomes a fractional owner of that company. Owners of a company's stock are known as its shareholders. They can participate in its growth and success through appreciation in the stock price and regular dividends paid out of the company's profits.

Bonds

Bonds are debt obligations of entities, such as governments, municipalities, and corporations. Buying a bond implies that you hold a share of an entity's debt and are entitled to receive periodic interest payments and the return of the bond's face value when it matures.

Funds

Funds are pooled instruments managed by investment managers that enable investors to invest in stocks, bonds, preferred shares, commodities, etc. Two of the most common types of funds are mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs).

Mutual funds do not trade on an exchange and are valued at the end of the trading day; ETFs trade on stock exchanges and, like stocks, are valued constantly throughout the trading day. Mutual funds and ETFs can either passively track indices, such as the S&P 500 or the Dow Jones Industrial Average, or can be actively managed by fund managers.

Investment Trusts

Trusts are another type of pooled investment. Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) are one of the most popular in this category. REITs invest in commercial or residential properties and pay regular distributions to their investors from the rental income received from these properties. REITs trade on stock exchanges and thus offer their investors the advantage of instant liquidity.

Alternative Investments

"Alternative investments" is a catch-all category that includes hedge funds and private equity. Hedge funds are so-called because they can limit (hedge) their investment risks by going long and short on stocks and other investments.

Private equity enables companies to raise capital without going public. Hedge funds and private equity were typically only available to affluent investors deemed "accredited investors" who met certain income and net worth requirements. However, in recent years, alternative investments have been introduced in fund formats accessible to retail investors.

Options and Other Derivatives

Derivatives are financial instruments that derive value from another instrument, such as a stock or index. Options contracts are a popular derivative that gives the buyer the right but not the obligation to buy or sell a security at a fixed price within a specific period. Derivatives usually employ leverage, making them a high-risk, high-reward proposition.

Commodities

Commodities include metals, oil, grain, animal products, financial instruments, and currencies. They can either be traded through commodity futures—agreements to buy or sell a specific quantity of a commodity at a specified price on a particular future date—or ETFs. Commodities can be used for hedging risk or speculative purposes.

Comparing Investing Styles

Let's compare a couple of the most common investing styles:

  • Active vs. passive investing: The goal of active investing is to "beat the index" by actively managing the investment portfolio. Passive investing, on the other hand, advocates a passive approach, such as buying an index fund, in tacit recognition of the fact that it is difficult to beat the market consistently. While there are pros and cons to both approaches, in reality, few fund managers beat their benchmarks consistently enough to justify the higher costs of active management.
  • Growth vs. value: Growth investors prefer to invest in companies in their growth stages, which typically have higher valuation ratios than value companies. Value investors look for companies that are undervalued by the market that meet their more strict investing criteria.

How to Invest

Do-It-Yourself Investing

The question of "how to invest" boils down to whether you are a do-it-yourself (DIY) kind of investor or would prefer to have your money managed by a professional. Many investors who prefer to manage their money themselves have accounts at discount or online brokerages because of their low commissions and the ease of executing trades on their platforms.

DIY investing is sometimes called self-directed investing, and requires a fair amount of education, skill, time commitment, and the ability to control one's emotions. If these attributes do not describe you well, it may be smarter to let a professional help manage your investments.

Professionally-Managed Investing

Investors who prefer professional money management generally have wealth managers looking after their investments. Wealth managers usually charge their clients a percentage of assets under management (AUM) as their fees.

While professional money management is more expensive than managing money by oneself, such investors don't mind paying for the convenience of delegating research, investment decision-making, and trading to an expert.

Note

The SEC's Office of Investor Education and Advocacy urges investors to confirm that their investment professional is licensed and registered.

Robo-Advisor Investing

Some investors opt to invest based on suggestions from automated financial advisors. Powered by algorithms and artificial intelligence, robo-advisors gather critical information about the investor and their risk profile to make suitable recommendations.

