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What Is the Stock Market? And How Does It Work?

For a lot of people, just the thought of investing in the stock market is enough to send them into a cold sweat. Maybe you’re one of them. We get it—there are only so many news reports or horror stories from family and friends about market crashes and bubbles and corrections that a person can take!

We usually fear what we don’t understand, and let’s face it—the stock market can feel pretty intimidating.

Misconceptions about the stock market—like thinking you don’t have enough money to start investing—stop some folks from investing for their future. Others are afraid of a stock market crash, and that fear keeps them on the sidelines. And some people just don’t get how the stock market works at all, so they stay away.

But it doesn’t have to be that way! Here’s the truth: When you get a basic handle on how the stock market works and how to handle the risks and rewards of investing in the stock market, you can put yourself on the path to building wealth and leaving a legacy for your family. So let’s get right down to it!

What Is the Stock Market?

In a nutshell, the stock market is where investors go to buy and sell stocks, which are basically small pieces of ownership in a company. The stock market is made up of many different stock exchanges where companies go to sell their stock and investors come together to trade stocks with each other.

How Does the Stock Market Work?

To understand exactly how all this stock market stuff works, let’s take a closer look at some of the key concepts that drive the stock market—stocks, stock exchanges and stock indexes—and how they work together to make the stock market tick.

Stocks

If a company is just getting started or wants to expand, they can raise money without going into debt by offering to sell pieces of ownership in the company to the general public. Those pieces of ownership are called stocks (or shares of stock), and companies can list shares of their stock on stock exchanges where investors can buy them.

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When you buy stock in a company, the company will use your money to help grow and expand their business and you become a “shareholder,” which comes with some nice perks! For example, you now have a say in how the business is run, you’ll get a small cut of the company’s profits (those are called dividends), and your shares become more valuable as the company grows over time.

The price of a stock is driven by one of the first things you learn in Economics 101—supply and demand. When a lot of people want to buy a stock, that stock’s price goes up. But the opposite is also true. If no one wants that stock and more people are trying to sell instead of lining up to buy, then the price of that stock will drop faster than you can say “Enron.”

If your shares of stock become more valuable over time, you can sell them for a profit. Those profits are known as capital gains, and those gains might be taxed a little differently than your ordinary income. It’s a good idea to talk to your tax professional about any taxes you might owe if you decide to sell your shares of stock.

Stock Exchanges

A stock exchange is basically a marketplace where investors meet to actually buy and sell stocks. You’ve probably heard of a few of those exchanges, like the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) and the Nasdaq.

How does someone buy and sell stocks on a stock exchange? First, a seller submits the price they are willing to sell their stocks for (selling price) while a buyer lets sellers know how much they are willing to pay for it (asking price). If an asking price and selling price match, then boom—you have a deal and the sale is made! Most of these transactions are made through a broker or an online stock-trading platform.  

Stock Market Indexes

Financial experts use stock market indexes to keep a pulse on the overall health of the economy. An index is pretty much a measuring stick for tracking the progress of the stock market. Here are some other notable indexes to be aware of:

  • S&P 500 Index: This is one of the most popular indexes out there and tracks the performance of the largest 500 publicly traded companies. When people want to know how the stock market is doing, they’ll usually take a look at the S&P 500.
  • Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA): Made up of stocks from 30 large companies from a wide range of industries, the Dow Jones is the oldest stock market index in the U.S.
  • NASDAQ Composite Index: This index is used to measure the performance of the technology sector and tracks stocks from roughly 3,000 companies listed on the NASDAQ exchange.  

Here's a fun fact to keep in mind as you invest: The historical average annual rate of return for the stock market according to the S&P 500 is 10–12%.1

That’s why it’s so important to have a long-term view when it comes to investing. Because even though the stock market might be way up one year or way down the next, your money will most likely grow if you diversify your investment portfolio, continue to invest consistently, and don’t pull your money out at the first sign of trouble. 

How to Invest in the Stock Market

So now that you have a basic understanding of what the stock market is and how it works, you’re probably wondering, Now what? Don’t worry, we’re not going to leave you hanging!

Here’s a game plan with some guidelines to help you start investing in the stock market in a responsible way.    

1. When to Invest: Get Out of Debt and Have an Emergency Fund First

It’s a question we hear a lot around here: “When am I ready to invest?” We call it Baby Step 4, which means you are out of debt (everything except the mortgage) and you have 3 to 6 months’ worth of expenses saved in an emergency fund.

Why wait? Because if you don’t have enough money set aside when an emergency strikes, you’ll be tempted to take money out of your 401(k) to repair your car or replace your air conditioner.

