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Saving vs. investing: How to choose the right strategy to hit your money goals

Updated March 7, 2023, 5:07 PM UTC
Photo illustration of a hand putting coins in a jar on one side, vs a jar full of coins with a plant growing from it on the other side.
You should save to preserve your money and invest to grow your money.
Photo illustration by Fortune; Original photos by Getty Images

In the pursuit of any financial goal, it’s smart to stop and consider whether to save or invest the money you set aside for it. 

It used to be true that you needed $1,000 or more to start investing in the stock market. If you didn’t have that much, the decision was made for you: Save. Nowadays, you can invest in an index fund that tracks the return of the S&P 500 for just $1, setting yourself up for a potential return that beats inflation—and then some.

“While investing in a diversified portfolio representative of the entire market will likely yield a greater return on your investment than a high-yield savings account over time, there is also a correlating risk with that potential gain,” says Alissa Krasner Maizes, founder of Amplify My Wealth, an investment advising firm in New York.

Here’s what you should know about the risks and rewards of saving and investing.

Saving vs. investing: Which is better? 

Saving and investing are often lumped together as the sole alternative to spending money, but each strategy has its own advantages and disadvantages. 

In general, you should save to preserve your money and invest to grow your money. Depending on your specific goals and when you plan to reach them, you may choose to do both. “When deciding whether to save or invest your money, it is essential to prioritize determining when you will need it,” says Maizes. “For shorter-term goals, it is best to ensure your money is easily accessible and not likely to fluctuate in value significantly.”

Here’s a high-level comparison of saving and investing.

When it’s important to save 

Saving money is best when you have immediate or near-term expenses that your monthly income wouldn’t cover on top of your usual spending. It can take time to build up savings for dedicated expenses, but doing so means you avoid taking on high-interest debt because there’s a guaranteed pot of cash to pull from.

“When you save your money, you know exactly what your return will be. While you will lose purchasing power due to inflation, you know your return won't be lower than that,” says Laurie Itkin, a financial adviser and wealth manager at Coastwise Capital in San Diego.

Here are a few reasons to save money: 

  • Unexpected emergencies: More than half of Americans are unable to afford a $1,000 emergency expense, according to a Bankrate survey. Setting aside cash in a savings account beforehand can prevent you from turning to credit cards or other expensive borrowing options when a crisis arises. 
  • A home or car down payment: When buying a house or a car, a larger down payment can help you qualify for a lower interest rate and better loan terms. If you’re planning to make one of these purchases within the next three years, it’s best to keep your money intact and accessible in a savings account, rather than risk losing it in an investment.
  • Travel spending: An upcoming vacation where you’ll be spending more than you typically would at home is a good reason to build a cash cushion in a savings account. 
  • Homeownership expenses: The cost of owning a home doesn’t end when you get the keys. There are property taxes, insurance, and home maintenance costs to plan for.

How to start saving 

Choosing which account to open for your savings can be as important as how much you save. “I advise my clients that any money they are going to need to spend in the next two to three years should not be invested in stocks,” says Itkin. “You do not want to have to sell during a bear market and risk losing principal.”

Various financial products, from a high-yield savings account to a certificate of deposit (CD), can offer similar flexibility to a checking account, but with a much higher rate of return. When you don’t need to access your money soon but still want to avoid the risk of investing in the stock market, a government bond could be a good fit.

Here are the top savings vehicles to consider for your money:

  • High-yield savings accounts: Like a checking account, you have free rein to deposit and withdraw your money when you use a high-yield savings account, making it a good option if you need ongoing access. Online banks and credit unions tend to offer high-yield savings accounts in place of traditional savings accounts, which pay an average of 10 times more interest on your balance. 
  • Money market accounts: Similar to high-yield savings accounts, money market accounts come with additional ways to access your balance, such as an ATM card or checkbook.
  • CDs: This is a savings vehicle that offers a higher interest rate than a bank savings account because the money is locked up for a period of time that you choose, usually one, three, or five years. And not only is the APY higher, it’s usually fixed. That means you’ll earn the same amount for the entire CD term, rather than being subject to variability as with a standard savings account.
  • Treasury bills: So-called T-bills are low-risk, short-term government bonds. You can buy T-bills in $1,000 increments and cash in, with interest, in short order. Terms range from a few days to one year.
  • I bonds: Another type of low-risk government bond that ties its interest rate to inflation and can last up to 30 years. You can redeem an I bond after 12 months, but you’ll lose some interest if you redeem it before five years. You can buy I bonds on for as little as $25 or up to $15,000 a year.
  • EE bonds: Government bonds that are designed for long-term savings, EE bonds earn interest monthly with the guarantee that your balance will double in 20 years. They have the same purchase limits as I bonds.

