Wallet Hacks

How to Invest Your First $1,000

We all start somewhere.

I remember the day I had $1,000 and thought it would be a good idea to invest it in the stock market.

I had a 401(k) and a Roth IRA, so I was familiar with the mechanics of the stock market, of mutual funds and index funds, and how everything fit together. I stayed away from the public markets in a taxable brokerage account because I didn't want to deal with the taxes (they're near trivial, just keep records).

By the time I was ready to dip my toe into the market, I had about $3,500 and wasn't sure what to do next.

If I were giving my 20 year old self advice on how to proceed, here's what I would tell him…

I'm not a financial advisor, I have no credentials, treat this article like you would an email from a friend. This isn't financial advice, just what I did and would tell my children to do. That being said, I did have the help of Mike Piper of Oblivious Investor in making sure this article was as accurate as possible. He is an expert and a very smart guy. 🙂
Don't get scared off by the financial jargon. I'll try my best to explain them as we go!

My Investing Approach

Everything in life is about having a consistent, repeatable approach. If I don't explain the philosophy and approach, it's easy to get confused if the steps don't line up.

When you don't have a lot to invest, you need to find cheap and low (time) maintenance investments. You want cheap investments, which cost little or nothing to buy or sell, because you have very little cash. You can't afford to pay even $5 a trade because one round trip (buy and sell) will cost you $10, or 1% of your assets. It's like another tax, one that will be charged even if you lose money.

You want low maintenance investments because you should be setting and forgetting. At this stage, your time is better served accumulating more assets to invest, rather than “managing” the investments you have. For now, skip real estate, tax liens, angel investing/private placements, hard money loans, and any of the non-traditional investment options.

With $1,000, it's just not worth your time. There's plenty of time for that later.

Before you invest a penny, get your financial affairs in order.

At a minimum:

  1. Fully charge your emergency fund.
  2. Pay off all high interest debt.
  3. Contribute to a Roth IRA and/or 401(k) with an employer's match.
  4. Save for other short term savings goals (but put them in safe short term investments).

#1 and #2 are “defensive” moves. You need an emergency fund to protect yourself and paying off high interest debt is the highest risk free rate of return you'll ever see.

#3 is an “offensive” move and both types of investment vehicles offer an advantage you don't get with a taxable investment. With the Roth IRA, you get tax free growth. With a 401(k) and employer match, you get an immediate risk free return on contributions. Use both.

#4 speaks to the idea that investable assets should be left alone for at least five years. If you need it in a year or two, it should not be invested in anything risky.

Guiding Principles

Here are a few guiding principles that guide my approach:

  1. Keep costs low. Investing with just $1,000 is challenging because transaction costs can be expensive. If you're paying $4.95 per trade, which is how much Ally Invest charges one-way, each buy and sell will cost you $9.90. $9.90 on $1,000 is 0.99% of your total assets. That means every investment has to appreciate at least 0.99% before you break even and you're paying $5 to add to the holding.
  2. Your biggest asset is your time. If you don't have a lot to invest, you shouldn't be spending your time looking for investments. You should still try to learn as much as you can, but you shouldn't be analyzing opportunities. You should be earning more money to invest. Grow your nest egg.
  3. Don't gamble, this is a long game. When you have a little in the market, there's a tendency to want to be risky and gamble more. Fight that temptation because this is a multi-decade game. Doubling your money on a hot stock tip might feel great but how many times can you do that before you get crushed? Probably not enough to last 40 years. And remember, the best performing accounts at Fidelity were the ones that were forgotten!

OK, so you have $1,000 — what now?

Three Options for Beginning Investors

The first two are conservative, risk-free investment, but they get your money into something while you accumulate more capital. In the current interest rate environment (Dec 2015), they won't get you much.

The third is where we will spend most of our discussion.

Treasury Securities

These are Treasury Bills, Notes, Bonds, and Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS). They're all debt instruments backed by the “full faith and credit” of the United States. They're also going to give you very little in terms of interest.

Sometime in the future, when rates are better, give Series I Bonds a look. Series I bonds are 30 year bonds whose interest rate is determined by a fixed and variable rate. The fixed rate is set when you buy the bond and the variable rate changes every six months based on inflation (CPI-U) data. The equation is public information but I always turn to Jonathan at MyMoneyBlog for his bi-annual updates on Series I Bond interest rates.

You buy these through the Department of the Treasury's website – Treasury Direct.

Certificates of Deposit

These are the ones you get at your bank. If you chose this route, just get one at your bank. While it's generally prudent to research CD rates, the difference for this small of a balance won't matter. You're better off using this time in some other way.

Public Markets

Now we're getting to the sauce.

To invest in the public markets, you have three options. You can invest directly with a single company, work with a brokerage, or use a “Robo-advisor.”

A simple 30-second primer on stocks, mutual funds, and exchange traded funds. A stock is an ownership interest in a company and you can buy and sell these shares in the stock market. A mutual fund is a professionally managed fund that trades in a variety of investment securities, including stocks and bonds. An exchange traded fund is like a mutual fund except it is itself traded on the market. Mutual funds are bought from and sold to the company that operates it. This is a simplification but covers the bases well enough.

