24/01/2021

How To Start Investing: Simple Investing Strategies And Tools Anyone Can Use

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The hardest thing about investing, for most of us at least, is the very beginning. This is that moment in time when you’ve opened up your first investment account, but now have no idea what you’re supposed to do next. 

I found myself in this position when I started my first job after graduating from law school. I was 26 years old and up until that point, I’d never done any investing in my life. My job automatically enrolled new employees into the 401k plan, so here I was, automatically putting money into my 401k, but with no idea what I was supposed to do with the money once it was in there.

In theory, investing is something that can and should be simple. The thing is, as simple as it could and should be, the actual process really isn’t as simple as some people make it out to be. It’s like when you start anything new – basic terms and things other people know will sound like gibberish. And the online layout of most of these investment accounts is anything but intuitive, especially if you have no idea what you are doing.

Thankfully, there are some good simple investing strategies out there that everyone can use. While there’s no way to guarantee what the future will look like, you’ve got good odds that these simple investing strategies will be good enough to get the job done.

Remember – and this is really important to keep in mind – when it comes to investing, the future is unknown. The great thing is that this means you don’t have to do things perfectly because the simple fact is, you can’t do everything perfectly. Knowing this, all you need to do then is to just do things good enough. Keep this in mind – good enough is all you need. You don’t have to get fancy.

So, in this post, I want to go over some simple investing strategies everyone you can use. No matter where you are on your investing journey, these investments and/or tools are likely good enough to last you for the rest of your life. 

Here are the simple investing strategies we’re going to talk about in this post: 

  • Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund (VTSAX)
  • Vanguard Total World Stock Index Fund (VTWAX)
  • Target Date Funds
  • M1 Finance
  • Other Robo-Advisors   

Before we get started, note a few things. First, and most importantly, I’m not an investment professional and these are just ideas based on what I’ve done with my own investments. Your situation might be very different, so if you are at all unsure, be sure to talk with a professional or do more research. I’m just a guy on the internet.

Here are some other important rules to understand when it comes to investing:

  1. We don’t know what the future will hold and we have to work under the assumption that no one knows what the future will look like. If you do know the future, then you don’t need anyone’s help and really, you can just go make yourself a trillionaire with your future knowledge.
  2. We have to assume that capitalism will continue doing what it does and that companies will continue to grow, innovate, and generate profits over the long term.
  3. Since we don’t know the future, the only thing we definitely can control is costs. The more expensive it is to invest, the less money we’ll have in the future. So we want to keep things low-cost and cheap.
  4. We can’t freak out when things are going bad. The only way investing works is if you keep doing it for a long time, no matter how bad or good things look.  The market will go up and down, and if you are panicking every time it goes down, these simple investing strategies will not work for you. 

With that said, let’s take a look at the simple investing strategies you can use.

1. Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund (VTSAX)

One of the simplest investing strategies you can use is to go with a one-fund portfolio – that is, invest everything into a single, well-diversified, passive index fund. The fund I generally recommend – and the one that I have almost all of my money invested in – is the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund (the fund symbol is VTSAX).

This is a mutual fund that consists of every publicly traded company in the United States. It’s a weighted fund, which means that the investments in the fund are divided based on the size of each company – the larger the company, the more of the fund’s assets are invested in that company. You can see all of the holdings in VTSAX on Vanguard’s website.

What’s important to know here is that because this fund owns so many different stocks, it’s possible for you to invest everything into this one fund and be comfortable with doing that basically forever. In essence, when you’re investing in a fund like VTSAX, you’re betting on the future of large, American companies.

There are three main advantages of using an index fund like VTSAX as the primary driver of your simple investing strategy: (1) it’s super simple, (2) it’s low-cost, and (3) it’s good enough that you can feel comfortable using just this one fund. Here’s what I mean: 

