Step 3: Invest the savings wisely

To get to Step 3, we’ve first learned to be frugal in Step 1, which will generate savings for us. In Step 2, we’ve learned to maximize our savings by minimizing our tax burden using tax-deferred accounts like 401k’s, etc. In Step 3, we’ll learn what to do with the piles of money in our 401k’s, etc.

For reasons discussed in Step 2, you should accumulate a lot of money in tax-deferred accounts like 401k’s, 457’s, 403b’s, 401a’s, and IRA’s. These fancy numbers are nothing more than labels on the outside of a bucket where you are storing your money. Inside each bucket is a pile of cash.

Piles of cash are generally not good investments since inflation erode their value from the pile at a rate of 2-3% per year. As a result, you will want to invest in something that beats inflation.

Investors will usually chose to invest this cash in stocks, which is the literal ownership of a company. If I buy 1 share of Apple stock, currently priced at $99.89, I’m buying a portion of this company and am entitled to future profits of the company which are paid out in the form of dividends and share repurchases. Apple has 5.48B shares outstanding, so buying 1 share will entitle you to 1/5,480,000,000 of the company’s profits.

Alternatively, you can buy corporate or government bonds, which is simply loaning a company or government money for a specified interest rate.

The most important equation for investors is the following:

Real Return = Market Return – Inflation – Investment Management Fees – Taxes

Let’s break this down one term at a time.

  • Real Return: This corresponds to the growth in purchasing power of your money over time. If you achieve a real return of 5% over 1 year, you will be able to buy the equivalent of 5% more stuff 1 year from now than you can today. If you could buy 1 candy bar before, in a year you can buy 1.05 candy bars after a real return of 5%, after taking inflation, etc. into consideration.
  • Market Return: If you were to invest in every company in the U.S., you’d get the “market return.” Apple is the biggest company in the world, so it would make sense to hold more weight of Apple in your portfolio than Joe’s Taco Stand, but if you want true exposure to the entire U.S. economy, you’d want to down a sliver of ownership in Joe’s Taco Stand as well. This “market return” is the aggregate performance of the stock market and it’s essentially impossible to beat it through stock picking or market timing. The sooner you learn this lesson, the richer you will be.
  • Inflation: $1 in cash today is worth less than $1 cash in the future due to inflation. Prices rise over time, eroding the purchasing power of cash. Historically this runs in the neighborhood of 2-3%.
  • Investment Management Fees: If you hire a financial planner, they’ll charge you a 1% assets-under management fee regardless of their performance. If you adhere to the advice on this blog, will want to avoid them like the plague. Further, if you invest in actively managed mutual funds, you’ll face fund management fees of 1% per year or so. Why does this matter? Let’s look at our equation and assume a market return of 6%, inflation of 3% and ignore taxes for now. This gives us a Real Return = 6% – 3% – Investment Management Fees. If Investment Management Fees are 0, the Real Return would be 3%. If instead, I used a financial planner and actively managed mutual funds, my Real Return = 6% – 3% – (1% financial planner fee + 1% active mutual fund fee) = 1%. Again, Investment Management Fees are one of the two things you can control (the other being taxes), and you can make huge mistakes here. By having my fees be 2%/year, my Real Returns plummeted from 3% to 1%, a reduction of 66% in the potential growth of my investments.
  • Taxes: When you buy a stock for $100 and sell it for $150, you incur a capital gains tax. The $100 purchase price is known as the “cost basis” – simply what you bought it for. When you sell it for $150, you incur a $50 capital gain, since the sales price of $150 is $50 higher than the $100 purchase price. Capital gains rates are published here. As of the time of this writing, they range from 0%-20%, depending on your income level, but for most people will be 15%. Given that taxes cause a performance drag on the investment, it’s best to avoid them. To avoid them, the investor in the above example could simply have deferred the selling of the stock, and thus pushed the capital gains tax down the road. If your money is in a tax advantaged 401k, 401a, 457, 403b, or IRA, you can ignore capital gains and dividends taxes. However, if your money is in a taxable brokerage account, you’ll need to pay special attention to taxes.

What are index funds and why they will be your best friend:

You can’t beat the market. Hundreds of research studies have concluded this. As a result, the best thing you can do to maximize your real returns is to manage the two levers in the above equation that you can control: Investment Management Fees and Taxes. To minimize Investment Management Fees, simply avoid financial planners. Also, avoid actively managed mutual funds. Actively managed mutual funds pay an investment adviser a healthy salary to try to beat the market. This is a fool’s errand, and time and time again, research shows that actively managed fund managers underperform the market. Jack Bogle founded Vanguard decades ago with this simple fact in mind. He set out to design a product that captured the market return at a rock-bottom investment management fee. This product is known as an Index Fund, and it simply tracks the market at rock-bottom fees.

