Can you guess who’s been loading up on stocks at a faster pace than anyone during the past 30 years? It’s not Wall Street titans and kajillionaires on the Forbes richest lists. It’s mid- to lower-income households, particularly those pulling in less than $42,000 a year.
In the late 1980s, fewer than one-third of Americans owned equities. Fast-forward to 2016 and, according to Federal Reserve Board data, that number shot up to more than half (52%) of U.S. households. (Go us!)
Even better, it’s not just wealthy households adding equities to their already brimming coffers: It’s households on the lowest rungs of the income ladder (those making less than $24,000 annually and between $24,000 and $42,000) participating in the great wealth-building machine that is the stock market. Stock ownership more than doubled for these households between 1989 and 2016, according to Investment Company Institute tabulations of the Fed data.
All told, today nearly 4 out of 10 households that invest in stocks make less than $68,000 a year.
How’d that happen?
What’s changed since 1989?
Specifically, access to workplace retirement savings plans, like 401(k)s, and personal investment accounts, like IRAs.
Quirky Super Bowl ads for discount brokers and job listings touting the employer match on 401(k) contributions are relatively new developments: 401(k) plans and IRAs were just starting to take off in the ’80s. And the Roth IRA didn’t come along until 1997.
Thanks to tax incentives (contributions to these accounts can dramatically lower what you owe the IRS) and the death of company pension plans, money flooded into the market.
Today, the ICI estimates that there is more than $5 trillion in 401(k) plans and more than $9 trillion in individual retirement accounts — and that half or more of the dollars in those plans is invested in stocks.
Jump on the bandwagon
If retirement, or some other version of financial freedom, is on your radar, stocks should be, too. Cash simply won’t cut it for long-term savings.
Over time inflation causes cash to lose its potency, or how much a wad of it can purchase. You can see how much sitting on the sidelines will cost you in potential earnings over time by using a cost of cash calculator.
But “buying stocks” doesn’t mean you need to be glued to CNBC and fully caffeinated for days-long trading marathons. It simply means putting your money in investment vehicles that provide exposure to the stock market.
One of the easiest and smartest ways to get started is with a mutual fund that contains a basket of investments instead of a single stock. If you have a workplace retirement plan, mutual funds are going to be the main item offered on the investment menu. (Here’s how to pick the right kind of mutual fund for your investment goals.)
Want to dabble in stocks? Start small, slow and even consider using fake money at first.
Going beyond your workplace retirement plan, opening an IRA or taxable investing account will give you access to a lot more investment choices. Need a hand building a portfolio? For a small fee (typically around 0.25% of your overall account balance) you can hire an automated investment service — aka a robo-advisor — to put together and manage a tailored portfolio of funds based on things like when you need the money and how comfortable you are with stock market fluctuations.
If dabbling in individual stocks sounds like something you want to try, start small, slow and even consider using fake money at first via a stock market simulator. Some online brokers offer potential customers free access to their virtual trading platforms to take a test drive without risking your lunch money. The fewer investments you have in your portfolio, the greater your exposure to risk.
Regardless of the investing strategy you choose, and no matter where you fall on the income scale, stock ownership should be a part of your long-term investing strategy.