With little to no human interference, robo-advisors offer a cost-effective way of investing with services similar to what a human investment advisor provides. With advancements in technology, robo-advisors are capable of more than selecting investments. They can also help people develop retirement plans and manage trusts and other retirement accounts, such as 401(k)s.

A Brief History of Investing

While the concept of investing has been around for millennia, investing in its present form can find its roots in the period between the 17th and 18th centuries when the development of the first public markets connected investors with investment opportunities. The Amsterdam Stock Exchange was established in 1602, and the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in 1792.

Industrial Revolution Investing

The First Industrial Revolution (1760-1840) and the Second (late 19th century and early 20th century) resulted in greater prosperity, as a result of which people amassed savings that could be invested, fostering the development of an advanced banking system. Most of the established banks that dominate the investing world began in the 1800s, including Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan.

20th Century Investing

The 20th century saw new ground being broken in investment theory, with the development of new concepts in asset pricing, portfolio theory, and risk management. In the second half of the 20th century, many new investment vehicles were introduced, including hedge funds, private equity, venture capital, REITs, and ETFs.

In the 1990s, the rapid spread of the Internet made online trading and research capabilities accessible to the general public, completing the democratization of investing that had commenced more than a century ago.

21st Century Investing

The bursting of the dotcom bubble—a bubble that created a new generation of millionaires from investments in technology-driven and online business stocks—ushered in the 21st century and perhaps set the scene for what was to come.

In 2001, the collapse of Enron took center stage, with its full display of fraud that bankrupted the company and its accounting firm, Arthur Andersen, as well as many of its investors.

One of the most notable events in the 21st century, or history for that matter, is the Great Recession (2007-2009) when an overwhelming number of failed investments in mortgage-backed securities crippled economies around the world. Well-known banks and investment firms went under, foreclosures surmounted, and the wealth gap widened.

The 21st century also opened the investing world to newcomers and unconventional investors by saturating the market with discount online investment companies and free-trading apps, such as Robinhood.

Investing vs. Speculation

There is no clear definition separating investing from speculation used for legal or regulatory means. All forms of investment incur risk and include a speculative hope that the investment will pay off. Because the outcome is uncertain, there is little to distinguish between the two activities. However, some generalities do apply when attempting to categorize these activities:

  • The amount of returns sought: Speculators often seek an extreme degree of return, where investors may be content with a less flashy payout.
  • The holding period of the investment: Investing typically involves a longer holding period, measured quite frequently in months or years; speculation usually involves less than a few months, although some speculators are content to wait years for their bets to pay off.
  • The frequency of investments: Investments can be initiated more frequently if the holding period is shorter. Speculators tend to have a higher frequency of investment decisions than investors when comparing within a common timeframe.
  • Source of returns: Price fluctuation is the exclusive source of return for speculators. Investors may be able to gain income through dividends, coupons, or other interest payments, though they certainly hope to gain from price appreciation as well.

Price volatility is often considered a common measure of risk, but a comparatively lower investment size can offset price volatility. So, although blue-chip, dividend-paying stocks may seem much less risky than small-cap growth stocks orcryptocurrencyinvestments, the risk may actually have more to do with the comparative risk taken on by the individual investor.

Proper risk management has more to do with the position size of one's investment than the total investment capital. The amount of risk in an investing strategy is also influenced by the frequency with which an investor takes on risk in an individual investment. Speculators tend to have a higher frequency of initiating risk. Thus, speculation is considered more risky.

Example of Return From Investing

Assume you purchased 100 shares of XYZ stock for $310 per share ($31,000) and sold it exactly a year later for $46,020. What was your approximate total return, ignoring commissions? Keep in mind, XYZ does not issue stock dividends. The resulting capital gain would be [ ( $46,020 - $31,000 ) / $31,000 ] x 100 = 48.5%.

