Bring balance into your financial plan.
A quote attributed to Titus Maccius Plautus, a Roman comic playwright, has unexpected relevance for investors: "In everything the middle course is best: All things in excess bring trouble to men." Balance serves as the ideal metaphor for long-term investing. Needs change over time and shortcut stratagems that may work one year can prove ineffective -- and even costly -- the next. U.S. News asked experts to weigh in on some of the soundest investing strategies to use throughout your life.
Updated on May 3, 2018: This previously published story was updated to provide recent information.
Invest in what you understand.
Ignorance is never bliss when betting on a particular sector or company over time. Otherwise, you may as well play the slots in Las Vegas. "If you don't understand the business you invest in, you're going to be highly unlikely to discern the noise from truly meaningful information that should factor into your decision-making," says Thomas Sudyka Jr., president of Lawson Kroeker Investment Management in Omaha, Nebraska. Stay away from investment strategies that are too obscure, complex, or out-of-your-wheelhouse to keep up with. If you don't really know how investments work, how can you expect them to work for you?
Start investing as early as possible.
The longer money is invested, the more potential it has to grow -- that's how Warren Buffett used stock investment strategies to his advantage: patience. "Investors who start early, practice patience and stick to a long-term investing strategy often see the best returns and financial success," says Colton Dillion of Acorns, the investing app. Someone who contributes $1,000 to an IRA from ages 20 to 30, and then stops, has an edge over someone who starts at 30 and invests $1,000 annually for 35 years. Assuming a 7 percent annualized return, the first person will have $168,515 at age 65, and the second will have $147,914.
Add a 401(k) match to your mix.
It's hard to believe people turn down free money that grows with time. But three in 10 workers with access to an employer match in their 401(k) fail to participate, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "If your employer has a matching contribution inside of your company's plan, make sure you always contribute at least enough to receive it," says Kevin Meehan, regional president for Chicago with Wealth Enhancement Group. "You are essentially leaving money on the table if you don't take advantage of the matching contribution." There's no shortage of investment strategies out there, but free money is the only guaranteed, risk-free home run you'll ever get. Batter up!
Set up and stick with sound cash-flow management.
"There's no other element of investment planning or portfolio management that's more essential over the long term," says Jesse Mackey, chief investment officer of 4Thought Financial Group in Syosset, New York. The key is simple yet crucial. Automatically invest money during your working years -- each month at a minimum. "Simply adhering to the cash-flow plan, while making reassessments as life progresses and needs change, will put an investor 90 percent of the way toward achieving their goals," Mackey says.
Separate emotions from objectives.
If you treat a potential investment with the same partisanship as a sports team fan (or hater), you're setting yourself up for trouble. "Separating your emotional involvement with a security from the purpose of its ownership will lead to better overall judgment and performance," says Kenneth Hoffman, managing director and partner at HighTower's HSW Advisors in New York. "The more open-minded you are to thinking about investments in a new light, the more likely you are to invest in something undervalued." Conversely, no stock or investment strategy is worth much if, ultimately, you can't execute it.
Turn discretionary spending into investing.
Those who delay investing for years often confuse needs with wants. "Cellphone bills, cable TV packages and automatic services of all kinds gradually become necessities, and the would-be investor never jumps out," says Stig Nybo, president of U.S. retirement strategy for Transamerica Retirement Solutions in San Francisco. "Investing takes discretionary income, and discretionary income takes discipline. Question those things that have become the norm but may not be necessities." Before you become a millionaire in the stock market, you have to build up a large amount of upfront capital. That's hard to come by with recurring (and unnecessary) monthly expenses.
Put investments and cash reserves in separate buckets.
The biggest risk in investing involves needing your money at the wrong time, says Harold Evensky, a professor of practice in the personal financial planning department at Texas Tech University. "By balancing any funds you'll need in the next three to five years, or roughly an economic cycle, between a money market account and high-quality, short-term bonds, you won't have to sell your investments at a loss. You'll have liquid funds available when you need them, even if the market has crashed." This rule of thumb refers to cash you may need on short notice; with the rest of your money, investing in stocks is usually one of the best options.
Make stocks a cornerstone of your strategy.
Zack Shepard, vice president for Matson Money in Phoenix, unabashedly calls equity investments "one of the greatest wealth-creation tools known to mankind. Investors need them in their attempt to grow their portfolio and outpace inflation." Even with some moribund stretches lasting through the 1960s and 70s, the Standard & Poor's 500 index has produced an average 20-year return above 7 percent if you look at all 20-year periods dating back to 1926. Whether you have a trading strategy or simply buy index funds, being in the market is usually better than being out of it. And compound interest only sweetens the pot.
Diversify for a smoother ride.
Horror stories abound of investors too dependent on a particular stock or other investment, says Jimmy Lee, founder and CEO of the Wealth Consulting Group in Las Vegas. "Diversifying across asset classes as well as within asset classes is a smart way to go. For example, equities come in different flavors when it comes to characteristics such as market capitalization, U.S. versus foreign or growth versus value. Though it doesn't ensure a profit or protect against a loss in a declining market, being diversified provides the potential for a smoother ride," he says.
Calibrate. Don't vacillate.
Portfolios usually need tweaking with time rather than a complete overhaul, which nervous investors too often resort to during cyclical downturns. "Investing is a long-term activity, not a sporting event with minute-by-minute adjustments," says Dave Rowan, founder and president of Rowan Financial LLC in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. "Treat it as such, and make small, infrequent adjustments to your investing strategy rather than trying to time the market." Be wary of any get-rich-quick investment strategies that promise you the moon, or describe themselves as once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Stay disciplined, patient -- and keep the previous points in mind -- and you'll maximize your financial potential, and with it, quality of life.
Lou Carlozo, managing editor for the Bank Administration Institute, is a U.S. News & World Report investment contributor who has covered a wide range of topics ranging from analysis of quarterly reports for Apple (APPL), Netflix (NFLX) and Tesla Motors (TSLA) to baffling nature of Wall Street jargon. An award-winning journalist, he served as an editor, syndicated weekly columnist and writing coach at the Chicago Tribune, where he worked for 16 years. He was also managing editor for Aol's personal finance team, a full-time contributor to Reuters Money and a weekly columnist for Money Under 30. His recent piece on Laughter and Sales was selected as one of the 10 Best Blogs of the Decade by Ambition.com. The author of a journalism textbook and an accomplished music producer/studio musician, he resides in Chicago with his wife and two children, just a long fly ball from Wrigley Field.