  • Super Simple. When it comes to simplicity, you can’t get much simpler than picking one fund and sticking everything into it. The key is to let it ride – time in the market is key. Note that investing in VTSAX does require a $3,000 minimum investment to start, but once you have $3,000, you can then invest in the fund in as large or as small increments as you want. 
  • Low-Cost. Because VTSAX is an index fund, all it has to do is peg itself to a total stock market index. This means it can charge almost nothing since the fund basically runs itself and doesn’t require paying fund managers to research and trade stocks. The expense ratio (which is how much a fund costs you to invest in) is only 0.04%, which is one of the lowest in the entire industry. We can’t control the future, but we can control costs.
  • Good Enough. When it comes to investing, a lot of people trip themselves up by thinking that their investments have to be perfect. But this isn’t what you have to do. Because we can’t know the future, doing things perfectly isn’t possible. The goal then is to simply be good enough. A fund like VTSAX checks this box because it invests in every single publicly-traded company in the United States. You get diversification because of how many different types of companies the fund invests in. And you also get some indirect international investments because the largest US companies have significant international operations. Over the long-term, it’s almost a certainty that this fund will be good enough.
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I currently have all of my investments going into VTSAX or similar total stock market index funds. And I’m fully comfortable doing this forever. 

Here are some other nuances and particulars to think about when it comes to VTSAX.

Where Can You Invest In VTSAX?

VTSAX is a Vanguard fund, so the best place to invest in VTSAX is direct with Vanguard. Most people reading this will likely have 1 or 2 types of investment accounts with Vanguard. These include: (1) either an IRA or Roth IRA; and/or (2) a taxable account. The process to buy VTSAX via these accounts is pretty straightforward – put money into your accounts, then buy VTSAX via the Vanguard website. Vanguard has a good walkthrough on its website that walks you through how to buy Vanguard funds.

Things get a little bit more complicated when it comes to your workplace retirement plans. These include things like a 401k, 403b, or for some of you, a 457 plan. Since these plans are created by your employer, it’s possible (and perhaps likely) that you won’t have VTSAX in your account. 

The good thing is that most retirement plans will have some sort of low-cost, broad-market index fund. So, what you’ll want to do if you want to go with this simple investing strategy is to pick an index fund in your workplace retirement plan that is most similar to a total stock market index fund. If your plan doesn’t have a total stock market index fund, you can also go with an S&P 500 index fund, which has historical performance almost identical to a total stock market index fund. 

Alternatives to VTSAX 

There are some situations where you might not be able to invest in VTSAX. Luckily, there are plenty of low-cost funds from Vanguard and from other companies that are in practical terms, essentially the same as VTSAX. I’m fully comfortable using these alternatives as my sole investment vehicle if VTSAX isn’t available.

There are definitely more VTSAX alternatives out there and this isn’t meant to be a definitive list. It’s just the main ones that come to mind. 

  • Fidelity Total Market Index Fund (FSKAX). I have my Solo 401k through Fidelity and as a result, I don’t have VTSAX in that account. Instead, I’ve invested 100% of my Solo 401k contributions into FSKAX, which is essentially the same thing as VTSAX. Interestingly enough, FSKAX has a lower expense ratio than VTSAX at just 0.015%.
  • Fidelity ZERO Total Market Index Fund (FZROX). This is another total stock market index fund from Fidelity, but it comes with the added benefit of having a 0% expense ratio, which means it has no maintenance costs at all. For some reason, my Fidelity Solo 401k does not give me access to this fund. I don’t know why that is, but if I did have access to it, I’d choose this one simply because of the 0% expense ratio. 
  • Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund ETF (VTI). For practical purposes, an exchange-traded fund (ETF) is the same thing as a mutual fund except that it trades like a stock. This basically means you can buy and sell it anytime the market is open, whereas a mutual fund only sells once per day. When you’re starting out, it’s possible you won’t have enough to be able to invest directly in VTSAX. Or you could be using a brokerage that has commission-free ETFs but not commission-free mutual funds. I’m in that situation, where my health savings account allows me to invest in ETFs without any fees but charges a fee to invest in mutual funds. Because of that, I buy shares of VTI, which does the same thing for me as VTSAX.

If you can’t find a total stock market index fund, you can also go with an S&P 500 index fund and feel fully confident with that as well. An S&P 500 index fund invests in the 500 stocks that make up the S&P 500. Because these stocks make up most of the market capitalization in the US, the effective differences between a total stock market index fund and an S&P 500 index fund are very small (they are almost identical in their long-term returns).

