The last six years have been practically flawless for investors. The broad-based S&P 500 has rallied in excess of 200% to multiple all-time highs, and the technology-heavy Nasdaq Composite is up close to 300% -- taking out its pre-dot-com bubble all-time high.
Of course, everything deserves a little perspective. Prior to 2009, America suffered through its worst recession in seven decades, and all three widely followed stock market indexes to shed more than 50% from their 2007 highs.
However, the key point is that investors who took the long-term approach and stayed the course are likely up substantially on their investments. As Warren Buffett and many of the great long-term investors have shown, buying and holding quality companies for long periods of time tends to work out pretty well in the end.
But there's one major caveat to this plan: it requires people to actually be invested in the stock market.
More than half of Americans are set up for financial disappointment
According to the Money Pulse survey released in April by Bankrate, a whopping 52% of adult Americans don't have a single cent invested in the stock market. This includes individual stocks as well as stock-based investments such as a mutual fund.
A further probing of the 52% of respondents who noted they weren't investing in stocks found that a little more than half (53%) proclaimed that not having enough money to invest was the primary deterrent; a little more than a fifth (21%) claimed they didn't know enough about stocks to feel confident about investing in the stock market; and close to a tenth (9%) cited a distrust of stockbrokers or Wall Street in general.
Regardless of the reasoning, this is a big problem. Historically, the stock market has been one of the most successful wealth-creating tools the average American can use to retire comfortably, and on their own terms. With an average rate of return of 8% annually, the stock market can handily outpace the rate of inflation or the rising costs we pay for goods and services. The difference between what the stock market has historically returned and the rate of inflation is the "real money" investors earn.
In contrast, bonds, often considered a safer choice than stocks, have returned a little less than 5% on an annualized basis between 1900 and today. With inflation averaging about 3.5% over the past 100 years, we're talking about a real money rate of return of 1%, or slightly over 1% per year. With stocks, we're talking a real money rate of return of between 4% and 5%.
In recent years, the disparity between real money and nominal money gains has been even more pronounced among bonds, CDs, money market, and savings accounts. The Federal Reserve's strategy of leaving the federal funds target rate near 0% has pushed the yield on all four of these investment tools considerably lower and created a situation where nominal investing gains are being made, but investors are likely losing real money relative to inflation.
Turn that hesitation into big gains
Although we know that avoiding the stock market has cost baby boomers some of their wealth and that millennials are losing valuable time (which is their greatest ally), it's not too late to make changes now that can allow you to take advantage of America's wealth machine.
Analyzing the responses the stock market "avoiders" gave to the survey, the biggest obstacle to overcome is a lack of personal savings. This isn't too much of a surprise considering that the U.S. personal savings rate, which currently stands at 5.1%, is considerably lower than many of its developed peers.
The easiest way to go about building sufficient cash to invest in the stock market is to formulate a budget that you can actually stick to. Bankrate's Money Pulse survey also showed that a whopping 35% of total respondents either checked their bank account once month, less than once monthly, or as 21% of people said, "Never!" If you don't understand your cash outflow, your chances of efficiently saving money go way down.
The good news is budgeting tools are easier to find and use than ever these days, with software programs galore to choose from. This takes all of the scary math out of the equation for you math-phobic people. Once you've plotted out your expenses and income for a month, you can create a spending plan that'll allow you to put away a certain amount of money each month toward your retirement. Remember that the only person you need to answer to about your finances is you, so ensure that you revisit your budget regularly and make adjustments as your lifestyle changes.
Once you have a budgeting plan, you can potentially save additional money (and time) by investing with a low-cost brokerage firm such as TradeKing or by making regular contributions to an investment broker such as ShareBuilder, where small amounts of money invested at regular intervals can turn into a substantial sum over time. Both TradeKing and ShareBuilder are geared toward the individual investor who's not working with Warren Buffett-type cash. The point being, there's no amount too small if you'd like to take the leap into investing in stocks.
Also, lacking sufficient knowledge to invest is a clear concern among Americans, but it, too, can be remedied.
A great place to start becoming acquainted with the stock market and individual stocks is the "13 Steps to Investing Foolishly," written by Motley Fool co-founders and brothers Tom and David Gardner. These steps will get you thinking like a true long-term investor and have you laser-focused on finding high-quality companies that are set to change society for the better.
But even if you don't have the time for individual stock research, all hope is not lost. There are more than 1,100 exchange-traded funds to choose from that act as baskets that allow you to invest in a specific sector, region, or size of stock.
For example, you could purchase an ETF focused on Brazil or buy one consisting of mid-cap stocks within the United States. For a fairly nominal annual fee that typically ranges below 1%, owners of ETFs get the benefit of increased diversity for what can be a small investment while getting to participate in the growth potential of the stock market. I mean it could take millions of dollars to take notable positions in all of the S&P 500 companies, or you could just buy the SPDR S&P 500 ETF and with one click have access to all companies within the S&P 500.
I can certainly understand the reasoning behind why Americans have avoided the stock market, but when push comes to shove, it remains the best investment tool to build wealth. If Americans don't begin to edge back into the market in the coming years, we could witness a very disappointed group of retirees in the decades ahead.
Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.
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