Timeless investing advice from Wall Street's woman pioneer

Fifty years ago, Muriel 'Mickie' Siebert became the first woman to buy a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. Whether you’re learning how to buy stocks or are a seasoned investing veteran, her advice still resonates

Richard Drew/AP
Trader Ryan Falvey, center, and specialist John O'Hara work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

Muriel “Mickie” Siebert: That name probably doesn’t ring a bell for most Americans. But this Wall Street pioneer deserves more than just a footnote in the history books.

Fifty years ago, Siebert became the first woman to buy a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. She was the sole female trader among 1,300-plus male traders for more than a decade. She was the first woman to own a discount brokerage firm and later launched initiatives to help women take control of their financial destinies. Siebert died in 2013 at age 84.

Whether you’re learning how to buy stocks or a seasoned veteran of the market, Siebert’s advice still resonates, particularly during Women’s History Month. Here are three tips inspired by some of her oft-colorful quotes.

1. Understand the risk

“If you’re not willing to accept the worst that can happen, don’t do it.”

This chapter subtitle from Siebert’s 2002 book, “Changing the Rules: Adventures of a Wall Street Maverick,” offers a good reminder about the inherent risks of investing.

Before you start buying stocks, make sure you have the funds to do so. If you’re behind on monthly expenses, have high-interest debt or meager savings set aside to cover emergencies, prioritize those first. In addition, you’re better off taking advantage of your employer’s 401(k) match plan and investing in an individual retirement account before dabbling in individual stocks.

If investing makes financial sense — and it’s money you don’t need for at least the next five years — choose investments that reduce your chances of a worst-case scenario (losing all of your money). If you’re unsure how to do that, review the NerdWallet guide on how to start investing.

Piling all of your money into a single stock is risky because your investment is at the whim of one company’s performance. To minimize that risk, you can diversify your portfolio by investing in a variety of companies in different industries or buying a broader collection of stocks through an exchange-traded fund or mutual fund. Outside of equities, U.S. Treasury bonds are among the safest investments.

If more than 10 years separate you from retirement — or whatever your goal is for this investment — consider allocating a larger share of your portfolio (70% or more) to equities rather than bonds. As your goal approaches, you can ratchet down the amount allocated to stocks.

2. Stay the course

“So I tell people, stick to your guns. You will make money eventually.”

Siebert offered this advice in a 1997 interview with the Los Angeles Times, addressing investors who are tempted to chase hot stocks when their picks are underperforming. Investing in stocks requires a steel stomach during tough times and a telescope-like focus on the long term. You may be tempted by get-rich-quick stock tips, but pursuing those is more akin to gambling than investing.

“Stick to your guns” is an endorsement of investing for the long term. If you’ve only been invested in the market a few years, you (blissfully) missed how gut-wrenching it was to watch your portfolio’s value plummet during the 2008 financial crisis. But investors who didn’t rush for the exits have gone on to enjoy the second-longest bull market in U.S. history, one that’s seen the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index soar more than 250%.

There undoubtedly will be tough years during the course of your investment horizon, but a commitment to investing and a well-diversified strategy have consistently proven fruitful over the long term.

3. You’re in the driver’s seat

“If you are going to sit there and wait for other people to do things for you, you will soon be 80 years old and look back and say, ‘Hey, what did I do?’”

Siebert wasn’t afraid of taking risks in her life. She dropped out of college after her father died and headed for New York with just $500 and her audacious spirit.

Siebert’s fearlessness underlines that no matter your life situation — single, coupled, married, divorced, widowed or something else — you’re in the driver’s seat when it comes to your financial destiny.

Siebert got an early start on her ambitions when she left college. In investing, too, an early start can be helpful. There are numerous virtues to investing in your 20s, though you shouldn’t get discouraged if you’re off to a late start.

If you’re a hands-on type like Siebert, you may open a brokerage account and select your own investments. If you don’t have time for this, you might invest through a robo-advisor, an automated online advisor that selects your investments based on your stated goals. Whatever path you choose, don’t wait for other people to move you forward.

Living Siebert’s lessons

Investing is often a risky, patience-testing and self-directed endeavor — attributes that can make it intimidating. While you can rest assured that many others like you have navigated this journey before, that wasn’t the case for Siebert — and that’s why she’s heralded as a trailblazer who made investing more accessible for women everywhere.

It’s not surprising, then, that she wrote in her 2002 book that one of her life mottos was: “When you hit a closed door and it doesn’t budge, just rear back and kick it in — but hold it open so others can follow you.”

Anna-Louise Jackson is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: ajackson@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @aljax7.

This story originally appeared on NerdWallet.

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