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Investment and Personal Finance Terms Guide

| MoneyRates.com Senior Financial Analyst, CFA
min read

There is a great deal of jargon associated with personal finance, and in order to make informed decisions, it is important to not just recognize some of that jargon but also to understand the concepts behind it. Here are some general investment and personal finance terms you must know:

Basic economic terms

Economics is a complex study, but here are some terms that are frequently used and that may impact your personal financial decisions:

  1. Economic cycle. An economic or business cycle is a period of both sustained expansion and recession or contraction in economic activity - in other words, a period comprising a full range of economic conditions, both good and bad.
  2. Expansion. An economic expansion is a period of sustained growth in a nation's GDP.
  3. Gross Domestic Product (GDP). GDP is a measure of overall economic output in an economy. It is usually reported as an inflation-adjusted rate of change, indicating either growth or contraction in the economy as a whole.
  4. Inflation. Inflation is a measure of the change in aggregate prices across the economy. The most commonly reported measure is the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which measures changes in prices of goods frequently bought by consumers. Inflation not only affects day-to-day cost of living, but is also a key concept for retirement planning because rising prices have their greatest impact over time.
  5. Recession. A recession is a sustained period of general decline in economic activity. As opposed to a slowdown, which means simply a slowing pace of economic growth, a recession is a period of negative growth or declining activity.


Investments range from safe vehicles that offer modest returns to riskier vehicles in which the potential for higher growth is balanced against the risk of loss. Here are some common investment terms:

