How To Invest in Your 20s

A Guide to Jump-Starting Your Financial Future

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When you’re in your 20s, it can be difficult to envision what life will look like several years down the road. However, it’s important to lay the groundwork for the rest of your life when you’re young, especially when it comes to personal finance and investing. By building a nest egg early, time is on your side, enabling you to grow your wealth for longer. 

In this article, you’ll learn habits and tips to consider when starting to invest in your 20s, ultimately setting you up for a successful financial future.

Key Takeaways

  • Before investing in your 20s, consider how much money you can afford to invest by creating a budget, which includes your income and living expenses.
  • Consider paying down high interest debt and building an emergency fund in case you lose your job or have unexpected expenses.
  • You'll need to determine your risk tolerance and time horizon for your financial goals.
  • Investment options in your 20s include online brokerage accounts that invest in index funds and participating in a 401(k) retirement plan.

Preparing to Invest in Your 20s

When preparing to invest in your 20s, it's important to consider how much money you can afford to commit to investing. To determine the amount, you might create a budget, which includes your income and your cost of living expenses, such as rent, utilities, and food. Using your budget as a guide can help you get started in finding some wiggle room in your funds to invest.

A practical budget can provide security through savings, ample disposable income, and the extra cash you need to invest for the short and long term.

Keep an Emergency Fund 

Investing involves more than simply buying stocks, opening an individual retirement account (IRA), or enrolling in your employer’s 401(k). Like any other big life decision, investing requires preparing for life's uncertainties. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) advises taking several steps with your personal finances prior to investing, including creating an emergency fund.

Open a savings account and label it an emergency fund, then determine how much money you want to keep in it. This portion of funds will act as a backup plan, should you run into unexpected financial upheaval, such as needed hospital care or losing a job.

How much to keep in the fund is an individual decision based on a variety of factors, including how much money you need to survive each month (cost of living), and how comfortable you are with the consistency and sustainability of your income. Look back on your budget and expense history as one way to decide how many months' worth of expenses you will keep in an emergency fund.

Many financial advisors recommend having at least six months of living expenses saved.

Pay Down Debt 

One of the best investment approaches in your 20s is to pay off high-interest debt. If you owe money on credit cards, it may be helpful to pay off the balance before investing. Think about it: If you’re paying 25% interest on a credit card or loan balance and only earn 8% on investments, you’re drawing the short straw each month. 

Also assess your lower-interest debt, such as student loans. Does the monthly payment prevent you from investing as much as possible? If you reduce your debt, you will likely free up cash in your budget that can be used to invest. 

Factors to Consider When Investing in Your 20s

By preparing to invest, you have put yourself in the best personal financial situation you can. With a low cost of living, a stocked emergency fund, and debt paid off or managed in a realistic way, you’re already in a better position than most people, let alone most people in their 20s

Now that you’re ready to invest, consider the following factors. 

Risk Tolerance

You often hear that the younger you are, the more investment risk you can take on. While this is generally true, it’s not specifically (or circumstantially) true for everyone. It really comes down to risk tolerance—your ability and willingness to lose a portion or all of your investment in exchange for the possibility of greater returns.

As a younger individual, you generally have less to lose, as compared to, say, a 35-year-old saving money to buy a home for his growing family. However, if you can’t sleep at night because you’re in investments that don’t match your risk tolerance, no matter your age, it’s simply not worth it; you may want to make adjustments to lower your exposure to investment risk. At the same time, accepting some financial risk often delivers greater rewards. 

Historically, stocks, bonds, and mutual funds have higher risks and potentially higher returns than savings products, making them the most common investment products. Stocks are considered one of the riskiest investments, as there is no guarantee of making a profit. 

Time Horizon

As someone in their 20s, your time horizon—the amount of time (measured in months, years, or decades) you need to invest in order to achieve your financial goal—is automatically greater than someone in their 50s. If you have a shorter time horizon, you're more likely to take less risk. 

It's important to consider your time horizon and the financial goals that you are trying to achieve through investing. A short-term financial goal might include saving for a new car, which would likely be better served by a savings account or relatively low-risk money market fund. 

However, a long-term financial goal, such as retirement or buying a home ten years from now, might allow you to take on more risk since you have a longer time horizon to recover from any market downturns. Developing both short and long-term financial goals can help you stay on track with your saving and investment strategy allowing you to build wealth in your 20s and beyond.

Tax Benefits

It's also important to consider taxes. If you keep your money in an online brokerage account without a tax-friendly designation, you’ll pay taxes on dividends and capital gains. With this in mind, you should always consider tax-advantaged investment vehicles, such as an IRA and workplace 401(k) programs. The sooner you start investing for retirement, the better. 

Depending on what vehicles you have available and the choice you make, you might be able to contribute pre-tax income to a retirement account. Another option is investing after-tax money, but not paying taxes on withdrawals. 

