Investing in the stock market is a fantastic way to generate wealth over time, but the right strategy is critical to maximizing your earnings.

There's no one-size-fits-all approach to investing, as it will depend largely on your personal preferences and tolerance for risk. In some cases, contributing to your 401(k) is the best way to get involved in the stock market, while other investors may be better off buying individual stocks. Here's how to decide which strategy is right for you.

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When it makes sense to invest in a 401(k)

A 401(k) is a fantastic option for those who are just getting started in the stock market or prefer a hands-off type of investment.

When you contribute to a 401(k), you're typically investing in mutual funds. Mutual funds are low-maintenance investments that require very little effort on your part. All you have to do is invest as much as you can afford each month, then sit back and wait for your savings to grow.

Unlike investing in individual stocks, contributing to a 401(k) doesn't require hours of researching different companies and studying financial metrics. That can make the 401(k) a far easier and less time-intensive investment, perfect for those who want to make a lot of money with little effort.

Also, if your 401(k) plan offers employer matching contributions, it's wise to contribute at least enough to earn the full match. You could potentially earn thousands of dollars per year in free money from matching contributions, so taking advantage of this perk is a smart move regardless of your investing strategy.

Why you might opt for individual stocks

Investing in individual stocks does require more effort on your part, but it's also possible to earn a lot more money with this approach. When you contribute to a 401(k), you generally have little control over the investments you choose. Most plans offer a handful of mutual funds to choose from, and these funds will usually earn average returns over time.

With individual stocks, though, it's possible to beat the market and earn significantly higher-than-average returns. Of course, it's critical to invest in the right companies, as not all stocks will perform well over time. But with the right strategy, it's possible to earn far more than you might with a 401(k).

The downside, however, is that individual stocks are much more time- and research-intensive than a 401(k). Not only will you need to research the specific companies you're interested in upfront, but even after you invest, you'll also have to keep yourself up-to-date on those organizations to ensure they're still solid investments.

Which option is right for you?

There's no wrong answer when it comes to deciding where to invest, and the right move for you will depend on your tolerance for risk as well as how much time and effort you're willing to put into your investments.

Individual stocks can be riskier than a 401(k), because it's up to you to choose the right companies. If you invest in a few bad stocks, it's possible to lose a lot of money. But if you invest in even one fantastic stock, it could potentially be lucrative. You'll just need to decide whether that potential for reward is worth the risk.

Also, consider how much time you can afford to spend on building a portfolio. Many people don't have hours to spend researching stocks, and even if you do have that time, not everyone has enough interest in it to make individual stocks worthwhile. That's OK, and it simply means that a 401(k) may be a better fit for your situation.

Both individual stocks and a 401(k) can be fantastic investments, but the right option for you will depend on your personal preferences. Regardless of which approach you choose, investing in the stock market can put you on the path to generating wealth that lasts a lifetime.