Start Investing Now
We say this not just to discourage procrastination, but because an early start can make all the difference. In general, every six years you wait doubles the required monthly savings to reach the same level of retirement income. Another motivational statistic: If you contributed some amount each month for the next nine years, and then nothing afterwards, or if you contributed nothing for the first nine years, then contributed the same amount each month for the next 41 years, you would have about the same amount. Compounding is a beautiful thing.
The right course of action depends on your current situation, your future goals, and your personality. If you don't take a close look at these, and make them explicit, you might be headed in the wrong direction.
Current Situation: How healthy are you, financially? What's your net worth right now? What's your monthly income? What are your expenses (and where could they be reduced)? How much debt are you carrying? At what rate of interest? How much are you saving? How are you investing it? What are your returns? What are your expenses?
Goals: What are your financial goals? How much will you need to achieve them? Are you on the right track?
Risk Tolerance: How much risk are you willing and able to accept in pursuit of your objectives? The appropriate level of risk is determined by your personality, age, job security, health, net worth, amount of cash you have to cover emergencies, and the length of your investing horizon.
Get Your Financial House In Order
Even though investing may be more fun than personal finance, it makes more sense to get started on them in the reverse order. If you don't know where the money goes each month, you shouldn't be thinking about investing yet. Tracking your spending habits is the first step toward improving them. If you're carrying debt at a high rate of interest (especially credit card debt), you should unburden yourself before you begin investing. If you don't know how much you save each month and how much you'll need to save to reach your goals, there's no way to know what investments are right for you.
If you've transitioned from a debt situation to a paycheck-to-paycheck situation to a saving some money every month situation, you're ready to begin investing what you save. You should start by amassing enough to cover three to six months of expenses, and keep this money in a very safe investment like a money market account, so you're prepared in the event of an emergency. Once you've saved up this emergency reserve, you can progress to higher risk (and higher return) investments: bonds for money that you expect to need in the next few years, and stocks or stock mutual funds for the rest. Use dollar cost averaging, by investing about the same amount each month. This is always a good idea, but even more so with the dramatic fluctuations in the market in the past 10 years. Dollar cost averaging will make it easier to stomach the inevitable dips.