It’s important to remember that Bitcoin is different from cryptocurrency in general. While Bitcoin is the first and most valuable cryptocurrency, the market is large.

Nearly 20,000 different cryptocurrencies are traded publicly, according to CoinMarketCap.com, a market research website. And cryptocurrencies continue to proliferate. The total value of all cryptocurrencies on June 13, 2022, was about $970 million, having fallen substantially from an all-time high above $2.9 trillion late in 2021.

While some of these have total market valuations in the hundreds of billions of dollars, others are obscure and essentially worthless.

If you’re thinking about getting into cryptocurrency, it can be helpful to start with one that is commonly traded and relatively well established in the market (though that’s no guarantee of success in such a volatile space).

NerdWallet has created guides to some widely circulated cryptocurrencies, including Bitcoin and some altcoins, or Bitcoin alternatives:

  • Bitcoin is the first and most valuable cryptocurrency.
  • Ethereum is commonly used to carry out financial transactions more complex than those supported by Bitcoin.
  • Cardano is a competitor to Ethereum led by one of its co-founders.
  • Litecoin is an adaptation of Bitcoin intended to make payments easier.
  • Solana is another competitor to Ethereum that emphasizes speed and cost-effectiveness.
  • Dogecoin began as a joke but has grown to be among the most valuable cryptocurrencies.
  • Stablecoins are a class of cryptocurrencies whose values are designed to stay stable relative to real-world assets such as the dollar.

» Learn more: How to invest in BitcoinADVERTISEMENT

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Are NFTs cryptocurrencies?

NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are digital assets that convey ownership of what could be considered an original copy of a digital file. They share many similarities with cryptocurrencies, and they can be bought and sold in many of the same marketplaces.

However, NFTs are different from cryptocurrencies due to that unwieldy word in their name: non-fungible.

Cryptocurrencies are fungible, so any unit of a specific cryptocurrency is basically the same as any other. My one Bitcoin has the same value as your one Bitcoin.

» Ready to invest? Here are our picks for best cryptocurrency exchanges.

Pros and cons of cryptocurrency

Cryptocurrency inspires passionate opinions across the spectrum of investors. Here are a few reasons that some people believe it is a transformational technology, while others worry it’s a fad.

» Learn more: FUD: Fear, uncertainty and doubt in investing

Cryptocurrency pros

  • Supporters see cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin as the currency of the future and are racing to buy them now, presumably before they become more valuable.
  • Some supporters like the fact that cryptocurrency removes central banks from managing the money supply since over time these banks tend to reduce the value of money via inflation.
  • In communities in that have been underserved by the traditional financial system, some people see cryptocurrencies as a promising foothold. Pew Research Center data from 2021 found that Asian, Black and Hispanic people “are more likely than White adults to say they have ever invested in, traded or used a cryptocurrency.”[2]
  • Other advocates like the blockchain technology behind cryptocurrencies, because it’s a decentralized processing and recording system and can be more secure than traditional payment systems.
  • Some speculators like cryptocurrencies because they’re going up in value and have no interest in the currencies’ long-term acceptance as a way to move money.
  • Some cryptocurrencies offer their owners the opportunity to earn passive income through a process called staking. Crypto staking involves using your cryptocurrencies to help verify transactions on a blockchain protocol. Though staking has its risks, it can allow you to grow your crypto holdings without buying more.

» Learn more:  What is blockchain, and how does it work?

Cryptocurrency cons

  • Many cryptocurrency projects are untested, and blockchain technology in general has yet to gain wide adoption. If the underlying idea behind cryptocurrency does not reach its potential, long-term investors may never see the returns they hoped for.
  • For shorter-term crypto investors, there are other risks. Its prices tend to change rapidly, and while that means that many people have made money quickly by buying in at the right time, many others have lost money by doing so just before a crypto crash.
  • Those wild shifts in value may also cut against the basic ideas behind the projects that cryptocurrencies were created to support. For example, people may be less likely to use Bitcoin as a payment system if they are not sure what it will be worth the next day.
  • The environmental impact of Bitcoin and other projects that use similar mining protocols is significant. A comparison by the University of Cambridge, for instance, said worldwide Bitcoin mining consumes more than twice as much power as all U.S. residential lighting[3]. Some cryptocurrencies use different technology that demands less energy.
  • Governments around the world have not yet fully reckoned with how to handle cryptocurrency, so regulatory changes and crackdowns have the potential to affect the market in unpredictable ways.

Your decision: Is cryptocurrency a good investment?

Cryptocurrency is a relatively risky investment, no matter which way you slice it. Generally speaking, high-risk investments should make up a small part of your overall portfolio — one common guideline is no more than 10%. You may want to look first to shore up your retirement savings, pay off debt or invest in less-volatile funds made up of stocks and bonds.

There are other ways to manage risk within your crypto portfolio, such as by diversifying the range of cryptocurrencies that you buy. Crypto assets may rise and fall at different rates, and over different time periods, so by investing in several different products you can insulate yourself — to some degree — from losses in one of your holdings.

» Learn more: How to diversify your crypto holdings

Perhaps the most important thing when investing in anything is to do your homework. This is particularly important when it comes to cryptocurrencies, which are often linked to a specific technological product that is being developed or rolled out. When you buy a stock, it is linked to a company that is subject to well-defined financial reporting requirements, which can give you a sense of its prospects.

Cryptocurrencies, on the other hand, are more loosely regulated in the U.S., so discerning which projects are viable can be even more challenging. If you have a financial advisor who is familiar with cryptocurrency, it may be worth asking for input.

For beginning investors, it can also be worthwhile to examine how widely a cryptocurrency is being used. Most reputable crypto projects have publicly available metrics showing data such as how many transactions are being carried out on their platforms. If use of a cryptocurrency is growing, that may be a sign that it is establishing itself in the market. Cryptocurrencies also generally make “white papers” available to explain how they’ll work and how they intend to distribute tokens.

» Learn more: 3 questions to ask before you buy cryptocurrency

If you’re looking to invest in less established crypto products, here are some additional questions to consider:

  • Who’s heading the project? An identifiable and well-known leader is a positive sign.
  • Are there other major investors who are investing in it? It’s a good sign if other well-known investors want a piece of the currency.
  • Will you own a portion in the company or just currency or tokens? This distinction is important. Being a part owner means you get to participate in its earnings (you’re an owner), while buying tokens simply means you’re entitled to use them, like chips in a casino.
  • Is the currency already developed, or is the company looking to raise money to develop it? The further along the product, the less risky it is.

It can take a lot of work to comb through a prospectus; the more detail it has, the better your chances it’s legitimate. But even legitimacy doesn’t mean the currency will succeed. That’s an entirely separate question, and that requires a lot of market savvy. Be sure to consider how to protect yourself from fraudsters who see cryptocurrencies as an opportunity to bilk investors.