7 best ways to invest while you’re in college

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Moving away from home, making new friends and getting to class on time are some of the big changes college students face after high school. But many of these young scholars are also now dealing with the altered experience of virtual classes and restrictive on-campus COVID-19 safety protocols. With all that this new group of adults is facing, it’s a wonder that there’s time for anything else, let alone investing.

But surprisingly, college is actually one of the best opportunities to get started in the world of investing. Even those with only a little bit of cash can begin to build a portfolio, and it can actually be an advantage because you’ll be learning how to invest – and dealing with some inevitable losses – without the risk of losing a large sum of money.

College is a great time to start investing

Sure, college can be one of the most difficult times to scrounge up the extra change just to do the things you need to do, let alone the things you want to do. But it doesn’t take much money to get into the investing game. With all the free or low-cost options available today, a modest $20 or $30 can get you in the game. More importantly, it gets you thinking about investing.

In fact, the hardest part of starting to invest is beginning to think of yourself as an investor – whether as a real owner of publicly traded companies or even a holder of various cryptocurrencies.

You’ll want to take an owner’s long-term mentality toward your holdings, analyze what’s happening in the market periodically and make moves that look like they have a good chance of paying off, for example. Learning these lessons early – when they’re not costly – is valuable.

While we normally think of investing as reserved for the wealthy, it absolutely doesn’t have to be that way. Students should consider how they can use investing to create and secure their financial future, even before they’re out building their careers.

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Here are seven ways for college students to get started in investing, from the super-safe to the bold.

1. Consider starting with CDs or a high-yield savings account

Often savers don’t think of a bank product (such as a certificate of deposit, or CD) as an investment, but it is one. And it’s one of the safest alternatives around. CDs will pay you a fixed rate of interest in exchange for you committing money to the bank for a specified timeframe. These investments can be a good place to park money that you don’t need until a specific time in the future.

For example, if you have money for next year’s tuition, you probably want that in a super-safe account that won’t fluctuate with the stock market. A CD fits the bill for exactly this kind of requirement.

If you’re looking for a similar rate of return and level of safety, but want the flexibility to make withdrawals at any time, a high-yield savings account could be a better fit.

2. Turn to a free or low-cost broker

If you want to jump into investing, it couldn’t be much cheaper to get going. There are many impressive low-cost online brokers – such as Fidelity Investments and Charles Schwab – who offer free stock and ETF trades while also providing great research and educational tools to get you started on your way. Both Fidelity and Schwab, for example, scored top marks in these areas and are noted for their overall client service and investor-friendliness.

But if you want to go all free – great for college students looking to cut costs – then you can turn to Robinhood. Robinhood’s main selling point is that it’s free to trade on the platform, including options and crypto. Robinhood Gold also provides Morningstar research for a relatively cheap $5 per month. With a slick trade-anywhere mobile app, Robinhood makes an excellent choice for those looking to cut costs to the minimum.

3. Invest a little each month

If you go with a commission-free broker, you’re going to be able to invest modest amounts each month and not have your capital eaten up by fees. So more money actually goes into your stocks or funds. You can put away even just $20 or $30 a month, and start to see the money in action in the stock market. A number of brokers now also offer investors the ability to buy fractions of a share too.

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It’s important to get started regardless of what the economy is doing. Even with a modest amount invested, you’ll likely be more motivated to follow the market. And importantly, you can begin thinking of yourself as an investor. Having money invested also encourages you to conduct research and analyze your holdings. So beginning with even just a little can be really beneficial.

4. Buy an S&P 500 index fund

One of the easiest ways for an investor to get started is to buy an index fund, and many of the most popular index funds are based on the Standard & Poor’s 500 index of large American companies. An index fund holds shares of all the stocks in the index, hundreds in the case of the S&P 500. By holding so many stocks across a wide variety of industries, the fund is highly diversified and typically offers less-volatile returns than owning individual stocks.

Another advantage of an index fund is that you don’t have to know a lot to get started. Buying an S&P 500 index fund is like buying the market, and you’ll get the market return. It’s a great way to learn how investing works, and it’s the strategy recommended for most investors by legendary investor and billionaire Warren Buffett.

5. Sign up for a robo-advisor

If you’re not ready to pick individual stocks or even an index fund, then you can opt for a robo-advisor. A robo-advisor automatically creates a portfolio for you, buying a selection of funds based on your time horizon and how aggressive you want to be with your investments. Beginning investors can get started with very little money – even $20 can get you going – and you can add money incrementally without any additional transaction costs.

For their services, robo-advisors usually charge a percentage of your assets, often 0.25 percent annually, though some waive the fee for small accounts. Wealthfront and Betterment are two of the larger robo-advisors that hit this price point.

Typically you won’t pay any additional fees to the advisor, though any funds that you own usually have fees based on how much you own. You’ll often get other benefits from the advisor, too, including attractive interest rates on cash accounts and you typically won’t have to lock your money in.

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6. Turn to an investing app

One way to simplify the investing process even further is with an investing app. One popular mobile app that may help here is called Stash, and it allows you to buy some individual stocks or a selection of ETFs. It takes only $5 to get started, and the basic account costs $1 per month. If you don’t know how to start investing but want to learn and do it yourself, Stash will help you out.

Another popular investing app is Acorns, and it made our’s list of top investment apps because of how easy it is to use. With Acorns, you link a debit or credit card, and then the app rounds purchases up to the next dollar and invests that difference into one of a few ETF portfolios. The cost is $1 a month for their core service, but Acorns also offers an upgraded all-in-one service for a few bucks more.

7. Open an IRA

It might sound like you’re jumping the gun by thinking about an IRA while you’re in college. But an IRA can actually be a great opportunity to build your future savings if you’re earning money with a job, as many students are. An IRA allows you to defer taxes on any profits or dividends, and deduct your contributions from your taxable income, saving you money on taxes. Plus, the earlier you start investing in a tax-advantaged account, the longer you can use the power of compounding to max out your account.

Those advantages can be an easy win for a little effort.

Bottom line

The most important point for college students who are looking to invest is also the most urgent – get started today. The sooner you begin learning about the market, the sooner you can begin planning your financial future. Students can begin with modest amounts of money and hopefully grow both their knowledge and their portfolio.

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