Hope for your financial life and beyond

2 Milestones You Need to Reach Before Investing Money

investingWhen it comes to investing money in the stock market, time is your greatest ally and your greatest enemy. The longer you are investing money the greater likelihood you’ll generate great wealth. Shortening that time period by just a few years could significantly reduce the amount of wealth you’ll create.

That’s why it’s important to get started early – in fact, the earlier the better. Time is the most critical element in the investing equation. It doesn’t matter if you are a high school student making minimum wage at a summer job, a college student figuring out how to pay your way through school or married with your first child on the way. The earlier you start investing, even in small amounts, the more one can maximize big returns in the long run.

Don’t believe me? Read on and check out the following example.

Investing and Simple Math

Let’s do some simple math to show how wealth can grow based on two different scenarios.

“Person A” begins investing at age 19. She contributes $150 per month ($1,800 per year) for 8 years, until the age of 26. The total amount of money invested equals $14,400. If she were to average 12% return per year, by age 65 that investment would have grown to $2,264,026. Keep in mind that is without investing another dollar after the age of 26.

“Person B” begins investing at age 27. He contributes $150 per month ($1,800 per year) for 39 years, until the age of 65. The total amount of money invested equals $70,200. If he were to average the same 12% return, by age 65 he would only have amassed $1,580,051.

Person B invested $55,800 more actual dollars over the investment period yet fell $683,975 short of the mark achieved by Person A. This is all because Person A started investing earlier.

You may argue that 12% return is impossible to achieve. To that I’d say three things:

1) The example is more about demonstrating the principle of time than the actual numbers

2) The average stock market return is around 10% per year

3) Even if you only average 8% you’d still have a lot of money! (To play with your own figures, use this investing calculator.)

First Things First Though

What a difference time can make! However, you should only start investing money when you are actually able to start investing. Trying to force yourself into investing before other financial obligations are taken care of will lead to frustration and potential setbacks.

As I see it, there are two financial milestones to meet – and two caveats to consider – before you should invest.

Milestone #1: Have paid off all non-mortgage debt

Getting out of debt should be a higher priority than investing money. Yes, it will take time to pay off all the non-mortgage debt and that will eat into the time variable in the investing equation. There are several reasons though why I believe this is the right path to take.

Related Content: How to Get out of Debt and Win in 5 Simple Steps

First, growing your wealth is a psychological journey. In your mind, you see two things: 1) where you want to go and 2) all the barriers that are keeping you from getting there. One of those barriers is debt that comes in all shapes and sizes – from credit cards, school loans, car payments and a host of other things.

Getting out of debt removes that barrier and gives a much needed psychological boost. When a person is in $50,000 of consumer debt it never seems like they will reach their financial goals. With that debt erased and the burden it placed on their lives removed, they gain hope their destination is reachable.

Not only does it produce hope, it builds confidence. Let’s not sugarcoat it here. Paying off debt is hard. The journey is long and filled with emotional ups and downs. It often feels like the debt will never be gone.

But paying off debt builds confidence in your ability to achieve financial goals. Once it is gone, you can always look back one what you’ve accomplished and gain encouragement that you can face what is ahead. That confidence will be an important asset as you begin to explore more advanced personal finance issues like investing.

Milestone #2: Building a fully funded emergency fund

An additional milestone to reach before investing is to save enough money that would cover at least 3 – 6 months of expenses in case there is a short or long-term emergency. This makes sense because if you have investments but no emergency fund where will the money come from to pay for those emergencies when they arrive?

In the above scenario, the funding for emergencies can only come from two places: new debt (funding emergencies through credit cards or loans) or from selling investments to raise the money to pay for the emergency.

Neither of those options would be a solid financial move. Going into debt to fund emergencies is a step in the wrong direction. Your financial journey is taking a step backward at that point.

And consistently selling investments would eat into your returns and potentially have tax consequences (on the gains you had achieved). You wouldn’t see the growth you desired if you were always pulling money out to pay for emergencies.

