Building a Portfolio for Long-Term Success

New investors often ask the question, "How much money should I allocate to each investment I make?" 

This is a great question! And the honest, realistic, and Foolish answer? It depends on the investor.

Mold your strategy around you 
In a working adult's IRA, the dollar amount allotted to each investment will likely be considerably higher than what I can allocate to investments in my individual portfolio as a student in college.

Even so, the meager $80 I invested in Netflix  (NASDAQ: NFLX  ) in 2006 is worth well over $1,000 today. Netflix ballooned from 5 million subscribers in 2006 to more than 44 million subscribers in 2013 and counting, expanding sales at an average rate of 23.5% annually between 2006 and 2013.

Netflix shareholders have benefited greatly from the visionary leadership of co-founder and CEO Reed Hastings, who from the very beginning recognized the need for Netflix to adapt to new mediums.

In his 2005 letter to shareholders, Hastings wrote, "The winners in downloading will be the companies that provide the best content and the best consumer experience, and that's what we do best." Less than a decade later, not only is Netflix an undisputed leader in streaming movies and TV programs, but the company is also producing its own original content. What a difference visionary leadership, an innovative product, and 10 years can make.

As you search for your own multibagger investments, keep in mind these (paraphrased) words of popular Motley Fool member Tom Engle (TMF1000): "If a company is the next big thing, a little position is all I need. If it isn't the next big thing, a little position is all a want."

Peter Lynch, investor extraordinaire and former manager of Fidelity's Magellan Fund, puts it this way: "All you need for a lifetime of successful investing is a few big winners, and the pluses from those will overwhelm the minuses from the stocks that don't work out."

In other words, individual investors don't have to bet big and commit all of their investing money to one or two investments. Building a diversified portfolio of quality businesses with great long-term prospects is the best way to achieve market-beating results over the long haul.

With this in mind, it is helpful to focus on percentage allocation, rather than the dollar amount invested in each stock. A rule of thumb used by some investors is to invest enough funds in each position so that commissions make up no more than 2% of your total investment. In other words: If your brokerage charges you $7 to buy shares of a stock, the minimum amount you would want to invest with each trade would be $350 (of which 2% is $7). This helps ensure that commissions do not eat up a significant portion of your investing dollars.  

Opportunities with diversification 
When a stock jumps in the short term, it can be easy to convince ourselves that we should have purchased more shares of that stock. But would you have felt comfortable holding a larger position if the stock had dropped 20%? Consider this when determining how much you want to invest in any given business.

We should be confident in all of our investments, but the benefit of diversification is that we can begin to look past the short-term volatility that will inevitably come about when investing in individual stocks. So consider expanding your portfolio beyond just a handful of stocks. We want to invest enough so that we benefit if a business succeeds over the long haul, but we also don't want to invest so much in one position that we hyper-analyze every little market movement and panic if the stock doesn't perform as anticipated.

Some investors opt to "buy in thirds," easing into individual stocks by purchasing their total position in increments of one-third over time. A potential downside to this strategy is the fact that the long-term trend for the market is to go up, in which case delaying investments into thirds over time can sometimes be counterproductive (or less rewarding than opening a full position from the get-go). On the other hand, going all-in with a full position right away can be difficult to stomach if the market or the individual stock should take a turn for the worse.

Foolish bottom line
It is important to manage your portfolio in such a way that leads you to focus more on the underlying businesses behind your stocks -- and the long-term prospects of those businesses -- rather than getting caught up in short-term market movements. Allocate your money in such a way that maximizes your confidence and comfort levels and minimizes uneasiness with your investments, allowing you to keep the bigger picture in mind. Volatility is all but guaranteed with individual stocks, but focusing on the business behind each stock can help investors avoid emotionally driven decisions based on short-term price swings.

The Pencils IRA Project -- a personal real-money portfolio -- is my attempt to build a portfolio of quality businesses with significant potential to generate market-beating results over the long term. The dollar amounts allocated to the individual positions in this Roth IRA portfolio are nothing huge, but the portfolio will prove to be lucrative over the long haul if only a few of the holdings prove to be big winners. With investing, starting small is better than not starting at all.

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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 April 12, 2014, at 1:23 PM, retiredR wrote:

    Excellent article David, I really admire your personal investment story. Which has caused me to change my investment decisions and thoughts based on your article.

    I always tend to buy larger amounts of stock purchases when I buy but with your insights it opens up more possibilities.

    Example after reading and thinking about your comments, I purchased just 20 shares of FB. My thoughts were this stock could be the next Amazon, Netflix or even Google.

    To paraphase your idea from Tom Engle, "If a company is the next big thing, a little position is all I need. If a company is not the next big thing, a little is all I want".

    Thanks again, and just to let you know I forwarded this article to a close friend.

  • Report this Comment On April 14, 2014, at 8:09 PM, dragonLZ wrote:

    Great article. Thanks.

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