There's a saying going around lately: "There's no way I was born to just pay bills and die." Well, no, you weren't. And thanks to advances in banking and technology, it's easier than ever for ordinary workers to avoid that fate. Today's tools and technology allow you to automatically and painlessly save and invest money, relieving you of stress and setting you up for a happier retirement.
Follow these steps to automate your savings and investing, and you'll be there before you know it.
Automate your savings
The first step of your financial plan should be to build an emergency savings account that covers between three to six months' worth of living expenses. This can be a difficult goal to reach, but it's an important one. An emergency fund will help you cover unexpected expenses without relying on debt and thus digging yourself into a deeper hole.
Start by opening a savings account at a bank or credit union with no check writing, bill pay, debit card, or other fancy features. Don't connect this account to any other account for outgoing electronic funds transfers (EFT). This money should be hard to access (though not impossible). The harder it is to withdraw this money for a weekend getaway, the less inclined you'll be to waste it.
Once the account is open, establish a recurring direct deposit from your employer into this account. You should try to establish an emergency fund as quickly as possible, but don't sweat it if you need several months. Saving a little bit at a time is infinitely better than saving nothing.
Automate your investing
Investing doesn't have to be hard or scary. In fact, you can make it pretty simple and low-stress for yourself. Here's how.
Investing in your employer-sponsored retirement plan
If your employer offers an employer-sponsored retirement plan, such as a 401(k), 403(b), SEP or SIMPLE IRA, contact your human resources department to open yours and start funding it ASAP. Your employer may offer to match a portion of your contributions up to a certain amount. This is free money, so you don't want to turn it down. Contribute at least enough to your employer-sponsored retirement account to receive the full match.
Your employer can automatically deposit your contributions before the IRS can touch them, so a qualified plan can not only save you the effort but also save you a bundle on your tax bill. On top of that, the investments in the account will grow tax-deferred; you can sell investments and collect dividends without incurring capital gains taxes or dividend taxes. You'll pay taxes on the money you withdraw from this account after you've retired, but if you're in a lower income tax bracket when you retire, then you'll come out far ahead.
Investing beyond your employer-sponsored retirement account
If you have more cash available to invest after maxing out your 401(k)'s employer match, then consider going to a bank, credit union, or investment firm and opening a traditional or Roth IRA (individual retirement account). These are tax-deferred retirement accounts, meaning your investments won't be subject to capital-gains or dividends taxes. They also have other unique tax advantages that make them hard to pass up. You can learn more about IRAs here.
Once you have an account open, it's time to fund it. One great core investment for any stock portfolio is a broad index fund, which is a mutual fund or exchange-traded fund that seeks to mirror the performance of a stock market index by holding an identical proportion of the equities that make up the index. For example, the Vanguard S&P 500 ETF (NYSEMKT: VOO) tracks the performance of the S&P 500 index, which is a decent representation of the entire U.S. stock market. In other words, the Vanguard S&P 500 ETF gives you instant diversification.
Not only are they Index funds typically have lower management expenses and often don't charge commission or transaction fees.
Use automatic investing plans
Once you've purchased your index mutual funds, use your monthly direct deposit to automatically invest in each fund through an automatic investing plan (AIP). An AIP can invest into each fund on a recurring basis. Often, the minimum initial purchase requirement and the minimum monthly AIP are as small as $100.
As often as you change the batteries in your smoke and carbon dioxide detectors (this should be semi-annually), make sure your AIP is working as intended. Also keep tabs on the performance of your investments, and if they're not doing as well as expected, try to figure out why they underperformed and whether they're still a good fit for your portfolio.
Use dividend reinvestment plans (DRIPS)
Compound interest is a powerful force in investing. It's interest earning interest on itself, or a return on your return. One way to enhance the power of compound interest is to reinvest the dividends you receive from mutual funds and individual stocks.
When you receive a dividend, instead of pocketing that money, you can reinvest it in more shares. Then you'll have a bigger stake in the investment, which means you'll get a bigger dividend, which means you'll receive more money to reinvest in more shares, and so on. This is what's called a dividend reinvestment plan (DRIP). With a DRIP, your dividends can compound on themselves and greatly accelerate your capital gains.
If you purchase a stock or mutual find online, there will typically be an option on your purchase page to chose "dividend reinvestment." If you purchase a stock or a mutual fund via a live broker, they should ask you before they place your buy if you want dividend reinvestment. If they don't, ask them to please do so. If in either case you forget to choose dividend reinvestment at the point of purchase, your broker or brokerage can add this after the fact.
With these automated strategies to save and invest your money, you'll quickly and easily join the few who lead lives of unreserved cheer. As your investments grow, you'll know the feeling of financial freedom and security that today seems the stuff of transcendentalist legends.
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