For example, here’s an example of the rate of growth between VTSAX (which is a Total Stock Market Index Fund) and the Vanguard 500 Index Fund, VFIAX (which is an S&P 500 index fund). VTSAX does a little bit better over this stretch, but as you can see, the difference is very slight. 

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Adding Bonds: Creating A Two-Fund Portfolio

Depending on your age, investing time horizon, and overall risk tolerance, it’s possible that investing everything into a single fund won’t be sufficient. This is especially true if you’re older and will need your investments sooner. If this is you, then you’ll likely want to add some percentage of bonds into your portfolio.

Bonds work differently from stocks in that they tend to have a lower rate of return, but tend to be more stable (i.e. they go up and down less). When you’re young, you typically don’t need much, if any, in bonds since your investing time horizon is so long.

Just like with stocks, for bonds, we also want to go with a passive, broad-market bond fund. The one I would recommend is the Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund (VBTLX). This fund has a 0.05% expense ratio, which makes it very cheap. Depending on your age and investing goals, you’ll need to decide what percentage of bonds you’ll want in your portfolio. The longer your investment time horizon, the few percentages of bonds you’ll need.

One rule of thumb is to have your age in bonds. So, if you’re 40 years old, you’d have 40% of your portfolio in bonds. I think that’s likely too conservative, but it gives you a baseline number you can use as you think about how much bonds you’ll want in your portfolio.

2. Vanguard Total World Stock Index Fund (VTWAX)

I’m comfortable with relying solely on a total stock market index fund because of how many stocks make up the fund, as well as the indirect international exposure the fund receives since most large publicly traded companies have significant overseas operations.

That said, it’s totally fair to be concerned about having all of your money invested into one country’s stocks. If that’s you, then a simple one-fund solution is to invest everything into a total world stock index fund. One great option is the Vanguard Total World Stock Index Fund (fund symbol VTWAX). 

This fund basically takes the Total Stock Market Index Fund to the next level, investing not just in publicly traded companies in the US, but also in publicly traded companies throughout the world. It has over 8,700 different stocks, which leads to even more diversification. Here’s the breakdown of the regions that VTWAX invests in. As you can see, it invests about 60% in US companies and 40% in international companies.

How To Start Investing: Simple Investing Strategies And Tools Anyone Can Use 4

There are all sorts of arguments about whether you need international stocks in your portfolio and what percentage of international stocks is ideal. The truth, however, is since we don’t know the future, there’s no way for anyone to really know what the right number is. Over the past several decades, international stocks have lagged behind US stocks. But will that continue in the future? There’s no way to know.

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Again, it comes down to one simple question – is this good enough? That’s all we need. A Total World Stock Index Fund is undoubtedly going to be good enough in the long run simply because you’re investing in companies throughout the world. 

And VTWAX has the benefit of being very cheap at just a 0.10% expense ratio. It’s a little more expensive to invest in compared to just investing in a fund like VTSAX, but the cost is low enough that it won’t be the reason you don’t hit your long-term investing goals. 

Once again, as you get older, you’ll want to consider adding bonds into your portfolio to reduce the risk of loss as you get closer to needing to pull money from your investments. 

Where Can You Invest In VTWAX?

Just like with VTSAX, your best bet is to invest in VTWAX directly with Vanguard. If you have a taxable Vanguard account or an IRA or Roth IRA with Vanguard, simply follow the steps on the Vanguard website to purchase VTWAX (Vanguard’s step-by-step guide on how to buy mutual funds on their platform can be found here). 

With respect to your employer-sponsored retirement accounts, my experience has been that it’s unlikely your plan has a total world stock market fund. If you want to recreate this type of fund, you’ll likely need to combine a total stock market index fund plus some sort of total international stock market fund.

3. Target Date Funds

A one-fund portfolio is very simple, but it does come with some added complexity when you get older due to the fact that you’ll likely need to add bonds into your portfolio. It’s not a lot of complexity, but it’s still some level of complexity that you might not be ready for. 

One of the easiest ways to get around this problem is to use a Target Date Fund. A Target Date Fund is a fund that consists of multiple mutual funds – typically 3 or 4 different funds. It’s often called a “fund of funds” because this one fund owns multiple funds within one overall fund. What this means is that when you invest in a Target Date Fund, your money is automatically invested into several different mutual funds, all while investing in just one fund. 

