Where to begin? This question has stymied beginning investors since the time the market began. These days though, the question is twofold: why should I begin and where will I get the money?
Time remains the single best attribute to investing early and equally important, often. The powers of the equity markets are confusing unless you remember two basic rules:
There is risk;
And if you take no risk, there will be no reward.
That risk demands you put money somewhere. For the beginning investor, the best place is in a mutual fund. Your 401(k) at work is often a healthy list of choices. (Keep in mind, the number of choices available don't always signify the quality of the plan.) Among the most common types of funds in these defined contribution plans (so called because you define how much you will contribute) are index funds, growth funds, bond funds, balanced funds, and some combination of the lot.
Index funds track a broad index of companies in almost every instance, due to size. Growth funds may also be a type of index fund or one aimed at a particular group of companies. Bond funds invest in debt, which makes you a sort of lender (but in a mutual fund, without many of the problems associated with the transaction). Balanced funds look to provide some stocks and some bonds and usually tell you right up front how they allocate their investments.
The combination of the lot is represented by a growing sector called lifestyle funds or target-dated funds. These fund reallocate their holdings over the course of an investors career. The employee picks the date they would like to retire, say 2040 and the fund manager does the rest. As your holdings grow in tandem with your years in the plan, the fund gets more and more conservative.
Beginning investors are attracted to these because they are advertised as buy and forget. But they should be aware of the problems that may be associated with this type of investment. First, they don't have much of a track record. Even in the recent downturn, some very conservative funds (with short retirement dates targeted) did not beat the S&P500. Secondly, I worry that some fund families are using these new funds to prop up laggard funds that have done extremely poorly and lost many of its core investors.
While you are educating yourself on the subject, choose an index fund.
Now, where to get the money? If you set aside 5% of your income in a pre-tax situation (and 401(k) plans are just that), you will not feel a change in your take home pay. Do this even if your company doesn't match your contributions. (Some used to, some companies still do but to a much lesser degree and some never have added a contribution, usually dollar for dollar up to a certain percentage.)
If you have no defined contribution plan, use your tax refund (you know the one you plan on getting in about five months) to open an IRA.
No matter when you begin, waiting is no longer an excuse.