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How to make Money in the Stock Market

I must admit my title for this article sounds scandalous and scammy, like something a Las Vegas-based email spam company would send out. But it’s also completely accurate, because I really can teach you the best way to make money from the stock market all in one short blog post.

Some of our readers are already advanced investors.. those few people already know all of this and the article will just be preaching to the choir.

But the reason I’m still writing is that almost nobody I meet in day-to-day life knows anything about investing, the stock market, or big publicly-traded companies in general. Their opinions on the subject range throughout boredom, fear, mistrust, and if they are lucky, curiosity. Or if they are unlucky, bold confidence in their abilities to drastically “beat the market” with their intuition.

Here are three real quotes I have heard from friends over time when discussing the stock market.

“Stocks are just a big roulette wheel.. You can’t go out swimming with those sharks on Wall Street – they’ll just eat you up!”

“I don’t know what my retirement money is in.. I just checked some boxes on the sheet when I started my job, but I don’t really understand it”.

“I don’t really believe in mutual funds at all – I’m dedicated enough to do my own research and I can pick winning individual stocks.. I’ve got some Apple, some Google, some Crude Oil/Gold/Pig’s Feet/whatever…..”

All three of these approaches are understandable, but wrong. The sentiments are valid and I’m glad that people at least have an opinion, but each represents a lack of knowledge about the statistics that run the whole system. Knowing the nature of the market is the key to being able to invest huge sums of your money over time with the absolute confidence that you’re not doing anything stupid.

It’s worth gaining this confidence, because investing knowledgeably in stocks has always been the single best thing to do with your money in terms of getting lifetime income with absolutely no effort on your part.

To start with the basics – What is a stock?
It’s a slice of a company that you truly own. When you own a share, you have the right (but not obligation) to attend the shareholder’s meeting for that company, vote on important company decisions, and you have a right to a share of any future earnings that company makes. This share of earnings is called a Dividend. In some companies, especially smaller or younger ones, the company elects (with the permission of its shareholders) to reinvest the dividends to help the company grow its earnings even faster. In theory, this means you will get more dividends in the future. Thus, the real value behind any share in a company is the right to get a never-ending stream of dividends from it. For Example, the old, long-profitable company Lockheed Martin currently pays a 3.8 percent annual dividend while growing slowly, while Apple Computer, fancying itself a high growth company, pays zero percent right now and reinvests all profits for faster growth.

Why do stocks go up and down so much?
The true value of a stock is based on the amount of dividends this stock will eventually pay you, the shareholder, over time. That dividend depends entirely on how much money the company will make. But nobody actually knows in advance how much money companies will make – they just have a big host of differing opinions. Every day, millions of investors and analysts scurry around and worry about how much money each company will make in the future.

“The Libyan People are Revolting! This will make the world have a shortage of oil, so prices will go up! Oil Companies are now worth more! Buy! Buy!”.

“The US economy is slowing down! This means people will drive LESS to the shopping mall and buy less gas! Oil demand will go down and oil companies will make less! Sell! Sell!”.

It’s a neverending din like this, for every single stock, on every single stock exchange, throughout the world.

If stocks are so crazy, how can I make money off of them?
Because in the LONG run, it turns out that all this speculation and volatility always cancels out to absolutely zero. The value of stocks will go up as the earnings of the underlying companies goes up.  A portion of the ongoing earnings will always flow to the shareholders as dividends.  And all this happens because of the natural ingenuity of  hardworking humans making things at a profit, and continuing to advance our knowledge and technology and make us all more productive in every field . There may come a time when we can no longer advance, but based on the fact that we’re still driving around in gas-burning tanks and Home Depot is still doing all of its computing on green-on-black mainframe computers that kick you back to the beginning of the order if you make a typing mistake, I’d say we have at least a lifetime left to go in this department.

