Tom Larm, CFA®, CFP®
Portfolio Strategist

How to Start an Investment Portfolio

Investments can play an important role in helping you achieve your financial goals. Building an investment portfolio, though, can feel overwhelming. There are so many different ways to invest and save for your future. Working with someone you trust and focusing on a defined set of steps, centered around what you’re trying to achieve, can make the process much easier and personalized to you.

Therefore, we recommend working with your financial advisor on these steps to building a portfolio:

  1. Identify your goals
  2. Weigh your comfort with risk
  3. Understand your time horizon
  4. Agree on an optimal portfolio mix
  5. Ensure proper diversification

1. Identify your goals

When it comes to creating an investment portfolio, it all starts with you and your aspirations. Therefore, before you begin choosing how to invest, we want you to think about why you’re investing, as well as your motivations and the values driving them. What matters most to you? It’s important that your investment portfolio is based on an objective that helps you achieve your unique financial goals. After all, the biggest risk you face is not in the stock market – it’s not reaching your long-term goals.

Additionally, you likely have multiple goals, each with a distinct purpose and time horizon. Your financial advisor can help you balance and prioritize all you're working to achieve. Together, you can develop a financial strategy that incorporates your investment objectives by considering topics such as:

  • What you would like retirement to look like
  • If you’d like to contribute to a child’s or grandchild’s education
  • If you plan make a large purchase, such as a home or a car
  • If you want to start a business
  • If you want to leave a financial legacy to your children or heirs

2. Weigh your comfort with risk

Assessing your comfort with risk is important because it’s unlikely you’ll reach your long-term goals if you abandon your strategy during the inevitable short-term market decline. Determining and periodically revisiting your comfort level with risk can help you avoid some emotional investing mistakes, such as chasing performance.

Growth investments, such as stocks or stock mutual funds, may experience more market volatility than more income-oriented investments, such as bonds or bond mutual funds, but can provide opportunities for higher returns. Appropriate diversification across quality, long-term investments can help align the risk of your portfolio with your comfort level. Finding that right balance can help you stay on the path toward your investment strategy. Typically, your financial advisor will ask you to complete a questionnaire that can gauge how you might react to risk in different situations. If you’re building an investment portfolio with your partner or spouse, this is an important topic to discuss with each other.

3. Understand your time horizon

You need to determine when you’ll need your money, which is directly related to your financial goals. Each financial goal will probably have a different time horizon. For example, if you’re saving for retirement, think about when you want to retire. If another goal is paying for college, your time horizon will be based on when your children will reach college age and how many years of school you plan to pay for.

Typically, the longer you have to invest, the greater your ability to make up for potential market declines, possibly allowing you to consider investments with greater return potential. As your time horizon shortens, we recommend shifting to more conservative investments that typically have smaller price fluctuations.

4. Agree on the optimal portfolio mix

There are risk and return expectations associated with each investment you choose. If an investment portfolio is made up primarily of fixed-income investments, it will likely have lower risk and lower return expectations. If an investment portfolio is more focused on equities, it will likely have higher risk and higher return expectations.

Investing is all about balance. For your portfolio, we recommend choosing an appropriate mix between equity and fixed-income investments based on your unique situation, starting with your comfort with risk, time horizon and financial goal(s). Considering additional factors such as your retirement income needs, existing savings and whether you want to leave a legacy can also help you decide the most appropriate allocation to stocks and bonds.

Evaluating how the risk and return characteristics of our portfolio objectives align with your situation can help you through this step in the process. This illustration can help you visualize the risk-return tradeoff as you move across portfolio objectives:

Source: Edward Jones

The table below represents our guidance on how to select a portfolio objective for a retirement goal, which we provide as an example. For retirement goals, we recommend considering your life stage, as well as your comfort with risk and time horizon. 

We’ve identified five investing stages of life related to retirement goals, dividing them into two categories — accumulation stages and distribution stages. Accumulation stages represent when you’re saving for retirement. Distribution stages represent when you’re already retired and using your investments to support your income needs.

Use this table as a guide to help you determine your unique portfolio objective for your retirement goal. First, find your life stage and time horizon across the top. Then, estimate your risk tolerance using the descriptions on the left side.

For example, if you’re in your early investing years and have a high risk tolerance, a growth focus portfolio objective may be right for you. If you’re in your late retirement years and have a low risk tolerance, an income focus portfolio objective may be more appropriate.

Source: Edward Jones

5. Ensure proper diversification

Once you’ve agreed on the mix of equity and fixed-income investments that aligns with your situation, we recommend building a portfolio diversified across a variety of asset classes. Asset classes are groups of investments that share similar risk and return characteristics. Since asset classes behave differently over time and it’s impossible to know which may be the best performer in any given year, having a diversified portfolio helps manage risk, creating a more solid foundation.

Our long-term strategic asset allocation guidance represents our view of balanced diversification for the fixed-income and equity portions of a well-diversified portfolio, based on our outlook for the economy and markets over the next 30 years. Our recommended allocation to each asset class depends on the mix of equity and fixed-income investments you have chosen for your situation, as defined by our portfolio objectives.

Source: Edward Jones

Diversifying within each asset class, not just across asset classes, can also strengthen the foundation of your portfolio. Within equity asset classes, consider investing in stocks representing different sectors or styles. Within fixed income, consider investing in bonds representing different sectors, categories or maturities. Mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) can provide a convenient way to diversify your investments as you begin building your portfolio.

Start building your investment portfolio today

Making sure you have the right investment portfolio for your financial goals can be easier to achieve when you partner with the right financial advisor. Edward Jones will help you build an investment portfolio that aligns with your financial goals now and in the future. Together, we can define your investment portfolio objectives.

Tom Larm, CFA®, CFP®

Tom Larm is a Portfolio Strategist on the Investment Strategy team. He is responsible for developing advice and guidance related to portfolio construction, asset allocation and investment performance to help clients achieve their long-term financial goals.

Tom graduated magna cum laude from Missouri State University with a bachelor’s degree in finance. He earned his MBA from St. Louis University, is a CFA charterholder and holds the CFP professional designation. He is a member of the CFA Society of St. Louis.