Warren Buffett: This is the best investment most people can buy

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Warren Buffett: 5 Lessons from the 'The Oracle of Omaha'

Warren Buffett is arguably the best stock picker of all time, so it's no surprise that during turbulent times, many people ask themselves, "What would Warren Buffett do?" Fortunately, Buffett has discussed what he feels is the best way for most people to invest -- and it's not what you might think.

The best investment for most people to buy

During Berkshire Hathaway's (NYSE: BRK-A)(NYSE: BRK-B) annual meeting in late April, Warren Buffett had some harsh words to say about hedge funds and investment consultants, saying they are often detrimental for anyone who follows their advice.

Instead, Buffett argued (as he has many times before) that most investors' best bet is to put their money into a low-fee S&P 500 index fund that will simply match the market's performance over time. He mentioned his bet with hedge fund Protege Partners, where he said that over a decade, the Vanguard S&P 500 Index Fund would beat five funds-of-funds picked by Protege. Thus far, from 2008 through the end of 2015, the S&P 500 has beaten the hedge fund's cumulative return by nearly 44 percentage points (65.7% to 21.9%).

Buffett's point is that passive investors can do better than "hyperactive" investments, whose managers and other professionals charge hefty fees. Over time, these fees can lower your potential returns by thousands of dollars.

He continued on with his comments for some time, but the general point is that a passive S&P 500 investor is going to do just as well as American industry does, which, throughout history, has done pretty well. Over the long run, and over multi-decade time periods along the way, the S&P 500 has averaged total returns of nearly 10% per year.

It's important to point out that Buffett recommends this approach for most investors -- specifically, those who would otherwise employ professionals to invest their money for them. He was not targeting investors who have the time, desire, and knowledge required to research their own stock investments, much like Buffett has done over the years. People who buy and hold high-quality stocks for the long haul are not exactly "passive," but they do have the potential to beat the market -- a fact of which Buffett is living proof.

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Include taxes in your tally. 

Withdrawing money from retirement accounts is, of course, not a free ride, so $1 million gross is not $1 million net. “If the $1 million were in a traditional 401(k) or IRA, all withdrawals would be taxable,” says Christine Pavel, vice president of wealth management at GCG Financial in Deerfield, Illinois. “You also have to consider how much the investor will withdrawal from the portfolio, and for how long.” Assuming 3 percent inflation, looking forward 30 years and accounting for retirement account taxes, “An investor would be lucky to be able to withdraw $20,000 or less from the account for 30 years,” she says. 

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Compounding counts. 

If you're in your 20s and start investing now, you’re in luck, says Joe Jennings, wealth director for PNC Wealth Management in Baltimore. “Due to the power of compounding, the first dollar saved is the most important, as it has the most growth potential over time,” he says. As an example, Jennings compares $10,000 saved at age 25 versus age 60. “The 25-year-old has 40 years of growth potential at the average retirement age of 65, whereas $10,000 saved at age 60 only has five years of growth potential,” he says.

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Consider annuities as a building block. 

Annuities, which people purchase to get an expected payout once they reach maturity – usually at or after retirement age – also have a rough reputation, particularly indexed annuities. But last year’s Qualified Longevity Annuity Contract regulation by the IRS set guidelines for investors to create their own pensions. “You can invest and put money in a retirement account, and with annuity guarantees that you will never outlive your money,” says Stan “The Annuity Man” Haithcock, an annuities expert and author of the book, "The Annuity Stanifesto," based in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.

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Safety first. 

It may seem sexier to get in on the latest initial public offering or that new stock your Uncle Mortimer promises will take off. But that’s no way to build a nest egg through the years, says Jim Merklinghaus, founder and president of JBM Financial in Rutherford, New Jersey. “My philosophy has been a conservative approach to retirement, investing consistently over a 30-year period of time. If your principal is 100 percent safe, you have already accounted for 12 years of a normal 30-year retirement. The plan that avoids the loss of principal far exceeds the joy of temporary returns,” he says.

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Diversify between companies large and small. 

Risk tolerance and portfolio mix are major factors in getting to $1 million, and they’ll differ depending on the investor. But if there’s one universal that applies, ”The portfolio should be diversified among large- and small-company stocks, domestically as well as in established foreign countries and emerging markets,” says Kenneth Moraif, senior advisor at Money Matters in Plano, Texas. “The appropriate allocation in each of these asset classes will be determined by the investor’s time horizon, their current assets, age and tax bracket.” 

