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SmartAsset: What Is an Investment Portfolio?

An investment portfolio is a basket of assets that can hold stocks, bonds, cash and more. Investors aim for a return by mixing these securities in a way that reflects their risk tolerance and financial goals. There are many different types of investment portfolios, as some are built into 401(k)s, IRAs and annuities, while others exist on their own through a brokerage or financial advisor firm. For more hands-on help, consider working with a financial advisor who can guide you through building an investment portfolio.

Determining Your Investment Portfolio’s Asset Allocation

If you’re looking into investing, you’ve probably heard of asset allocation. This describes how you break down an investment portfolio based on asset class. An asset class is a category of different securities. For example, equities are stocks, shares of which you own as a slice of a company that do not offer fixed returns. Meanwhile, fixed-income can include bonds and certificates of deposit (CDs).

Below, we provide some more examples of different securities you can build an investment portfolio with:

But you can just randomly dump these into an investment portfolio and expect a major return. While diversification is key, your asset allocation should adhere to your risk tolerance.

You can use our asset allocation calculator to see what a typical portfolio may look like based on different risk tolerance levels.

Creating an Investment Portfolio Using Your Risk Tolerance

SmartAsset: What Is an Investment Portfolio?

Risk is the potential for your investments to lose money when the market or a particular asset class doesn’t perform well. There is always a degree of risk when you invest. If you absolutely cannot afford to lose your money, you might want to consider putting it into a savings account or the best CD you can find.  The FDIC insures both of these. That means you won’t lose all your money the way you might with a stock.

Your risk tolerance is the amount of variability that you can handle with your investments. In other words, it reflects how well you can stomach the ups and downs that come with any investment. This is what investors call market volatility.

If you need your money in a few years and can’t afford to lose any of it, you have a low risk tolerance. This means you will likely not recover from a major downturn in the market.

On the other hand, someone who won’t need his or her money for 40 years can probably tolerate more volatility and weather the ups and downs. That investor has time to wait out a decrease in the value of his or her investments before the market bounces back.

In the investing world, the length of time between now and when you’d need your money is known as your time horizon. You should think carefully about this when building your investment portfolio.

Each of us has a different tolerance for risk based on our goals and life situation. For instance, a single college graduate can probably invest aggressively because time is on his or her side. Meanwhile, a 75-year-old retiree who is saving for the education of a couple grandchildren may not be able to risk a portfolio drop and will thus have have a far more conservative portfolio.

How to Build an Investment Portfolio Using ETFs

As mentioned above, an asset allocation is how you distribute the money in your portfolio across different asset classes. The best asset allocation for your portfolio will depend on many factors. If you are just getting started, you should choose a financial advisor to help you understand how different investments could affect you.

As you think about your asset allocation, keep in mind that asset classes are broken down into smaller categories. And each responds differently to market conditions. For example, stocks vary hugely from company to company. That’s why people group similar investments together. This is especially common with exchange-traded funds (ETFs).

An ETF is a fund that includes a number of similar stocks. That could mean stocks from a certain sector of the economy or even stocks from different countries. An ETF could invest only in large, established companies or only in small companies with high growth potential. Investing in multiple types of ETFs will diversify your overall stock investment, because you’ll be putting money into funds that behave differently in certain economic conditions. Most robo-advisors actually invest their clients’ money in ETFs.

So as you think about your investments, financial advisors recommend that you create a diverse investment portfolio. That means investing in multiple asset classes. It also means choosing diverse options within an individual asset class.

Bottom Line

SmartAsset: What Is an Investment Portfolio?

When you’re building your investment portfolio, think carefully about your asset allocation. Make sure it adheres to your risk tolerance. This is how well you can handle the ups and downs of the market.

Some asset classes, such as stocks, are generally considered more volatile. Meanwhile, fixed-income securities like bonds and CDs are generally considered safer investments. Also, think about your time horizon or the time you have to invest before you’d actually need that money.

Investing and Retirement Planning Tips 

  • Financial advisors often specialize in investing and planning for retirement. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three financial advisors who serve your area, and you can interview your advisor matches at no cost to decide which one is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
  • A great way to plan for retirement is to calculate how much you’ll need after you retire. Think about the things you’d like to do after your retirement. Do you want to travel? Also, think about where you want to live and what kind of lifestyle you want. For example, you’ll need to save more if you want to retire in a place with a high cost of living. SmartAsset’s retirement calculator can tell you how much you should save each month in order to reach your goals.
  • A 401(k) is very useful for building retirement savings. Small, regular contributions can easily add up to plenty of savings later in life. You should especially contribute to a 401(k) if your employer offers a match. If your employer doesn’t offer a 401(k), you can always invest in an individual retirement account (IRA). These work similarly to 401(k)s in that you don’t pay taxes initially on your contributions.

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Derek Silva, CEPF® Derek Silva is determined to make personal finance accessible to everyone. He writes on a variety of personal finance topics for SmartAsset, serving as a retirement and credit card expert. Derek is a member of the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing and a Certified Educator in Personal Finance® (CEPF®). He has a degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and has spent time as an English language teacher in the Portuguese autonomous region of the Azores. The message Derek hopes people take away from his writing is, “Don’t forget that money is just a tool to help you reach your goals and live the lifestyle you want.”
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