Saving and investing are both important concepts for building a sound financial foundation, but they’re not the same thing. While both can help you achieve a more comfortable financial future, consumers need to know the differences and when it’s best to save compared to when it’s best to invest.

The biggest difference between saving and investing is the level of risk taken. Saving typically results in you earning a lower return but with virtually no risk. In contrast, investing allows you the opportunity to earn a higher return, but you take on the risk of loss in order to do so.

Here are the key differences between the two — and why you need both of these strategies to help build long-term wealth.

How are saving and investing similar?

Saving and investing have many different features, but they do share one common goal: they’re both strategies that help you accumulate money.

“First and foremost, both involve putting money away for future reasons,” says Chris Hogan, financial expert and author of “Retire Inspired.”

Both use specialized accounts with a financial institution to accumulate money. For savers, that means opening an account at a bank or credit union. For investors, that means opening an account with an independent broker, though now many banks have a brokerage arm, too. Popular online investment brokers include Charles Schwab, Fidelity and Interactive Brokers.

Savers and investors both also realize the importance of having money saved. Investors should have sufficient funds in a bank account to cover emergency expenses and other unexpected costs before they tie up a large chunk of change in long-term investments.

As Hogan explains, investing is money that you’re planning to leave alone “to allow it to grow for your dreams and your future.”

How are saving and investing different?

“When you use the words saving and investing, people — really 90-some percent of people — think it’s exactly the same thing,” says Dan Keady, CFP, and chief financial planning strategist at TIAA, a financial services organization.

While the two efforts share a few similarities, saving and investing are different in most respects. And that begins with the type of assets in each account.

When you think of saving, think of bank products such as savings accounts, money markets and CDs — or certificates of deposit. And when you think of investing, think of stocks, ETFs, bonds and mutual funds, Keady says.

The table below summarizes some of the key differences between saving and investing:

Characteristic Saving Investing
Account type Bank Brokerage
Return Relatively low Potentially higher or lower
Risk Virtually none on FDIC-insured accounts Varies by investment, but there is always the possibility of losing some or all of your investment capital
Typical products Savings accounts, CDs, money-market accounts Stocks, bonds, mutual funds and ETFs
Time horizon Short Long, 5 years or more
Difficulty Relatively easy Harder
Protection against inflation Only a little Potentially a lot over the long term
Expensive? No Depends on fund expense ratios; will also owe taxes on realized gains in taxable accounts
Liquidity High, unless CDs High, though you may not get the exact amount you put into the investment depending on when you cash in

The pros and cons of saving

There are plenty of reasons you should save your hard-earned money. For one, it’s usually your safest bet, and it’s the best way to avoid losing any cash along the way. It’s also easy to do, and you can access the funds quickly when you need them.

All in all, saving comes with these benefits:

  • Savings accounts tell you upfront how much interest you’ll earn on your balance.
  • The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation guarantees bank accounts up to $250,000 per depositor, per FDIC-insured bank, per ownership category. So, while the returns may be lower, you’re not going to lose any money when using a savings account if you stay within FDIC limits.
  • Bank products are generally very liquid, meaning you can get your money as soon as you need it, though you may incur a penalty if you want to access a CD before its maturity date.
  • There are minimal fees. Maintenance fees or Regulation D violation fees (when more than six transactions are made out of a savings account in a month) are the only way a savings account at an FDIC-insured bank can lose value.
  • Saving is generally straightforward and easy to do. There usually isn’t any upfront cost or learning curve.

Despite its perks, saving does have some drawbacks, including:

  • Returns are low, meaning you could earn more by investing (but there’s no guarantee you will.)
  • Because returns are low, you may lose purchasing power over time, as inflation eats away at your money.

The pros and cons of investing

Saving is definitely safer than investing, though it will likely not result in the most wealth accumulated over the long run.

Here are just a few of the benefits that investing your cash comes with:

  • Investing products such as stocks can have much higher returns than savings accounts and CDs. Over time, the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index (S&P 500), has returned about 10 percent annually, though the return can fluctuate greatly in any given year.
  • Investing products are generally very liquid. Stocks, bonds and ETFs can easily be converted into cash on almost any weekday.
  • If you own a broadly diversified collection of stocks, then you’re likely to easily beat inflation over long periods of time and increase your purchasing power. Currently, the target inflation rate that the Federal Reserve uses is 2 percent, but it’s been much higher over the past two years. If your return is below the inflation rate, you’re losing purchasing power over time.

While there’s the potential for higher returns, investing has quite a few drawbacks, including:

  • Returns are not guaranteed, and there’s a good chance you will lose money at least in the short term as the value of your assets fluctuates.
  • Depending on when you sell and the health of the overall economy, you may not get back what you initially invested.
  • You’ll want to let your money stay in an investment account for at least five years, so that you can hopefully ride out any short-term downdrafts. In general, you’ll want to hold your investments as long as possible — and that means not accessing them.
  • Because investing can be complex, you’ll probably need to do some research before you start but once you get going, you’ll realize investing is doable.
  • Fees can be higher in brokerage accounts but many brokers offer free trades these days.

So which is better – saving or investing?

Neither saving or investing is better in all circumstances, and the right choice really depends on your current financial position.

When to save money

  • If you’ll need the money in the next few years, a high-yield savings account or money-market fund will likely be best for you.
  • If you haven’t built up an emergency fund yet, you’ll want to do that before you dive into investing. Most experts suggest having three to six months worth of expenses (or more) set aside in an emergency fund.
  • If you’re carrying high-interest debt such as a credit card balance, it’s best to work toward paying it down before investing.

When to invest money

  • If you don’t need the money for at least five years (or longer) and you’re comfortable taking some risk, investing the funds will likely yield higher returns than saving.
  • If you’re eligible for an employer match in your retirement account, such as a 401(k). Contributing enough money to ensure you receive the match is key because the match is like free money.

If you have built up your emergency fund and don’t carry any high-interest debt, investing your extra money can help you grow your wealth over time. Investing is crucial if you’re going to achieve long-term goals like retirement.

Real-life examples are the best way to illustrate this, Keady says. For example, paying your child’s college tuition in a few months should be in savings — a savings account, money market account or a short-term CD (or a CD that’s about to mature when it’s needed).

“Otherwise people will think, ‘Well, you know, I have a year and I’m buying a house or something, maybe I should invest in the stock market,’” Keady says. “That’s really gambling at that point, as opposed to saving.”

And it’s the same for an emergency fund, which should never be invested but rather kept in savings.

“So if you have an illness, a job loss or whatever, you don’t have to resort back to debt,” Hogan says. “You’ve got money you’ve intentionally set aside to be a cushion between you and life.”

And when is investing better?

Investing is better for longer-term money — money you are trying to grow more aggressively. Depending on your level of risk tolerance, investing in the stock market through exchange-traded funds or mutual funds may be an option for someone looking to invest.

When you are able to keep your money in investments longer, you give yourself more time to ride out the inevitable ups and downs of the financial markets. So, investing is an excellent choice when you have a long time horizon (ideally many years) and won’t need to access the money anytime soon.

“So if someone’s beginning with investing, I would encourage them to really look at growth-stock mutual funds as a great starter way to get your foot in,” Hogan says. “And really start to understand what’s going on and how money can grow.”

Bottom line

While investing can be complex, there are easy ways to get started. The first step is learning more about investing and why it could be the right step for your financial future.

You may want to consider working with a financial advisor to make sure you’re on the right track. Bankrate’s financial advisor matching tool can help you find an advisor in your area.

— Bankrate’s Rachel Christian contributed to an update of this story.