What are Alternative Investments?

Sometimes, it can pay off to think outside the investing box.

Most of us, when we think of investments, immediately turn to stocks or bonds. These are the basic building blocks of most investment portfolios. Indeed, most of us consider a traditional asset allocation of stocks and bonds (start more stock-heavy when you’re young and switch to bonds as you approach retirement) to be the best way to go.

Hedging against risk in a more traditional portfolio with a more traditional asset allocation usually involves using diversity, and making use of low-cost mutual funds/index funds and ETFs. However, not everyone loves the more traditional portfolio. As some people learn more about money and investing, they start to wonder if there are some alternative investments that can do just as well as — or better — than the traditional portfolio.

What are Alternative Investments?

The definition of “alternative investments” varies according to the person you ask. For our purposes, I’m going to say that traditional investments include:

  • Stocks
  • Bonds
  • Cash products
  • Real Estate
  • Commodities
  • Currencies

I’m including commodities and currencies on the list (even though they are often considered alternative investments) because, even though most regular folks aren’t that interested in pursuing them as investments, most of us still view these asset classes as part of the investment landscape. Plus, you can invest in commodity ETFs and currency ETFs if you are interested in dabbling a little.

Alternative investments are those that fall outside these asset classes. They are investments that include items that may not be as liquid, and that have a value that is even more subjective than many of the more traditional asset classes. If you think that the US financial system is on the verge of collapse, you might decide that hoarding pennies and hoarding nickels might be of value — in addition to hoarding gold coins.

Other alternative investments might include collecting things like sports cards, limited edition action figures, and artwork. In some cases, alternative investments include different types of investments related to traditional investments. You can find stock options, as well as derivatives, and these are often considered alternative. (Next week, I’m going to look at poker as an alternative investment.)

Is it Wise to Pursue Alternative Investments?

One of the issues that many have with alternative investments is that it can be even more difficult to determine whether or not your investment will yield something more. Alternatives that involve precious metals have the potential to gain in value as the US dollar loses value, and many people prefer them because they are tangible.

Other investments are made with more sentiment than true evaluation of possible gains. Collectibles are a prime example. Unfortunately, your collection is probably not likely to be worth a lot. My husband’s Lord of the Rings collectibles probably won’t evolve into paying for our retirement. If you invest in artwork, you never know when the art market, or tastes, are going to change. You could spend money on an “emerging artist” only to have that artist go no where.

Of course, if your alternative investment appreciates a great deal, then it pays of big in the long run. However, you might have to wait a long time for it to pay off.

Even though all investments are basically subject to the whims of the market, and investor perception, alternative investments seem to carry more risk in a lot of ways. Before you invest in anything — especially alternative investments — make sure you can afford to lose the money you plan to invest, and take the time to understand how the investment works, and what factors influence its value.

Image source: Jolle via Wikimedia Commons

Written by Miranda Marquit

Miranda Marquit is a freelance writer and professional blogger, specializing in personal finance, small business, and investing topics. She writes for a number of financial web sites and blogs, and has been featured in numerous media. Read about life as a freelancer at MirandaMarquit.com and in her book Confessions of a Professional Blogger.

7 Responses to What are Alternative Investments?

  1. Alternative investments have a lot of glitz and glamour associated with them or they might really be a hobby under the guise of a investment. I think my alternative investment (hobby) will be buying websites and trying to flip them.

  2. This list seems to be missing THE classic alternative invesment: an equity stake in a local business.

    • That’s an interesting idea. Invest local, and possibly make it big later — as long as the business doesn’t tank, it’s not a bad idea.

  3. Well-kept antique furniture is something that quite holds its value. Even vintage pieces pick up slightly more value as time goes on.

  4. Great advice Miranda. “Make sure you can afford to lose the money you invest”. Many alternative investments are really a hobby and cloud the judgement of the investor. Be extra careful when dealing with alternative investments. Be sure you have a clear understanding whether it is genuine investment or just something you love to collect. Then try and make your decisions based the merits as an investment OR as a hobby, whichever applies.

  5. OP may have been flippant, but I tend to agree that you have to get away from the hobbyist mind set here. Alternative can, in some cases, be a direct synonym for ‘tediously low ROI’. I’m more of a trad man myself! Thanks for the post though.

    Jon

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