So, stocks go up and pay dividends over time, and they have since the beginning of modern commerce. The total return has averaged a very lumpy but fairly dependable 10 percent per year before inflation, 7 percent after inflation. 5 of the 7 percent comes in the form of rising stock prices, and the other 2 comes from dividend payments directly from the company to you. When you’re in your ‘Stashing stage, you just let these dividends automatically reinvest in more stocks which creates a nice compounding effect.

But WHICH stocks do I want to buy to make this free money?
This is the easy part. You buy ALL of them. The world’s smartest people have done incredible studies on this for over 40 years. What they find is that the best way to make money in the stock market is to simply buy an “index fund”, which is a mutual fund that automatically buys appropriate ratios of every major stock in your country’s stock market, with no magic and guessing of which stocks are better than others.

The reason the index fund wins statistically is because it can be run by a simple automated set of rules – no need to pay $350M salaries to the hotshot traders running the “Aggressive growth fund” down the street. Because there are millions of people, both smart and dumb, squabbling over the value of each stock, the Index Fund benefits and suffers from all the individual stock performances. But overall, you get the average performance of all this squabbling.

If you descend into the pit and try some squabbling yourself, you may come out ahead or drastically behind the average, but as it turns out, you can’t predict in advance which squabblers (including yourself) will win and which will lose. All you can predict is that your average performance if you buy enough of these funds will be equal to the return of the market as a whole, minus the amount of fees your mutual fund charges. So by picking the index fund with the lowest fees, you automatically win. Endless statistical analysis proves this again and again. If you don’t believe me, read the book “A Random Walk Down Wall Street, or look up the topic of John Bogle / Bogleheads / and the foundation of the Vanguard company itself.

But my uncle bought some stocks once and sold at a big profit! Also, if index funds really are the statistically best bet, why are there still thousands of brand-name mutual funds and hotshot traders out there?
For the same reason that Las Vegas still exists and people still drive SUVs. Humans are irrational creatures and it is scientifically proven that we overestimate our own investment (and gambling) abilities, and no presentation of knowledge to the affected people can completely erase this. I have some perfectly intelligent friends who still believe they are “lucky” at games of chance, even though any scientist in the world can quickly run an experiment to irrefutably disprove the existence of any form of luck. The only tool you can truly use is statistical probability, and by buying the market average and lowering your investment costs, you are improving your statistical chances.

OK, Fine. What Index fund do I want?
There is one king index fund that makes the decision easy for you. The Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Exchange Traded Fund (VTI) tracks the entire US stock market index. Its expense ratio is 0.04%. This means that for every $100,000 of shares you hold, they subtract $40 per year from their gains to pay for their offices and trading costs. Some funds charge 10-20 times higher fees. So if you are looking over employer-sponsored plans, try to find a total stock index fund (or at least its close cousin the S&P 500 index fund), and compare the expense ratio to 0.04%.

What is the S&P 500? This is a collection of shares in the 500 largest companies in the US, and therefore in most of the world. They are all multinational companies, so they benefit from growth around the world. If you really want to invest without having to worry, the S&P represents good odds. If you buy the stock market index of a smaller country, like Canada, you will still have good odds, but at higher volatility. (During the dot-com boom of the nineties, a company called Nortel once represented 70% of Canada’s entire stock market value. This company is now bankrupt, so you can imagine how that felt to investors solely in the Canadian index. Now Canada is the new Saudi Arabia with oil exports, so its index is again riding high on oil company stocks. I wouldn’t bet my whole Mustache on that one commodity either).

What about International stocks? Some people like to get fancy and buy international index funds, which can do well when the US is hurting (as it has been recently). This is fine, as long as you understand that it’s just another form of trying to outsmart the basic stock index. When you do this, you are stating that you believe the  stock markets of the other countries are more undervalued relative to future growth, than the US market is. The US is traditionally the most business-friendly country in the world, so its stock index has tended to have the highest performance, after taking into account its lower risk and volatility compared to, say, throwing all your chips onto Russia or China. It may or may not pay off in the future – I just want to point out that most people just make this decision on a whim, something like “China is so hot right now, they’re taking over the world!” . Whereas to actually justify international investing rationally you’d have to be a very sophisticated investor and truly understand WHY you are doing it.

