When Capital One Investing asked more than 1,000 people what undermined their confidence in investing, they pointed to four main impediments: lack of knowledge and experience (cited by 51% of respondents); distrust of the markets and/or financial industry (49%); lack of pricing transparency (45%); and the complexity of investing (42%).
While these are all certainly valid concerns, they’re hardly insurmountable. Here’s how you can overcome each of these stumbling blocks—or even turn them to your advantage—to become a more successful investor.
1. Inexperience and lack of knowledge
There’s no doubt that investing can be a confusing and intimidating exercise, what with its often indecipherable jargon and overwhelming number of choices.
But the fact is you don’t have to master every obscure detail of the financial markets or know the ins and outs of every investment alternative to make smart investing decisions. You mostly just need to have a solid understanding of a few key principles.
Fortunately, getting a good grasp of the fundamentals isn’t all that difficult, as long as you’re willing to expend a modest effort. For example, the Investing section of Money 101 can quickly bring you up to speed on everything from how stocks, bonds, mutual funds and ETFs work to deciding how much of your money should be in stocks vs. bonds.
For a deeper dive (that’s still easy to comprehend), you can head over to Morningstar’s Investing Classroom, where you can delve into such topics as analyzing mutual fund fees, gauging the effect of interest rate movements on bond prices to building a well-diversified portfolio.
Once you understand a few basic concepts like how compounding of returns over the long term builds wealth and how diversifying among a variety of investments can reduce (although not eliminate) market risk, you can combine that knowledge with common sense to invest your money in a reasonable and prudent way.
2. Distrust of the markets or financial industry
Fear that your wealth could be decimated by an imploding investment or concern that you might be taken advantage of when seeking financial help can certainly be a hindrance to investing. At the same time, though, a sense of wariness can also be a valuable asset for investors.
When it comes to investing in stocks, for example, a healthy respect for how volatile stock prices can be and how quickly the market can reverse course with little or no advance warning and how far stocks can tumble once a correction gets underway can work to your advantage by preventing you from becoming overconfident and taking on more risk than you can handle.
A skeptical attitude can also prove beneficial when it comes to dealing with investment firms and financial advisers by making you more attuned to potential conflicts of interest and less likely to fall for dubious pitches.
Clearly, you don’t want to be so paranoid that you forgo worthwhile investment opportunities or fail to get assistance when you need it. But you don’t want to be complacent either, or so credulous that you put your wealth at undue risk.
3. Lack of transparency on fees and expenses
Based on my 30-plus years of covering personal finances I can unequivocally say that concern about fees — both their size and the difficulty of sussing them out — is completely justified. Indeed, when you look at some investments — fixed index annuities and variable annuities come to mind — they seem almost designed to confuse and confound when it comes to evaluating their cost.
But there’s an easy way around this obstacle: Just avoid investments with complex or opaque fee structures.
You’ll have no trouble finding investments with charges that are clearly labeled and easy to find. For example, enter the name or ticker symbol of any mutual fund into the Quote box at the top of every Morningstar.com page, and a page will come up revealing, among other things, the fund’s annual expenses as a percentage of assets as well as the sales charges the fund levies, if any.
Click on the Expense tab and you’ll also see how the fund’s expenses stack up versus similar funds. And if you want to identify a list of low-cost funds or ETFs, you can do so by revving up Morningstar’s basic fund or ETF screener. (The tool is free, but registration is required.)
You should be just as demanding about cost disclosure when it comes to financial advisers. If an adviser balks at showing you in writing exactly what you’ll pay in all fees and expenses both initially and on an ongoing basis, that’s a sign to move on to someone else.
4. Investing complexity
If you accept the view of many financial firms and advisers that being a smart investor means constantly scouring the landscape for hot investment opportunities and being prepared to jump in or out of the market based on the latest piece of economic data or announcement from the Federal Reserve, then, yes, investing can be a complicated and convoluted affair.
But it doesn’t have to be. You can get all the growth potential and diversity you need to build wealth over the long-term by assembling a portfolio with a small handful of low-cost funds: a total stock market index fund, a total bond market index fund, a total international stock index, and a total international bond index fund.
A risk tolerance-asset allocation tool like Vanguard’s free version, which you’ll find in RealDealRetirement.com’s Retirement Investing section, can help you decide how to divvy up your money between stock and bond funds.
If putting together even that simple a portfolio is more than you think you can handle, you can always opt for a target-date retirement fund, which provides a ready-made mix of stocks and bonds appropriate for your age that becomes more conservative as you near and enter retirement.
You can find low-cost index funds and ETFs as well as target fund portfolios in Money’s list of the 50 best mutual funds and ETFs.
Bottom line: Investing can be complex and overwhelming, if that’s how you want it to be. But I think you’ll find that investing your savings will be much easier—and your chances of financial success a lot higher—if you adopt a less-is-more approach.
Walter Updegrave is the editor of RealDealRetirement.com. If you have a question on retirement or investing that you would like Walter to answer online, send it to him at [email protected]. You can tweet Walter at @RealDealRetire.