Understanding Investing Risk

Risk and reward are part of investing

Young couple checks investment statement

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Regardless of the type of investment, there will always be some risk involved. You must weigh the potential reward against the risk to decide whether it's worth putting your money on the line. Understanding the relationship between risk and reward is a crucial piece in building your investment philosophy.

Investments—such as stocks, bonds, and mutual funds—each have their own risk profile, and understanding the differences can help you more effectively diversify and protect your investment portfolio.

How Much Risk Are You Willing To Carry?

The risk of keeping your money in a standard savings or money market deposit account is that you'll fall behind the pace of inflation. Still, the risk with other types of investments with the potential for high reward is that you could lose everything. Only you know your comfort level for the following scenarios:

  • Losing your principal: Individual stocks, cryptocurrencies, or high-yield bonds could cause you to lose everything you invested.
  • Not keeping pace with inflation: Your investments could rise in value slower than prices. This is more likely to happen if you invest in cash equivalents, like Treasury or municipal bonds.
  • Coming up short: There is a real chance your investments don't earn enough to cover your retirement needs.
  • Paying high fees or other costs: Expensive fees on mutual funds can make it tough to earn a good return. Beware of actively-managed mutual funds or ones with sales loads.

The Different Investment Risk Profiles

Three main investment vehicles are readily available to most investors: stocks, bonds, and mutual funds. Some carry more risk than others, and within each asset class, you'll find that risk can also vary quite a bit.


Most people have stocks in their investment portfolio, and for a good reason. According to Ibbotson Associates, stocks have reliably returned an average rate of 10% annually since 1926. This is higher than the return you're likely to get from many other investments.

However, be cautious with stocks. You could buy stock in established, blue-chip companies that have a fairly stable stock price, pay out dividends, and are considered relatively safe. If you choose to invest in smaller companies, such as startups or penny-stock firms, your returns are much more volatile.


A popular way to offset some risk from investing in stocks is to keep some money invested in bonds. When you purchase bonds, you're essentially lending money to a corporation, municipality, or other government entity. Bonds are generally safer and receive a rating from agencies such as Moody's, Standard & Poor's, and Fitch. Ratings act like a report card, and AAA-rated bonds are considered the safest.

Government bonds come with a guarantee from the federal government that you'll get your money back plus interest. At the other extreme are junk bonds, which are sold by corporations. Junk bonds promise much higher returns than long-term government bonds, but they're high-risk and, in some cases, not even considered investment-grade securities.

Mutual Funds

Mutual funds make sense for many investors because they're managed by professional portfolio managers. That means you don't need to worry about watching the market or monitoring a stock portfolio.


Mutual funds work like a basket of stocks or bonds, and when you buy shares of a mutual fund, you get the benefit of the variety of assets held within the fund.

You can choose from a wide variety of funds with different risk profiles. Some hold large-company stocks, some blend large- and small-company stocks, some hold bonds, some hold gold and other precious metals, some hold shares in foreign corporations, and just about any other asset type that comes to mind. While mutual funds don't completely take away the risk, you can use them to hedge against risk from other investments.

Common Investment Risks

Losing Money

The most common type of risk is that your investment will lose money. You can make investments that guarantee you won’t lose money but will give up most of the opportunity to earn a decent return in exchange.

For example, U.S. Treasury bonds and bills are backed by the United States government, which makes these issues the safest in the world. Bank certificates of deposit (CDs) with a federally insured bank are also secure. However, the price for this safety is a very low return on your investment.

When you calculate the effects of inflation and the taxes you pay on the earnings, your investment may return very little in real growth.

Falling Short of Your Financial Goals

Elements that determine whether you achieve your investment goals are the amount invested, length of time invested, rate of return or growth, fees, taxes, and inflation. If you can't accept much risk in your investments, you will probably earn a lower return. To compensate, you must increase the amount and the length of time invested.


Many investors find that a modest amount of risk in their portfolio is an acceptable way to increase the potential of achieving their financial goals.

By diversifying their portfolio with investments of various degrees of risk, these investors hope to take advantage of a rising market and protect themselves from dramatic losses in a down market.

Risk Changes With Your Age

All investors must find their comfort level with risk and construct an investment strategy around that level. A portfolio that carries a significant degree of risk may have the potential for outstanding returns, but it may also cause you to lose your life savings. Your comfort level with risk should pass the "good night's sleep" test, which means you should not worry about the amount of risk in your portfolio so much that it causes you to lose sleep.


There is no right or wrong amount of risk; it is a very personal decision for each investor.

Young investors can afford higher risk than older investors because they have more time to recover if the market declines. If you are five years away from retirement, you probably don't want to take extraordinary risks with your nest egg because you will have little time left to recover from a significant loss. On the other hand, a too-conservative approach may mean you don't achieve your financial goals.

The Bottom Line

Investors can control some of the risks in their portfolios through the proper mix of stocks and bonds. You can also increase the diversification of your portfolio by adding alternative investments such as:

  • Real estate, often in the form of REITs
  • Private equity or venture capital-related investments
  • Commodities

Cryptocurrencies are another option. Many investment experts now recommend adding a small percentage (1% to 2% of your total investments) to your portfolio to accompany the movements in capital markets.

Most experts consider a portfolio more heavily weighted toward stocks riskier than a portfolio that favors bonds. (Cryptocurrencies would also be a riskier investment.) Risk is a natural part of investing. Investors need to find their comfort level and build their portfolios and expectations accordingly.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is the typical relationship between risk and reward?

Risk and reward are usually closely correlated. In other words, as risk increases, reward typically does, as well. However, this isn't always an exact 1:1 ratio. A penny stock may be extremely risky, but that doesn't necessarily mean it has higher profit potential than other investments. On the other hand, a blue-chip stock bought at the right moment may be a relatively safe stock that offers the opportunity for above-average returns.

How do you figure out your potential risk and reward with options?

Options are generally considered high-risk/high-reward investment products, but your exact level of risk depends on the strategy you're using. Buying a call or put limits your risk to the premium paid for the option. Selling a naked put carries much more risk, and selling a naked call comes with technically unlimited risk. More advanced strategies, like credit spreads and iron condors, involve simultaneously selling and buying options to give the trader greater control of their risk level.

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The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Congressional Research Service. "Introduction to U.S. Economy: Inflation."

  2. Hanson Fisher. "Ibbotson SBBI."

  3. TreasuryDirect. "Treasury Bonds."

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