Taking personal responsibility for investing your money can be a daunting task. But we at The Motley Fool believe that it is both attainable and important. Not only can individuals often do better than the "professionals," but when you take ownership, you begin to pay more attention to the little things of your financial life that can add up over time.
Follow a few simple steps, and you too can take the rudder of your own financial destiny. You need to get real, get it together, and get going.
You need to invest
For most people, investing in the stock market is the most accessible means of building their wealth. That's not to say that there aren't other ways -- real estate, a side business run out of the home, and so on -- but the stock market is accessible to everyone.
If you want to have more money in 10 years, you need to invest. If you want to pay for your children's education, you need to invest. If you want a comfortable retirement or the dream of financial freedom, or both, you need to invest. In other words, if you're not already exceedingly wealthy, you need to invest.
You're smart enough
A lot of people shy away from investing because they think it is some sort of twisted alchemy that requires an exceptional level of expertise. The fact is, though, that for all of the Ivy League degrees on Wall Street, plenty of regular folks with regular educations routinely beat the performance of fund managers.
In one sense, amateurs may actually have some modest advantages. They don't have bosses judging them on a quarter-by-quarter basis and they don't have to unlearn all of the theoretical nonsense that many university finance programs teach.
The fact of the matter is this: If you have a high school education and a reasonable amount of self-discipline, patience, and self-confidence, you have all the mental capabilities that you need to do well in the stock market. In other words, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to analyze Sirius
You won't lose everything
While it seems as though many families have an apocryphal story of a misguided family member who managed to go bust in the markets, that's actually pretty tough to do. When you pay 100% cash for a stock, the worst you can do is end up with nothing to show for it -- and the fact is, very few stocks go all the way to zero without giving investors plenty of time to bail out.
So unless you dive into riskier activities like margin investing, reckless shorting (i.e., without stops), or writing naked options, it's pretty tough to zero out your wealth in the stock market.
You won't become super-wealthy
It's also critically important to understand that equity investing likely won't make you spectacularly wealthy. If you want to be comfortably well-off, the stock market can help. If you want to be super-wealthy, you'd better get to work on the next Harry Potter.
Depending on your tolerance for risk, you should generally be able to double your money every five to 10 years. That's more than enough to build most people sufficient wealth to put kids through college and ensure a comfortable retirement, but it's probably not going to be enough to put you in a villa on the French Riviera.
Get it together
Get your affairs in order
Your finances don't have to be in perfect shape for you to begin investing, but that doesn't mean that a good and thorough review won't help. Cut out your credit card debt, make sure you have money set aside for emergencies, and build a realistic budget for both predictable expenses and inevitable big-ticket purchases in the future. We discuss all this and more in our "13 Steps to Investing Foolishly".
It's also helpful along the way to engage in a frank analysis of yourself. Are you patient? Are you generally confident in your decisions? Can you handle being proven wrong sometimes?
There's no psychological profile that guarantees investment success, but there are a few that seem to presage failure. Impatience, stubbornness, and an inability to control your emotions will kill your performance. Remember, the market is in many ways no different than a shark: It doesn't know you, it doesn't care about you, and it won't feel bad for you if you lose money. But if you can handle the inevitable occasional loss or mistake with grace and aplomb, you're good to go.
Read, research, and repeat
Once you've made the decision that investing is for you, you've got to get as smart as you can on the subject. Nobody is born with an innate knowledge of how to value companies or locate winning stocks -- not me, not Warren Buffett, not even the Fool's co-founders the Gardner brothers.
So, you need to read as much as you can on the markets. Check out The Motley Fool website and its archives, hop on to our message boards, visit other investing sites (if you really must . ), and go to your local library, where dozens of excellent books are waiting to be picked up and read by interested investors.
Here at the Fool, we have a wealth of resources to help those transitioning from spectator to investor. Our message boards offer a pleasant and polite forum where investors can ask questions and share views without being shouted down or insulted like they might be on other services. Many of the writers you read on our website frequent the message boards and are quite happy to answer questions from new or inexperienced investors.
Our newsletters are another way that investors can get going with their own investment portfolios. Not only do our newsletters provide stock recommendations, but they also explain the rationale behind the picks and the selection process involved. And process is important -- anybody can pick a stock, get lucky, and see it go up. But if you never develop an underlying philosophy and selection process, you will forever be at the mercy of random luck.
If you're not quite ready to make the final step and actually plunk down cash, try a mock portfolio. Make a list of stocks that you think you'd like to own, and then follow their performance. Building such a mock portfolio (or "paper portfolio") can be an excellent way of testing new theories without risking any of your hard-earned money.
But let's not fool ourselves: It's much easier to take positions in risky and volatile stocks in a paper portfolio than a real portfolio. Seeing a stock swoon 10% in a day may hurt your ego with a paper portfolio, but it won't accurately simulate that white-knuckled, cold-sweat experience that goes with real investing. Still, nobody learns how to skydive by doing a solo jump on their first day, and mock portfolios do have their place as a means of easing into real investments.
The very last step is to actually start investing. Find a broker (check out our Broker Center), deposit some cash, and make your first purchase. Once you do, you will be on an interesting road indeed; a road that will teach you a lot about the markets, the economy, finance, and yourself. With time, discipline, and patience, you'll find what we at The Motley Fool have found as well -- that this road leads to long-term improvements in your wealth and financial situation.
So, get real, get it together, and get going.