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For Gen Z, thoughts of investing, building wealth and saving can be daunting. Gen Z is an active, ambitious generation raised by the internet and in pursuit of instant gratification, so the idea of investing to earn money for the future can seem like an insurmountable task. However, it’s something many in this generation are interested in learning more about. A recent survey conducted by GOBankingRates found that 26% of Gen Z want to learn how to invest.
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To help this generation learn more about this financial topic, GOBankingRates talked to Robert Johnson, Ph.D., professor of finance at Creighton University, about how Gen Z can build wealth through investing with the tools they have at their disposal.
Behavioral finance is the concept that human beings often succumb to behavioral biases. Gen Z, whose brains are still developing, often experience highs and lows in mental, physical and emotional health. These conditions fluctuating can impede young people’s decision-making when it comes to finance. This is a key bias in behavioral finance theory known as the “emotional gap,” in which investors make decisions based on extreme emotions like anger, anxiety and excitement.
“One of the biggest behavioral biases that humans succumb to is the bias toward immediate gratification over delayed gratification. That is, our present selves tend to win over our future selves,” Johnson said.
Though people may try to practice good habits, oftentimes they can find themselves making an impulsive purchase or splurging on a meal in order to enjoy the now. This could look like buying new shoes that are more stylish than practical, or going out for dinner and drinks with friends and having a couple more $20 cocktails than intended. Maybe it’s buying plane tickets because an airline is having a sale, or buying those theme park tickets because a new attraction is opening up. It is not easy to stay on budget when people are constantly enticed by the world around them.
“It is exceedingly difficult for many people to imagine their future selves and give up that vacation or new car today in lieu of having money to retire in the distant future,” Johnson said.
By learning about behavioral bias regarding money and understanding impulses, Gen Z can better educate themselves and do an important analysis of their financial health. It is not easy to acknowledge that emotions can drive purchases, but with investment, this is a key factor to take into consideration. Due diligence is important when it comes to investing, and making impulsive personal purchases outside of budget does not help Gen Z invest for the future — actually, it will only cause harm if they have no money to invest.
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“Time is the most valuable asset in investing and time is definitely on [Gen Z’s] side,” Johnson said. “Gen Z simply needs to invest ‘early and often’ and the odds are in their favor to accumulate true wealth. Gen Z should utilize their time advantage and start investing now and let compounding work its magic.”
While millennials and boomers may have less time to begin building an investment portfolio, now is the perfect time for Gen Z to start letting their money grow.
“Making retirement and savings contributions automatic is a wise approach,” Johnson said. “People should try and automate as many financial decisions as they can. One must make saving money a habit. And habits — good or bad — develop over time.”
What does it mean to automate financial decisions?
“Automatic savings plans can take many forms. For instance, one can have a specific dollar amount or salary percentage taken out of each paycheck and put in a retirement plan or savings plan,” Johnson said.
Automatic plans tie into behavioral finance because it appeals to the inherent laziness of people and helps alleviate the stress of budgeting from particularly busy people. Once enrolled in an automatic savings plan, people stay enrolled. Once set up, automated payments become one less thing for people to worry about.
To find the right retirement and savings accounts that work for an individual, young people must find what works for them. It is important for Gen Z to speak to their employers or universities to see what sorts of plans are offered to them.
“[Have] an amount taken out of each paycheck and put directly into an investment fund — most appropriately a low-cost stock index fund,” Johnson said. “This strategy means you will be putting money into the market whether stocks are rising, falling or treading water. You will practice dollar cost averaging and build significant wealth over the long run.”
A low-cost stock index fund is a relatively risk-free way to invest in the stock market. This is a good start for beginners, as they are letting their money sit and there is a low barrier to entry. With index investing, there are not many factors to consider besides researching the initial index stock to invest in. Some investments may be better than others; it is important to research the options that are out there.
“The surest way to build true long-term wealth for retirement is to invest in the stock market,” Johnson said. “According to data compiled by Duff & Phelps, since 1926 the average annual return on a large capitalization stock index (think S&P 500) is 10.1%. If these historical average returns hold in the future, an investor would double their money in slightly over seven years, and have 10 times their original investment in 23 years.”
By looking at these numbers, it is apparent that index funds are a safe and steady way for Gen Z to begin investing. Though it may seem daunting at first, starting small and learning about the market is a good way for people new to the stock market to begin building their wealth.
“There is an old Wall Street adage that states ‘You can sleep well or eat well.’ You will eat well by consistently investing in stocks,” Johnson said. “For the vast majority of investors, the KISS mantra — ‘keep it simple, stupid’ — should guide their investment philosophy. [Investing] into a broad stock market index fund is both simple and effective.”
“The idea behind index investing is ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,'” Johnson said. “Investors simply can’t afford to make oversized bets on individual securities. Often that is what happens to beginning investors who buy the stock of the company they work for or the stock of a product they like. When they experience failure, they withdraw from the equity markets. Investing in a broadly diversified basket of securities is a prudent strategy.”
As mentioned above, letting the emotional gap bias drive decisions on what stocks to purchase can sometimes hurt the investor. Though a stock may be personal to the individual, or the company’s product may be enticing, it is often a better choice to invest in index funds.
“The solution is to invest in diversified funds and you don’t need to pick those winners,” Johnson said. “Listen to Warren Buffett, who said that for building retirement savings, ‘Consistently buy an S&P 500 low-cost index fund. I think it’s the thing that makes the most sense practically all of the time.’ In his 2014 letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, Mr. Buffett said that when he passes away, the instructions for the trustee for his wife will be as follows: ‘[Put] 10% of the cash in short-term government bonds and 90% in a very low-cost S&P 500 index fund. I believe the trust’s long-term results from this policy will be superior to those attained by most investors.'”
Investing in low-cost index funds is a waiting game and wealth-building does not happen overnight, but as mentioned previously, Gen Z has time on their side. What is most important is to start investing now.
There may be a lot for Gen Z’s novice investors to learn about the stock market and at first, it may be intimidating. It is essential to begin with a strong foundation. Gen Z should learn about their financial habits by evaluating their emotional response to money. Does money make them anxious? Do they have a bad relationship with money based on their upbringing? Once they recognize their attitude toward personal finance, they can then begin to garner the confidence to make educated investment decisions, starting with investing in a low-cost index fund. As always, it is important for people to do their research. Invest in stocks that will be profitable, not stocks that may elicit emotion. With this knowledge, Gen Z can begin their wealth-building journey.
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Methodology: GOBankingRates surveyed 1,045 Americans ages 18 and older from across the country between May 1 and May 4, 2023, asking seven different questions: (1) Please state your level of agreement with the statement: A mortgage is the best solution when buying a home.; (2) Have you ever personally owned an electric car?; (3) How likely are you to buy an electric car in the next 5 years?; (4) When was the last time you were in the market for a new car?; (5) Knowing it will save you gas money, how much more would you be willing to spend on an EV over a similar gas-powered car?; (6) What area is your biggest concern during retirement planning?; and (7) What financial steps have you taken for retirement? (Select all that apply.). GOBankingRates used PureSpectrum’s survey platform to conduct the poll.
This article originally appeared on GOBankingRates.com: How Gen Z Can Build Wealth Through Investing

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