How to Begin Investing with $50 a Month

“Investing” can be an intimidating term. It conjures up movie-like visions of traders frantically shouting “Buy!” or “Sell!” while stock tickers scroll by at lightning speed and phones ring off the hook. And then there’s the alphabet soup of acronyms that seem to go hand in hand with investing: IRA, S&P 500, EBITDA, you name it.

So it’s no wonder we sometimes think we have to be an expert or have a lot of money in order to begin investing. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

What investing is and isn’t

Let’s start with a quick definition of what investing actually is — and what it’s not, since the term is often used to mean other things.

In short, investing means buying something with the expectation that it is likely to grow in value over time. In order to have that expectation, you need to have done some research into what you’re purchasing. Investing also means taking on risk, because along with the hope of making a profit comes the risk of losing money. Generally the greater profit you hope to make, the greater your chances of losing money instead.

Investing does not mean things like buying an “investment piece” for your wardrobe. And it doesn’t mean buying collectibles (at least not if you’re investing within an IRA) or putting money into a savings account that earns interest that’s less than or equal to inflation. (See Savings vs. Investments for more info.)

Investments can really be anything that you realistically expect to have a good shot at increasing in value over time. For example, they could include things like mutual funds, index funds, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), individual stocks, individual bonds, real estate, etc.

How to get started

You might be wondering how you could start buying things like that with $50 a month.

There are several ways. The two easiest ways I know are to open an IRA or, if your work offers a decent one, sign up for a 401k. Signing up for a 401k can be especially good if your company matches your contributions.

Then, within those accounts, you’d start making purchases of shares, either automatically based on your selections (such as within a 401k) or manually by making purchases when you decide to do so. Be sure you figure out what level of risk you’re comfortable with too. (Meaning, would you panic and sell if you lost half your money during an economic downturn? Would you buy more? Or something in between?) The amount of risk you’re comfortable with + your objectives will help you decide what to invest in.

The key here is to set up automatic contributions to your accounts so that you do consistently send money to them. Over time, you’ll build up a decent amount. You can also gradually increase the amount you contribute, giving yourself more money to invest with. That’s really all it takes to get started: contributing the money regularly and making some decisions.

Investor beware

There are two very big dangers I know of when it comes to investing. One is the danger of not being diversified. Basically, this amounts to putting all of your eggs in one basket, and then possibly getting that single basket smashed to pieces. It’s a good idea to spread your investments out across multiple sectors. (Here’s Morningstar’s list of sectors.)

The other is having any potential profits (or even your starting amount) eaten up by fees. That’s especially a danger if you’re making trades with small amounts, because while each trade incurs a fee regardless of the amount of the trade, the amount of the fee compared to the amount you’re buying is much greater. (Basically, if you’re charged a $10 fee for each trade and you’re buying one $50 share of stock, that fee is 20% of the purchase price. Ouch.) So look for quality funds with low fees to invest in, and/or consider making trades only once you’ve built up a decent amount of money in your account first.

If you need help…

None of us are born experts (and I’m certainly not any kind of investment expert myself, so don’t take my word as gospel.) If you don’t feel comfortable in getting starting with investing or even just don’t want to spend a ton of time on it, there’s nothing wrong with hiring a professional. Again though, watch out for fees. Plus, make sure the person you select has a fiduciary responsibility to you. (As opposed to mainly having a responsibility to make themselves money.) If you do hire a professional, remember that you still need to keep an eye on your money and understand what’s happening with it. If you want to dive into more investment related things yourself, I found the book The Four Pillars of Investing to be very helpful in learning the fundamentals.