To start your day off with a happy hypothetical, let’s say you’ve been following our advice on how to build a buffer account.
It’s going so well that now you’ve got a little money you’d like to invest.
“Great—I’m going to get started today!” you think.
Then you Google “How do I get started investing?” and learn that you can choose from thousands and thousands of mutual funds, ETFs, stocks, bonds, brokerages, and asset classes.
“Hmm, I’ll get started investing tomorrow. Today: Candy Crush.”
I know how you feel. Last month I was in Japan, and my earbuds broke. So I went to a big electronics store, figuring they’d have a few to choose from.
Did they ever.
I had to contend with ten aisles that looked like this:
I spent over an hour trying out earbuds before buying a new pair of the same ones that broke.
I can’t help you choose headphones, but whether you have $100, $1000, or $10,000 to invest, I can help you get started.
In investing, as in headphones, “good enough” is better than driving yourself crazy figuring out the perfect solution.
I have $100 to invest
Buy one share of a stock market Exchange-Traded Fund (ETF) and a good introductory book on investing such as The Elements of Investing, by Malkiel and Ellis.
Which ETF should you buy and where?
Let me make it easy. Open an account with TD Ameritrade. Opt into the commission-free ETF program. Buy one share of the Vanguard Total World Stock ETF (VT) for about $59.
Congratulations! You now own (a piece of) 5351 different stocks from about 50 countries.
Now, read the investing book and keep saving money.
Why TD Ameritrade? They make it easy to get started with a low balance without zinging you with fees.
Another option: Betterment.com has a extremely simple sign-up process and will let you invest the whole $100.
They do charge higher fees than TD (the fees decrease as your investment increases) and require you to invest an additional $100/month minimum until you hit $10,000.
I have $1,000 to invest
Open an account at Vanguard (make it an IRA or Roth IRA if you’re eligible to contribute to one) and put $1000 in the target-date fund of your choice.
These funds are cheap and own a diversified mix of stocks and bonds.
Go ahead and drop another $20 on that investing book (or get it from the library).
You’ll learn that even with a low-cost, diversified portfolio, sometimes you’ll lose money. Sometimes a lot of money.
That’s no reason to avoid investing.
It’s a good reason to control what you can (keep costs low, diversify, and avoid active management), invest according to your risk tolerance (don’t own 100% stocks if you won’t be able to sleep at night), and stay calm when everyone else is panicking.
I have $10,000 to invest
The Vanguard target-date fund is still an excellent choice. In fact, it would still be an excellent choice if you had $1 million to invest.
Wealthy folks have access to special investment opportunities that the rest of us don’t.
Lucky for us, those special opportunities (such as hedge funds) are usually much worse than the boring mutual funds and ETFs we have to settle for.
Another option: Wealthfront is a snazzy automated investment management site with a $5000 minimum and no fees for the first $10,000.
It’s easy to get started, and they offer some tax management features that Vanguard doesn’t.
Keep in mind
If you have a 401(k) at work, you’re probably better off investing there than in your own account.
You might get an employer match, and once you set up payroll deduction, you’ll keep saving automatically without thinking about it.
The Elements of Investing can help you choose good funds in your 401(k).
As you accumulate more money in your investment accounts, the rules of good investing don’t change. They just get more important.
There’s a big different between losing $100 and losing $10,000 (or $100,000, or more).
Now, if anyone can explain to me how to prevent my headphones from breaking all the time, I’m all ears. (Groan.)
Matthew Amster-Burton is a personal finance columnist at Mint.com. Find him on Twitter @Mint_Mamster.