When's the Right Time to Invest?

It's not surprising that first-time investors often worry about the timing of their initial stock purchases. Getting started at the wrong point in the market's ups and downs can leave you staring at big losses right off the bat.

But take heart, Fools: Whenever you first invest, time is on your side. Over the long haul, the compounding returns of a well-chosen investment will add up nicely, whatever the market happens to be doing when you buy your first shares.

Don't waste time
Rather than fretting about when you should make that first stock purchase, think instead about how long you're planning to keep money in the market. Different investments offer varying degrees of risk and return, and each is best suited for a different investing time frame.

In general, bonds offer smaller, more dependable returns for investors with shorter time frames. According to Ibbotson, short-term U.S. Treasury bills yielded roughly 3.7% per year from 1926 to 2003. (We picked 2003 as an endpoint because it was right after the end of a bear market.) While this seems relatively meager, remember that inflation was nonexistent for most of this period, making a 3.7% average annual return fairly attractive until the 1960s.

Longer-term government bonds have provided slightly higher returns: an average of 5.4% annually from 1926 to 2003. Surprisingly, their gains have been relatively volatile. In the 1980s, for instance, they returned nearly 14% annually, but in the 1950s, bonds lost an average of nearly 4% per year.

Stocks have also been very good to investors. Overall, large-cap stocks have returned an average of 10.4% per year from 1926 to 2003 -- quite a bit higher than bonds. Surprisingly, the range of the returns for stocks is not that much larger than the range for bonds over the same period. Stocks suffered a slight decline in the 1930s, but enjoyed several particularly strong decades as well, including the 1950s (18% average annual return), the 1980s (16.6%), and the 1990s (17.3%).

When will you need the money?
The longer you have to amass your cash, the greater risk you can accept, since you'll have more time to wait out periods of bad returns.

If you need the money within the next five years, you'll want to avoid individual stocks and stock-centric mutual funds. If you need the money within the next three years, you should also avoid bond mutual funds and real estate investment trusts (REITs), which can drop if interest rates increase.

With those options eliminated, you have a few choices left: buying individual bonds or certificates of deposit (CDs) with durations of less than three years, putting your money in a money market fund, or using a savings account. Each vehicle generates income while guaranteeing the return of your principal. The sooner you need the money, the less you can afford to lose, right?

On the other hand, stocks are a very attractive option for long-term goals like retirement. The higher returns are simply too good to pass up.

When to sell
Once you've decided what to buy, and when to buy it, you'll next need to decide when to cash out. Since bonds essentially sell themselves when they mature, this question primarily applies to stocks or stock mutual funds.

Some investors believe they can "time" the market, accurately predicting when it will rise and fall. As a result, they counsel selling all your stocks when the market is about to fall, and buying them all back when the market prepares to rise. Unfortunately, if investing were that easy, these same folks would be sunning themselves on beaches in Acapulco, rather than trying to sell their timing methods to other investors.

Granted, when overall economic woes begin to hurt corporate earnings growth, and companies start to flounder, you might consider selling some of your overvalued, lower-quality companies. But beyond that very general scenario, an accurate system for timing the market remains an investor's pipe dream.

Many mutual fund investors are quick to withdraw their cash when returns turn sour. But several academic studies have proven that investors who jump from one fund to the next, chasing performance, tend to do vastly worse than those who stay put. Be prepared to stick with a fund through good times and bad -- with one exception.

In an actively managed fund, you've entrusted your cash to a professional money manager. If that manager abandons your fund to manage another, his or her replacement may not manage your money with equal skill, and you may want to consider selling. Otherwise, a few months of poor fund performance are no reason to jump ship.

Selling stocks can present a more complex set of questions. Two major warning signs may suggest that it's a good time to sell:

  • The business's fundamentals change. Is a new competitor rendering its basic products obsolete? Is the company branching out into areas wildly unrelated to its core competencies, leaving you no longer able to understand the business?
  • The stock becomes overvalued. Has the market bid the company's shares up to unsupportable heights? Is the stock likely to crash on the slightest bad news? Does the risk of such a tumble outweigh any tax hit you'd take by selling now?

While both those red flags can provide excellent reasons to sell, many of the other screaming sirens surrounding the market can be safely ignored.

Don't listen to the noise
The media pays meticulous attention to Wall Street -- but it tends to focus entirely on one particular index, assuming that it reflects the entire market. Index goes up? The market is bullish! Index goes down? Here comes the bear market! Index yo-yos back and forth? Now the market is "volatile!"

Some investors, particularly those keen on technical analysis, study the ups and downs of market graphs to gauge whether investors will take the market higher. For Foolish investors, this is an exercise in futility. Successful investing relies not on monitoring the market as a whole, but on analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of individual companies. Whatever the market's doing at the moment, a buy-and-hold approach to investing is the best way to earn reliable long-term returns.

Review, review, review
Of course, you can't just load your portfolio with a few stocks -- however well-chosen -- and forget all about them. Like houseplants, investments need regular care and attention to flourish. Unless you've parked your money in government bonds, with their guaranteed rates of return, you need to check on your investments regularly to make sure they're beating the market -- and doing so more substantially and less expensively than other, similar options.

