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Five worst investing mistakes that millennials make

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When Christine Nguyen graduated from university with a whopping $35,000 in debt six years ago, investing for retirement was barely a blip on her financial radar. And even if she could afford to invest, the Toronto resident admits she couldn't tell a blue chip from a micro cap.

Although daunted by the prospect of building wealth, Ms. Nguyen educated herself by reading investing websites and grilling money-savvy friends.

"My biggest mistake was not investing sooner," admits Ms. Nguyen, who, now 28, writes the blog TheWalletDiet.com and is debt free. "During my period of investing ignorance I had the notion that you needed a ton of money to start. You don't. You can invest as little as $20."

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Although many personal finance gurus recommend paying off debt first – particularly high-interest credit card debt – before bothering to invest, Ms. Nguyen's strategy to pay debt and invest simultaneously worked for her. She has already built a nest egg while others her age are just starting.

Whether they're putting off building a portfolio or picking inappropriate stocks, those who make up the millennial and Generation Z demographics – between the ages of 15 and 35 – are making plenty of cringe-worthy investment gaffes.

Two investment advisers – Paul Harris, partner and veteran portfolio manager with Avenue Investment Management in Toronto, and Joe Ruddell, vice-president, prairie region, for IDC Worldsource Insurance Network in Edmonton – weigh in on some of the worst.

Mistake No. 1: They're not boring enough

Chalk it up to peer pressure, Mr. Harris says, but younger investors are more interested in newer, sexier companies that present a lot more risk for the long term.

"It ends up being very difficult when you're out with your friends to say, 'I own TD Bank because its compounded earnings were 12 to 14 per cent over the last 40 years,'" he says. "Someone always comes back with, 'I bought a stock at 10 cents and it went to 50 cents. Drinks for everybody!'"

Rather than investing in tried-and-true blue chip companies such as Merck & Co., Colgate-Palmolive Co. or Johnson & Johnson – largely favoured by investors older than 50 – the younger set gravitates toward Google, Twitter and Apple, according to data from SigFig Wealth Management.

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Investors like to buy known companies that create products or services they use every day. But by loading up on new-fangled offerings, young investors don't have the benefit of knowing how the company has done in good times and in bad. Besides, will we still be using Twitter in 20 years? (Remember Atari?)

Mistake No. 2: They get spooked

Despite taking risks with their money, younger investors can be easily spooked by bad returns, and their response can wreck an investment plan.

"If they make a poor investment decision that causes them to lose money right out of the gate, that sours their investment philosophy going forward," Mr. Ruddell says.

Even if these young investors do stay in the game, they can then swing too far the other way, investing in products that are much too conservative for their time horizon. The trick is to build a balanced portfolio made up of blue chip companies, bonds and smaller companies. Simple vanilla exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that track an index are also a good starting point for busy newbies who want to spread the risk. As young investors become more comfortable with volatility, the portfolio can be rebalanced toward higher-risk and higher-return options.

Mistake No. 3: They leave money on the table

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"Welcome to your new job! Here's some free money!" Sounds great, right? But it's surprising how many young employees don't bother to sign up for pension or registered retirement savings plan (RRSP) contribution matching programs set up by their employers.

Not only does retirement seem far away, but entry-level employees wonder whether they will even be at the company three years from now. Why bother signing up for a pension?

"The employer will say, 'Do you want to put $200 into your pension plan each month?' Right away, the young person is thinking, 'That's $200 being taken away from my paycheque,'" Mr. Ruddell says.

The reality? Turning down an employer matching program, in which they match an employee's investment contribution up to a set amount, is the equivalent of turning down a 3- or 4-per-cent raise.

Mistake No. 4: They invest like a big shot

Take a deep breath and repeat this mantra: "Stock picking like a big shot only makes sense if you have money like a big shot."

It's wonderful when young people take an interest in their investments, but because they likely have little cash, picking stocks and actively managing their own portfolios can be a big mistake.

Consider this scenario: Someone has $5,000 to invest and spends five hours every week doing research and poring over data, trying to time the market. In the end, they earn a very respectable 11 per cent and make $578.59 that year. Not bad – unless you consider the number of hours that went into making that money: 260. That's earnings of $2.23 an hour.

New investors should save that energy and time, invest in a simple, no-brainer fund instead and leave it for the long haul. Once there's more money in the bank, then it's fine to play a little.

"The investment world isn't about playing the short game," Mr. Harris says. "It's about playing the long one."

Mistake No. 5: They think they'll never grow old

First, the good news. Young people who invest tend to do it earlier than their parents ever did. Average millennial investors said they were 20 the first time they invested, according to the TD Investor Insights Index released in 2013. Baby boomers said they began at 27. By starting early, young people are able to take advantage of compounding and watch their investments grow.

There's just one problem: Most younger people don't invest at all. A recent survey from the U.S. personal finance site Bankrate.com pegs the number of those younger than 30 who own stocks at just 26 per cent, compared with 58 per cent of people between the ages of 50 and 64.

That's not surprising. If given the chance to pay off skyrocketing student debt or investing for retirement 40 years later, what are they going to choose? But poverty is not the whole story, Mr. Ruddell explains. For a credit-card generation hooked on instant gratification, long-term planning is ignored.

"Generally speaking, younger folks choose the 'now' rather than the 'later,'" he says.

The problem is, a long time horizon can actually work against a young investor psychologically because it's just that – long, and too far in the future to take seriously.

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