  1. Active management. As contrasted with passive management, active management entails making regular buy and sell decisions based on a series of investment decisions rather than simply maintaining a prescribed portfolio of holdings with infrequent changes.
  2. Bear market. A bear market is a period of sustained and significant decline in a financial market. The term is most commonly used in connection with the stock market. Since the stock market goes up and down every day, not every decline is considered a bear market. There is no one definition of a bear market, but a good way to think of it is as a decline so steep or so long that it takes a year or more for the market to recover.
  3. Beta. Beta is a statistic that is commonly used to represent a stock's volatility relative to a relevant market index. For example, a stock with a beta of 1.0 would be assumed to have the same volatility as the S&P 500, while one with a beta of 1.2 would be assumed to have 20 percent more volatility. Beta is based on short-term fluctuations in value, and thus, it is not necessarily a measure of long-term risk or return potential.
  4. Bonds. Bonds are debt securities, meaning that an issuer is receiving money up front in return for promising to pay the owner of the bond interest at regular intervals plus repay the principal on a set date. Bonds are often relatively good income sources, but their prices can rise and fall significantly. Bonds can range from the high-security of U.S.-government issued securities to the high-risk of bonds issued by governments or entities that have a strong possibility of defaulting.
  5. Book value. Book value is a measure of the accounting value of a company's assets. It can be a general indicator of the fundamental underlying value of a company, though accounting treatment can differ greatly from actual liquidation value.
  6. Broker. A broker is a financial professional or company that facilitates the buying and selling of investment securities. Note that while brokers may offer valuable advice and services, they often make money from the trading activity of their customers and thus their interests may differ from yours.
  7. Bull market. In contrast with a bear market, a bull market is a period of a sustained rise in stocks or other securities.
  8. Calls. Calls are options that represent positive bets on a stock's price. Owning a call option allows you to buy, or "call" from party that sold you the option a given stock at a specified price and within a finite period of time. If the stock has risen above that price, you may profit from the difference between the option price and the current market price. If the stock moves the other way, you do not have to exercise the option, but it will become worthless upon expiration. This makes calls a very risky investment because you can lose the entire amount you paid for them.
  9. Capital gain or loss. This is the difference between the sale price of a stock holding and its acquisition cost. If that number is positive, it is a capital gain. If it is negative, it is a capital loss.
  10. Certificates of deposit (CDs). Certificates of deposit are bank pledges to pay a specified interest rate over a given time period. They are typically insured by the FDIC, but you should check in each case. Compared to other deposit vehicles such as savings accounts and money market accounts, CDs usually offer higher interest rates, but require you to lock up your money longer.
  11. CD term. Certificates of deposit usually require that money be committed for a specific period time. That time period is commonly referred to as the CD's term.
  12. Discount brokers. Discount brokers offer customers only rudimentary investment research and other services but sharply lower trading commissions. In contrast, traditional stock brokers offer more extensive services, and charge relatively high commissions to pay for those services.
  13. Dividends. Dividends are cash payments by publicly-held companies made to shareholders, usually quarterly. They represent a portion of the company's earnings, though dividends fluctuate less frequently than earnings do. It is important to note that not all stocks pay dividends. Those that do pay them do not guarantee that the dividend will not change or even be eliminated in the future.
  14. Diversification. Diversification is a word used to describe the spreading of money out over multiple investments in order to reduce risk. The risk-reduction benefit of diversification is a function not just of how many securities you own, but also of whether those securities are subject to different economic forces.
  15. Early withdrawal penalty (CDs). An early withdrawal penalty is the amount of money a person with a CD will have to pay if they take money out of the CD before the required term. These penalties are often expressed as a certain number of months' worth of interest. Early withdrawal penalties vary from one CD to another, but are generally steeper for longer-term CDs.
  16. Earnings (stocks). Corporate earnings represent the profit made by the company, essentially their revenues minus expenses. For publicly-traded stocks, the total earnings are normally communicated on a per-share basis. This shows the portion of total earnings that would be attributed to each share of stock, and can be a useful basis for comparison with the stock's price (see price-to-earnings ratio).
