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Investigate Before You Invest

What do you want to invest in: stocks, bonds, mutual funds? Do you want to open an IRA or buy an annuity? Does your employer offer a 401K? Remember, every investment involves some degree of risk. Most securities are not insured by the Federal government if they lose money or fail, even if you purchase them through a bank or credit union that offers Federally insured savings accounts. Make sure you have answers to all of these questions before you invest:

  • Define your goals. Ask yourself "Why am I investing money?" Maybe you want to save money to purchase a house or to save for retirement. Maybe you would like to have money to pay for your child's education, or just to have a financial cushion to handle unexpected expenses or a loss of income.
  • How quickly can you get your money back? Stocks, bonds, and shares in mutual funds can usually be sold at any time, but there is no guarantee you will get back all the money you paid for them. Other investments, such as limited partnerships, often restrict your ability to cash out your holdings.
  • What can you expect to earn on your money? While bonds generally promise a fixed return, earnings on most other securities go up and down with market changes. Also, keep in mind that just because an investment has done well in the past, there is no guarantee it will do well in the future.
  • What type of earnings can you expect? Will you get income in the form of interest, dividends or rent? Some investments, such as stocks and real estate, have the potential for earnings and growth in value. What is the potential for earnings over time?
  • How much risk is involved? With any investment, there is always the risk that you won't get your money back or the earnings promised. There is usually a trade-off between risk and reward: the higher the potential return, the greater the risk. The federal government insures bank savings accounts and backs up U.S. Treasury securities (including savings bonds). Other investment options are not protected.
  • Are your investments diversified? Some investments perform better than others in certain situations. For example, when interest rates go up, bond prices tend to go down. One industry may struggle while another prospers. Putting your money in a variety of investment options can help to reduce your risk.
  • Are there any tax advantages to a particular investment? U.S. Savings Bonds are exempt from state and local taxes. Municipal bonds are exempt from federal income tax and, sometimes, state income tax as well. For special goals, such as paying for college and retirement, tax-deferred investments are available that let you postpone or even eliminate payment of income taxes.

Compare Investment Vehicles

Not all investment vehicles are created equal or work for your personal financial goals. Some provide steady income and are low risk, but yield small returns on investment; others may provide significant returns, but require a long term investment commitment. There is a wide assortment of investment vehicles available. Some of the most popular include: mutual funds, traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, savings bonds or bond funds, stocks, and certificates of deposit.

Some investments pay out earnings on a regular (quarterly, monthly, or annual) basis, while others pay out earnings at the end of the investment period or may have age requirements for when you can withdraw your money without a penalty. Make sure your investment income stream matches your investment timeline.

You should also consider the tax ramifications. If you are saving for retirement or for education, consider investments that offer incentives for saving for a particular purpose. Your contributions for some investments are tax deductible, but the earnings are not taxed (e.g. Roth IRA); your contributions to other investments may not be taxed, but the earnings are taxed (e.g. traditional IRA).

You don't have to put all of your money in one investment. Consider diversifying your investment portfolio by placing your money in several investment vehicles. This can protect you from risk; while one of your investments may be performing poorly, another one of your investments can make up for those losses.

Type of InvestmentWhat is it?Risk level
Traditional IRATraditional IRA is a personal savings plan that gives tax advantages for savings for retirement. Investments may include variety of securities. Contributions may be tax-deductible; earnings are not taxed until distributed.Risk levels vary according to the holdings in the IRA
Roth IRAA personal savings plan where earnings that remain in the account are not taxed. Investments may include a variety of securities. Contributions are not tax-deductible.Risk levels vary according to the holding in the IRA
Money Market FundsMutual funds that invest in short-term bonds. Usually pays better interest rates than a savings account but not as much as a certificate of deposit (CD).Low risk.
Bonds and Bond FundsAlso known as fixed-income securities because the income they pay is fixed when the bond is sold. Bonds and bond funds invest in corporate or government debt obligations.Low risk.
Index FundsInvest in a particular market index. An index fund is passively managed and simply mirrors the performance of the designated stock or bond index.Risk level depends on which index the fund uses. A bond index fund involves a lower risk level than an index fund of emerging markets overseas.
StocksStocks represent a share of a company As the company's value rises or falls, so does the value of the stock.Medium to high risk.
Mutual fundsInvest in a variety of securities, which may include stocks, bonds, and/or money market securities. Costs and objectives vary.Risk levels vary according to the holdings in the mutual fund.

Investing in Gold

Some financial experts recommend buying precious metals as part of a balanced portfolio. Some suggest buying only a small amount because values can fluctuate; others recommend larger investments.

There are a number of ways to invest in precious metals; common ones include bullion, certificates, and coins. Most people depend on an investment advisor or company to help them choose. Make sure the person and company you choose is licensed with a government agency. If you are considering investing in coins, check with the U.S. Mint. Before you purchase coins or coin related products, research the seller with a government agency, such as your state consumer protection office or the Federal Trade Commission or other sources such as the Better Business Bureau.

Trading in commodity futures is different from investing. Commodity futures are an agreement to buy or sell a specific quantity of a variety of commodities such as precious metals, grains, or other natural resources. Trading commodity futures and options is a volatile, complex and risky venture that is rarely suitable for individual investors or “retail customers.” Before participating in the commodities market, check the registration status and background of the person and company. Anyone who trades or gives advice to the public about futures must be registered with the National Futures Association. The Commodity Futures Trade Commission also provides additional information about how to protect yourself before and during trading in the commodities and options markets.

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Investing Through Your Employer

Many employers encourage their employees to save for their retirement by establishing 401(k), 403(b), or 457(b) plans. Employees that participate in these programs elect to have a set amount of their income deducted from their paychecks to save for retirement; these amounts are not subject to income taxes. In many cases, your employer will match a portion of the amount of the money that you contribute into your 401(k) account, which is like getting "free" money. If you stop working at a company, remember to take the money from your 401(k) with you. If you "rollover" the total from your old job to an account at your new job, a traditional IRA, you will not have to pay taxes on the money.