So there you have it – in two words: Vanguard.com, and VTI. In Canada, check out TD Waterhouse and their own series of funds, and let me know if you have any questions about what you find there – MMM has a Canadian Investments Expert Panel that can help us out.

Invest!

 

  • Elle March 5, 2017, 8:58 am

    Hi MMM, Canadian reader here, starting from the beginning and making my way through!
    I’m wondering if you’d still recommend the TD Waterhouse funds, and the US market ones specifically, or if there are other index funds that you would recommend now, 6 years later? TD US Index-e has a MER of 0.35% right now.
    Thanks in advance!
    E

    Reply
  • Ryan G March 11, 2017, 7:33 am

    Hey Mr. MMM,

    I recently listened to your podcast with Tim Ferriss and thought it was excellent — even listened to it twice to try and get maximal absorption. Your advice on investing seems extremely sound and I am scrambling to get into the index fund space. The one question that’s been nagging me is an ethical one — I don’t like the idea of making money from supporting companies whose impact on the world I find unethical (i.e. big oil companies etc.), but this seems unavoidable with something like the VTSMX. What am I missing?

    Reply
    • Francisco Fiuza July 26, 2017, 11:26 am

      This topic has been extensively debated on this post and previews posts. Try searching the comments!

      Reply
  • Nancy July 11, 2017, 8:04 am

    Hi so I love your blog and am trying to learn how to save money and invest my money. I’m a middle class worker so I’m trying to do this while raising a family. I live in Canada and am wondering who has the best index fund with the lowest fees in Canada. You mention at the end of your blog “MMM has a Canadian Investments Expert Panel that can help us out” how do I get into contact with them to help me understand where and how to start investing.

    Reply
  • Dom July 19, 2017, 9:29 am

    Hi MMM. Just started reading your website and inspiring stuff indeed! I researched the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund previously but it seems this is not available for offshore expats, meaning I am not American and have saved my money in offshore accounts. Are you aware of any similar funds as vanguard that can be bought from anyone on the planet?
    thanks for your advice and for sharing your expertise!

    Reply
  • Madhu September 8, 2017, 3:31 pm

    I am new to your blog and I am trying to catch up. It is so useful. Thank you. But can you please let me know if investing in VTSMX or VOO is reliable. I do see that 10K investment has reduced to nearly half(5K) during the recession time. I would be more afraid to lose half of the savings.

    Reply
  • Rachael September 13, 2017, 12:41 pm

    I am 21 years old, I’m in my last year of college before graduating and becoming a nurse. I have been reading this blog and, although I may still want to work, my goal is to have enough money to retire early by age 35. I have about $5,000 that I want to use to invest or save in a way that will help me reach my goal. Is it better for me to put this money into a Roth IRA and get that set up now because I will be getting a 401K when I get my first job in a hospital.. or should I put this money into a Vanguard’s Total Stock Market index fund? I’m worried of starting to invest now because I fear there will be a crash in the stock market soon, maybe I should wait until it crashes, then invest when everything is at its lowest? Not sure if I am thinking on the right track or not because I do not know much about this! Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

    Reply
    • Ronnie November 16, 2017, 8:25 pm

      So good to see you have your financial goals set before you get out of college. I wish I had done the same because I would be finished only 3 years from financial independence instead of 10-15!
      As MMM mentions, don’t tell try to time the stock market. Just put the money in and let it sit! The Madfientist suggests doing traditional IRAs until you reach financial independence, then begin converting them to get access to the money before retirement age of 59.5. I do not know much about the details of the conversation, but it seems like a good start. $5,500 a year into a traditional IRA, max out your HSA account (do not do flex spend account), then max out your 401k (hopefully with employer match).