With one index fund, such as the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund Admiral Shares (VTSAX), you own the entire U.S. economy for a cost of 0.04% per year (as shown by the “expense ratio” listed here). If you have $100k invested in this fund at Vanguard, it will only cost you $40/year in management fees. This is an unbelievable technological breakthrough that has enabled normal Joe Shmoe’s like you can me to capture the returns of the U.S. economy for essentially $0 management fees. What does this fund invest in? Thousands of companies, in proportion to their size. Here are the largest holdings in the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund per the link above:

Month-end ten largest holdings
(15.4% of total net assets) as of 06/30/2016
1 Apple Inc.
2 Alphabet Inc.
3 Exxon Mobil Corp.
4 Microsoft Corp.
5 Johnson & Johnson
6 General Electric Co.
7 Inc.
8 Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
9 AT&T Inc.
10 Facebook Inc.

As far as what mutual funds to invest in, I’d recommend one of two routes:

Option 1.) Invest 100% of every penny you have saved in a target retirement fund offered by Vanguard (or Fidelity or Schwab). With these funds, you simply select your retirement year, say 2050, and invest every penny into these funds. Gradually these funds become less risky over time and invest more in more in bonds, which historically have had lower volatilies.  These target retirement funds have fees around 0.16%/year (link) and achieve such low expenses by simply investing directly into index funds for you (link). These target retirement funds only invest in 4 funds. For example, the 2050 retirement fund has the following allocation:

1 Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund Investor Shares 54.3%
2 Vanguard Total International Stock Index Fund Investor Shares 35.8%
3 Vanguard Total Bond Market II Index Fund Investor Shares* 6.9%
4 Vanguard Total International Bond Index Fund Investor Shares 3.0%

Option 2.) Option 2 is investing directly into the underlying funds yourself and capturing a slightly lower expense ratio by exploiting the lower expense ratio of Vanguard’s Admiral Shares. The Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund Investor Shares has an expense ratio of 0.16%, whereas the Admiral Shares version of the same fund costs 0.05%/year in fees. You only need $10k to purchase the admiral shares on your own outside of the target retirement fund, so it’s a relatively low hurdle to clear.

Option #2 is what I do personally. The downside of Option #2 is that the investor has to decide what percent to allocate to the U.S. fund vs the International fund vs the Bond fund, etc. If anyone claims to know the optimal portfolio allocation, they’re blowing hot air at you. Nobody knows what is optimal. Not even Vanguard’s Target Retirement Funds know what’s optimal. They’re taking a guess, but it’s just a guess.

Going forward I’ll share my portfolio holdings. As of today, I’m 70% U.S. Equity, 30% International Equity, but I don’t claim this is any better or worse than the Target Retirement allocation. It’s just a guess. And it’s not even a very good guess. I’ve sold a bunch of stocks recently to purchase a home so I haven’t even given much thought into how I should reallocate. But the current mix seems to be reasonable enough for me that I’m fine.


  • You will lose your shirt in the stock market. In 2008 I lost a good $50k or so, which was a lot of money to me at the time. It hurt. A lot. Losing money in real life is a lot harder than it is to hypothetically lose money. But I rode it out and it’s all fine.
  • Markets are extremely volatile over the short-term. However, you’re not investing for the short-term. You’re investing for the long term over the next several decades. As a result, day-to-day, week-to-week, and month-to-month swings in stock prices should be  irrelevant to you. Ignore the financial press like CNBC and stock market pundits who spout nonsense. Ignoring financial news will make you a much happier and wealthier investor.
  • Don’t try to time the market. Like trying to beat the market through picking of stocks, trying to time the peaks and troughs of the market is also a fool’s errand. Avoid this by simply investing your accumulated savings gradually over time and avoid selling unless you really have to (like I just did to buy a home).


So that rounds up the series on how to accumulate wealth and be a millionaire. Stay tuned for our financial updates in the future as we follow these dumb-simple steps to achieve financial independence.


Links to other steps in series:


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10 thoughts on “Step 3: Invest the savings wisely”

  1. Hi Frugal Professor!

    I’m new here, but definitely plan on becoming an avid reader of yours! My husband and I are new to the game of early retirement/financial independence, but trying to catch on quickly! We have no debt, a median income, and are quite frugal.

