Life is a long journey, with many twists and turns along the way. These twists and turns also extend to our financial lives, which means that investing during one's lifetime is not a "set it and forget it" type of thing.
Different life stages can require different investment vehicles and strategies. Here are some of the best investments for each stage during your life.
1. Graduating College and Getting Your First Job
Once you get your first job, start contributing to any retirement plans your new employer offers as soon as possible. Try to contribute at least enough to receive the full employer match if one is offered.
"Think of any match your employer is willing to make as free money," Jim Poolman, executive director of the Indexed Annuity Leadership Council. "As a young professional, you have the luxury to put some of your money into high-risk investments, since your retirement is seemingly far away.”
At this stage of life, you can afford to be more aggressive than people who are in their 50s and closer to retirement. Stocks or stock-based mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) are quite appropriate.
Many 401k plans offer target date funds as an option, and this can be good for a new graduate who might not have any investments outside of a 401k account. As with any investment choice offered in a 401k plan, it's always wise to check out the quality of the target date family offered.
2. Getting Married
As a newly married couple, it's important to talk about your financial goals for the future and plan accordingly. “You and your future spouse need to talk about how you will handle your funds," said financial planner Rochelle Odesser. "Joint account, separate accounts, savings accounts are important, as well as investment accounts. If you are looking long-term equity, mutual funds or individual stocks will be worth looking at.”
People get married at various ages, so the “best” investments for them will vary, as well. Much will depend upon their age, their goals and their risk tolerance.
3. Getting Married Later in Life
For those getting married later in life, the best investments might be a diversified mix of stocks and bonds — including mutual funds and ETFs that invest in these areas — in line with their ages. People who are closer to retirement age might want to consider investing more conservatively.
At any age, it is important to consider the retirement accounts and other investments that each spouse brings into the marriage. If both spouses work and have a 401k, they should be coordinating their investing to ensure their portfolio is invested in a manner that reflects their goals and risk tolerance.
4. Having a Baby
Consider saving for your child's college education with a 529 plan, said financial writer Julie Rains of Investing to Thrive. "States offer state-specific plans, but some of these plans are available to non-residents," she said. "Invest as you feel comfortable, though I'd prefer low-cost index funds to keep things simple.”
The quality of the various state-run 529 plans vary. It's important to know who manages the investment portfolios, and what expenses and restrictions are involved. Many plans offer age-weighted portfolios, which will generally get less aggressive as your child gets closer to the time they will need the money for college.
“I just recently set up a CA529 plan for my newborn daughter as a way to invest in my daughter’s financial future," said entrepreneur and Due.com founder, John Rampton. "We set up auto payments to deposit $1,000 a month into the account. This is tax-free money that will compound over time to provide and pay for her college tuition.”
Buying quality individual stocks for your newborn’s future is a good idea, as well. Often, parents and grandparents enjoy giving stocks that have done well for them.
5. Buying Your First Home
If you just recently bought your first home, there are important investment decisions for you to consider. "Buying a first home is often the single largest purchase you've made, and it's incredibly important to protect it," said Kate Dore, owner of the financial site CashvilleSkyline.com.
"After closing, be sure to invest in a robust home insurance plan," she said. "It's also smart to maintain a healthy emergency fund, stashed in a high-interest savings account, to cover unexpected repairs. It may also be prudent to consider investing in a life insurance policy, depending on your family's needs."
Prior to purchasing the home, the best investments will depend upon how long it will be before needing the money for a down payment. If your time horizon is more than five years out, you can be more aggressive, and your investments might include individual stocks, stock mutual funds and ETFs.
As you get closer to making that down payment, you will want to take less risk — this could mean short-term bonds or a money market fund. Although you won’t earn much, you won’t suffer a major loss if the stock market heads south right before you are ready to buy.
6. Newly Single Due to Divorce or Death of a Spouse
The newly single need to take stock of their investments and make adjustments. Your portfolio might be cut in half in a divorce settlement. When you lose a spouse, you also lose someone to help contribute to your savings and investments if you both were working.
Losing a spouse, whether through divorce or death, can be one of the most stressful times in a woman's life, said financial advisor Cathy Curtis, whose practice is largely focused on women clients. "This is particularly true if her spouse took the lead role in the family finances," she said. "Besides grieving over a major loss, she has to worry about what she doesn't know about her money."
It is often wise, especially in the case of a spouse's death, to wait a bit before making major financial adjustments, Curtis recommended. Then, it's important to consider, "age, time frame, financial goals, need for return and risk tolerance," in determining what investing moves to make next. A diversified portfolio can help ensure that "no one asset class can derail the long-term returns on the portfolio," she added.
A common misconception about retirement is that this is a destination, so to speak. Once you reach retirement you still might have 20 or more years to live. Your investments will generally need some level of growth from stocks, or stock mutual funds and ETFs in order to stay ahead of inflation.
“In retirement, it is advisable to have a mix of income-producing investments, such as bonds, long-term and short-term maturities, dividend-paying stocks, as well as equity mutual funds for the very long term," said Odesser said. "Some money will provide an income now, and some will provide funds for the future.”