      Reply
  • Maria October 10, 2017, 4:48 pm

    Hey Mr. MM,
    I’m starting my first job in two weeks, and just want to clarify what type of Vanguard account you are referring to. I’m assuming you mean an individual account (I am single) and not an IRA account, but I just wanted to make sure.
    For reference, I’m starting a 54K a year job, living at home with my parents, and planning on paying off my 28k in student loans in 2 years.
    Thanks for your help!

    Reply
  • Mr2ndopinion November 3, 2017, 12:34 am

    Saying howdy,

    Started reading your blog 2. After reading dutch investing blogs like NMW and When do you retire. Also saw you pop up at the frugalwoods! Great lifestyle, I connect with it very well.

    What would you suggest to do in Belgium. Etf’s are big over here. I’d like to prevent transactions fee’s so would it be smart to invest in Ishares Europe, north america and emerging markets? Or would you do it differently and only go for Europe and let’s say NA? I don’t got much to begin saving with but I do like to start. I can give it 30 years of growth since I’m 30 and making that pot my retiring pot. Perhaps If I can save more diligently it’ll be 20 years. My savings atm is 50% since i’m single it’s harder to reach higher numbers with a below minimum income.

    Reply
  • Nice joy November 18, 2017, 4:42 pm

    Hi MMM
    What is your opinion about VWINX/VWIAX.
    When you look at morning star chart and portfolio vsualizer, This fund was doing great. Even better than VTSAX [steady gain with minimal volatility] ER is also resonable for the admiral version. I am currently trying get one of the older women out of a stupid annuity plan. I want to recoment this fund to her. Wondering if i can get your opinion before I do that. Please advise.

    Reply
  • Diana Peterson February 19, 2018, 6:21 pm

    Hi MMM,

    This is a great article, but I can see it was written a few years ago. Would you still recommend the same index funds?

    Reply
  • Matt March 11, 2018, 8:04 pm

    Great post! I realize I’m 7 years late but just in case you still see this…I have a couple questions:

    1) I’m also in Vanguard and 10% of my portfolio is in an international fund. I did this thinking that this effectively diversified my portfolio, not to be fancy. Did I misinterpret “diversification”? I would think that diversifying meant investing in competing countries as well as competing companies, but maybe I’m way off.

    2) I’m new to your blog (just started reading today and still reading), but I’m wondering how you withdraw your “SWR” before a typical retirement age. I’m guessing your investments were made during your career as part of a 401(k), but that’s based on a retirement age of 59 1/2, otherwise you get taxed even more. How do you “pay yourself” in your early retirement? In my case anyway, my investments are in a Roth account so I’m hoping to not pay tax on them again…

    Thanks!!

    Reply
  • Todd April 18, 2018, 11:34 am

    When signing up for an account on Vanguard.com, is it better to select a Roth account or an individual account?

    Reply
  • Spendthrift August 16, 2018, 7:27 pm

    I was wondering if it makes sense to put money into index funds (vs. a savings account) when saving for a downpayment on my first house? It seems that the funds are more of a long term investment, and I hope to buy a house in the next few years. Is there a better alternative for a few years of investing that is worthwhile? Thanks.

    Reply
  • Alvaro September 3, 2018, 4:40 am

    What about Schwab index funds ? (0.03% fee). The lowest in the industry. Do you keep with Vanguard?

    Reply
  • Halam Rose September 6, 2018, 10:04 am

    Hi, there are lots of comments so I hope I haven’t missed an answer to my question already.

    If I have a lump of money to invest, with there having been a Bear market for so long how can I protect myself against the market suddenly falling?

    I wish I’d been able to phase investment to get dollar cost averaging – I could still slowly dribble money into Vanguard but then I’d not benefit from any return on the cash.

    I feel stuck here.