    We’ve recently been learning how to hack the tax system through income sheltering, etc (love your post on EITC at GCC!).

    Now, I’m trying to figure out what to do with our leftover cash each year: taxable brokerage (maybe like GCC?) or Roth accounts. We take full advantage of sheltering our income from taxes and reaping what we can from CTC and EITC, as we have a zero tax liability due to income sheltering. Would you be so kind to let us know what you would recommend?

    A little more about us: We plan to retire in 20 years, so we’ve got a good amount of wealth building ahead of us. We invest in Vanguard index funds. We fully fund a 401k and HSA.

    We like the idea of utilizing a brokerage account in the beginning of early retirement, and then transitioning to Roth income after 5+ years (by building a conversion ladder once retired). But we don’t want to lose our refundable tax credits with income generated in the brokerage – although it will be a while before we had over $3,400 in investment income as we are just starting to invest. And TIRA’s don’t seem to make sense since we have $0 tax liability right now, so a Roth seems to be a very favorable investing option.

    I really look forward to hearing your input!!

    • JC, it’s great to hear from you. From the sound of things, you are well on your way to FIRE. I congratulate you on learning the tax code at such a young age. This knowledge will pay dividends throughout your life, as tax hacking is probably the lowest hanging fruit out there for wealth accumulation. I myself learned slowly over the past decade or two.

      Regarding what you shared in your comments, it looks like you’re doing all of the right things. I have relatively little to add here. One parameter you didn’t share with me is your effective marginal tax rate. Plugging your parameters into my spreadsheet (which you should play around with), I see you’re at an EMTR of 31% at the federal level only, surely you’d be higher with state. So you are correct in your desire to shelter every penny you can in a tax-deferred account.

      With the cash left over, I’d unambiguously stick every penny of it in a Roth IRA. Since you’re married you can contribute $11k/year. My wife and I have done this since we were in our early 20s and it’s been a huge benefit to us. What’s best about the Roth is that you can always touch the principal (what you’ve contributed) so it can act as an emergency fund. Further, 100% of the principal + $10k of interest per person can be used to purchase a first time home, which is what my wife and just did.

      If you look at my monthly updates, particularly the recent ones, you’ll see my list of annual financial goals on top. I just check the boxes going from top to bottom. I’d give you the same advice that I follow myself, which is to fully fund IRA accounts before considering investing money in a taxable account. Taxable accounts suck (have to file dividend/cap gains taxes every year; can’t rebalance for fear of triggering investment gains, etc), so only resort to them after you’ve maxed out your retirement accounts.

      • Thank you for responding so quickly! I am grateful for bloggers, such as yourself, who share their financial knowledge so we are able to learn from their experience. It’s good to know we’re on the right track, I appreciate your input!

        Ah, that is good to know about the Roth, as we are planning to buy a new house in the upcoming years. I will check out your annual financial goals list, that sounds like a list we need to make! And I definitely also plan on utilizing your tax spreadsheet – thanks!

        So, without a taxable account, where would a person’s income come from in early retirement, specifically in the first 5 years before the Roth conversion ladder income comes into effect?

        Also, is there a way for me to edit my comment above? I was just thinking how I’d like to refer a couple of my family members to read your blog, but I’d rather not have them know our exact income, etc. And with the info I provided, they’d easily know it was us 🙂

        • JC, happy to lend a helping hand. A decade ago I was clueless and benefited immensely through reading blogs through the years.

          For Roth IRA details, check out this wiki page, but particularly the distribution section:

          Good luck and happy investing. Time is definitely on your side. I’m really glad that you’re starting so early….

        • I forgot to reply to your question about funding the first 5 years of retirement. This can be funded by Roth principal. To access Roth principal is tax and penalty free, so this could easily fund expenditures until you formally start your Roth conversion ladder.

          But it would be ideal if you could finance it with taxable investments, as you imply, to not raid the piggy bank of the Roth unnecessarily. To do so, you’ll have to pile money into taxable accounts eventually once raises come and you’ve fully maxed out retirement plans.

          • Thank you!! I will have to read up on the Roth withdrawals, thanks for the link. I didn’t realize you could withdrawal principle tax and penalty free. Definitely is making more sense to fund the Roth first and then taxable accounts after that, as income allows.

  2. Great article. Very informative. Its great to think about how you can make your money work for you as well as how the rate of inflation effects your “piles of cash” instead on investing and “beating” the rate.


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