After you’ve picked an account type for your savings, it’s time to shop for the account itself. Here are a few things to look out for to make sure you’re maximizing your return and keeping your money safe:

  • Fees: Monthly maintenance fees can eat into your balance. Most online banks no longer charge these recurring fees.
  • Minimum deposit or balance requirements: Many banks will let you open a savings account with $5 or less, but some may require a higher balance to earn the top APY or charge a fee if you don’t meet the minimum daily balance.
  • APY: The APY refers to how much your balance will grow over time. It takes into account how often the interest that you earn compounds.
  • Term length: CDs and bonds have specific term lengths, unlike savings accounts. These enable the banks, credit unions, and Treasury to offer a higher rate, since they get to hold on to your money for longer.
  • Early withdrawal penalties: Since CDs and bonds have specific term lengths, there will also be penalties for cashing in early. In many cases, you’ll lose the last three months of interest.
  • Possible tax consequences: The interest you earn on savings is usually taxable, but how much depends on the financial instrument you use. Interest earned on government bonds is exempt from state and local taxes.
  • Insurance: Be sure to choose an FDIC-insured bank or NCUA-insured credit union for protection in the event of an institutional failure.

When it’s important to invest 

For financial goals that are at least three to five years away, the benefits of investing generally outweigh the risks.

“When setting aside money for a long-term goal, there is a greater likelihood that if an investment's value decreases, there is still time for it to recover,” Maizes says.

Here are situations when it makes sense to invest:

  • Securing your retirement: Social Security benefits only replace about 37% of the average retiree’s previous income, and very few Americans have access to pension plans anymore. Investing your own money in stocks and bonds, beginning as early as possible, gives your money the chance to grow beyond low, single-digit APY you can earn in a savings account. 
  • To build generational wealth: If one of your goals is to pass assets on to the next generation, investing can help you grow and ultimately preserve the value of your wealth over many years.
  • To generate income: Investing in bonds, dividend-paying stocks, or real estate can produce a recurring income stream while also growing your principal investment. 
  • You have excess cash: If your savings accounts are flush and your income covers your current expenses, consider putting some of the extra cash to work so that your purchasing power isn’t eroded by inflation. 

How to start investing 

As with saving, certain investment vehicles are better suited to specific goals than others.

If you’re planning for retirement or building wealth to pass down to your kids or grandkids, for example, you have decades of investing ahead of you. An account that’s designed for long-term use can minimize taxes on your earnings along the way.

There are three main types of accounts you can use to invest:

  • Brokerage: These are often referred to as taxable accounts, because the earnings are subject to taxation when you collect them. You can open a brokerage account through a robo-advisor or at an investment firm such as Fidelity or Charles Schwab.
  • Retirement: While you can invest for any goal in a brokerage account, there are specific accounts designed for retirement goals that let you set aside some of your income before it’s taxed and defer any subsequent taxes on investment earnings, unless you take out the money before you retire. Popular accounts include IRAs and 401(k)s.  
  • Education: A 529 savings plan can help you grow the money you’re planning to use for a child’s future high school or college expenses without paying taxes on the investment earnings. Some state plans even offer tax breaks when investors contribute. You can open a 529 plan at a retail firm and choose how to invest your money in stocks, bonds, or funds.

As with savings accounts, there are a number of factors to consider when shopping for an investment account. Look out for management fees, investment minimums, investment offerings, and withdrawal and contribution rules.

“When choosing to invest, do not overlook the correlating expenses that will impact your ability to reach your goals sooner rather than later,” Maizes says. Opting for a broadly diversified portfolio of low-cost index funds and ETFs is the best way to reduce the costs of investing—including risk—while still benefiting, she adds. 

Frequently asked questions

Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about saving vs. investing. 

How much of your salary should you save vs. invest?

How much to put toward savings versus investing depends on your current needs and your future goals. If you’re unable to cover three to six months' worth of expenses with savings, it’s best to prioritize that before beginning to invest for long-term goals like retirement.

What are 3 differences between saving and investing?

Saving is for preserving your money, while investing is for growing it. When you save money in a bank account or CD, you earn a steady amount of interest and keep your principal intact. When you invest in the stock market or real estate, your returns can fluctuate from day to day. Also, you can withdraw savings from a bank account virtually anytime, whereas money you invest through a brokerage or retirement account may have some barriers to access.

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