Now, imagine that XYZ had issued dividends during your holding period, and you received $5 in dividends per share. Your approximate total return would then be 50.06%:

  • $46,020 + $500 = $46,520
  • [ ( $46,520 - $31,000 ) / $31,000 ] x 100 = 50.06%

How Can Investing Grow My Money?

Investing is not reserved for the wealthy. You can invest nominal amounts. For example, you can purchase low-priced stocks, deposit small amounts into an interest-bearing savings account, or save until you accumulate a target investment amount.

If your employer offers a retirement plan, such as a 401(k), allocate small amounts from your pay until you can increase your investment. If your employer participates in matching, you may realize that your investment has doubled.

You can begin investing in stocks, bonds, and mutual funds or even open an IRA. Starting with $1,000 is nothing to sneeze at. A $1,000 investment in Amazon's IPO in 1997 would yield millions today.

This was mainly due to several stock splits, but it does not change the result: monumental returns. Savings accounts are available at most financial institutions and don't usually require a large amount to invest. Savings accounts don't typically boast high interest rates, so shop around to find one with the best features and most competitive rates.

Believe it or not, you can invest in real estate with $1,000. You may not be able to buy an income-producing property, but you can invest in a company that does. A real estate investment trust (REIT) is a company that invests in and manages real estate to drive profits and produce income. With $1,000, you can invest in REIT stocks, mutual funds, or exchange-traded funds.

How Can I Start Investing?

You can choose the do-it-yourself route, selecting investments based on your investing style, or enlist the help of an investment professional, such as an advisor or broker. Before investing, it's important to determine your preferences and risk tolerance. If you're risk-averse, choosing stocks and options may not be the best choice.

Develop a strategy outlining how much to invest, how often to invest, and what to invest in based on goals and preferences. Before allocating your resources, research the target investment to make sure it aligns with your strategy and has the potential to deliver the desired results. Remember, you don't need a lot of money to begin, and you can modify as your needs change.

What Are Some Types of Investments?

There are many types of investments to choose from. Perhaps the most common are stocks, bonds, real estate, and ETFs/mutual funds. Other types of investments to consider are real estate, CDs, annuities, cryptocurrencies, commodities, collectibles, and precious metals.

Is Investing the Same As Gambling?

Investing and gambling are similar in one aspect: the variability of chance. However, these activities differ in how they are designed, approached, and regulated. Gambling is confined to what can happen within a given event. In some cases, the game's rules are dictated by a person or entity that offers the game, and the rules can be constructed to benefit them over time.

Investing differs from gambling because the regulators—government and industry entities—only regulate the markets. As such, their incentive is to create a fair and orderly playing field rather than to try and profit.

The Bottom Line

Investing is the act of distributing resources into something to generate income or gain profits. The type of investment you choose might likely depend on what you seek to gain and how sensitive you are to risk.

Assuming little risk generally yields lower returns, and assuming high risk typically yields higher returns. Investments can be made in stocks, bonds, real estate, precious metals, and more. You can invest with money, assets, cryptocurrency, or other mediums of exchange.

There are different types of investment vehicles, such as stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and real estate, each carrying different levels of risks and rewards.

Investors can independently invest without the help of an investment professional or enlist the services of a licensed and registered investment advisor. Technology has also afforded investors the option of receiving automated investment solutions by way of robo-advisors.

Investing Explained: Types of Investments and How to Get Started (2024)

FAQs

How should a beginner start investing? ›

Let's break it all down—no nonsense.
  1. Step 1: Figure out what you're investing for. ...
  2. Step 2: Choose an account type. ...
  3. Step 3: Open the account and put money in it. ...
  4. Step 4: Pick investments. ...
  5. Step 5: Buy the investments. ...
  6. Step 6: Relax (but also keep tabs on your investments)

What are the top 5 types of investments? ›

Perhaps the most common are stocks, bonds, real estate, and ETFs/mutual funds. Other types of investments to consider are real estate, CDs, annuities, cryptocurrencies, commodities, collectibles, and precious metals.