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Use that 401(k) all the way. 

Since retirement is the major savings goal with most nest eggs, make sure you maximize your retirement savings, says Andy Saeger, vice president and senior financial consultant at Charles Schwab in Naperville, Illinois. “Max out your 401(k) or other employer retirement plan, especially if you receive matching contributions. If you're age 50 or older, make catch-up contributions. If you can afford to save more, you may be eligible to open and contribute to an IRA, where your money can grow tax-deferred or tax-free until retirement,” Saeger says.

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Thou shalt pay thyself first

What used to be simple, sound advice is more of a commandment when $1 million or more is the goal. “If you make the financial plan first and then build your life around it, the outcomes are typically very positive,” says Mike Chadwick, CEO of Chadwick Financial Advisors in Unionville, Connecticut. “Most people do the opposite: They set up their life and then try to save after the fact, when it’s painful to do so. When something is paid off, save the extra money and you won’t feel the pain. And when you get raises, save the money until you’re on target.”

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Avoid the temptation to spend first. 

Most investors, especially in their younger years, think they can easily make up for copious spending and shopping. “This is certainly possible, but will require a potentially difficult, if not impossible, return on the investment or a significant increase in savings,” says Bellaria Jimenez, managing partner with MetLife Premier Client Group, based in Cranford, New Jersey. ”Investors must ignore temptations to spend and instead save.”

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Patience, patience, patience. 

Just as it takes years to get to retirement age, you’ll want to stick it out, as some investments hit expected bumps. “Over a typical working career, an investor can expect to experience at least eight to 12 poor market years,” says Jakob Loescher, a financial advisor with Savant Capital Management and based in Rockford, Illinois. “During these years, it’s important that the individual remain patient and not make any large market-timing mistakes.”

(Photo: Getty)

And finally, answer the $2.3 million question. 

That’s how much money you’d need in 2045 to have the same purchasing power as $1 million today, assuming a 3 percent annual inflation figure. So how do you get to $2.3 million? “Assuming a starting account value of $50,000 and an 8 percent return on assets, an investor would need to deposit $13,500 at the beginning of each year over the next 30 years to achieve that result,” says Andrew Gluck, managing director of wealth management at GCG Financial.

(Photo: Getty)

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Pros and cons of buying a S&P 500 index fund

I've already mentioned some of the pros of index fund investing. The first is cost savings -- especially when it comes to S&P 500 index funds. In fact, the Vanguard S&P 500 ETF(NYSEMKT: VOO) comes with an expense ratio of just 0.05%. This means on a $10,000 investment, you'll pay just $5.00 per year in fees. Compare this to actively managed mutual funds, which can charge 1% or more, or to the often-astronomical fees hedge fund managers and investment consultants charge.

Another perk is that index investing is as low-maintenance of an investment strategy as you can find that has such strong long-term potential. Simply buy shares of your chosen fund, and let the market do the rest.

Index fund investing also takes emotion out of the equation. According to a study by Dalbar, the average investor's annualized returns were just 2.6% during the 10-year period from 2004-2013, approximately one-third of the S&P 500's annual return during that time period. This is mainly because emotion tells investors to do the exact opposite of what they should -- panic and sell when the market is falling, and buy when everyone else is at high prices.

The possible downside is that while you won't lose to the market, you aren't going to beat it, either. As I mentioned earlier, Buffett as well as other value investors are living proof that with the right research and know-how, it's possible to create a portfolio of undervalued stocks that can beat the market's return over long time periods. So, if you have the time to thoroughly research and value stocks, index investing may not be in your best interest.

It's not for everyone

Buying an S&P 500 index fund puts your investments on auto-pilot, and while you won't get rich quickly with this approach, you won't go broke, either. Nor will you pay thousands of dollars in fees to Wall Street investment managers along the way.

However, if you're willing to put in the homework to research and create a well-diversified portfolio of high-quality stocks to hold for the long term, go for it. That's what I do, and that's what The Motley Fool suggests for those who have the time and desire. The point is simply this: Whichever investment strategy you use to achieve them, one of your main goals should be to keep as much of your profits in your pocket as possible, and not in the pockets of hedge fund managers or high-fee investment consultants.