Reviewing your investments, particularly when you may have made mistakes, also offers a crucial opportunity to learn from your mistakes. Everyone makes errors now and then, but most successful investors avoid making the same goofs twice. Set aside time to review your portfolio at least once every three months, if not every week. While you shouldn't be glued to the computer screen, tracking your investments minute-by-minute, don't forget them entirely, either.

Beyond the basics
Congratulations -- you've gotten through the Getting Started part of Investing Basics! But you're not finished yet. There's plenty more for you to learn, including the 13 Steps to Investing Foolishly, How to Value Stocks, and much more. Go at your own pace, take a break when it's too much, and enjoy learning about the Foolish world of investing.

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Read/Post Comments (17) | Recommend This Article (193)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On December 18, 2008, at 2:45 AM, YEN4PESOS wrote:

    "The Bottom " is a term that can only accurately be defined in hind sight. However, buy keeping up on current events, one may be able to see it relatively quick off the rebound at the floor. Remember,... this is global now. Americas economy is not the only factor in the American economy. For instance, Walmart is still kickin' through these hard times; If China stops exporting to them,....... They're through!

    The best you can do is play what cards are dealt to you at this juncture in time. It may mean a return rate that is .035 but thats better than nothing! Keep reading here and you will know when to let go of that 3 mo CD and buy Komatsu. And, vice' versa.

  • Report this Comment On July 16, 2009, at 5:40 AM, Infantryman11 wrote:

    I am 20 years old and am currently deployed in Iraq. I have few debts and a lot of income so i have a couple thousand to use every month. I am pretty new to investing and dont really know what a solid portfolio consists of. I currently have invested in ABB, SBLK, and ATVI. If anyone has any suggestions as to what i should do with the 2500 a month I plan to invest please let me know.

  • Report this Comment On January 17, 2010, at 10:03 AM, zhanglove wrote:


  • Report this Comment On April 30, 2010, at 8:39 PM, turnoverman wrote:

    What is a SIP???

    "First-time investors should go a SIP without worrying aboutn timing the markets.


  • Report this Comment On April 30, 2010, at 9:41 PM, turnoverman wrote:

    What are you screening the post? If so you should be screening the crap that I responded to.

    Again, more than 15 minutes to view.


  • Report this Comment On May 01, 2011, at 9:53 AM, leni244 wrote:

    i will write next time.

  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2012, at 3:35 PM, srkinvest wrote:

    Please advise if I can pay my premium at this point of time,I am with Kotak life insurance.Or shall I stop payments if any possibility of loss depends on market

  • Report this Comment On March 31, 2013, at 11:52 AM, 5talentsfinance wrote:

    there is a right and wrong time to invest,2007 wrong time, 2009 was the right time 10,11,12 were also good yrs to invest, but now the market is at all time highs it is not the ideal but in this case staying on the sidelines is an option or dollar cost averaging.

  • Report this Comment On May 04, 2013, at 2:46 AM, priyankakhanna wrote:

    Technical analysis helps you in getting right time to invest in stocks.

    You can refer this website for getting timing signals of your choice of stocks.

  • Report this Comment On May 13, 2013, at 8:35 AM, stela19 wrote:
  • Report this Comment On May 25, 2013, at 5:24 PM, kankemike wrote:

    Infantryman11 - Stick with Blue Chip companies that have cornered the market. Check out oversold companies or companies on a recent pullback in the DOW. I like T & CAT right now.

  • Report this Comment On July 28, 2013, at 6:05 PM, mckd2008 wrote:

    I AM trying to make money with stocks, but I have little to invest cause unemployed so I'm looking for stocks under 5 dollars any good advice

  • Report this Comment On July 14, 2014, at 8:54 AM, DavidDavis wrote:

    Right place & right time )

  • Report this Comment On August 12, 2014, at 11:43 AM, InvestorNo1 wrote:

    I have a couple thousand to invest and I'm a first time investor so I was going to go for a smaller stock. Should I go for a dividend paying stock or a growth stock?

  • Report this Comment On January 16, 2015, at 9:30 AM, oletadurol wrote:

    Have you ever needed some help with a case of insurance policy, litigation or something similar and you didn't know a lawyer who you can trust. ( David Lichtenstein works at Lowenstein Sandler and is a big lawyer when it comes to names...

  • Report this Comment On May 27, 2015, at 1:54 PM, travelmike wrote:

    Market timing is important when investing and cannot be ignored. If you only buy when everyone else is buying then you are always buying high. Buy high, sell low? No, no, bad strategy! The DJIA has definite historical patterns that can be used to predict future patterns. Here is a free program that does this:

  • Report this Comment On May 27, 2015, at 2:09 PM, KayakerRW wrote:


    I'd suggest that you invest part of your money (say half) in a low fee index fund (perhaps even 2 different indexes), and then invest the rest in individual stocks that you research and believe in.

    After several years, compare the difference in growth. After 8 or 10 years, if your individual picks have outperformed the index funds, you will have plenty of time to focus on a higher percentage of individual picks. If the funds have outperformed your picks, then you may want to switch more money into the funds.

    Most individual investors do not beat the S & P index, so it's a good idea to find out if you can.

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