A fully funded emergency fund is designed to move you forward with investing without interruption. With that in place you can consistently allocate more dollars towards investing without fearing you’ll need them for a life emergency.

Related Content: Emergency Fund Basics: The Step on Which All Other Success is Built

Two Caveats on Investing

While I generally hold to the above arguments about milestones before you begin investing, there are two caveats to consider where investing may make sense before non-mortgage debt is gone and a 3-6 month emergency fund is established:

Caveat #1: You foresee no immediate large expenditures

While I would not say you could never invest with large expenditures looming on the horizon, I’d seriously consider curtailing large deposits of money into investments if you think the money would be needed in the next six months. The simple reason being that the market can quickly fluctuate to the downside leaving you with less money to withdrawal than what you put in.

So if you are a teen and college is on the horizon don’t invest a lot. If you anticipate a major medical need within a year, then you’d be better served to beef up that emergency savings fund. If you think you’ll be buying your first house, then it’s best to save for your down payment and all the extras (#repairs) that immediately seem to come with home ownership.

Caveat #2: Employer Match for Retirement

If you are in a job where your employer provides a match for a retirement account (i.e. 401k, 403b, etc.), then you might consider investing for retirement before you are out of debt or have a fully funded emergency fund. The reason is that, with an employer match, for every dollar you invest, your employer invests the same amount. So you are essentially getting free money for investing from your employer as a benefit. That’s a really good deal and one you should look take advantage of.

Related Content: 4 Basics Strategies for Retirement Planning Everyone Should Know

A Linear Approach to Investing Money

The approach I’ve outlined is definitely linear and requires some check-off steps. I like it that way. It keeps me focused instead of trying to play all angles.

I do realize I’m affected by the time factor in the investing equation by delaying until I reach these milestones. I’m OK with that. To me, it is more important to pay off debt and have a fully funded emergency fund first.

Think of it this way. These two milestones lay the foundation for the beautiful house that is to come. No one would ever consider putting on the roof (investing) before the four walls (debt payoff, savings) of the house were up.

That’s how I see investing. There will eventually come a time to build your investing portfolio but it needs to wait its turn. Then I can throw everything I can at it because my money won’t be tied up dealing with other issues.

Leave a Comment Below or Answer a Question: When did you start investing? Would you invest or pay off debt if your company offered a retirement match? Would you stop investing money for a time if you knew a major expense was around the corner?

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  1. I completely agree with Brian. I made the grievous mistake of putting the house before the cart by trying to invest without dealing without having sufficient emergency fund to fall back on. The good thing is that I have a lesson – though hard, to save however small.

    • I hate it that you had to go through a tough lesson to get straightened out. But that’s what often leads to change…at least that’s what I’ve seen in my life.

  2. I agree with John that at least investing enough to get the employer match makes sense. We did this while paying off school debt, building an emergency fund, and saving for a house. It didn’t distract us at all as we had it coming out automatically and it wasn’t a big percentage. But I do agree about aggressively paying off debt before you aggressively invest.

  3. I would generally agree with this. The only instance I wouldn’t is when offered a match through an employer. In that instance I couldn’t justify turning down the free money – I would take that and that would be the only investing I’d do. That said, I think you’re right on in that you need to begin to develop that foundation and while growing wealth necessitates investing it also involves being free of debt. If we had something major coming up, I might put off investing for a time, but we try and plan our saving so that doesn’t have to happen.

    • That employer match is a real tough one John. It would be awfully hard to turn down the free money. I wouldn’t be as worried about that if I was working on a savings goals. But if I was in the debt payoff process I’d seriously consider stopping retirement investing for just a short time so I could throw that money at the debt instead.

  4. I completely agree with this. When I work with my younger clients, they immediately want to talk about investing because they feel they are behind based on everything they read and hear but I always remind them that it’s a process and they need to have a solid foundation before they start investing. Without the foundation and good practices, all the investing in the world won’t help them.

    • You really are jumping ahead if you decide to invest before you are ready. I can see why people get fired up about it and think they are missing out. But growing wealth is a progression and as you said the foundational things have to be taken care of first.

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