  17. Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs). ETFs are mutual funds that are structured to comprise a broad range of securities representing a specified type of investment market. ETFs are ideal for investors who are looking for a cost-effective way to get general representation in a market without picking individual stocks.
  18. Expense ratio. For mutual funds, expense ratio is the total annual percentage of charges to the fund, including management, record-keeping and marketing fees. Since different funds allocate expenses in different ways, the overall expense ratio is a key measure of the total cost of participating in a given fund.
  19. Flat-rate commissions. Flat-rate commissions are trading charges that are assessed as a fixed dollar amount per trade, rather than being based on the number of shares being traded.
  20. Foreign exchange (FOREX). FOREX trading allows investors to attempt to capture increases or decreases in specific currencies as currencies of different countries rise and fall relative to one another. Be advised that this can be highly-risky trading appropriate for very sophisticated investors only.
  21. Futures. Buying a future means obtaining the right to purchase a given security at a specified price on a fixed date in the future. If the security rises to a higher price in the meantime, you benefit from being able to buy it at the specified lower price. However, if the security is trading at a lower price when the future security expires, you lose money by having to buy it at a higher-than-market price.
  22. Inactivity fees. Inactivity fees are chargessome brokers may enact for periods when you do not place any trades. Because brokers make money from commissions when you trade and lose out when you don't, you should check for inactivity fees before you open a brokerage account, in particular if you plan to be an infrequent trader.
  23. Indexing. Indexing is an investment strategy based on replicating a given representation of a securities market, such as the S&P 500 for U.S. stocks. It is a form of passive management in that it involves simply imitating a specific market index rather than making active decisions on individual securities. Since there is a wide variety of indexes used to represent domestic and foreign markets, the choice of which index to replicate is a key to this investment approach.
  24. Interest rates (investment). While consumers are most accustomed to paying interest on mortgages and other loans, when investors buy bonds and similar debt-based securities, they become the lender rather than the borrower, and thus they receive rather than pay interest. It works to your advantage as an investor if interest rates fall after you have locked in a rate by buying a fixed income security, and it works against you if rates rise. Market rates are subject to change at any time, primarily because of changing expectations about inflation and the riskiness of the security.
  25. Maintenance fees. Maintenance fees are monthly fees financial institutions or brokers charge just for having an account open. This type of monthly maintenance fee is usually a fixed dollar amount. For brokers, these fees are in addition to commissions and thus it can be especially burdensome for small investors.
  26. Margin interest. Margin interest is the interest charged by a brokerage firm on the amount borrowed for margin trading purposes. The margin interest rates that stock brokers charge tend to be lower for larger amounts of borrowing, so margin interest rates can be especially steep for small investors. Because margin interest is a built-in cost of margin trading, the level of interest being paid is a key factor in the success or failure of this type of strategy.
  27. Margin trading. Trading on margin means investing with money borrowed from the brokerage firm. It is a way of leveraging a portfolio, which means to increase the potential risk and return. Because some of the money you are investing is borrowed, the gains and the losses on your investments represent a higher percentage of your actual investment. Besides representing higher risk, margin trading requires that the returns you earn must exceed the margin interest you are paying in order to earn you a net positive return.
  28. Market cycle. A market cycle is a period comprising a single bull market and bear market phase. It is a useful period for performance measurement because it shows how an investment vehicle has behaved through both favorable and unfavorable conditions.
  29. Money market accounts. Money market accounts are similar to savings accounts in that they allow immediate though limited-frequency access to deposits. Because of that ready access, they typically pay relatively low interest rates. Money market accounts at FDIC-member institutions are covered by deposit insurance, and should not be confused with money market funds, which are mutual funds and therefore not covered by FDIC insurance.
  30. Mutual funds. Mutual funds are pooled vehicles, meaning that several investors share ownership in the investments owned by the fund. They can pursue a variety of investment approaches that are described in a detail prospectus, and can be cost-efficient tools for allowing smaller investors to get diversified participation in a market.
  31. Online broker. An online broker is a broker that offers accounts that are administered exclusively online, as opposed to through traditional branch offices. Because operating online allows these firms to avoid the overhead associated with staffing physical brokerage offices, online brokers often offer deeper discounts than other brokerage firms.
