The American consumer may find it harder than ever to get ahead. Incomes have been stagnant and net worth has declined. Meanwhile, prices for a lot of day-to-day necessities have increased.
Even though it may be harder, it's still possible to build a savings or investment nest egg. Personal finance experts counsel that it takes careful budgeting, goal-setting and discipline.
"Today many Americans lack the financial resources to exercise a full range of choice over how they live," said Eleanor Blayney, consumer advocate at the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards. "Aspirations of owning a home, providing for a family, and retiring comfortably are being hampered by today's financial necessities. By prudently investing now, one can open up the future to the possibilities the American Dream promises."
Blayney says important for consumers to create an investment strategy to guide their efforts and offers up six steps she says can increase the odds of success:
1. Invest in what you understand
Venturing into unfamiliar investment areas can be a prescription for failure. Start simple by creating cash reserves first for tomorrow's needs. As you accumulate cash, look for ways to make it grow. The younger you are when you start the more risk you can take on. Become a student of whatever you invest in.
2. Be prepared for losses
This is hard for many new investors to get their minds around but losses are a necessary part of investing. Without some downside, there can be no upside and, therefore, no possibility of creating a better future.
For example, when you play it safe by choosing only cash or fixed income investments and avoid equities, you lose to inflation and diminished wealth in the long-term. By investing in a diversified portfolio, your winners should outpace you losers and keep you ahead of the game.
3. Start now
"Not enough money to invest" is no excuse. The time to invest is now. Even if it's only a small amount, every dollar put towards meeting your future needs helps.
Start small by looking at what you're spending your money on every day and cutting out one or two small expenses. Take the money you save and start investing. The earlier you begin, the less you need to invest to meet any given future goal.
4. Build flexibility into your investment plan
The future can be uncertain so it's important to hedge your bets and position your investments with a variety of economic possibilities in mind. Whether interest rates move up or down, the Eurozone disbands, or the Republicans take the Senate in November, there should be enough diversification in your portfolio so that some of your investments come out ahead.
5. Don't simply follow the leaders
The financial world is in a constant state of flux and you have to keep up. Yesterday's successful strategy usually becomes today's loser. Investing in the latest hot sector or stock, just because everyone else is, is a bit like following others straight into enemy fire. It's a good way to lose big. This goes back to step one, investing in what you know. If circumstances change, your investments may have to change too.
6. Ask for help
Talking with a trusted and qualified financial adviser is a good idea, especially for novice investors. But make sure these advisers are not selling investment products and would profit by steering you to a particular investment that might not be in your best interest. It's perfectly reasonable to ask any potential adviser if they market any products and if so, what they are.
Avoid turning to financial advisers that suddenly appear in your church congregation or civic club. These often turn out to be scams. Instead, choose someone you have known a long time or someone people you trust have used for a long time and recommend.
Blayney says investing, at its root, isn't all that complicated. It involves looking at cash flow, debt and exposure to risk. It's about living below your means, at least by a little, so that excess money can be diverted to the future.
"A secure and healthy retirement, education for children, and a satisfying legacy for family and community," Blayney said. "The critical planning link between the two, between today's facts and tomorrow's goals, is investing."