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What is Bitcoin? And should you invest in it?

Only 24 percent of Americans are familiar with Bitcoin. Here's what you need to know about this “cryptocurrency.”

by Jean Chatzky /
With Bitcoin, there is no standardized physical representation (like a dollar bill) — the assets exist only in digital form.Dado Ruvic / Reuters
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How’s this for a hero’s journey: In July 2010, one Bitcoin cost just 5 cents. In December 2017, that figure rose to nearly $20,000. And within the last 24 hours, the price fell below $8,000 — and the global cryptocurrency market lost more than $100 billion.

If you’ve heard Bitcoin as a buzzword but are at a loss when it comes to the definition, you’re not alone. Just 24 percent of U.S. adults are familiar with Bitcoin — but that hasn’t stopped the digital currency’s circulation value from swelling to more than $152 billion despite the recent downturn. That's like a Powerball jackpot on steroids — and a big reason Bitcoin has been such a hot topic recently. Whether you want to be able to talk intelligently about it at a cocktail party or are seriously considering putting some money into it, here's what you need to know.

Think about digital currencies like viewing your checking account balance online — you see the number on your screen, but you don’t have the bills in your hands.

Think about digital currencies like viewing your checking account balance online — you see the number on your screen, but you don’t have the bills in your hands.

What Is Bitcoin?

Bitcoin is one type of digital currency (or “cryptocurrency”), dreamed up by an anonymous inventor in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Think about digital currencies like viewing your checking account balance online — you see the number on your screen, but you don’t have the bills in your hands. In the case of Bitcoin and other digital currencies, however, there is no standardized physical representation (like a dollar bill) — the assets exist only in digital form. There's also no regulation. The payment network that allows the digital tokens to move between individuals isn’t managed by any one entity (like the government) or company (like Visa, Wells Fargo or Venmo). Instead, it’s decentralized, made possible by a system of computers around the world. You can't use it for many purchases. Some large retailers like Overstock and Expedia have made headlines by starting to accept it, but they're outliers. And transactions are private; in fact, many users value the degree of anonymity that digital currencies offer.

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How Does Bitcoin Work?

The technology that makes Bitcoin and other digital currencies work is called blockchain, which Mercina Tillemann, chief operating officer at the Global Blockchain Business Council, says is kind of like a set of railroad tracks. "In order for me to get something from me to anywhere else, I need that framework — [those tracks] — to exist.” Bitcoin is like a train car that travels on top of the tracks. When you send Bitcoin to someone, the transaction is verified by computers all over the world. The computer or data center that verifies the transaction first (it involves solving a complex mathematical equation) is rewarded in the form of a Bitcoin payment, says Kyle Forkey, general partner at Amentum, a cryptocurrency investment firm. (People and groups who race to do this can turn a significant profit.)

Until recently, it was difficult to move something digitally without the risk of it being copied or altered in the process. For example, think about when you send someone an email — you retain the original, and they receive a copy. If the same thing happened when you sent money, it’d be a real problem, says Tilleman. That’s why we currently rely on intermediaries — banks, credit unions, companies like PayPal — to make sure that doubling-up issue never occurs. These middlemen charge fees for ensuring that when you send someone money, you’re parting ways with it completely, and the other person is legitimately receiving it. With Bitcoin, there's also always an intermediary — it's whoever is managing the transaction, whether an exchange or other platform. But because there are no restrictions on who can participate (and no account minimums), they're not the traditional financial services players.

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Should You Invest in Bitcoin?

Before diving into Bitcoin or other digital currencies, you need to understand the risks. One: volatility. It's normal in the world of cryptocurrencies for prices to go up and down 30 percent in a single day, says Bobby Ong, co-founder of CoinGecko, a cryptocurrency valuation and ranking website. Two: The fuzzy future. “I do fundamentally believe that blockchain technology will ultimately change the way money moves from one place to another,” says David Bach, author of "Smart Couples Finish Rich," on a recent episode of my HerMoney Podcast. But he also thinks that “90 percent of the cryptocurrencies out there will be worthless within less than five years.”

That means only investing as much as you’re comfortable losing, which Bach says should be no more than 1 to 2 percent of your overall portfolio. If you decide to go forward, dollar-cost averaging could be a good way to do it, since each prices vary widely from day to day. (How? Take the amount of money you decided to put in, then divide it by 12. On the first of every month for a year, buy that amount of your chosen currency.) Two top digital currencies are currently Bitcoin and Ethereum, so Ong says he’d likely look at those first, putting 70 to 80 percent of his portfolio in those two coins, then invest the remaining 20 to 30 percent in smaller cryptocurrencies. Diversity in this sector is as important as it is in the markets overall.

How Do You Go About It?

If you’re looking for an easy way to buy Bitcoin or another digital currency, there are user-friendly exchange services that allow you to use money in your bank account to make the purchase. “Coinbase is kind of the gold standard, but there are a lot of other really great exchanges that offer a wider range of currencies,” says Tilleman. You create an account, input the account information you’d like to use, then make your purchase. Know that if you do use an exchange, just like transferring to any currency, you will be charged a transaction fee — for example, Coinbase’s averages 1.49 percent for Bitcoin, says Dan Romero, vice president and general manager of Coinbase.

Since Bitcoin isn’t controlled by any one entity, if your coins are stolen by a hacker, they’re likely gone forever.

Since Bitcoin isn’t controlled by any one entity, if your coins are stolen by a hacker, they’re likely gone forever.

Finally, let's talk about security risk here — and the extra steps you need to take to keep your assets safe. When you buy stocks, a registry is kept of all the shareholders. But since Bitcoin isn’t controlled by any one entity, if your coins are stolen by a hacker, they’re likely gone forever. “Whoever has it owns it,” says Ong.

Once you buy units of a digital currency, they’re kept in your digital wallet, which can be easily stored on the exchange you purchased it on. The site gives you a unique key (a string of letters and numbers) to use for access. But keeping your Bitcoin in the exchange-provided digital wallet might not be the most secure option — for example, in late January, hackers stole upwards of $500 million in digital currency when they broke into an exchange called Coincheck. You can read the fine print on an exchange’s security policy to see if they offer insurance, but that’s rare — most insurance companies shy away from insuring digital currencies since it’s almost impossible to retrieve stolen coins. Instead, look into using a “hardware wallet” like Ledger or Trezor, says Ong. These cost less than $100 and are protected with a PIN and a backup called a "seed" in case you forget your PIN. Suffice it to say you'll have to make sure you keep this device as safe as possible. Ironically, the best place to do that might be an old fashioned safety deposit box at old fashioned institution called a bank.

NEXT: These changes to your 401k can boost your retirement savings

With Hayden Field

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