In addition, a Target Date Fund has another advantage in that it’ll automatically adjust the ratio of the different funds in the Target Date Fund as you get older. When you’re young, Target Date Funds have a higher allocation of stocks compared to bonds. As you get older, the Target Date Fund will readjust those numbers, increasing the percentage of bonds while decreasing the percentage of stocks. 

How To Pick A Target Date Fund

Target Date Funds are divided by year. To find the right Target Date Fund for you, make a guess as to what year you plan to retire, then pick the Target Date Fund that is closest to that year. For example, if you plan to retire in 2060, you’ll want to pick a 2060 Target Date Fund. 

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You can get a sense of what sort of allocation these funds have by taking a look at Vanguard’s current Target Date Funds. For example, here’s the breakdown of the Vanguard Target Retirement 2025 Fund (VTWNX). 

Vanguard Target Retirement 2025 Fund

 As you can see, this Target Date Fund contains 5 different mutual funds, with 60.7% in stocks and 39.3% in bonds. It also has a heavy international allocation in both its stock and bond allocations. 

In contrast, take a look at the Vanguard Target Retirement 2060 Fund (VTTSX) below: 

How To Start Investing: Simple Investing Strategies And Tools Anyone Can Use 6

This fund holds four different index funds and has a much more aggressive allocation, with 90.4% of the fund in stocks and 9.6% of it in bonds. This is because someone using this fund should have more time for their investments to grow. Over time, the Vanguard Target Retirement 2060 Fund will change its allocation to become more conservative, adding more bonds and reducing the stock allocation.

For you, the advantage of a fund like this is that you don’t have to do anything. Simply keep investing in the fund and let it do its thing over the long-term. 

Potential (Minor) Downsides To Target Date Funds

Target Date Funds do have some minor downsides that are worth discussing. For a lot of us, the issue is that they aren’t customizable. Target Date Funds pick one allocation and stick with that for a long time.

The main potential issue is that if you’re young, Target Date Funds can often be fairly conservative. I mentioned in a previous section of this post that when you’re young, you likely don’t need much, if any, bond allocation since you should have decades to let your investments grow. Target Date Funds however almost always seem to have at least 10% in bonds, even if you’re decades from your expected retirement age. It’s not a huge deal and for some, it might be exactly what they need. I just find that if you’re in your 20s or 30s with decades of investing left, you probably don’t need that much in bonds. 

The other minor downside is that Target Date Funds are a little more expensive compared to buying the index funds themselves. Vanguard Target Date Funds currently have a 0.15% expense ratio. This is very low still and will not destroy you by any means, but it is more expensive than buying a total stock market index fund or a total world stock market index fund. 

But remember, these are minor downsides and are by no means deal-breakers. As I keep saying, we don’t need things to be perfect. They just need to be good enough. A Target Date Fund is, without a doubt, good enough. 

Where To Invest In Target Date Funds 

Almost every brokerage has access to Target Date Funds, so if you want to make things very simple, investing in the same Target Date Fund in every investment account you have is an easy set it and forget it strategy you can use.

One particularly good place to invest in Target Date Funds is in your employer-sponsored retirement accounts. It’s very likely that your 401k has a Target Date Fund in there that matches your goals. If you want to make things very easy, simply investing in that fund is good enough to get the job done.

4. M1 Finance 

Using a single fund like the Vanguard Total Stock Market Fund or Vanguard Total World Stock Index Fund is one of the easier and simpler ways to do things, but even then, that might be too complicated, especially if you have zero interest at all in financial stuff. You could also be someone that isn’t comfortable doing things by themselves and wants to have someone (or something) doing things for you to make sure that what you’re doing is correct. I know that I was in that position when I started investing – I had no idea what to do and I didn’t want to get anything wrong.

Luckily, you can make sure that you’re doing everything correctly by taking advantage of robo-advisors. I currently use several robo-advisors and think they are well worth using, especially if you don’t know what to do.

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The current best robo-advisor is M1 Finance because it can automatically give you a perfectly diversified portfolio, but most importantly, it does all of this completely free. At the moment, there is no other fintech robo-advisor that does this without charging some sort of fee. 

