How to start investing while you’re still in college

Young millennial using technology for his investment and on line banking.

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Trey Martin started investing before he was old enough to open his own brokerage account.

Now a Florida State University senior, Martin said he was paid for his role as an extra in “Dolphin Tale 2,” which premiered in 2014. His grandfather advised him to put some money in the stock market. That is exactly what Martin did.

“I took that check that I got from that movie, and I put it into Facebook [now Meta Platforms],” he said. “I had to go through my father’s account because I wasn’t old enough to invest.”

Martin recalled opening his own account around age 18. He has actively invested in companies across a wide range of sectors including communication services, information technology, financials and consumer staples.

Investing can be daunting — you can make a lot of money but you can also lose a lot. Many college students or recent grads might think investing is something you do when you’re older. The truth is, the earlier you start, the more money you could make.

Here are a few tips to help college students and recent grads start investing — and be smart about it.

Set up a budget

Before acting on investment decisions, young investors should establish goals and create reasonable budgets that account for necessary expenditures, said Kristen Bitterly, head of investments for North America at Citi Global Wealth.

“Rent is probably one of the biggest ones,” she said. “But then understanding ‘After rent, what are my other expenditures? And how much money am I going to have leftover at the end of the day based on the salary that I can expect with the job that I have?’”

Regardless of whether you are a student or out in the “real world,” you should be keeping track of how much you earn, as well as how much you need to spend on necessities such as rent, utilities and student loans. The amount you have left over after covering those bases can later be divided into savings, miscellaneous spending and investments.

One common formula is the 50-30-20 rule, where you commit 50% of your income to needs, 30% to wants and 20% to savings. There’s also the “60% solution,” in which 60% of your gross income is allocated toward “committed expenses,” like rent. Twenty percent goes to long-term and retirement savings, 10% goes to short-term and emergency fund savings, and the remaining 10% can be classified as “fun money” for additional purchases.

It’s not always easy for college students to save that much — a lot of people figure they don’t make a lot of money so they’d just rather live paycheck to paycheck. Don’t fall into that trap. Start good budgeting and saving habits now — and it will just become automatic. You won’t even miss that money because you’ve gotten used to automatically stashing it away.

Many college-aged students, like Martin, face weighty decisions when there’s money left over after committed expenses and emergency fund contributions. When figuring out your strategy, ask yourself whether you need this money in the near future or if you can afford to invest it. When we talk about investing, we don’t mean gambling with the rent money.

Jackson Walker, a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, finds investments and short-term expenses do not have to be mutually exclusive.

“I have always been a good saver, so letting go of some extra money here and there helps me feel good that I am helping it grow without depriving me of short-term opportunities like going out to dinner with friends,” he said.

Bitterly notes many budgeting tools can be found on the internet, easily accessible through Google searches. There are a lot of free apps to help you set up a budget such as Mint, Goodbudget and Personal Capital.

It’s important when budgeting to fill “all the buckets,” says Lauryn Williams, certified financial planner, founder of Worth Winning, CNBC Advisor Council member and four-time Olympian. That means whatever formula you are using, make sure you are committing money to every single component — needs, wants, savings, etc.

“I go through my budget, and I found $800. Three hundred of it I’m going to put toward my emergency fund, $200 extra I’m going to put toward my student loans and then $300 extra — the other $300 — I’m going to put toward investing,” Williams explained.

“Now you’re filling up all the buckets. You’re paying down your debt above and beyond the minimum payment. You’re saving money towards your emergency fund, so you’re making sure you have some cash on hand so you’re not going into credit card debt should something happen, and you’re also investing some money,” the Wisconsin senior said.

Assess your risk tolerance

Once you’ve made sure the money you plan to invest is legitimately nonessential (meaning, you have your bills covered), the next thing to ask yourself when it comes to investing is: How comfortable am I if this investment results in a significant gain or loss?

Of course, we’d all love a gain. But how about a loss? Technically, when your investments go down, it’s only a loss on paper — it’s not real unless you cash out of your investment. So, if you’re in your 20s, you can afford to have investments go down and know they have a chance to recover before you need that money. But are you comfortable with even a paper loss, let alone a permanent one? How much are you willing to gamble?

If the idea of any kind of loss makes you nauseous then you want to be more conservative in your investments. It means you will might make less when investments are going up but, importantly, it also means you limit your potential losses.

This is how you determine your risk tolerance — your level of comfort with unknown outcomes that could affect the value of your financial portfolio.

Many young adults are not financially independent until they graduate college and obtain stable incomes, or rack up enough paychecks to cover their bills. If you don’t need the money in the near future, you are in a position to take on more risk in the market. (By contrast, older folks close to retirement age usually want to minimize the amount of risk they take — they have less time to recoup investment losses.)

Many financial advisors and investment experts preach the gospel of taking the long view. Take their word for it, as time in the market improves your chances of winning big.

“Time is on your side. It’s really not about trading or market timing. It’s more about time in the market,” said Bitterly, explaining the benefits of starting young. “This idea of having a longer-term plan — the idea that you’re going to have a much longer period of time to build wealth and to grow your investment assets — means that, generally, you can take more risks, so you can afford to take more risk, have more exposures, for example, to the equities part of the market.”