Direct Stock Purchase Plans
Direct stock purchase plans are exactly what they sound like – you buy shares of a company's stock from the company. Not every company offers this but the ones that do often go through the Computershare Trust Company.

For example, Coca-Cola is available under these terms. One time purchases have a minimum of $500 but ongoing automatic investments can be as low as $50. The fees are lower than a brokerage and will get you into individual stock positions, so it's often better than a brokerage if you have a specific stock in mind.

Stock Brokerage
A traditional stock brokerage account can be a challenge with $1,000 because of the commissions. Every purchase will come at a non-trivial cost relative to your assets. In the beginning, I recommend skipping individual stocks and going with funds. There's nothing wrong with individual stocks, I hold a lot of dividend stocks, but the costs are too high at this point. I would go with a mutual fund company that won't charge me to accumulate more shares of their funds.

If you open an account with a large mutual fund company like Vanguard or Fidelity, you can get commission-free access to their ETFs. All account holders at Vanguard can buy and sell Vanguard ETFs absolutely free. Fidelity account holders can buy and sell many iShares ETFs and Fidelity ETFs for free.

There is one exception to the “too expensive” rule – Robinhood. it's only stock trades, $0 commissions, an accessible via a smart phone app only. They make money accruing interest from customers' uninvested cash balances and interest on margin accounts. I've never used it (yet).

If you want inexpensive trades and don't want to use a smartphone only brokerage, consider Ally Invest. I have an account with them and have long been a fan. $4.95 trades with no minimums and a suite of useful tools. If you want to get into stock options (not recommended if you have just $1,000), they're a good brokerage for that as well.

A “robo-advisor” is a relatively new creation within the last few years. They act as a computerized financial advisor and determine your asset allocation using an algorithm. You deposit your funds with a robo-advisor company and they invest it, charging you a small advisory fee on top of the underlying fund/etf fees.

We'll go in greater detail on investing through funds/ETFs and Roboadvisors.

Do It Yourself with Funds

If you want to do it yourself, go with a big mutual fund company like Vanguard or Fidelity. Vanguard has no account fee if you opt for electronic statements and has a minimum of $1,000 if you use their Target Retirement Funds or their STAR fund ($3,000 minimum otherwise). Fidelity will not charge you an account fee and has a minimum of $2,500. If you only have a thousand dollars, Vanguard is your best option here.

With Vanguard, you still pay fees in the funds themselves, expressed as an expense ratio. The Target Retirement 2050 Fund has an expense ratio of 0.18% and the Vanguard STAR Fund has an expense ratio of 0.34%. Both are higher than Vanguard's index funds (the 500 Index Fund has a ratio of 0.17%), but those two funds have low minimums.

If you have $3,000, I'd go with an index fund and my money is in Vanguard funds.

The Target Retirement and STAR Funds are not interchangeable with an S&P500 index fund for diversification purposes. Target Retirement funds are a mix of stock and bond funds that adjust over the years with a target retirement date in mind. The STAR Fund is designed to be a set 60/40 stock/bond mix.

Using Robo-Advisors

The three most well known advisors are Future Advisor, Wealthfront, and Betterment. (see a head to head comparison between Betterment and Wealthfront) As always, fees are important and these companies charge an advisory fee on top of the investments they put you in. In all cases, they are cheaper than a human advisor.

Here's how they break down fee-wise with just $1,000 to invest:

Should you use a Robo-advisor? That's up to you. These didn't exist when I first started investing so I went with Vanguard and their low $1,000 minimums. I've stuck with them, though I've mixed in some dividend stocks at Vanguard during the market crash.

These are incredibly cheap services. Wealthfront is free up to $10,000 in assets (with our promotional link, you get $15,000 managed free). Even if you chose Betterment and paid 0.35%, that's just $35 a year on a $10,000 balance. $35 for an algorithm to take away the stress and headache of picking your asset allocation (and tax loss harvest for you) might be worth it.

If it were me, I'd stick with something simple and focus on accumulating more assets. Simple means go with a robo-advisor or a target retirement fund from Vanguard/Fidelity. Once I hit $10,000 in investable assets, I re-evaluated how I want to invest. The goal would be to have an account at one of the big mutual fund companies and be invested in low fee funds/ETFs.

I asked Mike Piper from Oblivious Investor for his take and he would use a target retirement fund from Vanguard rather than a robo advisor because of lower costs. He felt that some of the robo advisors were closer to somewhat-low-cost actively managed funds rather than a passive portfolio, which is what they often purport themselves to be, and that some of them have pivoted too much. If you really want a somewhat-low-cost actively managed funds, you are better off with a Vanguard's Wellington or Wellesley funds, as they have lower costs (once you get to Admiral shares) and a much longer and more stable track record.

What about other investments?

I'm sure you've considered other investments, here are the ones I've done and my thoughts about them:

For now, stick with the public markets, accumulate more assets, and then re-evaluate.