  32. Options. Options, such as puts and calls, give you the right to buy or sell a particular security at a set price within a specified time frame. This can allow you to benefit from price movements with very little upfront investment, but the trade off is that these securities pose a substantial risk of losing your entire investment.
  33. Passive investing. Passive investing is an approach, such as indexing, that calls for maintaining a broad representation of a given type of investment, rather than actively making a series of individual investment decisions.
  34. Price-to-earnings ratio (P/E ratio). Price-to-earnings ratio is a common tool used for assessing a stock's valuation. This ratio shows how high a stock is priced relative to its earnings. For example, a stock trading at $20 and earning $1 per share would have a P/E ratio of 20. While P/E is not a perfect measure of whether a stock is cheap or over-priced, historically lower P/E ratios have been indicators of higher long-term returns going forward.
  35. Puts. Puts are options that represent negative bets on a stock's price. Owning a put option allows you to sell, or "put to" the party that sold you the option a given stock at a specified price and within a finite period of time. If the stock has fallen below that price, you may profit from the difference between the option price and the current market price. If the stock moves the other way, you do not have to exercise the option, but it will become worthless upon expiration. This makes puts a very risky investment because you can lose the entire amount you paid for them.
  36. Realized gain. Since capital gains taxes are generally not assessed until a security is sold, the gains on securities sold are referred to as realized gains to distinguish them from the price appreciation of holdings that have not yet been sold.
  37. Realized loss. Similar to a realized gain, a realized loss is the net decline in value of an investment between acquisition and sale. Realized losses can often be offset against realized gains for tax purposes.
  38. Revenues. Revenues are the gross receipts of a company, which are offset against expenses to determine net earnings.
  39. Savings accounts. Savings accounts are deposit accounts that allow immediate access for a limited number of monthly transactions, usually six per month. Savings accounts offered by FDIC-member banks are covered by FDIC insurance.
  40. Short selling. Short selling is a negative bet on a stock's price because it involves selling a stock you do not yet own, on the understanding that you will eventually settle the trade by buying the stock and delivering it to the party to whom you owe the security. In actuality, short sales are often settled simply by one party delivering to the other the difference between the current price and the short sale price, without the shares of stock actually changing hands. Short selling is a negative bet because if the stock's price falls, you will benefit because you will have previously agreed to sell it for more than the current price. On the other hand, if the stock price rises, you will be responsible for making up the difference between the current price and the short sale price. Short selling is very risky because there is theoretically no limit to how high a stock's price can go, which -- in the case of a short sale -- means you could lose considerably more than your original investment.
  41. Stocks. A stock represents partial ownership of a company. The value of this ownership share will rise and fall according to the public's changing perceptions of the value of that company, based on things like assets and liabilities, current earnings and future business prospects.
  42. Stock market. A stock market is a place where shares of companies are bought and sold. There are multiple such markets around the world, including the New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ in the U.S., and national markets in other developed countries as well as many emerging economies.
  43. Stock dividend. Stock dividends are extra shares issued to shareholders in lieu of a cash dividend.
  44. Stock split. A stock split is referenced when sometimes a stock will multiply its number of shares outstanding by a given ratio. For example, a 2-for-1 stock split means that each existing share of the stock will now be replaced by two shares. This is not generally additive to the total market value of an individual's position in the stock because the price generally changes in proportion to the stock split, so a 2-for-1 stock split is likely to see the stock trading for roughly half its previous value.
  45. Trade commissions. Generally, when you trade a security, the broker executing the trade will charge you a commission. While historically stock-trading commissions have been charged on a cents-per-share basis, many firms, especially discount and online brokers, are now charging a flat-rate commission. This would be a set dollar amount such as $4.95 per trade, regardless of the size of the trade. Flat-rate commissions are especially cost-effective for larger trades.
  46. Volatility. Volatility is one measure of a security's risk. Volatility is generally used as a term for the severity of a security's periodic price fluctuations, and is a factor in a number of common statistical risk measures such as beta. However, while volatility is commonly assumed to correlate with reward potential, this is not always the case, nor does volatility necessarily translate to the risk of long-term losses in a security.

