Definitions and Basics

What’s the difference between saving and investing? The terms saving and investing are often used interchangeably, but there’s a difference. See Smart About Money, from the National Endowment for Financial Planning:

  • Saving is setting aside money you don’t spend now for emergencies or for a future purchase. It’s money you want to be able to access quickly, with little or no risk, and with the least amount of taxes. Financial institutions offer a number of different savings options.
  • Investing is buying assets such as stocks, bonds, mutual funds or real estate with the expectation that your investment will make money for you. Investments usually are selected to achieve long-term goals. Generally speaking, investments can be categorized as income investments or growth investments.

Saving, from the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics

Saving means different things to different people. To some it means putting money in the bank. To others it means buying stocks or contributing to a pension plan. But to economists, saving means only one thing—consuming less in the present in order to consume more in the future.

An easy way to understand the economist’s view of saving—and its importance for economic growth—is to consider an economy in which there is a single commodity, say, corn. The amount of corn on hand at any point in time can either be consumed (literally gobbled up) or saved. Any corn that is saved is immediately planted (invested), yielding more corn in the future. Hence, saving adds to the stock of corn in the ground, or in economic jargon, the stock of capital. The greater the stock of capital, the greater the amount of future corn, which can, in turn, either be consumed or saved….

Investment, from the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics

Although in general parlance investment may connote many types of economic activity, economists normally use the term to describe the purchase of durable goods by households, businesses, and governments. Private (nongovernmental) investment is commonly divided into three broad categories: residential investment, which accounts for about a quarter of all private investment (25.7 percent in 1990); nonresidential, or business, fixed investment, which accounts for most of the remainder; and inventory investment, which is small but volatile. Indeed, inventory investment is often negative (it was in 1990, and in three years during the eighties). Business fixed investment, in turn, is composed of equipment and nonresidential structures. Equipment now makes up over three-quarters of business investment….

Understand the power of compounding. Compound Interest, from our College Topics Guide.

When you borrow or lend money, you pay or receive interest. Compound interest is paid on the original principal and on the accumulated past interest.

The Miracle of Compound Returns, from the Marginal Revolution University “Money Skills” course.

Diversification: How to Spread It Around, at

Diversification can best be described by the following phrase: “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

That means several things, depending on what part of economics we’re discussing. In every case, though, it means to spread out your money or your time or your other resources….


See also: What is Diversification? at BizBasics:


In the News and Examples

David R. Henderson, In Praise of Debt, at Econlib, June 2016.

If I were to put it in Polonius’s terms, I would say it this way: “Both a borrower and a lender be.” That is, at some points in your life, it makes sense to borrow, and at other points, it makes sense to lend. In this article, I focus on borrowing. What follows is my case for debt.

Chris Blattman on Cash, Poverty, and Development, EconTalk podcast, July 21, 2014.

Chris Blattman of Columbia University talks to EconTalk host Russ Roberts about a radical approach to fighting poverty in desperately poor countries: giving cash to aid recipients and allowing them to spend it as they please. Blattman shares his research and cautious optimism about giving cash and discusses how infusions of cash affect growth, educational outcomes, and political behavior (including violence). The conversation concludes with a discussion of the limits of aid and the some of the moral issues facing aid activists and researchers.

A Little History: Primary Sources and References

Harry Markowitz, from the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics

In the early 1950s Markowitz developed portfolio theory, which looks at how investment returns can be optimized. Economists had long understood the common sense of diversifying a portfolio; the expression “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” is certainly not new. But Markowitz showed how to measure the risk of various securities and how to combine them in a portfolio to get the maximum return for a given risk.


Franco Modigliani, from the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics

Franco Modigliani, an American born in Italy, won the 1985 Nobel Prize for two contributions. The first was “his analysis of the behavior of household savers.” In the early fifties Modigliani, trying to improve on Keynes’s consumption function, introduced his “life cycle” model of consumption. The basic idea was common sense, but no less powerful for that reason. Most people, he claimed, want to have a fairly stable level of consumption. If their income is low this year, for example, but expected to be high next year, they do not want to live like paupers this year and princes next. So in high-income years, Modigliani argued, people save. They spend more than their income (dissave) in low-income years. Because income begins low for young adults just starting out, then increases in the middle years, and declines on retirement, said Modigliani, young people borrow to spend more than their income, middle-aged people save a lot, and old people run down their savings….

Advanced Resources

Setting Financial Goals, a Month-by-Month plan from the Smart About Money, the National Endowment for Financial Education.

Can You Beat the Market? from the Marginal Revolution University “Money Skills” course.


Related Topics

Money Management and Budgeting

Financial Markets

Real vs. Nominal


Human Capital


Risk and Return