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. With all this new group of adults is facing, it’s a wonder there’s time for anything else, let alone investing.
But surprisingly, college is one of the best opportunities to start investing. Even those with only a little bit of cash can begin to build a portfolio, and it may be an advantage because you’ll be learning how to invest – and deal with some inevitable losses – without the risk of losing a large sum of money.
Investing as a college student: How to get started
Sure, college can be one of the most challenging 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.
The hardest part of starting to invest is beginning to think of yourself as an investor – whether as an actual owner of publicly traded companies or even a holder of various cryptocurrencies.
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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 usually think of investing as reserved for the wealthy, it 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.
Here are seven ways college students can start investing, from the super-safe to the bold.
1. Consider starting with a high-yield savings account or CDs
One of the simplest ways to boost your savings is to open a high-yield savings account. These accounts pay interest on your deposits at rates far above what is available through traditional savings or checking accounts while still offering you the ability to withdraw at any time. And in 2023, interest rates on these types of accounts are on the rise.
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Savers don’t often think of bank products (such as high-yield savings accounts, or a certificate of deposit, or CD) as investments, but they are. And they’re some of the safest alternatives around. CDs will pay you a fixed interest rate for committing money to the bank for a specified timeframe. These investments can be an excellent 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 precisely this kind of requirement.
2. Turn to a free or low-cost broker
It couldn’t be much cheaper to start if you want to invest. There are many impressive low-cost online brokers – such as Fidelity Investments and Charles Schwab – who offer free stock and ETF trades while providing excellent research and educational tools to get you started. Fidelity and Schwab, for example, scored top marks in these areas and were noted for their overall client service and investor-friendliness.
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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.
Webull is another option for the particularly cost-conscious investor. Webull, like Robinhood, also features commission-free trading but has more customer support options and offers retirement accounts that Robinhood doesn’t.
3. Invest a little each month
If you go with a commission-free broker, you can invest modest amounts each month and not have your capital eaten up by fees. So, more money 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. Several brokers now also offer investors the ability to buy fractions of a share.
It’s essential to get started regardless of what the economy is doing. You’ll likely be more motivated to follow the market even with a modest amount invested. 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 beneficial.
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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 indexes 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. The fund is highly diversified by holding so many stocks across various industries and typically offers fewer volatility returns than owning individual stocks.
Another advantage of an index fund is that you don’t have to know much to start. Buying an S&P 500 index fund is like buying the market; 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, 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 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.
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Typically, you won’t pay any additional fees to the advisor, though any funds you’re invested in 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.
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 Stash, which allows you to buy some individual stocks or a selection of ETFs. It takes only $5 to start, and the basic account costs $1 monthly. If you don’t know how to start investing but want to learn and do it yourself, Stash will help you.
Another popular investing app is Acorns, and it made our 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. Acorns offers a core all-in-one membership for $3 a month and a family version at $5 a month.
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7. Open an IRA
It might sound like you’re jumping the gun by thinking about an IRA while in college. But an IRA can actually be an excellent 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.
A Roth IRA can be another great way to start investing for retirement. Contributions to Roth IRAs are made with after-tax dollars, so there won’t be any tax savings immediately, but your withdrawals during retirement will be tax-free. By making contributions in college (and likely paying a low-income tax rate), you’ll avoid a larger tax bill down the road when your income is likely taxed more. As with a traditional IRA, your investments will be allowed to compound tax-free in a Roth IRA.
Those advantages can be an easy win for a little effort.
The most important point for college students looking to invest is also the most urgent – get started today. The sooner you learn about the market, the sooner you can begin planning your financial future. Students can begin with modest amounts of money and hopefully grow their knowledge and portfolio.
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Remember that a measured approach makes sense when you’re just starting out. Going “all-in” on a stock or particular asset class is particularly risky and could expose you to considerable losses in the event of a decline. Volatility comes with most investments, and learning how to deal with the emotions it creates is an integral part of the learning process.