Retirement saving

Retirement saving is largely the responsibility of each individual. Fulfilling that responsibility involves understanding what your options are and being willing to set aside some of your money to meet future needs. Here are some relevant terms:

  1. 401(k) plans. 401(k) plans are a common form of defined contribution plan for retirement savings. Though some employers match a portion of employee contributions to their retirement fund, 401(k) plans are primarily funded by how much each employee chooses to put into the fund through payroll deduction. In addition to deciding how much of their salaries to put into their 401(k) plans, employees must choose from a menu of investment options to decide which is the best fit for their retirement needs.
  2. Automatic enrollment. Participant choice plans like 401ks depend on plan participants deciding how much to contribute to the plan and how that money should be invested. To help participants who have trouble making these decisions, some plans have an automatic enrollment feature that will direct a standard percentage of the employee's pay into the plan and allocate it to default investment options.
  3. Default investment options. In participant choice plans with automatic enrollment features, these are the investment options to which a participant's money will be allocated if that participant does not actively choose a particular investment option. Default investment options are based on characteristics like age that are presumed to define the participant's needs, but may not necessarily be the best fit for all participants.
  4. Defined benefit plans. Though defined benefit plans have become rarer in recent decades, they can still be found in heavily-unionized sectors like teachers or other government employees. Rather than relying on employees to fund their retirement plans and make decisions about how they should be invested, defined benefit plans are funded by employers who guarantee a specified benefit based on an agreed-upon formula that usually factors in wages and length of service.
  5. Defined contribution plans. Defined contribution plans such as 401(k) plans allow employees to determine how much to contribute, but the resulting benefit varies depending on things such as investment performance and how long the employee contributes to the plan.
  6. Early distribution tax. Most tax-deferred retirement plans, such as 401(k) plans and IRAs, require that you wait until age 59 1/2 before taking money out of them, except under special circumstances. If you take distributions before age 59 1/2, those distributions will be subject to an additional 10 percent tax, on top of any ordinary income tax liability.
  7. Employer matching contributions. Some employer-sponsored defined contribution plans such as 401(k) plans offer employees an added incentive to contribute to the plan in the form of employer matching contributions. This is money your employer will put into the plan on your behalf to match some specified portion of your contributions. Participants in such plans should contribute at least enough to those plans to take full advantage of the employer match, or else they will miss out on this benefit.
  8. Health savings account. Health savings accounts are tax-deferred employee benefit accounts that can be used by participants in High Deductible Health Plans to set aside money for medical expenses. While a health savings account is often used to pay immediate out-of-pocket health care expenses, it can also be used to accumulate long-term savings for health care expenses in retirement.
  9. Life expectancy. Life expectancy is an estimate of how much longer you will live and is critical to retirement planning. It is important to note that life expectancy is usually based on a broad average and is not an exact science, so it should be a planning guideline while acknowledging that you might outlive your life expectancy and thus need retirement money for a longer period of time.
  10. Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs). Retirement plans such as traditional IRAs and 401(k)s that allow you to defer tax on the front end are designed to have you eventually take the money out of the plan so that you will pay taxes on it at that point. These RMDs begin at age 70 1/2, and are based on a formula intended to have you spread the balance in the plan out over the remainder of your life. Roth IRAs are not subject to RMDs because contributions to them are made after taxes.
  11. Rollover plans. Taking money out of a qualified retirement plan generally has tax consequences, but there are circumstances in which a person can move money from one qualified plan into another qualified plan without tax consequences. This process is referred to as a rollover, with the successor plan being the rollover plan.
  12. Roth IRAs. IRAs are tax-deferred plans that individuals can use to save for retirement outside of employer-sponsored plans. In the case of a Roth IRA, contributions are not tax-deferred, but retirement distributions are not taxed. The tax deferral in a Roth IRA applies to investment earnings within the account, which are not taxed.
  13. Tax-deferred plans. Tax-deferred plans such as 401(k)s and IRAs allow you to delay paying taxes on contributions and/or investment earnings until you draw on the money when you reach retirement age. However, in exchange for this benefit, tax-deferred plans typically don't allow you to draw on these savings until you reach age 59 1/2, or else you will probably pay a 10 percent penalty on top of any applicable income taxes.
  14. Traditional IRAs. A traditional IRA is a tax-deferred plan in which both contributions and investment earnings are not taxed until the money is withdrawn from the plan.