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Matthew Frankel owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway (B shares). The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Berkshire Hathaway (B shares). Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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RELATED: Warren Buffett through the years

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Investor Warren Buffett answers reporters' questions during a press conference to announce that Walt Disney will buy Capital Cities/ABC July 31.
Billionaire investor Warren Buffett of Omaha makes a rare public appearance during an autograph session outside Borsheim's Jewelry Store in Omaha, May 4. Buffett was signing autographs for shareholders in his company, Berkshire Hathaway, which is having its annual meeting May 5.
Billionaire businessman Warren Buffett sits with his wife Susan (R) and daughter Susie, prior to the annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting in Omaha, May 5. This marks a rare public appearance for the reclusive Buffett.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Republican candidate for governor of California in the October 7, 2003 recall election listens as world famous investor, Warren Buffett (L), one of his financial advisors, speaks to reporters after a meeting of Schwarzenegger's Economic Recovery Council in Los Angeles August 20, 2003. REUTERS/Fred Prouser FSP
Billionaire financier Warren Buffett looks on after a meeting with U.S. Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, at the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington June 29, 2005. Specter is the co-author of a bill seeking to create a $140 billion asbestos compensation fund. REUTERS/Shaun Heasley SH/TC
Billionaire Warren Buffett arrives at the Sun Valley Resort in Sun Valley, Idaho July 10, 2007. The world's biggest media chiefs gather this week at the 25th annual Allen & Co. conference at the resort starting today. REUTERS/Rick Wilking (UNITED STATES)
Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, speaks at a Senate Finance Committee hearing about "Federal Estate Tax: Uncertainty in Planning Under the Current Law" on Capitol Hill in Washington, November 14, 2007. Billionaire Buffett warned of widening U.S. income disparity and endorsed the estate tax as a check on wealth accumulation, while two senior lawmakers said they want the tax repealed. REUTERS/Jason Reed (UNITED STATES)
Billionaire financier and Berkshire Hathaway Chief Executive Warren Buffett greets shareholders during the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholders meeting in Omaha, Nebraska May 3, 2008. REUTERS/Carlos Barria (UNITED STATES)
Billionaire investor Warren Buffett laughs as he appears with Microsoft Corporation founder Bill Gates for a town hall style meeting with business students broadcast by financial television network CNBC at Columbia University in New York, November 12, 2009. REUTERS/Mike Segar (UNITED STATES BUSINESS)
Berkshire Hathaway Chairman Warren Buffett kisses his ukulele at the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting in Omaha May 1, 2010. Buffett played "I've Been Working on the Railroad." REUTERS/Rick Wilking (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS TRANSPORT)
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Billionaire Warren Buffett, wearing a traditional tikka or a red mark on the forehead, speaks during a news conference in Bangalore March 22, 2011. Buffett on Tuesday said he is looking to invest in large countries like India, China and Brazil, but added that restrictions on foreign ownership in India's insurance industry could be a deterrent. Buffett also said and the U.S. economy was improving and that the devastating earthquake in Japan would not hurt global growth. REUTERS/Stringer (INDIA - Tags: BUSINESS)
Berkshire Hathaway Chairman Warren Buffett tours the floor of the New York Stock Exchange September 30, 2011. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS)
Berkshire Hathaway chairman Warren Buffett holds his hand over his heart during the singing of the national anthem, at the start of a 5km race sponsored by Brooks Sports Inc., a Berkshire-owned company, in Omaha May 5, 2013, a day after the company's annual meeting. Buffett at the meeting on May 4, 2013 gave the most extensive comments to date about the future of Berkshire Hathaway Inc after he is gone, saying he still expects the conglomerate to be a partner of choice for distressed companies. REUTERS/Rick Wilking (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS SPORT ATHLETICS)
Warren Buffett, Chairman of the Board and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, poses for a portrait in New York October 22, 2013. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS)
Roberta Buffett Elliott sits with her brother Warren Buffett as they attend an announcement ceremony at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, January 28, 2015. The sister of financial investor Warren Buffett has given Northwestern University more than $100 million to create the Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Studies, the largest single gift in the school's 164-year history, the university said on Wednesday. REUTERS/Jim Young (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS EDUCATION SOCIETY)
Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, speaks at the Fortune's Most Powerful Women's Summit in Washington October 13, 2015. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo
Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, smiles before speaking with Bill Gates (not pictured), at Columbia University in New York, U.S., January 27, 2017. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
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