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NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- America's education system teaches us a lot of important things but not financial literacy, Jim Cramer said on Mad Money . That's why Cramer dedicated tonight's show to giving investors another peek into his playbook for successful investing.
Cramer's first lesson: the do's and don'ts of your 401(k). It's conventional wisdom that if your employer offers a 401(k) plan, you should invest in it and, if possible, max out your contributions at the current limit of $18,000 a year, Cramer said. However, he is not one of those "conventional" thinkers because 401(k)s have good features and some pretty bad ones.
On the plus side, 401(k)s are tax-deferred vehicles, which means you don't pay taxes on the money you put in or on the capital gains you make. That means if a 30-year-old invests $5,000 a year for 30 years and gets a modest return of 7% a year, the $150,000 investment will be worth $511,000 at retirement. Since the tax rate will be lower during retirement, paying taxes later makes a lot of sense.
Also in the plus column, 401(k)s sometimes have employer matched funds, which is essentially free money, also provided tax free.
But many 401(k)s also severely limit your investment choices, Cramer said, and many of the options include high fees from the few mutual funds they offer as well as fees from the 401(k) plan administrator. That's why Cramer only recommends 401(k) plans if they have an employer match. Once the match is met, he prefers investing in individually run IRA accounts where investors are in complete control and can pick individual stocks.
Pay Your Debts
Cramer's next lesson for investors is aimed at young people, those just graduating college and starting their careers. He explained that first, money is important, and is something everyone needs to pay attention to. A lousy credit score may not seem like a big deal, but try to get a loan or buy a home or even secure a credit card and you'll quickly see just how much money matters.
Investing is the only way to financial freedom, Cramer continued. But before young people invest anything, they need to first get rid of their credit card debt. No matter what your gains in the markets, the high interest rates of your credit cards will quickly overwhelm them, Cramer said, so a young person's first goal should always be to get debt-free.
After becoming debt free, Cramer said young investors need to get in the habit of saving. Saving may seem boring, he said, and it is if all you invest in are savings accounts or bank CDs. But if you invest in stocks you'll be more engaged, you'll follow the news and actually see your investments grow. Investing in stocks can actually be fun, and that makes wanting to save a lot easier.
Younger investors should also heed two more bits of advice: start early and take more risks. It's never too early to start investing in a 401(k) or a Roth IRA and young people can afford to speculate and take more risks, becoming more conservative as they get older.
Too Many Choices
Sometimes, too many choices can be a bad thing, Cramer told viewers. That's certainly the case with investing in a world where the sheer number of mutual funds, hedge funds and exchange-traded funds will make your head spin. Nearly half of all American households have exposure to mutual funds, Cramer said, which makes picking the right ones pretty important.
Cramer said he's not a fan of mutual funds overall. Besides their high fees most fund managers don't get paid for performance, which explains why most actively traded funds fail to outperform the averages year after year after year. Even if a fund does manage to eek out a gain, Cramer said chances are its fees will strip you of most of it.
So what does he recommend? He suggested investors look for low-cost index funds whenever possible, something that mirrors the S&P 500 with the smallest fees possible. Investors should especially avoid sector-based funds because those don't offer enough diversification and most ETFs because those are designed for traders, not investors.
One exception to this rule is the SPDR Gold Shares (GLD) ETF, which tracks the price of gold. Cramer said this fund is an excellent way to easily add gold to any portfolio.
Traditional or Roth?
With all this talk of IRAs and 401(k)'s, the question inevitably arises, which type of IRA should I start, a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA? Cramer offered up his thoughts on the issue.
Cramer said investors can open a Roth IRA if they earn less than $127,000 a year and they can withdrawal their money after age 59 and a half. The only difference between a Roth and a traditional IRA is whether you pay taxes now or pay them later.
As a general rule, Cramer said if your marginal tax rate is less than 25%, then a Roth IRA will likely make the most sense. For those in higher tax brackets, paying taxes later on, such as in retirement when rates are lower, typically is better.
Investors may think that taxes are perpetually heading higher, making a Roth IRA the better move no matter what, but Cramer said that he believes our country's budget deficit can be closed without substantially higher taxes.
In either case, Cramer once again recommended picking five to 10 individual stocks for your IRA, or if you can't dedicate the time to do the homework, investing in a low cost index fund that mirrors the S&P 500.
Invest in Your Child's Future
Cramer's last lesson for investors is aimed at parents and focused on saving for college. He said that in the hierarchy of needs, parents should always save for their own retirement first but, if they're able, paying for as much of their child's education as possible makes a lot of sense.
Cramer reminded parents that college grads have an easier time getting a job than non-grads and, ultimately, they will make a lot more money over their lifetime as a result of their education. The gift of education will pay dividends for a child's entire working life.
When it comes to college savings, Cramer said he's a big fan of 529 savings plans. While these plans have limited investment options, much like 401(k)s, Cramer said he's willing to overlook that as 529s offer tax-free savings after your initial investment.
Parents can invest up to $14,000 a year if they're single, or $28,000 a year if married and filing jointly, Cramer explained. But what makes 529 plans great is the ability to front-load up to five years of investments.
That means for parents that are able, you can invest up to $70,000 or $140,000 right up front, letting that investment compound tax free for big savings. Cramer said the earlier parents can get money into their child's 529 plans, the better.
To watch replays of Cramer's video segments, visit the Mad Money page on CNBC.
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-- Written by Scott Rutt in Washington, D.C.
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