Home buying

For many Americans, buying a home is the biggest investment they will ever make. Here are some terms that will help you better understand that decision:

  1. Adjustable rate mortgages. An adjustable rate mortgage is a home loan with an interest rate that is subject to change over time depending on market conditions. While this could save you money if interest rates fall, it will cost you if interest rates rise. Introducing the possibility of changes in the monthly payments you have to make increases the risk that a mortgage might become difficult to afford at some point.
  2. Amortization schedule. An amortization schedule is a schedule of all the payments that will become due in the course of paying off a loan such as a mortgage. It shows the total monthly payment, how that payment breaks down between principal and interest, and how the mortgage balance is reduced as a result. It is wise to review an amortization before initiating a loan because it helps a borrower understand the level of monthly payments, whether or not those payments will change at any point, how much interest will be paid over the life of the loan, and how quickly principal payments will contribute towards equity in the property.
  3. Cash-out refinancing. Basic refinancing involves replacing the balance owed on one mortgage with a new mortgage under different terms. With cash-out refinancing though, you borrow more than your existing mortgage balance and receive the difference in cash. This will leave you with a larger mortgage balance, and thus amounts to a combination of refinancing your existing mortgage and borrowing against home equity for spending needs.
  4. Closing costs. In addition to a down payment, closing costs are generally a number of fees you have to pay in order to initiate a loan. These costs add to the expense of the loan over and above the interest rate being charged.
  5. Default. Default is a condition of being out of compliance with the repayment terms of a mortgage, usually because of a late or incomplete payment.
  6. Down payment. A down payment is an initial amount of money you have to put up as security against a loan. While it might seem desirable to pay as small a down payment as possible, this means taking out a larger loan, which will cost you more in interest payments over time.
  7. Equity. A property-owner's equity is the difference between the current price of a property and the remaining amount owed on any mortgages on that property. Equity is considered part of your net worth, and the equity on a home can increase by the price of the property rising and/or by your paying down the amount you owe on the mortgage.
  8. Fixed rate mortgages. A fixed rate mortgage is a home loan with an interest rate that will remain unchanged throughout the life of the loan.
  9. Foreclosure. Foreclosure is the process by which a mortgage lender takes legal possession of a property that serves as collateral for a mortgage, due to the loan being in a state of default that cannot be resolved.
  10. Home equity line of credit (HELOC). A HELOC is a form of home equity loan that does not give you the loan proceeds all at once, but instead makes them available for you to tap into as needed. The advantage of this is that you do not start paying interest until you actually start using the money.
  11. Home equity loan. A home equity loan is a form of mortgage that uses the equity on your home as security. Because home equity is considered a fairly reliable form of security, home equity loans are often cheaper than other forms of borrowing, such as car loans, personal loans and credit cards. However, taking out a home equity loan reduces the amount of equity you have remaining, which can restrict future borrowing options and reduce the amount of money that becomes available to you upon sale of the home.
  12. Interest rate (mortgage). In exchange for borrowing money, you will be expected to pay the lender a percentage over and above the principal of the loan you pay back. This percentage is called an interest rate, and will generally add a substantial amount to the cost of a loan over the long run, so comparing interest rates is a central part of shopping for a mortgage.
  13. Mortgage. A mortgage is a loan that is secured by a property. That security means that if you fail to make the agreed upon payments on the loan, the lender may be able to seize the property from you.
  14. Mortgage insurance. Many home loans require you to pay mortgage insurance premiums, which are used to offset the risk that some borrowers will fail to repay their loans. Mortgage insurance premiums often consist of an upfront payment and then ongoing additions to your monthly payments, with both forms of payment based on a percentage of the amount owed.
  15. Pre-payment penalty. A pre-payment penalty is a charge for repaying a loan ahead of schedule. Some mortgages assess a fee and since pre-payment penalties can affect decisions about refinancing or paying off a loan early, it is wise to check pre-payment penalties before signing up for a loan and before making any subsequent decisions that could trigger such a penalty.
  16. Points. Mortgage points are a percentage of the loan amount paid to the lender upon closing, generally in exchange for a lower interest rate over the remaining term of the loan. Because they represent an upfront cost that is then recouped gradually over time, paying points makes more sense if you plan to be in the home for a long time than if you anticipate selling within a few years.
  17. Property tax. A property tax is a tax usually levied by local government that is based on the assessed value of a property. Where a mortgage loan is in place, payment of property tax is often handled through the mortgage company because failure to pay that tax could result in the local government placing a claim on that property.
  18. Refinance mortgage. A refinance mortgage is a mortgage that replaces your existing mortgage loan. There are several purposes for refinancing, including lowering your interest rate, reducing your long-term interest expense by shortening the remaining term of the loan, or reducing your monthly payments by spreading the remaining balance out over a longer term. Often, refinancing involves a trade-off between the impact on the month-to-month payment and on the total amount to be paid over the remainder of the loan, so homeowners should consider both before refinancing.
  19. Reverse mortgage. A reverse mortgage is a form of loan available to homeowners aged 62 or older. It uses equity in your home as security, but unlike ordinary home equity loans, it does not require a regular schedule of loan repayments. Instead, reverse mortgages are designed to be paid off from the proceeds when the home is sold, either when you die or move. While the prospect of borrowing money without having to pay it back right away is appealing to some, reverse mortgages are very complex instruments that can prove to be a very expensive way to borrow in the long run.

Government agencies

Here are some government agencies that may be relevant to your investments or personal financial activities:

  1. Bureau of Labor Statistics. A division of the U.S. Department of Labor, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is a primary source for such key pieces of economic data as the Consumer Price Index and the unemployment rate.
  2. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The CFPB is an agency designed to educate and protect consumers in their financial dealings. It is both a source of information about various personal finance topics and a channel for making complaints about financial professionals.
  3. Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). The FDIC plays a number of roles, but the most prominent of these is providing deposit insurance for certain accounts at FDIC-member institutions. In most cases, deposits in savings accounts, money market accounts and certificates of deposit (CDs) at eligible institutions are insured up to $250,000.
  4. Federal Housing Administration. The U.S. Federal Housing Administration oversees a program that provides lenders with mortgage insurance for qualifying loans. This insurance gives lenders the confidence to make loans to people with limited financial histories and with low down payments, and thus makes the path to ownership easier for many Americans.
  5. Federal Reserve. The Fed plays many key roles in overseeing banking activity in the United States, but its most prominent role involves setting interest rates that banks pay for the use of funds, which in turn has a significant influence on raising or lowering interest rates throughout the economy.
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