What is an investment portfolio?

1 min readLast updated January 23, 2024by Rachel Carey

There are numerous different types of investment portfolios. They can be built into your 401(k), an IRA or annuities, or you could use a brokerage or financial advisor; it all depends on your appetite for risk and your underlying financial goals. So, how do you build a portfolio that’s right for you?

What is an investment portfolio? 

An investment portfolio is a collection of assets you purchase or deposit money into. The core aim is to generate income or capital appreciation from this collection or portfolio. 

The assets can include cash in a money market account or certificates of deposit, real estate or anything you can buy through a brokerage account – stocks, exchange-traded funds, mutual funds, bonds, crypto-currencies and plenty more. 

Your portfolio can also involve several types of accounts. It might initially be your employer’s 401(k), but as you add financial goals – like saving for a down payment on a home – you might add other investment accounts. 

Once your portfolio grows, it’s important to consider how each investment works in isolation and in conjunction with others. The benefit of having an investment portfolio is that you can avoid focusing on a single investment type, where you might invest in the same assets across several accounts. Another benefit of a varied investment portfolio is that you will be more likely to meet your different financial goals and keep to your preferred timescales while balancing your risk tolerance.  

What is asset allocation? 

This is the percentage breakdown of asset classes that comprise your personal portfolio. So, what’s an asset class? It’s a category made up of securities, so stocks are an asset class, while the fixed-income asset class contains bonds and certificates of deposits. Here are some more key asset classes you can use to build your investment portfolio: 

  • Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) 

  • Bond funds 

  • Mutual funds 

  • Real estate investment trusts 

  • Annuities 

  • Options  

The trick with asset allocation is planning things carefully to meet your objectives and achieve the best possible results. This is where diversification is key. 

Why is diversification so important?  

Diversification is about managing risk. So rather than concentrate money in a single company, industry, sector or asset class, you spread your investment and avoid having all your eggs in one basket.  

There are plenty of ways to develop your diversification strategy. Here are some pointers: 

  • Stocks and bonds – one of the big decisions you’ll need to make is how much capital to invest in stocks vs. bonds. Go more toward stocks, and you’ll gain increased growth at the cost of greater volatility. Go more toward bonds, and you’ll face less volatility but slower growth. 

  • Industries and sectors – you can classify stocks by industry and sector, and buying stocks or bonds this way brings you tried and tested diversification. For example, during the recession of 2007–2009, real estate and finance sectors endured major losses, while utilities and healthcare were much less adversely affected.  

  • Big and small companies – another good source of diversification is company size, measured by market capitalization. Historically, small-cap stocks bring higher risks but higher returns than the more stable large-cap companies. A study by AXA Investment Managers revealed that small caps have out-performed large caps by just over 1% a year since 1926 

  • Geography – traditionally, geographical locations have been divided into three categories: US companies, companies in developed countries, and companies in emerging markets. Globalization has made the benefits of geographical diversification less clear – the S&P 500 is made up of US companies with US headquarters but operations across the world, for example. However, organizations based completely in emerging markets still perform differently from US-based enterprises.  

  • Bond asset classes – there are two main asset classes. The first is classified by credit risk – the risk being that the borrower may default. US Treasury bonds are considered the lowest risk, while bonds issued through emerging markets with below-investment-grade credit are much higher. The second classification is by interest rate risk – the time until a bond matures. Bonds with long maturity rates, like 30-year bonds, are viewed as high risk, while short-term bonds with maturities of just a few years are considered lower risk. 

A step-by-step guide to building your investment portfolio 

Having defined what an investment portfolio is and what elements are important, it’s time to build your own. Here’s a roundup and a step-by-step guide to the process. 

1. Begin with your goals and time horizon 

Establish exactly why you want to create an investment portfolio – list your goals. Next, sort them by time, in other words, how long you’ll need to keep the investment until you need the money within it. 

Short-term goals would be measured at around 12 months, medium-term goals at about one to five years, and long-term goals generally take more than five years to reach. 

2. Know your risk tolerance 

Risk tolerance is directly connected to the time horizon. Generally speaking, the longer the time horizon, the more risk you can afford to take. With short-term goals, you’ll need to use a more cautious strategy because you won’t have time to make up losses. But on the flip side, if you take too little risk while saving for your retirement that’s still decades away, you could fall short of your target. 

Your personal risk tolerance is a balance between what’s needed to reach each goal and how comfortable you are with the ups and downs in the market. 

3. Match your accounts with your goals 

Before choosing investments, you need an account that aligns with your investment goals. Here are the key alternatives: 

  • Tax-advantaged accounts such as IRAs or 401(k)s are tailor-made for long-term goals such as retirement. 

  • Taxable online brokerage accounts are well matched with mid to long-term goals, where you want plenty of upside potential. 

  • Deposit accounts such as certificates of deposit (CDs) and money market accounts work best with your short-term goals, where you want some growth but can’t afford losses. 

 4.Choose your investments 

Now is the time to find the investments that match your goals, time horizon and risk tolerance, so here are the categories you need to explore at a glance: 

  • Stocks – these are units of ownership in a publicly owned company. You can buy shares in companies at home in the US and abroad. They tend to be higher risk but offer great potential returns

  • Bonds – buying a bond means lending money to a company or other entity. The bond issuer then pays you interest on your loan until it’s repaid. They’re less risky than stocks, but higher-risk versions are called junk bonds.  

  • Funds – these are great for spreading risk between several stocks and bonds. They are baskets of securities, where you own a bit of everything in the basket. 

  • Alternative investments – these can be almost anything, from precious metals to real estate, cryptocurrencies or even commodities such as wheat. They carry a higher level of risk, however. 

  • Cash and cash alternatives – here are the established low-risk options, such as CDs, savings accounts and money market funds. Returns tend to be relatively low. 

5. Create asset allocation and diversify 

As we discussed earlier, a big part of building a sound investment portfolio is deciding which assets match your goals and allocating the right proportion for healthy growth and risk you’re comfortable with. Equally, you need to ensure there’s a good level of diversification within your chosen asset classes so you can take advantage of the differences between sectors, industries and more. 

6. Be vigilant, rebalance and adjust 

Once all the hard work of creating your portfolio is done, it will still need care and attention.  

Once or twice a year, you should ensure your asset allocation is still aligned with your goals – you might need to rebalance things if the market has been unpredictable. Also, you may need to readjust your investment strategy as life changes – through marriage, divorce, inheritance, or your retirement getting closer. 

The bottom line 

Creating an investment portfolio is a great way to make your money work for you throughout life. Remember that your portfolio is a dynamic living thing that needs care and attention year on year.  

A financial advisor is ideally qualified to help you build and manage your portfolio – get in touch with one to determine your best way forward. 

Find your perfect financial professional today.     

Senior Content Writer

Rachel Carey

Rachel is a Senior Content Writer at Unbiased. She has nearly a decade of experience writing and producing content across a range of different sectors.