Want to Learn About Investing? Ask Questions Like a 5-Year-Old

May 28, 2015

Connect Member

Founder and CEO of GoldBean: Investing for Beginners.


For most people, the topic of money brings out many emotions — including confusion. Because of this, it can be difficult to learn about investing, and finding out how to grow your money can seem overwhelming.

At an event last week, I co-presented on this same topic, and want to share some thoughts around “talking about money” here.

Although reading up on a financial topic is a great place to start, there is nothing like getting out there in the real world and asking a lot of questions. This, I believe, is where the real learning happens. Asking questions, and asking them confidently, is the first step toward  financial empowerment.

These questions don’t have to be too involved and studied either. In fact, I suggest you channel your inner 5-year-old and come up with some of the simplest questions. Believe it or not, these often are the hardest.

As you get responses, you should be following up with phrases like Why? What? How much? and How? until you really understand what is being discussed.

For example, let’s say you’re at a picnic, and you find yourself talking to someone who seems like they know about investing.

First, you should find out who they are by asking, “Are you an investor?” If the person responds, “Yes,” you should follow up by asking, “Do you invest for yourself or do you work in finance and invest other people’s money?”

Once you have this info, you can ask for their point of view, such as, “I’m interested in learning about investing and getting started — what would you do if you were starting out on your investment journey today?”

My guess is that the person, regardless if they are a professional investor, self-directed investor, or work with an advisor, will give probably a very safe answer, like, “Look for low-fee ETFs that track the overall market.”

Now comes the critical part of your conversation. Don’t end it there by saying “OK, thanks,” and then go and quietly Google “What’s an ETF?”

Just like a 5-year-old, you should keep the questions coming no matter how basic they may be. In this same example, ask them, “Why an ETF?” And if that doesn’t answer the question, ask, “What exactly is an ETF? How much are they? How do I buy one?” And ask, “Can I lose money if the market goes down with this approach?” (Which, by the way, the answer is yes.)

Asking questions can also be great for unlocking opportunities. Imagine if you’d asked simple questions in the early days of companies like Apple,  Amazon, Netflix, or Google? If you are in your thirties or older, you probably remember using each one of these for the first time and having your mind blown by their innovations. Imagine if you’d asked, “Is this a public company?” “Can I buy shares in it?”

Simple questions aren’t just for learning. If you already have an investment advisor, or someone who manages your money for you, your most critical job is to be empowered to ask the tough questions. After all, it’s your money! So go ahead and ask without a hint of hesitation or embarrassment. For example:

Question #1: How well has my portfolio done vs. the market? (Also ask which benchmark they are using to determine “the market”.)

Question #2: Does my return include or exclude your fees? How much did I make after you took your fee?

Question #3: How much in total am I paying you?

Getting clear answers to these questions every year will show you the true value over time of having an advisor. If you get fuzzy answers, that’s a red flag! Channel your inner 5-year-old and keep on asking.

Also consider that the market is experiencing the longest bull run in history as well. So, if there is a downturn (or the more opaque term, “market correction”), remember that great opportunities exist during downturns if you can buy when everyone else is panicking. If you’re concerned, ask this question of the experts you come across: “If prices went down significantly, what would you do?” Prepare ahead of time and get familiar with how investing works so you can be ready for when the New York Stock Exchange becomes an outlet mall.

Sure, there are many more questions that need to be asked about investments — specifically around your risk, fees, expected returns, and timeframes — but those will come with time.

Like many things in life, keeping it simple and sticking to the basics is the best way to begin learning. So take a deep breath, and just ask.

Jane Barratt is a member of the DailyWorth Connect program. Read more about the program here.