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By ☆ Published: December 8, 2017, 2:13 am

How to Invest When You’re In College

Can you invest in college? Get started now even with just a little money.

This is a paradox, or at least a frustrating fact.

The best time to invest is when you’re young. When you’re 18 and first able to begin investing in your own name, you’re in high school or college. When you’re in high school or college, education is your priority, and you probably don’t have a lot of income — if any.

So how do you invest for your future when you’re broke and still in school?

Also, you are (or should be) trying to avoid debt, so maybe you’re paying for college yourself by working. Unless you had the foresight and desire to keep the cost of your education as low as possible (by going to community colleges, matriculating part time, or receiving a full slate of grants or scholarships), you’re working, and likely putting any money you’re making towards paying for school.

Your environment is not conducive to saving for the future. Unless you’re receiving a lot of financial support, you’re probably struggling with money for the four (or more) years you’ll be in college.

But investing while you’re in college isn’t impossible.

An Adulting.tv reader wrote in to ask us how to invest while in college. And it’s a popular question because college students are told that investing early is the right thing to do, but have no idea where or how to start.

In college, if you’re even just thinking about financial priorities, you’re several steps ahead. Don’t worry about whether it’s better to start paying off debt early or save for the future through investing or savings accounts. There are a number of competing priorities for your money. Whether you tackle just one or spread whatever small amount of money you have across all the priorities, you’re going to end up in a better position than you would have otherwise.

Pay off debt, including deferred student loans. Avoid credit card debt. Build an emergency fund. Invest wisely. Overwhelmed yet?

No one expects you to do it all right away. But do something.

Don’t wait until after college to begin investing. The early bird catches the worm of wealth. If you wait four years while you’re earning that degree, it will take more money invested faster to make up for whatever gains you missed out on.

Be up front with anyone who’s helping you financially.

Communicating is an important piece of whatever strategy you want to use when it comes to anything with your money. If your parents are assisting you financially, whether paying for a portion or all of your education, providing you an allowance, letting you live at home for free or reduced rent, covering your health insurance, or anything else that might help you with money, keep them in the loop.

You may be eighteen or older, technically considered an adult, but if you depend on adultier adults, it’s only fair to discuss your financial plans with them.

They may provide some insight, they may decide to offer more assistance, or they may just be proud that you’re seriously thinking about your responsibilities and your future. They’ll definitely appreciate your honesty, candidness, and desire to take your responsibilities seriously.

Set aside a small amount of cash.

The more you can invest now, the bigger the money will grow. It comes down to the choices you make. Do you choose to spend every weekend partying and spending money on getting turnt? Or can you cut back some and set aside your booze money for later? Do you buy your textbooks full price, or can you locate used editions and pocket the difference?

Alcohol or no alcohol, every student spend some money on something that might not be necessary.

Cutting back is only one way to increase your flow. Bumping up your income has the same effect, and thanks to the numerous ways you can increase that income, you may have more flexibility than you would when reducing expenses.

You may be already spending all your time outside of your studies working to cover your tuition. But maybe you can add another couple of hours of work each week without affecting your education. Maybe you can ask for a pay increase. Perhaps you can multitask or squeeze another small job in there. I made some extra cash in college by teaching professors how to build websites. I also had a campus job at one of our libraries.

Maybe you have skills that people will pay for.

Just get started investing.

Even if you’re still adding to you emergency fund, paying your tuition bills, or paying off debt, you can set aside some of your cash for investing. These days, there’s virtually no minimum amount of money required to open a good investing account.

Recently, I opened an investment account at WealthSimple with no initial deposit, and I started sending $10 a week there. That’s less than the cost of one meal, and a great place and amount to start.

Don’t worry about picking stocks, studying companies, or thinking about how all the crazy things happening in the world affect the market or the economy. Just invest using a fund that tracks the stock market as a whole — an index fund — because it’s unlikely you’ll do better than that. Even professional money managers don’t, so don’t fall into any traps.

I’ll describe the investment you’ll need to choose.

See what resources your college has for you.

My college had — and still has — an investing club. Today, the club manages $1.7 million of the university’s endowment and offers resources for students who want to invest. The student organization claims to have a methodology that follows the gist of the best investing advice: track the entire stock market broadly and don’t chase down individual stocks. Trying to predict the movements of one company, whether it will succeed or not in the short-term, is basically gambling. It’s a bad idea.

But according to the financial reports the investing club has posted online, which aren’t recent, they would have done better had they just invested in a stock market index fund like the S&P 500 instead of choosing other investments.

So take a look at your college’s investing club. Get to know people for whom investing is a priority. But don’t necessarily follow every piece of advice you are sure they will bestow upon you. Put your money in a low-cost stock market index fund or ETF. That’s. It.