Rather than using mutual funds, M1 Finance invests using ETFs, which are essentially the same thing as mutual funds for our purposes. The nice thing about M1 Finance is that it also can purchase fractional shares of ETFs, which means that every dollar you put in it gets invested. 

To set up an M1 Finance account and have it properly invested, you simply open an account, then choose one of their “expert pies.” M1 Finance will then invest your contributions for you in a diversified, low-cost, and well-thought-out portfolio. You can also set it to automatically rebalance your portfolio at time intervals you set.

There are a lot of expert pies that are more complicated than I think are necessary, so I typically recommend people pick an expert pie from the “Just Stocks & Bonds” section.

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For example, here is M1 Finance’s 90/10 portfolio (90% stocks, 10% bonds), which they create from just two ETFs. One is a total world stock index fund. The other is a total bond market fund.

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This “expert pie” is definitely good enough to use for a very long time. And because M1 Finance doesn’t charge any management fees, you’re not paying anything extra to get a fintech app that makes sure you have an appropriately diversified portfolio. 

If you want to get more complicated, you can also take a look at some of M1 Finance’s other expert pies. For example, their “General Investing Pies” have funds of various levels of aggressiveness. Their “Plan For Retirement” pies also have funds of various levels of aggressiveness based on the year that you plan to retire. 

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The key with M1 Finance is to pick one pie that you feel comfortable with and stick with it over the long term. Don’t mix multiple types of pies – just pick one. 

M1 Finance has taxable accounts and also allows you to open up IRAs and Roth IRAs. For a lot of people who don’t know much about investing, I’ll often tell them to open an account with M1 Finance because it doesn’t cost any extra and it makes the process of investing a lot easier, especially when compared to the traditional brokerage companies that have very old and unintuitive interfaces. 

As a note, if you open an account with M1 Finance using my link, you’ll also get a $10 bonus once you fund your account. You can fund your account with any amount and earn the bonus. 

5. Other Robo-Advisors 

There are also other robo-advisors that have very intuitive interfaces and that are perfect to use as a simple investing strategy. These robo-advisors are potentially easier to use than M1 Finance because you don’t have to make a decision about which pie you’ll pick – rather with these robo-advisors, you simply answer some questions about your risk tolerance and the apps will create a diversified portfolio for you. All of the money you put into the account will then get invested based on that portfolio. 

Here are three robo-advisors that I can recommend: 

  • Betterment. This is a robo-advisor I’ve used in the past and had a great experience with. The app is one of the best and most intuitive ones out there, so if you want to make things very simple, Betterment is a robo-advisor you can use for your investing. They also have a checking account that is useful because it has free international ATMs (so a good checking account for travelers).
  • Wealthfront. I’ve also used Wealthfront in the past and had a good experience with them. Their app isn’t as good as Betterment, but it’s still good enough that it’s easy to use and intuitive. 
  • Axos Invest. Axos Invest (previously called WiseBanyan) used to be one of the best robo-advisors because it didn’t charge any management fee, but unfortunately, they recently changed their terms to add this fee. 

One thing to know is that, unlike M1 Finance, these robo-advisors do charge a management fee. Betterment charges a 0.25% management fee. Wealthfront also charges a 0.25% management fee. And Axos Invest charges a 0.24% management fee. If I were to rank these three robo-advisors, I’d put Betterment at #1, Axos Invest at #2, and Wealthfront as #3.

If I can help it, I’d rather not pay that fee, but if the choice is to get started investing correctly or delay investing, I’ll always recommend any of these apps. The management fees these apps charge are reasonable enough that they will not destroy you. Remember, we don’t need to be perfect. We just need to be good enough. Any of these robo-advisors will be good enough.

Take Advantage Of These Simple Investing Strategies 

Investing doesn’t need to be hard, but even though it isn’t hard, I can understand it isn’t that straightforward if you’re new to investing or have no idea how investing works. 

I think these simple investing strategies provide a good enough base for most people to use. Simply pick one strategy and stick with it for as long as you can. 

I keep saying this, but it’s true. We don’t to be perfect. We just need to be good enough. Any of these simple investing strategies will get you there. And remember, it’s time in the market, not timing the market that matters. We want to invest, keep investing, and let that money ride for as long as we can.



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