Of course, shares can be volatile. But if you look at a 100-year chart for the UK stock market, dips and crashes barely register on the long upward trajectory. You can invest in funds that simply track the returns (less charges) of the UK's FTSE All-Share Index, or international markets, such as the FTSE All-World Index or MSCI World Index.
Invest regularly in a tracker, through all the ups and downs, and if you start early and live below your means, your wealth in later life should be significantly enhanced, even from relatively modest regular investment.
However, depending on your level of interest, and the amount of time, effort and learning you're willing to put in, you might hope to earn superior returns than a simple tracker. Here are three strategies that could help boost your returns.
Investment trusts have been called the City's best-kept secret. They have their origins in the 19th century and their shares trade on the stock market. They invest in other companies, having been created to provide investors with a cheap way to own a diversified portfolio, long before the days of indexes and trackers.
A good number of the original, prudently-managed Victorian trusts are still around. For a UK focus, you could consider a trust such as City of London (founded 1891); for wider international exposure, a trust such as Foreign & Colonial (founded 1868).
Investment trusts often borrow a relatively small amount of money in addition to their shareholders' funds. These modest borrowings 'gear' the returns on the investment. If markets continue their long-term rise, as they have in the past, gearing should help these trusts to continue delivering somewhat better returns than a plain tracker. You'll need to put in a little effort to understand investment trusts in order to be able to make an informed choice.
Many investors prefer to choose individual companies, for all kinds of reasons. Holding a diverse portfolio of hand-picked blue-chip stocks from the FTSE 100 is a popular strategy, although not one that will necessarily do better than an index tracker.
Some companies benefit quite directly from the health of the stock market. Again, on the basis that markets rise over the long term, it could make sense to hold a smattering of businesses that enjoy this tailwind within a diversified portfolio. Examples include asset manager Schroders, broker Hargreaves Lansdown and London Stock Exchange itself. With decent management, these sorts of companies should outperform the market over the long term.
Mid-sized and smaller companies
Mid-sized and smaller companies are generally higher risk and more volatile than the established heavyweights of the FTSE 100. However, they have more scope for growth and can deliver super long-term returns, although many -- particularly among the smallest -- also fail completely.
A FTSE 250 tracker gives you the return of the 250 mid-sized companies below the FTSE 100, and is a relatively low-risk way to gain more exposure to 'growthier' stocks than you get from an All-Share tracker, which is heavily weighted towards the larger companies.
Picking individual shares, especially from below the FTSE 250 isn't a strategy for inexperienced or faint-hearted investors. But, if you have the interest and acquire the skills to analyse companies in detail, the potential rewards can be worth the effort.
Here at the Motley Fool, our experts have calculated that building a stock portfolio valued in seven figures is within the reach of many investors, without requiring exceptional talent or good fortune.
To help you invest better in 2016, we've produced a FREE wealth guide: 10 Steps To Making A Million In The Market.
G A Chester has no position in any shares mentioned. The Motley Fool UK owns shares of and has recommended Apple. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.