That doesn’t mean every investment you make when you’re young will pay off so it’s good to do some research and learn a little about investing.

“Since I was only in my early twenties in college, I knew I didn’t know too much about the world and market, so I was cautious,” said Rebecca Perla, who graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the spring. “Now, I have more insight, consume more information, have an investing foundation and paycheck to use to invest. Thus, I’m starting to see myself take a little more risk.”

“I’m young, out of college, don’t have too many responsibilities or crazy expenses and have some money, so I think this is a good time to take some risks,” Perla said.

Don’t panic and cash out when stocks drop

And, it’s important that you don’t cash out just because your investments are falling and making you nervous.

“We have clustering in market volatility where you see those big sell-offs, and then you see the subsequent gains,” Bitterly said, noting how people often pull out of the market on sell-off days when they think they can’t withstand the risks.

That is another way you could lose a lot of money. If you cash out when stocks or bonds are down, you’ll miss any bounce back. The only time you should be cashing out when the market is down is if it’s an emergency and you absolutely need that money.

Williams finds young investors sometimes misconstrue the meaning of taking on risky investments.

“I find that young investors are sometimes risk adverse but also unaware what it really means to take on risk,” she said.

Rather than put all your financial eggs in one basket by investing in a single stock or a single sector, young adults should consider diversifying their portfolios, Williams the financial planner suggested. Understanding your funds and remembering you have time in the market are essential to minimizing risk.

Now, if ever, is your time to make minor investment mistakes you can learn from.

“I’m not playing the game to lose all my money either, but I think that, at our age, we have the amount of time ahead of us that we can make that money back,” said Martin. “We are in a position where we should take more risks because the payoff for those risks will be huge.”

Do your homework

Before putting your money into a share of an individual company’s stock or a fund that holds many assets, you need to do your research.

“Take the first step by reading Wall Street research, by listening to conference calls and by reading the quarterly 10-Qs that publicly traded companies are required to file by the SEC [Securities and Exchange Commission],” suggested Guy Adami, director of advisor advocacy at Private Advisor Group and a trader who appears on CNBC’s “Fast Money.” “It will seem daunting at first, but over time it will pay dividends.”

Individual investors have a more level playing field than ever before with broad access to exchange-listed companies’ information, Adami believes. Despite being “both empowering and overwhelming,” this access to information is largely beneficial for novice investors looking to take their first steps.

“Educate yourself about what’s out there, and make sure that you’re not investing in something that you don’t understand,” Bitterly advised.

She emphasized the importance of analyzing where you’re putting your money, understanding risks and return potential, and being comfortable with the outcomes you may be presented with.

Read up on investment options to better assess the risks that come with available methods. Ask family members, friends and advisors what they’re investing in, and use charts or graphs available on the internet to see how those stocks and sectors are performing.

Ask how these people are investing, as well. Do they prefer direct investments, apps or specific investment platforms? Do they choose specific stocks or funds on their own, or do they rely on an app or platform to choose their balances and investment options based on predetermined amounts of risk?

These factors rely heavily on spare time. Researching a stock or other investment isn’t a one and done — you have to keep tracking company news, earnings and other factors that might affect the company’s business — and its stock performance. A good investment yesterday might not still be true today. Young investors attending college or beginning their first full-time jobs post-graduation may not all want to conduct consistent, time-consuming research when there are accessible experts who can. If this applies to you, consider automated investing apps such as Betterment or Acorns.

“I’ve heard so many new strategies, but almost always, those involve unrealistic expectations for both my skill and time commitment,” said Ben Zhu, a senior at New York University. “Maintain a realistic, but still cautiously optimistic perspective.”

Find investment methods that work for you

In doing your homework, you will come to find investment methods rely heavily on personal preferences. An expansive number of available investment options gives new investors the flexibility to identify methods aligned with their interests and levels of risk tolerance.

Apps such as Robinhood, Acorns Invest, Betterment, SoFi Invest and Stash are among many platforms for new investors who can create accounts and develop low-stake investments.

Stephanie Guild, Robinhood’s senior director of investment strategy, explains how these buy-ins work at her company in particular.

“At Robinhood, for example, we have fractional shares, so you can start building a portfolio for as little as a dollar,” Guild said. “You can actually buy a stock for $1, and in markets like the ones that we have, where they’ve been going down more than they’ve been going up, using tools like dollar-cost averaging which allows you to little by little add to positions over time and get some stuff on sale — more on sale than they would have been maybe originally — that can really compound wealth over time.”

Many of these apps allow beginning investors to look at exchange-traded funds, or “ETFs.” These are groups of assets that allow investors to buy exposure to entire markets or types of industries, from technology to real estate, by grouping individual stocks into a fund traded on a stock exchange.

“If you are a new investor, an ETF or exchange-traded fund is the best way to keep your life simple,” said Williams, who advises beginning investors to lower potential risks by seeking out funds, not individual shares. “Be well diversified so that you are not taking on too much risk, and be in a really good position.”