    Best Wishes,

    Halam

    Reply
    • Joe October 10, 2018, 9:42 am

      Hi Halam,

      You are better off just investing it all in one go. Also, just to correct your use of term: we are in a bull market, a bear market is when it goes down. :)

      If you need something more concrete than my words, have a look at this often-shared article about why it doesn’t matter if you happen to invest right before even a huge crash: https://awealthofcommonsense.com/2014/02/worlds-worst-market-timer/

      Reply
  • Rob October 8, 2018, 3:32 pm

    Hey MMM, this is my first comment/question on your site.

    The Vanguard Total Stock Index Fund has a minimum of $10K. Seems the only way I can get started is doing the ETF route. Is this advisable or should I wait until I have $10K saved up?

    Reply
    • Mr. Money Mustache October 9, 2018, 2:02 pm

      GO ETF! That is better than the standard fund in every way, with no downsides.

      Reply
  • Jonathan Wheeland October 9, 2018, 3:03 pm

    Is there a trading cost associated with the ETF that the standard fun doesn’t have?

    Reply
  • Joe October 26, 2018, 12:53 pm

    hey MMM!

    great website I just got turned onto it the other day by a coworker. Im completely new at all this so bare with the newbie question. Whats the difference between the Vanguard tickers VTI and VTSMX? which I buy into one instead of the other? the reason I ask is cause I’ve been playing around with small money on Robinhood and they only offer VTI. thanks in advance!!

    Reply
  • Nobody November 26, 2018, 1:03 am

    Hi there , and apologies for bringing up an old thread. Vanguard Total Stock Market Fund is closed, can you recommend another please

    Reply
    • Mr. Money Mustache November 29, 2018, 7:30 pm

      Many thanks, Somebody – that is an important thing to fix!

      I just updated it to the equivalent-but-better Vanguard ETF that has the ticker symbol VTI

      Reply
  • David December 2, 2018, 9:56 pm

    Dear Mr. Money Moustache,

    I have a significant amount of $$ that’s been languishing in money market accounts ‘waiting’ to be invested for years. Most of it is in SEP IRA account at Schwab, plus some stock and cash in a nonIRA account.

    I recently opened a Vanguard account. Should I transfer everything to Vanguard to save on costs? And even though timing the market is ill advised (as witnessed by the dollars I have passed up in my money market accounts!), should I wait for a major correction to move it from my new Vanguard m.m. into VTI?

    Thank you for this great site!

    David

    Reply
  • Kiki howe January 22, 2019, 1:46 pm

    MMM …
    I am a Canadian woman in retirement …
    I would like to purchase Vanguard ..
    Which one would be a good choice ..
    I have about 10,000 CDN ..I’m thinking about dividends ends that can be reinvested
    Thanks for your help

    Reply
  • Tes March 12, 2019, 5:58 am

    Beginner Mustachian here, is there anything similar to the VTI or S&P500 for Europe or do you recommend just investing in the USA?

    Reply
  • Mico June 20, 2019, 1:09 pm

    Hey just started reading your blog, great stuff!

    Iam from vancouver canada I invested in few stocks but Iam confused because I bought stocks of s&p500 (vfv) its at $69 at the moment but when I type in on google s&p500 another stock pops up for under (inx I believe) at $2950. So my question is are all theses s&p 500 stocks different? If so which one would be the best to get? Sorry but another question for like visa usage, which cards would be the best to have for certain purchases?

    Reply
  • Eric August 1, 2019, 11:36 am

    MMM,

    Thanks for the great post! It is now almost 2020. Do you still highly recommend VTI (The Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Exchange Traded Fund) as the king of index funds?

    Thank you,
    Eric

    Reply
    • Mr. Money Mustache August 1, 2019, 8:42 pm

      Yes!

      Reply
      • Tibo August 21, 2019, 3:54 am

        For non-US Mustachians, would Ireland-based VUSD be the go to index? Seems to be the best that can be done to limit withholding tax on dividends to 15%.

        Reply

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