Investing vs saving: Understanding the difference

Explore the differences between saving and investing and understand how they contribute to financial stability and wealth creation.

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Navigating the complexities of personal finance can be daunting, especially when it comes to understanding the crucial difference between saving and investing

Both are integral to achieving financial stability and growth, yet they serve different purposes and cater to various goals. This article aims to demystify these concepts, helping you understand how to utilise both strategies effectively in your financial journey.

What is saving?

Saving involves setting aside a portion of your income for future use, typically in a safe and accessible form. Savings are primarily meant for financial security and immediate or short-term liquidity needs. 

Saving is about accumulating funds in a low-risk environment, where your money is readily available for emergencies, unexpected expenses, or short-term goals like a vacation or a significant purchase.

Traditional savings accounts are a popular choice for stashing your savings. These accounts provide easy access to funds with minimal risk, though they may offer lower interest rates

High-interest savings accounts usually offer slightly higher returns while maintaining a high level of liquidity. This makes them suitable for short-term goals or emergency funds. 

Term deposits are another option, where money is locked away for a set period, usually at a fixed interest rate. Additionally, many Australians use everyday bank transaction accounts for savings, although these accounts generally offer lower interest rates than dedicated savings accounts. 

What is investing?

Investing, by contrast, is about putting your money to work to generate a return or growth over time. 

When you invest, you're buying assets such as shares, bonds, or property with the expectation that their value will increase over the long term. This is key to achieving long-term financial goals like retirement planning or wealth accumulation. 

It's about growing your wealth, considering the potential for higher returns alongside associated risks.

Investing in the stock market by purchasing shares is a popular option for dividend income or capital growth (or both). Bonds or fixed-interest securities are another option. 

Many Australians also choose to invest with exchange-traded funds (ETFs), a type of pooled investment. ETFs can diversify your exposure to different asset classes, including stocks, bonds, and real estate. 

Risk and return – a balancing act

The primary difference between saving and investing lies in the balance of risk and return

Savings typically offer lower risk but also lower returns, often barely outpacing inflation. Investing, while riskier, provides the potential for higher returns, which are essential for long-term wealth creation and to outstrip inflation. 

Balancing risk and return is critical in shaping your financial strategy. When saving, the risk to your principal is generally low, meaning you're unlikely to lose the initial amount you've put aside. However, the trade-off is that the returns are often modest. 

In an environment where inflation rates are high, the real value of savings might even decrease over time as inflation erodes the purchasing power of the money.

Investing offers the possibility of higher returns, which can significantly exceed inflation, thereby growing your wealth in real terms. However, this comes with increased risk, including market volatility and the possibility of losing a portion of your initial investment – or all in extreme cases. 

Shares can fluctuate widely based on market conditions, company performance, and broader economic factors. Bonds, while generally more stable than shares, still carry the risk of default or changes in interest rates. 

The property market carries its own set of risks. It's important to understand these risk-return trade-offs and choose a path that aligns with your financial goals, whether securing a stable foundation through savings or growing your wealth through investments.


Your financial planning should consider your time horizon and liquidity needs. Savings are ideal for short-term objectives due to their liquidity and low risk. 

Investing, however, is more suited to long-term goals where you can weather market fluctuations and reap the benefits of compounding returns.

Liquidity, which refers to the ease with which we can convert assets into cash without significant loss in value, is a crucial aspect of financial planning. 

Savings play a vital role in providing liquidity, as funds in savings accounts are readily accessible when needed. The liquid nature of savings accounts means you can withdraw your money quickly without incurring losses. 

Savings provide essential and immediate cover for unforeseen expenses, such as medical emergencies, urgent home repairs, or sudden unemployment. 

By contrast, investments like property or stocks may require time to sell and can also be subject to market volatility. Having a healthy savings buffer can protect you from having to liquidate long-term investments at an inopportune time, thereby preserving your long-term financial strategy.

Time horizon

Investing is often considered the more favourable approach for long-term financial goals due to its potential for higher returns and the power of compound interest. Having an extended time horizon allows investors to ride out the inevitable ups and downs of the market. 

Market fluctuations typically smooth out over more extended periods, reducing the impact of short-term volatility on your investment portfolio.

Over a longer time horizon, investments such as stocks, bonds, and property have historically provided returns that outstrip traditional savings accounts, particularly after accounting for inflation.

Additionally, the longer you invest your money, the more time it has to grow through compounding, where you earn returns not only on your initial investment but also on the accumulated earnings from previous periods. 

The impact of compounding can significantly amplify wealth growth, but obtaining this benefit requires patience and tolerance for risks inherent in the market. 

Understanding interest rates and inflation

Interest rates determine the return on money in a savings account. Savings accounts typically offer relatively low interest rates, and the actual value of money saved can decrease in periods of high inflation. This is because its purchasing power – the ability to buy goods and services – diminishes as prices rise.

Investments in assets such as stocks, bonds, or property have the potential to yield higher returns over the long term, often exceeding the rate of inflation. 

This is particularly important for long-term goals, as it ensures that your wealth grows in real terms, maintaining or enhancing its purchasing power over time.

While the higher returns associated with investments come with increased risk, their long-term growth can be a powerful tool in safeguarding and growing your wealth against the erosive effects of inflation. 

Therefore, while savings provide the security and liquidity needed for short-term needs and emergency funds, investing is an essential strategy for achieving long-term financial stability and growth, especially in an inflationary environment.

Building a balanced financial plan

A well-balanced financial plan usually includes both savings and investments, as each caters to different needs and goals. It will also involve diversification, which spreads your financial resources across different saving and investment strategies.

Your portfolio might include a mix of liquid savings for immediate needs and various investments for long-term objectives. The key is to balance these elements to align with your financial goals, time horizon, and personal comfort with risk.

Risk tolerance measures your willingness and ability to withstand fluctuations and potential losses in your investment portfolio. Risk tolerance varies from person to person and can change over time based on your financial situation, age, income stability, and experiences. Understanding your risk tolerance is crucial in informing how you allocate funds between saving and investing. 

Those with a higher risk tolerance may allocate more resources towards investments with higher return potential but greater risk, such as stocks. 

In contrast, individuals with lower risk tolerance might prefer savings and bonds, which offer more stability and less risk. It's important to periodically reassess your risk tolerance as your financial situation and goals evolve.

Foolish takeaway

Understanding the complementary nature of saving and investing is crucial in navigating your financial landscape.

While savings offer a secure and liquid foundation, investing opens the door to long-term wealth accumulation. We should view the decision to save and invest as complementary components of a holistic financial strategy, not as mutually exclusive.

Assessing your financial goals, risk tolerance, and time horizon will guide you in finding the right balance. As your life evolves, so should your financial plan, adapting to changes in your income, lifestyle, and objectives. 

Remember, the path to financial security and growth is not one-size-fits-all. It's a personal journey that benefits from continuous learning and adaptation. 

By harmonising your saving and investing strategies, you can build a promising financial future that responds to your immediate needs and long-term dreams.

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This article is part of Motley Fool Australia's comprehensive Investing Education series, covering everything from budgeting and saving to basic investing concepts and how much money you'll need to start.

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