A service like WealthSimple will make that easy for you.

You might want to try these investing services while in college.

I’ve used many investing services, and WealthSimple is currently my top choice. It easily walks you through making the right choices, connecting your bank account, and setting up automatic withdrawals. If automatic withdrawals scare you, it’s understandable. But any job you have — on campus or not — should be depositing your pay directly into your bank account. Forget check cashing services.

Automatic withdrawals are really amazing and one of the best ways to build wealth consistently. You can “set it and forget it.”

If your job pays you in cash for some reason, take that cash and open a bank account. Almost every bank offers free accounts for students.

Here are the best investing services to use.

  • WealthSimple. Again, my top choice. It’s amazing that I can send $10, or even less, once a week, and start building a nest egg. In 30 years, that $10 a week will become $37,000 thanks to the growth in the stock market. And assume you’ll increase your contribution as you earn more money. Compounding returns will make you a millionaire over time.
  • Betterment. Another popular low-cost, low-minimum investing service. WealthSimple, Betterment, and some other services are called robo-advisors. A financial advisory firm or investment advisors are normally people who help you make investing decisions — though watch out for some because they are also salespeople who care more about their bonuses than whether you make the best choices for your own money. But robo-advisors take the human element out, and let you provide answers to a survey to determine how much risk you’re willing to take and provide you with a low-cost strategy for managing your risk and getting the best return.
  • Vanguard. The above two options are good when you don’t have $1,000 ready to invest. They’re also “managed” investment services, so they make the decisions about which funds to invest in. With Vanguard you can do it yourself — and I find that to be my preferred method. You can choose which vanguard fund you want to invest in. For example, VTSMX is the symbol for Vanguard’s total stock market index fund, which is incredibly low-cost, and you never have to worry about it losing more money than the stock market entirely. So if you save $1,000 before you start investing, you can open an account at Vanguard.

Notice there aren’t a lot of options listed. To keep it simple, these are the only investment accounts I’d recommend. There’s no need to list 10 different investment accounts, because one of the above should suit every college student’s needs. Even yours.

What type of investment is best for college students?

There are investment accounts, investment types, and investments. The companies named above are investment accounts — or companies that offer investment accounts. Investment types are classifications that have to do with what the investment is for. And investments are the actual things — shares in companies, bonds, funds, etc. — that are held within those investment accounts.

If you are going to the Vanguard route, you will most likely be fine over the long term. Choose the Roth IRA investment type. Because this is a retirement account, it helps you be disciplined about your money. You won’t be as tempted to withdraw your money from the investment in order to buy something you don’t really need.

In return for holding onto your investment until retirement, you receive some tax benefits. There’s a yearly maximum (which may not be something you have to worry about while in college), but all of your investments grow tax-free until you reach retirement age and withdraw your funds. Otherwise, every year your index fund does well, you would have to pay some additional taxes (or your refund from the IRS will be lower).

You can also choose a Roth IRA if you invest with the WealthSimple or Betterment robo-advisors.

In other investment types, those that aren’t IRAs, you do have to pay attention to the tax bill. Mutual funds and stocks generate income, and all income is taxed by the government. As a student, you may wish to avoid or put off generating taxable income when you don’t have to, and that’s the benefit of a Roth IRA.

What investments are best for college students?

Stocks are simply the best investments for the long-term. Yes, even better than “real estate.” Just smile and nod when your roommate won’t shut up about his uncle who invests in real estate and real estate will never lose value and real estate is the only way to get rich.

Long-term is the best strategy to consider as a college student because it is the first priority for investments. And over the long-term, stocks perform the best. But you have to leave them alone and invest in a wide variety of stocks that reflect the entire market. The best way to do that is through the low-cost index mutual fund described above.

End of story. Period. Full stop.

What about the 401(k) while in college?

This might be surprising, but you can contribute to a 401(k) while you’re in college. 401(k) and 403(b) plans are retirement accounts that are offered by employers. If you’re working full time while going to school, see if your company offers a 401(k). Even if you’re working only part-time, have a seasonable job, or are an intern, you may have the option as well.

While investment options in 401(k)s aren’t always as good as what you might find at Vanguard for your Roth IRA, one priceless piece of the 401(k) is matched contributions. For example, your company might say that they’ll match everything you contribute to your 401(k), dollar for dollar. There is no better investment than doubling your money immediately. So you should definitely go for it.

Look for the investment within the 401(k) that is closest to an index mutual fund. Sometimes it’s the default choice, but sometimes it’s hidden.

One thing to watch out for is a vesting period. Some companies require that you stay employed for a certain amount of time before some of that matching money officially becomes “yours.” The matching contributions might not vest for a year, or might vest gradually over the course of a few years. You’ll still get the money you invested in the 401(k) to keep with you forever, but your company’s contributions might never materialize.

