Whether you’re already an active investor or you’re dipping your toe into that pond for the first time, it’s wise to have a plan.

Today’s investor has a wide variety of investment options. Stocks, bonds, mutual funds, certificates of deposit, annuities and others, all have a mixture of requirements, rates and risks. Those things have to be weighed against your personal goals and risk parameters. 

Making the right choice begins with a clear understanding of your investment objectives. Are you trying to build your children’s college education fund? Are you looking for a shelter from inflation and taxes? Are you setting aside retirement funds?

The answers to questions like these are at the heart of sound investment planning. It’s also important to know where you currently stand in relation to those goals. Specifically, what is your financial worth today? What type of assets do you control and what is their value?

Calculating net worth is as easy as it is important. Add up your assets — the value of your home, business and other property along with savings, investments, pension or profit-sharing funds and cash on hand. From this total, subtract things like mortgage, debts and other financial liabilities.

For many individuals, determining net worth provides an added feeling of security. It brings the realization that a firm financial foundation is already in place — one that you can build upon through investment strategies. It also should serve as a reminder to check your insurance protection to make sure everything you’ve worked for is adequately protected.

A realistic timeline for meeting your goals depends on how much of your present income can be allocated to investing. In other words, how much money remains after monthly expenses are covered, and how much of that can you discipline yourself to save rather than spend?

Now with a clearer picture of your goals, net worth and available income, you have a yardstick against which you can measure various investment opportunities. For example, if you’re looking for additional immediate income, a money-market fund or bond could be attractive. If you’re investing for your children’s college education, you might choose a long-term investment with growth opportunity to keep up with rising education costs.

Just as important as studying individual investments is researching financial advisors and companies with which you may consider doing business. For the inexperienced investor, going it alone can be frustrating, confusing and risky. Take the time to interview different brokerage firms and some individual investment counselors. Get referrals from friends, family members and business associates that you trust.

If you’re already aligned with a company or individual, hold those folks up to the same tough scrutiny. Remember, that you’re free to move on to another person or entity if you’re unsatisfied.

There are financial planning professionals who can help you map out a game plan in detail. If this type of service is of interest, be sure to ask questions about the costs involved and learn exactly what you can expect to receive for your money.

Whether you intend to manage your own portfolio or share that responsibility with a trained specialist, the starting point is always the same. Begin by taking a hard look at yourself, your assets and your financial goals. You must determine how patient you can be in reaching those goals and what amount of investment risk you can live with comfortably. Note: comfortably is a key word here.

Be sure to consult with your tax and legal advisors before taking any action that would have tax consequences, and the best way to know that is to ask an expert. 

It’s never too soon nor too late to at least dip your toe into the investment pool, because future financial uncertainties make simple savings accounts one of the more risky financial options today. 

This column is produced by Financial Planning Associates, and is provided by R. Hutton Cobb, a Wachovia Securities financial advisor in Greenville, N.C.