What are the 8 simple steps to start investing? ›

  1. 8-Step Guide to Investing in Stocks.
  2. Step 1: Set Clear Investment Goals.
  3. Step 2: Determine How Much You Can Afford To Invest.
  4. Step 3: Determine Your Tolerance for Risk.
  5. Step 4: Determine Your Investing Style.
  6. Choose an Investment Account.
  7. Step 6: Fund Your Stock Account.
  8. Step 7: Pick Your Stocks.

Where do I start when it comes to investing? ›

How to start investing: 6 things to do
  • Look into retirement accounts. ...
  • Use investment funds to reduce risk. ...
  • Understand your investment options. ...
  • Balance long-term and short-term investments. ...
  • Don't fall for easy mistakes. ...
  • Keep learning and saving.
Jan 3, 2024

How much money do I need to invest to make $1000 a month? ›

A stock portfolio focused on dividends can generate $1,000 per month or more in perpetual passive income, Mircea Iosif wrote on Medium. “For example, at a 4% dividend yield, you would need a portfolio worth $300,000.

How much money do I need to invest to make $3,000 a month? ›

Imagine you wish to amass $3000 monthly from your investments, amounting to $36,000 annually. If you park your funds in a savings account offering a 2% annual interest rate, you'd need to inject roughly $1.8 million into the account.

What are the 5 golden rules of investing? ›

The golden rules of investing
  • If you can't afford to invest yet, don't. It's true that starting to invest early can give your investments more time to grow over the long term. ...
  • Set your investment expectations. ...
  • Understand your investment. ...
  • Diversify. ...
  • Take a long-term view. ...
  • Keep on top of your investments.

What is the 8% rule in investing? ›

Recently, a radio talk show host named Dave Ramsey recommended that retirees invest 100% of their assets in equities, from which they would withdraw 8% per year of the portfolio's starting value, with each year's expenditures adjusted for inflation.

How can I start investing with little money? ›

7 easy ways to start investing with little money
  1. Workplace retirement account. If your investing goal is retirement, you can take part in an employer-sponsored retirement plan. ...
  2. IRA retirement account. ...
  3. Purchase fractional shares of stock. ...
  4. Index funds and ETFs. ...
  5. Savings bonds. ...
  6. Certificate of Deposit (CD)
Jan 22, 2024

Where do I start if I know nothing about investing? ›

If you don't know much about the stock market, consider investing in S&P 500 ETFs. You can then branch out into individual stocks as you get better at researching companies. Aim to maintain a diversified portfolio at all times.

What is the safest investment with the highest return? ›

These seven low-risk but potentially high-return investment options can get the job done:
  • Money market funds.
  • Dividend stocks.
  • Bank certificates of deposit.
  • Annuities.
  • Bond funds.
  • High-yield savings accounts.
  • 60/40 mix of stocks and bonds.
May 13, 2024

At what income should you start investing? ›

There's no set amount you should earn before you start investing. But there are some signs you may be ready to invest, such as having a solid emergency fund and either little debt or a plan to keep it under control.

Is $100 enough to start investing? ›

Investing your $100 can be pivotal in generating passive income, preparing for financial uncertainties, and achieving long-term goals. The magic of compound interest implies that even modest sums can snowball over time.

Is $200 enough to start investing? ›

You don't need thousands of dollars to start investing and saving for retirement. Breaking it down to a few hundred dollars per month that you invest into stocks can make all the difference in your retirement years.

Is $500 enough to start investing? ›

You'd be surprised just how far $500 can go when it's invested in the right way. Not only is it enough to start growing wealth in a meaningful way, but investing even a small amount can help you build positive investing habits that will help you to reach your future financial goals.

Is $1,000 enough to start investing? ›

If it's your first time investing, you may want to invest $1,000 in an exchange-traded fund (ETF). A beginner-friendly alternative to traditional mutual funds, ETFs contain a mix of stocks, bonds, and other securities, giving you access to a broad range of asset classes within a single fund.

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