When thinking about the impact of taxes on your investments now and as you get older, consider reaching out for guidance. Your employer’s human resources department, a financial advisor, or a tax advisor are good resources to speak with. 

Choosing Investment Options in Your 20s

Your investment portfolio in your 20s will likely involve achieving diversification, which is a key aspect of an investment strategy. By diversifying, you're spreading your money out across various types of investments to reduce risk. In order to diversify, it’s important to understand the level of risk associated with each type of investment, according to the SEC.

  • Most risky: Individual stocks, relatively aggressive mutual funds or ETFs, real estate. 
  • Risky: Mutual funds or exchange traded funds (ETFs) that track broad stock market indexes such as the S&P 500, Nasdaq 100, or Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA). 
  • Less risky: Bonds and bond funds. 

Most investors achieve diversification by keeping money in several of these options. You might own a basket of individual stocks, mutual funds that span indexes and sectors, and a relatively conservative bond fund. The most important tactic is to not put all of your eggs in one basket, and not get caught up in broad trends as you invest in your 20s. 

Consider how the global health crisis impacted spending and consumer interest in various industries, such as internet gaming and household cleaning supplies. While stocks in these sectors captured the limelight in 2020, that can easily change and fluctuate. Oftentimes, broad economic conditions make dividend-paying stocks more popular. 

Don’t get too caught up in fads or trends, such as meme stocks, as you invest in your 20s. Find an allocation plan across various types of investments that works for your long-term goals and appetite for risk. Again, consider consulting a financial advisor to help you diversify and find your sweet spot. 

Deciding When to Sell

When the market crashes or drops considerably, it’s normal to get nervous. However, if you’re in your 20s and you have the factors discussed in this article in order, resist the urge to sell. Stay the course. 

Let’s take a look at a real-life example. Over the course of four days in March 2020, the Dow plummeted roughly 26% with news of the pandemic spreading across the globe. However, not all sectors experienced such wrenching volatility. Some companies, such as those tied to the stay-at-home economy, performed incredibly well during and after this period. 

In hindsight, staying in the market would have allowed investors to participate in significant upside after the early market crash. This has been the case when we look back on the history of major market declines and subsequent rebounds. Buy and hold—then buy some more—tends to be a sound strategy, particularly when you’re young. 

Getting Started in Your 20s

To get started investing in your 20s, dream big, but start small. You can make small investments on a regular basis to get started.

Online Brokerage Account

Most online brokerages have low or no account minimums, allowing you to hit the ground running with as little as a few dollars a month. Also, it's helpful to establish an automated saving plan so that a portion of your income gets direct deposited into a brokerage account that automatically invests in an ETF, such as one that tracks the S&P 500 index.

Enroll in a 401(k)

If you're in your 20s, a 401(k) is one of the best investment options for building wealth over the long term. If you have access to a workplace retirement plan, take advantage of the employer match. The match is typically a percentage of your income that is contributed to your 401(k) by your employer as long as you contribute a minimum amount.

For example, your employer may match 50% or your contributions up to 6% of your pay, meaning they add 3% as long as you contribute 6%. An employer match is essentially free money and can help young people build wealth over the long term. Also, the contributions to a 401(k) can provide tax savings since the money comes from your paycheck before you pay income taxes.

Using an investing app may be a good way to get started, too. For extra help, consider discussing your investment strategy with a financial advisor. 

When investing in your 20s, it's important to get your financial ducks in a row. From there, consider the life you want to live now and in the future. Structure your investments to match these realities, your desires, and how comfortable (or uncomfortable) you are with taking on the risk that comes with most types of investing, particularly in a sometimes-volatile stock market.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Do I Get Started Investing in my 20s?

Before investing in your 20s, create a budget to track your income and expenses. Also, establishing financial goals and an emergency fund can help you prepare for the future. From there, you can determine how much remaining income is available to invest.

How Do I Choose an Investment Strategy in my 20s?

Two factors to consider are your time horizon and risk tolerance. The time horizon is the amount of time you plan to save to achieve your financial goals, whether short or long-term. Risk tolerance is how much risk you're willing to take when investing to achieve a higher rate of return.

Where Should I Invest in my 20s?

Investment options include an online brokerage account that allows for automated investing into a fund that tracks an index such as the S&P 500. Also, be sure to participate in a 401(k), if available, and take advantage of the employer match, which is free money.

Article Sources

  1. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. "Financial Navigating in the Current Economy: Ten Things to Consider Before You Make Investing Decisions."

  2. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. "Pay Off Credit Cards or Other High Interest Debt."

  3. InvestRight. "High-Risk Investments."

  4. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. "Risk and Return."

  5. US National Library of Medicine. "COVID-19 and the March 2020 Stock Market Crash. Evidence from S&P1500."