A Guide to the Best Feel-Good Alternative Investments

Investing is something that most Americans do and yet it still carries a somewhat negative connotation. Many might think of movies like Wall Street featuring lines like “greed is good” and think that investing is all about the rich getting richer at the expense of everyone else. In reality that’s hardly the case.

Today investments come in all shapes and sizes. While stocks and bonds still make up the bulk of most portfolios there are now a number of alternative investments individuals can make. Furthermore these investments don’t need to be motivated by greed at all. In fact there are a number of ways you can do well for yourself while doing good for others.

What are alternative investments?

A better question might be “an alternative to what?” In this case the answer is stocks and bonds. Whether you have a 401(k), IRA, or some other type of retirement account chances are your money is only invested in those two investment buckets. Alternative investments offer ways to expand your portfolio by placing your money elsewhere.

Some common alternatives include hedge funds, commodities, or even real estate — basically anything that isn’t a stock, a bond, or a cash security. While it’s not always the case, many alternative investments provide less liquidity than stocks or bonds, which can be cashed out at almost any time. As a result these types of investments are long-term plays and should be treated as such.

So what are the benefits of alternative investments then? For one it provides your portfolio some diversification, which could be helpful during turbulent and volatile market years. However, like any investment, alternatives carry their own levels of risk that you will need to research and consider, especially if you’re nearing your target retirement date.

Many financial advisors recommend that alternative investments only make up a small percentage — often less than 8% — of most portfolios with the rest comprised of stocks and bonds of various levels of risk.

Feel-Good Alternative Investment Ideas

Ideas worth investing in

For decades now scientists, engineers, and politicians alike have all taken an interest in climate change. As a result a number of companies have proposed a variety of innovations as potential solutions to the problem. Many of these firms focus on lowering carbon emissions and creating what’s called green energy (as in energy that doesn’t harm the environment). This has led to the emergence of “green bonds.”

These special types of bonds can go towards funding a number of environmentally-friendly and sustainable projects, giving investors peace of mind in addition to a piece of the pie. With more and more Americans becoming environmentally conscious green bonds are growing in popularity. Because of this, issuances of green bonds have grown tremendously in recent years. In fact, according to Climate Bonds, $175 billion in green bonds have been issued so far in 2022. Furthermore, in total, green bond issuance has topped $1 trillion and is well on its way toward hitting the $2 billion mark.

Another way you can help invest in innovation — both in the green technology field and beyond — is with equity crowdfunding. If you’re ever watched an episode of ABC’s Shark Tank you likely understand the basic idea behind investing in companies: you offer a certain amount of capital in exchange for a percentage of the business. While this has traditionally been reserved for only the wealthy and well connected, equity crowdfunding allows laymen to invest in companies in a manner similar to how Kickstarter helps fund film projects and inventions.

Sites like SeedInvest, Republic, and others enable investors to browse through a catalog of companies looking for funding. In addition to a summary of what the company does and what they’re hoping to accomplish these listings will also include a valuation for the company, what security type their offering (preferred equity, convertible note, etc.), and other pertinent business information. Qualified investors — a category that’s grown much larger following the passage of the JOBS Act — can decide how much they’d like to contribute. The company and amount you choose is completely up to you so feel free to support businesses that will make a difference in the world.

Giving a helping hand (and making money)

The growth of the FinTech sector over the past decade or so has brought more alternative investment opportunities with it. This includes what are known as peer to peer lending platforms such as Lending Club, Prosper, and others. These sites enable you to lend money to those in need of a loan and, in return, get a cut of the interest. Many of these borrowers report using their funds to consolidate their credit card debt, however, other common loan uses include weddings, medical bills, home improvements, and more.

Typically, these P2P sights allow lenders to see what the person intends to use the loan for, what their credit has been rated at by the platform, what interest rate the loan will carry, and the terms of the loan. From there you can often contribute as little as $25 to any individual loan. With such small lending commitments it is easy to diversify your lending portfolio, which helps to offset your risk should someone default on their loan.

What’s great about peer to peer and marketplace lenders is that you can have a direct impact on someone’s life. Often times a personal loan will help them to save money versus credit cards and set them on the road towards becoming debt free. Plus you get to help improve your own finances making it a win-win.

For the completely altruistic

When people speak about investing, they typically mean dollars and cents. However philanthropy can have its own benefits that can’t be quantified monetarily. In that aspect donating to charities you believe in and that make a difference in people’s lives can be a great personal investment.

Another option is to give your money directly to those who need it. Kiva is a micro-loan platform whose goal is to help those in developing nations (and here at home) by providing them the funds necessary to jump-start their own businesses or other endeavors that will allow them to support themselves. 

With the tagline “loans that change lives,” former president Bill Clinton is among many who believe in the power of the site. Currently Kiva offers loans to people in 77 counties and a total of $1.75 billion has been lent through the platform — with 2.1 million lenders and 4.4 million borrowers. Impressively their repayment rate is currently around 96%, allowing many lenders to continually help others without investing a fortune.

Traditional investments with a twist

Finally, while this article is all about alternative investments, there are now ways for consumers to invest their money in socially conscious or “feel-good” ways. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is buying stock in a publicly-traded company whose mission you believe in. 

Similarly you can now find exchange traded funds (ETFs) and mutual funds comprised of stocks that meet certain criteria. For example, the roboadvisor platform Wealthfront offers Socially Responsible portfolio options, while the neobank Aspiration maintains an investment fund focusing on companies working to fight climate change. 

Outside of these options, there are also a number of what are called ESG (environmental, social, and governance) ETFs you can invest in. 

Some examples include:

  • $ESGU: iShares ESG Aware MSCI USA ETF
  • $ESGV: Vanguard ESG US Stock ETF
  • $SUSA: iShares MSCI USA ESG Select ETF 
  • $VCEB: Vanguard ESG US Corporate Bond ETF
  • And more

Overall, with these options, you can invest in familiar ways but still have the positive impact you’re hoping to make.

Today there is no shortage of alternative investments you can make. Additionally, with self-directed IRAs, you can choose to put your retirement savings into whatever types of investments you choose. Because of this you can decide to use your money to help save the environment, fund great companies and ideas, or help those in need and still make money in the process. Now doesn’t that feel good?

Also published on Medium.


Jonathan Dyer

I'm a small town guy living in Los Angeles looking to make solid financial decisions. I write for a number of finance websites, including HuffingtonPost and Business2Community. I founded DyerNews.com in 2015 to focus on personal finance and the emerging FinTech markets.

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