Another way to diversify your portfolio is by buying an index fund, such as one that mirrors the S&P 500. Index funds contain a wide range of companies and are another way to diversify holdings and limit risk. Whether a single stock soars or crashes, it won’t take an entire index with it.

“Right now, I think, is an excellent opportunity to actually have a diversified portfolio and benefit from some of the dislocations that we’ve seen in the fixed income market,” Bitterly said.

If you care to learn more about individual stocks and bonds or other types of funds, consider using low-cost trading platforms such as Schwab, TD Ameritrade or Fidelity. These platforms have minimal barriers to entry and assist new investors as they gain their footing and begin to track stock performance.

Here, new investors can look at individual stocks — shares of specific companies. They can play around with bonds, which are essentially borrowings by companies and governments that promise to repay the principle plus interest. And, they can participate in mutual funds — portfolios of stocks or bonds containing the assets of multiple investors.

“I invest in a number of mutual funds through my financial advisor with Northwestern Mutual,” said Walker, the Wisconsin senior, explaining his investment strategy. “Outside of that, I own no individual stocks.”

New investors should also consider high-yield savings and other accounts that earn interest — they offer less reward than stocks, bonds or mutual funds, but a lot less risk too.

These are a good idea for, say, emergency savings or for those investors who want to slowly grow their money but with a low tolerance for risk. Savings accounts help individuals earn interest while simultaneously setting aside capital. High-yield savings accounts pay a higher rate than typical savings accounts. Right now, for example, many of these accounts are yielding interest of 1.3% to 2%, compared with less than 0.5% for most standard savings accounts. Certificates of deposit, or “CDs,” are similar to savings accounts but they supply an even higher interest rate. The only catch is that you have to keep your money locked up for a certain period of time (often one year or more) or incur a penalty for early withdrawal.

High-yield savings accounts or CDs issued by banks are also backed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

Steer clear of the herd

Online influence and the rise of digital communities are sneaky – and may skew your investment goals if you get wrapped up in them. So, take what you learn into consideration but at the end of the day, make your own decisions – don’t just follow the herd.

A good example of this was GameStop during the Reddit “rebellion” of January 2021. Rapidly rising stock seemed attractive, but the underlying business and the valuation of shares didn’t justify the runup.

The result? Dramatic losses.

“It is imperative that one understands the inherent risk in any investment, let alone the risks associated with the trendy meme stock of the day,” Adami explained.

Meme stocks — company shares experiencing increased popularity through social media — are quick to develop large followings, which may appear persuasive. This is the herd, and you want to stay away from it unless it’s chasing a single-stock name you support after doing your own research.

Adami likes single-stock investments as they allow individuals to “invest in what they know,” a mantra made popular by famous investors like Warren Buffett and Peter Lynch.

“It is remarkable how many publicly traded companies we encounter, know, visit [and] frequent in our everyday lives,” Adami said. “The information we can glean from ‘just paying attention’ to what is happening at these stores, restaurants, websites, malls, etc. provides a treasure trove of investable information if one is open to observation through that lens.”

Maintain a schedule

Establishing a routine is necessary after making your first investments. Schedule a time to regularly check in on your investments, be that every week, biweekly or once a month.

Assess how well – or not so well – you’re doing in the market. While experts recommend time in the market, you are not obligated to stick with a stock or fund that pushes the financial boundaries of your risk tolerance. Consistent underperformance may be a good excuse for you to cash out of an investment and put that money toward a new share – and maybe take advantage of a loss that can help reduce income taxes. Or, you might decide to ride it out and invest for the long term, especially if the company or investment shows growth potential.

“Other than buying the occasional dip, I have a much more long-term strategy in mind,” said Walker of his portfolio. “I try to keep this in mind instead of pulling all my funds when the market drops. I have time on my side as a young person in the market and want to use it to my advantage.”

Martin has a similar approach, calling his recent decision to “drop some shares” uncharacteristic of his long-run market mentality.

“I don’t just throw money into anything,” he said. “I really sit on it, watch it for a while, and then if I feel like it’s just going to continuously trend upwards over time, I usually tend to invest in that. So, there’s not a lot of ‘dropping my stock’ going on.”

The senior’s initial investment in Meta was bought around $30 per share back when the company was still known as Facebook. Today, Meta is trading around $170 per share.

Success with technology stocks helped Martin decide which investments he is attracted to, as well as which investments he would like to avoid. Now he says he is trying to invest in materials, such as copper, used within technology.

Whatever your strategy, remember that nothing is guaranteed. So, you should only invest money if you are prepared to lose it. But, if you do your homework like Walker and Martin and invest while you’re young, you have the potential to profit.

“The key to both investing and trading is to have a well thought out plan ahead of time and sticking to that plan regardless of what is happening around you,” Adami said. “Ben Franklin said it first, and many have taken ownership since, the adage ‘If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail’ is true in investing, and it is true in every other facet of life.”

Jessica Sonkin
Jessica Sonkin