Investing vs Speculating: What Is The Difference?

There is a lot of excitement about investing, and I think that's a good thing, but how do we know if we are investing vs speculating?

In this article, we will:

  1. Define Investing vs Speculating
  2. Review Intrinsic Value & Asset Types
  3. Help You Avoid Speculating

So, let's define investing vs speculating…


What Defines Investing?

Investing is defined as allocating resources, usually money, to generate an income or profit.

The focus is on the long-term returns of the investment.


What Defines Speculating?

Speculating is purchasing an asset with the hope that it will become more valuable in the near future.  Speculating involves a shorter time horizon and can even be hopes of turning a profit within days.

This is how day traders attempt to make money.  This is usually with complicated investments that they hold for short periods.


Investing vs Speculating Differences

So investing and speculating have similar definitions because they both have the same goal of making money.  However, there are some key differences.

Speculation has a focus on the short-term

Investing focuses on the long-term

In General:

Short-term = Less Than 5 Years

Long-term = More Than 5 Years

The second key difference between investing and speculating is the words Expectation vs Hope.

When someone invests, they diligently research if the investment will be good with reasonable expectations of generating an income or profit.

When someone speculates, there is only hope for future income or profits.

Investing = Expecting Returns

Speculating= Hoping For Returns


What Is Intrinsic Value?

To make something an investment, I would say it must meet specific criteria.  The investment has to have “intrinsic value” and be a productive asset.

For Example;

When you purchase a rental property, it has some intrinsic value, the plot of land it sits on, or the materials used to build the home.  Home prices can fluctuate for many reasons (supply & demand, natural disasters, mortgage rates).

However, intrinsic value cannot be less than the cost of building the home.

Usually, the intrinsic value of a home is, at the very least, the price to build & the price of the land.

Investing vs Speculating Intrinsic Value


Productive vs Non-Productive Assets

Investing also requires the asset to be a “productive” asset.  Productive assets have income-generating potential.  In contrast, non-productive assets, at best, can only store value.

Non-productive assets do not produce anything.


Examples Of Productive Assets

  • Real Estate: Rental properties create rental income for the owner.  This rental income doesn’t depend on the property appreciating.  That’s why most real estate investors suggest you do not factor future appreciation to value investment property.  They would instead focus on the investment returns you can count on instead of hoping for an increase in price due to appreciation.
  • Farms: When you own a farm, you harvest the crops from the land and sell them for a profit or income yearly.
  • Stocks:  When you own shares of a company, you are entitled to some of the company's profits in the form of dividends.  Stock prices also rise, but this is based on their earnings. (Sometimes stocks become speculative when prices rise due to reasons other than company earnings)

Productive assets are what I would consider real investments.  With the proper research and a focus on the long-term, they have a high probability of giving you an excellent return on investment (ROI).


Examples Of Non-Productive Assets

Speculation is when you buy something that doesn’t have intrinsic value and only buy it with the expectation that someone will pay more for it in the future.

This might surprise you, but… gold is an example of speculation.

  • Gold:  It doesn’t produce anything; therefore, it is a non-productive asset.  It sits there waiting for someone to value it at a higher price.  Gold has at least proven over several hundred, if not thousands of years, to be a decent way to store value.  It can keep up with inflation, but your money doesn’t grow because gold is not producing anything for you.

Non Productive Assets

Two Non-Productive Assets Combined!

  • Bitcoin:  This is an even higher risk speculation compared to gold because Bitcoin doesn’t have any intrinsic value.  It doesn’t have a history of being able to store value, and it doesn’t produce anything.  With Bitcoin, you're hoping someone will pay more for it just because they believe they will sell it for higher later.  Bitcoin falls perfectly into the “greater fool” theory…


The Greater Fool Theory

The Greater Fool Theory is the idea of buying overvalued assets to sell them for a profit later.  Using this logic, someone will always be willing to pay a higher price.

The greater fool theory describes people's willingness to invest in something regardless of its real value.

This is a speculative approach based on the belief that you can make money by gambling on future prices.  During market bubbles, you can always find a “greater fool.”

Bubbles only burst when there are no “greater fools” left. (Bubbles always burst)Greater Fool Theory

Not surprisingly, the greater fool theory can be applied to many non-productive assets.  Some like Beanie Babies, Pokemon cards, and Tulips.

However, it also happens with the stock market.

The Greater Fool Theory becomes relevant in stocks when the price of a stock is driven by the expectation that buyers can always be found, not by the intrinsic value, such as cash flows or profits of the company.

Therefore, any price can be rationalized since another buyer is willing to pay an even higher price.

“Greater fools” are generally impatient investors attracted to popular or “hot” trends in the market.  They are not interested in steady, consistent returns or value.


How To Avoid Speculating?

Invest For The Long-Term

The long term is over 5 years and ideally between 10 to 30 years.  Some long-term investors never plan to sell.  If you plan to hold forever, you can eliminate the speculative assets because those usually require you to sell to regain your investments.

As I mentioned, real estate and stocks spit out rental income and dividends, so you don’t need to sell these investments to make a return.


Don't Fall For The Latest Trends

Don’t watch the news or stock prices.  I struggle with this but hope to one day be able to stop watching the stock prices fluctuate daily.

How To Avoid Speculating

When you get your retirement plan statement every month, don’t open it.  Don’t peek.  When you retire, open the statement and believe me if you’ve been putting money in there for 40 or 50 years, you’ll need a cardiologist standing by you when you open it!

John Bogle


Avoid Tinker With Your Investments

Speculators buy and sell based on changes in market sentiment or for political reasons.  They try to time the market.

A piece of advice that can save you from making costly mistakes and adding years to your investing goals is to stay the course!

Again, John Bogle said it best, when the market is having one of its tantrums, instead of “Don’t just stand there do something,” it should be;

“Don’t do something just stand there”

John Bogle



Remember that there are no get-rich-quick routes to financial independence (FI).  Financial independence and building a good investment portfolio take time.

Be happy with the small wins and learn to accept the challenges while celebrating your progress.  Set up milestones like your first $1,000 investments or first $10,000.

You will see how your money grows like a snowball if you make sound investments.

Good Investments Involve:

  • Long Time Horizon
  • Thorough Research
  • Intrinsic Value
  • Productive Assets
  • Staying The Course

The growth starts slow, and as it compounds over time, the amount grows quicker and easier.  The first 10,000 is the absolute hardest, and it gets much easier after that!

So I hope this has been useful to you and helps you become a better investor on your path to financial independence.

I recommend listening to the episode when I interviewed JL Collins about investing for more great information about investing.