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How to invest when you don’t know where to begin

Jeanie Ahn
Senior Producer/Reporter

When it comes to work -- and putting your money to work -- there is a big wealth gap between men and women that’s only weakening our economy.

Right out of college, young women are set on a path with less income potential than men, earning about 80 cents for every dollar a man makes. Without this wage discrepancy, an additional $512 billion of income would be added to the U.S. economy, according to a recent briefing by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

But the pay gap isn’t the only factor stifling our economic growth: not enough women are putting their money to work. “It’s a confidence gap and it’s responsible for the fact that women are more reluctant than men to actually put our money to work. We don’t own it as investors,” says Jean Chatzky, founder of HerMoney.com and financial editor of NBC’s “Today.”

On her weekly money podcast, Chatzky encourages women to be in the front seat of their financial lives and recognize the smart money decisions they’ve already made. “Sometimes all it takes is a deeper dive into your pre-existing retirement accounts to see that you are actually saving and investing on a regular basis already,” she says.

One step you can take to start investing is to open a brokerage account, which is simply a taxable investment account that lets you buy and sell stocks, funds, and bonds. If you’re saving for retirement through your employer or on your own, you probably already have an account with a stock brokerage firm like Vanguard or Fidelity. These accounts typically charge an investment management fee, but investors can find thousands of funds with minimal fees – and should look for one that charges less than 1% of the fund’s assets.

More than half (56%) of women in a recent Fidelity survey reported they aren’t investing outside of their retirement accounts. In fact, most of their savings are still in savings and checking accounts.

But anyone can take 15 minutes out of their time to open a brokerage account and invest: “Put some money into it every single month and make a decision about how you want to invest that money,” says Chatzky.

Even if you don’t feel financially ready to invest, anyone can jump in and invest as little as their spare change on an app like Acorns, or use a free-trading app like Robinhood to buy stocks and exchange traded funds (ETFs) with low fees. And if you’re going to invest through a traditional brokerage firm, there are plenty with no minimum to invest.

“This is not rocket science — really what it takes is a habitual pattern of just saving and investing. Just keep adding to it month after month, year after year, as much as you can afford. And when the amount you thought you could afford gets easy, nudge it up,” says Chatzky.

Check out our live Q&A where Jean Chatzky joined us to answer all your year-end money questions: