When you're investing for the long term, experts say there's no 'bad' time to get in the market

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If you’re plotting the “best” time to invest in the stock market, you may be missing the point.

The stock market doesn’t move linearly; there are ups and downs and no one can say with certainty which way it will go next. Its path is even more unpredictable during an emotionally charged economic crisis like the coronavirus pandemic.

Stocks don’t always do what we think they should at the time we think they should, so we’re often better off not making predictions about performance at all.

“In hindsight, we can always look back and see, ‘Oh if I had waited a week, if I had waited a month, would I have better returns?’ But none of us have that [ability to go back]. Just having the opportunity for market growth is what is most important,” says Andrew Westlin, a certified financial planner at Betterment.

It all leads back to the classic investing maxim: Time in the market is better than timing the market.

Relatively speaking, there really isn’t a bad time to invest in the stock market, Westlin says.

If you have an emergency fund and little to no high-interest debt, and you need to grow your extra savings to fund long term goals, like retirement or buying a house 10 or 15 years down the road, don’t wait.

“Cash isn’t going to provide you with enough growth opportunities long term. The best opportunity you’ll have at market growth is by being in the market,” he says.

Christine Benz, the director of personal finance at Morningstar, agrees.

“I would say that the basic idea for investing is still intact,” Benz told Business Insider. “That over time, stocks tend to perform better than other asset classes and if you have a reasonably long time horizon, you can reasonably expect you’ll have a better return than you’ll have by investing in safe asset classes or not investing at all.”

Both experts said research shows that investing a lump sum is generally a better strategy than splitting it into smaller investments over time — a method called dollar-cost averaging — in part because it gives your money more time in the market.

But most people don’t have the ability — or the confidence — to invest a ton of money at once, and that’s OK.

“If ripping that band-aid off is too difficult psychologically, then a dollar-cost average strategy where you’re just spreading those deposits out periodically is still a great way to enter the market,” Westlin says. “It’s certainly better than holding on to cash and waiting for the ‘best’ time.”