And not only could that move cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars (or more) in retirement savings down the line, but the taxes and early withdrawal penalties that come with raiding your 401(k) will make you wish the thought never crossed your mind.

So first things first: Get out of debt, build up your emergency fund, and then start investing.

2. What to Invest In: Go With Mutual Funds Over Single Stocks

It might surprise you that in the National Study of Millionaires, no millionaire said that single-stock investing helped them reach their net worth. That’s right, not a single one! They understand that betting your retirement future on a handful of company stocks is more like gambling at a casino in Vegas than actually investing. If those single stocks you picked go down, your retirement future goes down with it.

The good news is that single stocks are not the only way to invest in the stock market. It’s time to talk about our favorite way to invest in the stock market: mutual funds. Mutual funds pool money together from investors and use that money to buy stocks from dozens or even hundreds of different companies. Those stocks are handpicked by a team of experts who are trying to outperform the stock market.

So when you buy shares of a mutual fund, you are instantly buying stocks from all those different companies too. That means with mutual funds you have the chance to invest in the stock market and enjoy the growth that comes with stocks while also diversifying your portfolio and lowering your risk at the same time.  

We recommend going a step further and adding an extra level of diversification by investing in four different types of mutual funds: growth and income, growth, aggressive growth, and international. That way, if one part of the economy tanks, your whole portfolio won’t go down with it.

3. Where to Invest: Tax-Advantaged Retirement Accounts 

Those mutual funds have to be invested somewhere, and you don’t have to look far to find the best place to start investing through the stock market. It’s the 401(k), 403(b) or other workplace retirement plan you get through your employer! In fact, 8 out of 10 millionaires invested in their 401(k).

Most workplace plans offer an employer match, which means they will match your contributions to your retirement account dollar for dollar up until a certain percentage of your salary, usually between 3–6%.2 That’s free money, people!

What about investing outside of the workplace? Let us introduce you to your new best friend, the Roth IRA (which stands for Individual Retirement Account). With a Roth IRA, you could invest thousands of dollars per year with after-tax dollars (money that’s already been taxed) and then watch it grow tax-free. And that’s not even the best part. You also get to withdraw that money in retirement (or any time after age 59 1/2) without having to pay a penny in taxes on it! 

4. How Much to Invest: Start With 15% of Your Income

Once you’re ready to invest, we recommend investing 15% of your gross income toward retirement. That means you’ll be saving enough for retirement to let your money grow over time while also leaving enough wiggle room in your budget to reach some other important financial goals, like saving for your kids’ college or paying off your house early.

Here’s the best way to allocate your 15% for investing:

  • If you have a 401(k) with an employer match, start there and invest up to the match.
  • Then, open a Roth IRA and invest up to the annual contribution limit.
  • If you still haven’t hit 15%, go back to your 401(k) and invest the rest there.

But if you have a Roth 401(k) and you like your investment options that come with your plan, you could invest your entire 15% there!  

5. Going Above 15%: Brokerage Accounts and HSAs

If you’ve already maxed out your tax-advantaged retirement accounts or you’re ready to invest more than 15% of your income, you have a couple of additional options to keep investing for your future.

First, you could open up a taxable brokerage account and invest there. The main benefit with a taxable brokerage account is that you can take money out of the account at any time without having to worry about early withdrawal penalties.

But consider this a warning: You won’t enjoy the same tax advantages that you would through your retirement accounts. No tax-free withdrawals, no tax write-offs for contributions, and you will have to pay capital gains on any profits you make in any given tax year.    

Another really great option is investing through a Health Savings Account (HSA). You can only contribute to an HSA if you have a qualified high-deductible health plan (HDHP). But if you do have one, you can invest money in an HSA and use those funds to pay for qualified medical expenses completely tax-free.

And once you turn age 65, you can use the funds inside your HSA for non-medical expenses if you want to (but you will still have to pay income tax on withdrawals for those expenses).

Work With a Financial Advisor 

Trying to wrap your mind around the stock market is no easy task! But the good news is that you don’t have to navigate the stock market and investing on your own. With help from a financial advisor you can trust, you can get a better handle on the stock market and start investing for your future.

Don’t know where to find an advisor? Our SmartVestor program can connect you with up to five financial advisors who are ready to help you get started—and it’s free to get started!

Find your SmartVestor Pro today!

Ramsey Solutions

About the author

Ramsey Solutions

Ramsey Solutions has been committed to helping people regain control of their money, build wealth, grow their leadership skills, and enhance their lives through personal development since 1992. Millions of people have used our financial advice through 22 books (including 12 national bestsellers) published by Ramsey Press, as well as two syndicated radio shows and 10 podcasts, which have over 17 million weekly listeners.

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