Also, your investments made in a 401(k) are done on a “before-tax basis,” so a contribution reduces the amount of income on which you have to pay income tax. And like a Roth IRA, your investments grow without any need to pay tax on gains. You will pay taxes on everything, however, not just the gains, when you reach retirement and withdraw.

It’s hard to know if you’ll stay with a company over the course of a few years — but from my experience, I know I’ve stayed with companies longer than I would have expected. Not while in college, though.

But shouldn’t we be concerned about the coming recession?

I would not be surprised in the least if we go through another recession sometime soon. Do not let this stop you from investing. If you’re in college today, you most likely remember something about the latest recession, the worst of which was from 2007 to 2009. Your parents might even believe we never really recovered from that period of time. But for the most part, the country recovered and prospered for a few years.

That won’t stop the next recession. Chances are, your investments will lose some value. That’s why you stay invested in a stock market index fund. It’s highly diversified, so you spread out the risk across hundreds of companies.

But when your investment loses value, as long as you’re focused on the future, you have the opportunity to invest more at a lower price. The only way the stock market has helped people grow wealth is by having these recessions. Investors who stay invested and take advantage of recessions as opportunities are the ones who see the most growth over a long period of time.

You only lose money when you sell your investments during a recession and you wait until the news tells you that the economy is great before investing again.

The bottom line: don’t panic when your investments lose value. If your other money habits are strong, like spending only what you can afford, building your marketable skills, knowledge, and employability (part of the reason you’re going to college — it’s not just to find a mate), and not making poor decisions, you’ll find ways to use a recession to your advantage.

3 investing tips for college students.

1. Start yesterday. You already failed at this one, but don’t give up. If you start today, tomorrow you will have succeeded with this very important suggestion. I was a big procrastinator in college, and maybe you are, too. I waited until the last minute to write papers and other assignments, study for exams, and perform research. Your future is hanging in the balance, and it’s so much harder to make up for lost time. Even a small investment today makes a huge difference in the future.

Starting as soon as possible will help you avoid these scenarios:

  • You’ll having to work harder to earn more money to catch up to how much you want to have to be able to retire or be financially independent.
  • You’ll have to continue working longer before you’re able to retire, or you may never be able to retire at all. That’s one of the biggest worries today’s college students have, especially when looking at the economy and society.
  • You will need to delay buying a house or starting a family. With this, many college students are convinced that they’ll never be able to accomplish either of these goals in a reasonable amount of time, anyway.
  • You will eventually experience losing a job without any kind of cushion. You won’t be able to handle your expenses while looking for a new job, so you will go (further?) into debt and the repercussions for yourself and whatever family you might have could be disastrous.
  • You’ll never surpass your parents in wealth and success and will also trail behind the progress of your friends.

If some of these potential outcomes scare you, they probably should. Getting control of your finances involves knowing your income and expenses intimately while also making the best investment choices. It’s a lot of responsibility, but it is achievable.

2. Ignore some of your college buddies. All you need to start is a diversified, broad stock market index fund or ETF, or something similar, whether you open an account at WealthSimple, Betterment, or Vanguard. For some reason, investing advice is something people give freely when they know very little. Make one correct bet on a stock, and suddenly they’re an expert and a genius.

In no other way has “trust the process” been better advice. This is the process you must trust. Buy a low-cost total stock market index fund whenever you can, repeatedly, over the long term, and don’t sell until the very end. If you maintain that process regardless of what’s going on around you, you weather all the economic storms. Eventually, you’ll need to sell — what’s the point in accumulating wealth if you’re never going to use it? But keep your long-term investing funds invested for the long term.

When you get to the point where you have enough invested that you no longer can work, you can shift your investments around from “growth” mode to “income generation” or “value” mode. But that’s the process later on — not while you’re still able to build wealth through saving and working like you are in college and in the many years following graduation.

3. Don’t let investing be your only financial goal. If you establish good financial habits during college, you’ll be much more prepared to invest more throughout your life and reach whatever financial goals you’re likely to have.

  • Track your finances so you always know where you stand.
  • Avoid debt, and pay off any student loans as quickly as possible.
  • Start building a savings account that will eventually become an emergency fund when you are no longer in school and have to support yourself fully.
  • Don’t neglect your bills and other obligations.
  • Use credit cards wisely by spending only what you can afford to pay for immediately.
  • Put faith in yourself and don’t rely too much on parents or employers to take care of you.

Did you start investing while in college? How did you find the money?

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How to Invest When You’re In College was last modified: December 3rd, 2017 by Harlan L. Landes

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