Building investment knowledge: from first steps to retirement

From the UK to Australia, the desire to build a comfortable financial future is a pretty common goal. But navigating the world of investing can feel daunting, especially when you’re just starting out or making the big shift to retirement.

This short guide takes a look the fundamentals of investing, explains some of the jargon and hopefully, takes away some of the confusion that often prevents people from taking the first step.

What types of investments are there?

Investment assets come in all shapes and sizes – the most common of which include shares, bonds, managed funds and property. What’s more, in Australia, pension funds (aka superannuation funds) can also be considered as an investment platform with many funds letting their members choose how their super is invested, even after they’ve retired. More detail is here.

Deciding on the type of investment can seem tricky at first, but a good initial step is to ask three key questions:

  • How comfortable am I with taking risks?
  • How much money do I have to invest?
  • How quickly would I want to sell (i.e. ‘liquidate’) my investments?

Understanding risk appetite

Everyone’s risk appetite is different and, in fact, can change as we get older. That’s why it’s important to work out whether you’re comfortable with short-term fluctuations for potentially higher returns (high-risk), or you prefer steadier growth with lower risk? This will determine the investment mix that best suits you.

If investing for the long-term, we may feel quite at ease with higher-risk and growth potential when we’re younger, as we have more time to make up for occasional losses. However, as we get older, we can typically drift towards lower-risk ‘conservative’ options, accepting that the growth may not be as dynamic, but our investments may be more secure.

Knowing your risk appetite will help you decide what type of investments are best for you.

The investment landscape

So, let’s explore the mainstays of the investment world:

  • Shares (Stocks): Basically owning a piece of a company. Shares are generally traded on a stock exchange and bought through a human or digital broker. They can potentially offer high returns but can also be volatile, so are regarded as higher-risk.
  • Exchange-traded funds (ETFs): These are a popular, low-fee way of investing, where you buy shares in a pre-determined basket of securities (like shares or bonds), instead of a single company. There is huge array of categories you can invest in and their risk depends on the category.

Like stocks and shares, they’re known as ‘liquid assets’ because they’re usually fairly easy to sell (aka ‘liquidate’) if you need quick access to cash.

  • Managed funds: Offered by investment firms and other financial institutions, these individual funds are monitored and managed by experts. They’ll make adjustments to the funds’ investments to try and maximise returns. Depending on what the fund invests in, they can be lower, moderate or higher-risk.
  • Property: Focusing on real estate for rental income or capital appreciation, property investment in the UK and Australia is generally regarded as a safer option. However, it requires significant capital, carries maintenance and statutory costs, and can take longer to sell than shares for example.
  • Bonds: Essentially, lending money to a government or company. Their return is often fixed for a period, and because of who your lending to, they may provide lower risk and a more predictable income.
  • Cash and term deposits: Keeping your money in a bank or other financial institution is generally considered relatively safe, though returns can be lower or slower than other investments, because they depend on the current interest rates.
  • Pensions and superannuation: Employer-sponsored retirement plans and superannuation funds are common. This is particularly so in Australia where all employees have super paid by their employer, and can often choose how their money is invested – for example in growth assets, stable investments or in sustainable industries.

An investment journey: from starter to retiree

Your investment approach will probably evolve alongside your life stages. Here’s a general roadmap:

  • Starting out: If you’re young, you might have a higher risk tolerance, and may consider a mix of growth-oriented investments like shares and ETFs, with a few safer options like term deposits for stability.
  • Building wealth: As your income grows, it can be smart to focus on diversification. This could mean investing in different asset classes (like shares and property) and sectors (like technology and healthcare).
  • Nearing retirement: As we enter our retirement years, most people shift focus towards income-generating and lower-risk investments like bonds, cash and income-producing property. This can help secure a steady stream of income in your golden years.

The power of diversification (and not putting all your eggs in one basket!)

The golden rule of investing is diversification. This means spreading your investments across different asset classes and sectors if you can, to help soften the impact of a downturn in one particular asset. For example, a dip in the share market might not significantly impact your overall portfolio if you have a variety of investment types such as shares, cash and bonds.

Common ways to diversify include:

  • Investing in a combination of shares, bonds, property, and cash (or term deposits).
  • Buying both local and overseas shares, ETFs etc.
  • Including a mix of large, established companies (aka large-cap and ‘blue chip’) and smaller, high-potential companies (small-cap).
  • Spreading investments across different sectors such as tech, healthcare, retail or property trusts.

Taking the next step

This is just a general guide, and it’s necessary to think about your individual circumstances. Consulting a financial advisor can help you create an investment strategy aligned with your goals, risk tolerance, financial situation and stage in life.

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