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Posted: 2:15 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015

Clark's Investment Guide

What kinds of investments are right for you? Here's Clark's guide.

By Clark Howard

When I talk with someone getting started saving for the future, I sometimes notice their eyes glaze over as I answer their question. It's typical -- investing can seem so complicated that you might feel tempted to shut down and do nothing -- or hire a salesperson to guide you.  Regardless of your investment experience, I can help cut through the confusion.

If you are a regular listener or viewer, you hear me talk about both Roth IRA accounts and 401(k)s regularly. The purpose of both is to give you your earnings a tax break to save for your future.

  • A traditional 401(k) is a  retirement savings plan that allows a worker to invest money now, and defer paying income taxes on the saved money (and earnings) until withdrawal, at retirement.
  • A Roth is a modified individual retirement account in which a person can set aside after-tax income up to $5,500 per year ($6,500 for those age 50 or older).  Earnings on the account are tax-free, and tax-free withdrawals may be made after age 591/2. This tax-free status beats just about everything. And you can set up a Roth account yourself.

Where do you put Roth money? Just about anywhere you want: A bank; credit union; full-commission stock broker; financial planner; in no-load mutual funds (a fund sold without commission) or with a discount stock broker. When you are young, I like for you to put the money with a discount broker or a no-load mutual fund. That's because I want all your money working for you.

Roths are really flexible depending on which company you choose to put your money into. You can start with as little as $100 with some companies, or $500 or $1,000 with others. (Here are some of my favorite low-cost investment options, broken down by the dollar amount you need to get started. )

If you are an entrepreneur, I'd like for you to consider opening up a simplified employee pension (SEP).

  • The paperwork to set up a SEP is simple, and you can typically open it wherever you want -- at a low-cost investment house, for example -- at no cost. SEPs work like a traditional IRA or a 401(k), with a current year tax deduction, but withdrawals are taxed at retirement. They also offer flexibility, in that you can put in nothing in a year or as much as $53,000. That can be really helpful during the feast or famine years when you're launching a business.

No matter which route you choose, my goal for you is to have an automatic deal where you put in a set amount of money each month to build the habit and reduce the risk to you. By making regular contributions monthly in equal amounts, you are doing what's called "dollar cost averaging." That's just a fancy way of saying in months that the stock market is tanking, your money buys more shares, and in months that the market is climbing, your money buys a smaller number of shares.

In other words, dollar cost averaging is a way to pace your investing so that you're buying more shares when prices are low and fewer when they're high. Over time, putting money in this way reduces the possibility of panic in you and keeps you steady as you go. And staying in the game makes you more money over the long haul.

Investment Guide for all experience levels:

I hear from a lot of people who have the first part down -- putting the money into a Roth -- but are lost on the second part -- what to put the money in. On my investment guide choice list, I show a number of my favorite investments that could lose money in the short term, but make big bucks long term. Based on your level of investment knowledge, pick one of the following guides.

The EASY guide is for beginners, or those who want to "set it and forget it."

The MEDIUM guide is for intermediate investors, requiring more involvement.

The ADVANCED guide is designed for the most experienced investors.