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Is there a best time to invest?

LINDSEY BELL • Dec. 8, 2021  • 4 min read

What we'll cover

  • Benefits of starting to invest earlier rather than later

  • Strategies to lower investment risk

  • Tips and terms for investing beginners 

It’s a common question, asking when is the best time to invest, but it may get you in trouble.

Waiting for that perfect time to buy in might end up costing you, especially if you’re planning to invest for decades. And we all know that, for many, investing can be a key component to building wealth, so it’s a question you’ll likely face in your own money journey.

Instead of agonizing over that perfect time to invest, try to start early and stay consistent.

Starting early

In the long run, your resilience as an investor could matter more than the day you buy your first stock.

Historical data backs this up, too. In a market that has generally gone up more than it’s gone down over the years, it’s been ideal to invest as early as possible.

Graph titled The Case for Starting Early tracks the odds of making money over different holding periods since 1950. Returns are calculated as the growth of an investment over time based on historical S&P 500 changes. The trend is upwards with the 1-year value at 74%, the 5-year values at 83%, the 10-year value at 93% and the 15-year value at 100%. Source: Ally Invest, Bloomberg

Since 1950, if you’ve invested in a hypothetical, no-fee S&P 500 fund over any five-year period, you’ve had an 83% chance of making money. Increase that time period to 10 years, and you’ve had a 93% chance of making money. At a 14-year holding period, you’ve never lost money. Playing the long game may increase your odds of success and help cushion your portfolio against those market downturns that happen from time to time.

Plus, if you’re an investor trying to build wealth over decades, a mathematical concept called compounding could increasingly work in your favor. Compounding is the exponential growth in your portfolio that can happen on top of any previous growth in your original investment, and its benefit can grow over time.

Staying consistent

The finance industry tends to sell itself on the success of finding the right investment. We tell stories of great investors who bought a hot stock at the right time, and worship experts with big, bold market predictions.

But in reality, picking the next hot investment can be risky, and it could require waiting through years of losses or swings before your thesis plays out. Many people don’t have the stomach, time or intuition for that.

That’s OK! Many people don’t trade their way to wealth. Instead, they build out a diversified portfolio (instead of picking stocks), then wait several years for compounding to do its work. And they stick to their plans through thick and thin, investing money at specific times and intervals instead of guessing where the market will go next. According to a study by Gary Brinson, Randolph Hood and Gilbert Beebower, over several years, the mix of asset classes in a portfolio may account for a majority of the gains, instead of stock-picking and market timing.

Staying consistent can help your sanity as well. Investing a little bit at a time can be easier on the nerves and more sustainable than a bunch of cash all at once.

Plus, it may add up over time. Consider this, for example: If you started putting $20 a month into a hypothetical, no-fee S&P 500 fund, you could potentially have about $11,800 at the end of twenty years (assuming the fund grew at an 8% average annual rate each year).

Chart titled Staying Consistent Can Add Up tracks monthly investment growth over different amounts of time, based on $20 contributions per month and an 8% average annual return. Starting 20 years ago, the value would be at $11,780. Starting 10 years ago, the value would be at $3,659. Starting 5 years ago, the value would be at $1,470. Source: Ally Invest, Standard & Poor’s

Of course, that can be easier said than done. Life happens, and the case for investing can become blurry during periods of change or tough economic environments.

But if you have a plan, you’re more likely to think of your goals when the going gets tough.

What are you waiting for?

No, really. What are you waiting for?

If you’ve been putting off your investing because of these three excuses, we may need to have a talk. You may very well have a good reason to wait, depending on your situation, strategy and comfort level, but for others, the excuse is just that — an excuse. Here are a few common ones:

A dip. If you’ve ever heard the classic “buy low, sell high” advice, you may be under the impression that the best time to invest may be during a market dip. But that’s easier said than done.

When markets fall, the world tends to be in crisis, and it may not feel like a comfortable time to risk your money. People who shrug and tell you to buy the dip tend to forget that we’re humans with emotions.

Plus, staying out of the market while you wait for that dip can be expensive. The S&P 500 has gone for years-long stretches without even a 5% pullback.

A windfall. You don’t have to be rich to invest. A little at time can be better than nothing at all. Your money journey isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, either. Even if you have debt, it may be in your best interest to start investing while paying debt off. Look at your whole financial picture to determine if  managing your debt  while you invest is a choice for you.

In the end, it’s all about building a plan that works for your wallet and risk appetite.

A sign. Investing may never feel comfortable, but that doesn’t mean you should wait until it does. The market has dealt with a bunch of crises over the past several decades – 11 economic recessions, 18 presidential elections and countless global conflicts. But since 1950, the S&P 500 has posted 8% average annual returns, powering through these issues as humans learned and innovation progressed, leading to a more valuable society.

There will always be an excuse to wait, but history tells us that the best time to focus on your wealth-building journey may be now.

Lindsey Bell is an award-winning investment professional with a passion for personal finance and more than 17 years of Wall Street experience. Bell’s unique ability to connect the dots between data and real life and craft bite-sized money ideas that people can use and apply stems from her deep background as an analyst, researcher and portfolio manager at organizations including J.P. Morgan and Deutsche Bank. She is known for demonstrating why and how an understanding of all things money improves a person’s finances and overall well-being. An ongoing CNBC contributor, Bell empowers consumers and investors across all walks of life and frequently shares her insights with the Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, Kiplinger’s, Forbes and Business Insider. She also serves on the board of Better Investing, a non-profit focused on investment education.

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