Saving vs Investment

In all of the financial counseling sessions I’ve conducted; and, in all of the personal finances classes I’ve taught, the subject of saving inevitably comes up.  While discussing the importance of “saving for a rainy day”, one class participant asked me to explain the difference between saving and investing for the future.

Both involve deferred consumption … not spending money today so that it is available for use at some unspecified time in the future.  So, what does differentiate one from the other?  I believe that the distinction is found in two things … where the money is kept and the amount of time that is expected to elapse before the money will be used.

Saving

Let’s talk about time as it relates to where we keep our money.  Saving usually implies that the money will be needed in a relatively short period of time; for example, saving money for a new refrigerator or for a new set of tires for the car.  Both examples imply that the money will be needed relatively soon, possibly within the next year or so.  Since the money will be needed soon, it must be kept where it can be accessed quickly and easily; it must be a liquid asset.  Since it will be needed soon, the saver cannot take risks that might lead to less money being available than will be needed; the asset cannot be subject to possible depreciation.  For these reasons, some assets are far more suitable for savings than other assets.

Cash is certainly an asset that can be kept in a variety of locations.  It can be kept in grandma’s old sugar bowl or under the mattress.  Unfortunately, these carry the risk that the funds may be stolen since neither location is secure; and, sadly, there is no way these funds can grow since they earn no interest.

Suitable places to keep savings include savings accounts, money market funds, and certificates of deposit (CD’s) at their local bank or credit union.  All three are low risk; i.e., the value of the account cannot go down.  All three pay interest with CD’s paying a somewhat higher interest rate in return for the depositor’s promise to leave the money untouched for a specific period of time.  All three are designed for the short-term storage of money.  This is why they are good for saving.

Investing

Investing, by its nature, carries risk … the chance that the value of the asset might decrease … risk that there may not be enough money when it is needed.  There are many kinds of risk which will be discussed in another article.  For now, suffice it to say that the risk of loss makes many investments unsuitable for short-term financial needs.

Investments such as stocks, bonds, mutual funds, real estate, and real estate investment trusts (aka REIT’s) are much better suited to long-term financial goals.

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