Where Should You Put Your Savings?
Once you have a realistic goal plan, you need to determine where your savings will go. There are three main types of investment classes:
Stocks: A share of stock represents a percentage of ownership in a corporation. In other words, if a company is divided into a million shares and you buy one share, you would own one millionth of that company. You can make money from receiving dividend payments and selling the stock for more than you bought it for. Historically, stocks have provided the greatest return long term. However, there are no guarantees – one day your stock may be worth more than what you paid for it, the next, less.
Bonds: A bond is a loan to a company or government, with you, the bondholder, as the lender. Organizations issue bonds when they want to raise funds. Generally, you receive the principal, called the par value, at maturity of the bond and interest periodically while you are holding the bond (although some only pay interest at maturity or not at all). Depending on the market, you may purchase a bond below, at, or above its par value. In general, bonds are between stocks and cash equivalents in regard to risk and return.
Cash equivalents: Cash equivalents are assets that can be readily converted into cash, such as savings and checking accounts, certificates of deposit, money market deposit accounts, and U.S. Treasury bills. They tend to be low-risk, so there is little or no danger that you will lose the money you deposit. As a result, cash equivalents provide a low return.
It is best to keep money for short-term goals in cash equivalents. Because you will be using the money soon, your primary concern is that you not lose any of your principal investment. If you put it in stocks, there is a good chance they could be worth less in six months. However, make sure to keep your savings separate from the checking account you use to pay for your regular expenses. If you are using a savings account, you should be able to have part of your paycheck directly deposited into it or set up a regular automatic transfer from your checking account to your savings account.
For long-term goals, the value of your investment in six months is less of a concern than inflation. The return on cash equivalents is often less than the rate of inflation, meaning if you keep your money there, its value will be essentially decreasing over time. That is why it is a good idea to put a large chunk of the money you are saving for long-term goals in stocks and bonds, which, on average, have a higher return than cash equivalents. There is a risk that the value of your investments will decrease, but the risk is lower the longer your investment period is. Inflation can be a concern for mid-term goals, but since the timeframe is shorter, you may want to be more conservative with your investment choices.
Diversification can help you reduce the risk of losing money when you invest. A well-balanced portfolio has a mixture of stocks, bonds, and cash equivalents. (What the exact percentages should be depends on how far away you are from your goals and your risk tolerance.) It is also a good idea to diversify within each type of investment class. For example, you can purchase stocks from manufacturing companies, technology-oriented companies, and financial services companies. A simple way to get diversity is to purchase shares in a mutual fund. In a mutual fund, money from several investors is pooled to buy different stocks, bonds, and/or cash equivalents.
Take advantage of tax-deferred accounts when they are available. For example, for retirement, use a 401(k) or 403(b) if your employer offers it, or you can set up a traditional IRA or Roth IRA on your own. If you are saving for your child’s higher education, you can use a Coverdell Education Savings Account or 529 plan. 401(k)s, 403(b)s, and traditional IRAs allow you to make tax-free contributions, while Roth IRAs, Coverdell Education Savings Accounts, and 529 plans allow you to make tax-free withdrawals. All of these accounts allow your earnings to grow tax free.
Your savings should be the first “bill” you pay each month. But what if you simply can't put the $150 into your Maui extravaganza fund one month because your transmission blew? Resist the urge to panic, and consider it a temporary setback. With a little extra effort, you may be able to make it up over the next couple of months. Or you may be able to alter your plans or achievement date slightly. However, if you find yourself regularly unable to meet your savings goal, there may be deeper issues to contend with. Were you too optimistic with those overtime hours? Couldn't give up smoking to save the extra $100 per month? Or perhaps the goal really wasn't for you – you thought a new computer was vital to your happiness, but the prospect of owning it just isn't giving you the thrill you anticipated. Revisit your goals and budget and make adjustments so that they are more achievable.
By taking the time to set financial goals, you can go from wishing to having.