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The earlier you invest, the more money you can make from the investments. Because of this, college is a great time to start investing.
In addition to making more money by investing young, college students who invest also learn valuable financial skills.
You may already be convinced you should invest while in college but feel unclear about the details.
Let’s go over what types of investments you should buy, where to store them, how much to invest, how to balance student loan payments with investments, and more.
Investing as a College Student – What to Consider
When learning how to invest as a college student, you should have some guidelines in mind to invest. Take a look at the rules of thumb below when starting to invest money.
1. Risk is Your Friend
All investments involve risk, but some have more risk than others. Frequently, the riskier investments also tend to represent the ones where you may earn the highest returns.
When you’re in college, it benefits you to have aggressive investments. The earlier you start investing, the riskier your investments can be.
This doesn’t mean you should put all your money into a brand new cryptocurrency or overhyped penny stock. Yes, you can put some money in the riskiest investments, but you want your portfolio diversified.
To have an aggressive portfolio means you should invest in riskier types of investments, such as stocks, over safer investments, like bonds. Money in a standard savings account can end up losing value through inflation over time.
With time on your side, you can wait out any temporary downturns in your investments’ values.
Aggressive investments can grow substantially, and if you reinvest your earnings, the gains compound.
Wait until you’re much closer to retirement before making your investment account more conservative and having a significant portion of bonds and other safer investments.
2. Think Long-Term vs. Short-Term
You hold long-term investments for years or even decades. Short-term investments only stay in your portfolio for shorter periods—think months, not years. These help you to meet your financial goals quickly and without much risk.
It may feel that it’s too early to start saving for retirement. Still, every dollar you invest today should be worth more than if you invest that same amount in a decade—significantly if you invest in a diversified stock portfolio.
Compound interest powers long-term investing outcomes and allows the underlying investments time to survive through one or several economic cycles. When you reinvest investment dividends, your returns compound over time.
For example, if you invested $10,000 in a stock market ETF and had an 8% return for the year, you would gain $800. Your investment would amount to $10,800.
Another 8% return on top of the $10,800, and your investment would grow to $11,664 the following year. Continue that pattern for several decades, and you’ll have significantly more money.
While this return signifies what an average annual return might look like, most years will differ significantly from this average. Most years will yield returns lower or higher but converge on a more moderate average rate over time.
Look into industries you think will grow substantially in the future, buy stocks in those companies, and plan to hold them for the foreseeable future.
Suppose you invest in the stock market for a single year. In that case, you face a chance of losing money instead of it appreciating in value.
Comparatively, you face almost certainty of having stock market investments generate positive returns in the stock market when you remain invested for 20+ years.
3. Only Invest What You Can Afford
As soon as you have expenses and a source of money, you should create a budget.
Look at your budget and calculate how much you can afford to invest each month.
College students have a lot of hidden expenses, so don’t invest more than you can afford. Focus on creating an emergency savings account first. You can hold this balance in a teen checking account as you enter college.
Likewise, you can hold the balance in a high-yield checking or savings account from an online-only bank like Axos Bank.
Some types of investments are illiquid and don’t let you withdraw funds right away. Your money remains in the investment until you reach a set age, a designated amount of time has passed, or the investment matures.
Other investments, such as certain retirement accounts, charge a high penalty if you withdraw funds early. You don’t want to invest every spare dollar you have and then face penalties when you need to take money out for essentials or an emergency.
You might consider liquid investments you can sell at any time, such as stocks or ETFs in accounts held with standard stock trading apps. However, value can fluctuate, and if you pull your investments out at the wrong time, you might lose money rather than gain it.
Only invest what you can afford, so investing gains you money instead of making you lose it through fees or market fluctuations.
4. Invest Early, Invest Often
You don’t need to wait until you’ve saved up a significant amount of money to start investing in stocks.
Investment transactions used to be more expensive, but now your online brokerage account will likely charge you little to no fees for investing.
You can get started by investing small amounts of money and continuing to make minor contributions whenever you have money available. Some micro-investing apps will even invest your spare money for you automatically.
For example, the Acorns app will round up your linked credit or debit card purchases and invest the rounded-up amount. Let’s say you spend $10.28 on a purchase. The app will round it up to $11 and invest 72 cents for you.
Alternatively, you can have funds sent to your brokerage account automatically each pay period or month from a bank account.
Don’t wait until you feel like you have “spare” money to invest. Have it as part of your budget by including it as a budget category.
Similar amounts of money contributed earlier will be worth far more down the road.
Some people even invest less than their peers overall. They can still end up with more investment gains simply because they invested earlier and let the money continuously grow in value.
Make investing a lifelong habit to see the best results. The best investing apps for beginners make it easy to contribute regularly and grow your balance over time.
Can a College Student Invest in Stocks?
Yes, college students can and should learn to invest in stocks.
Investing is different than saving. You might put money in a savings account or simply let it accumulate in a checking account.
You know precisely what your money will be worth when you use it. However, any growth is minimal.
Saving is a wise move for college students, especially if they don’t have an emergency fund yet. Still, it isn’t the same as investing.
When you invest your money, you’re making your investment work for you as it earns dividends, increases in value, or both. You don’t need a substantial amount of time or money to get started.
You can sign up with an online discount broker by providing little more than your identification information. Many online brokerages charge no fees for buying and selling stocks.
If you want help with your investment portfolio, you may choose to use a robo-advisor.
These automate your investment portfolio by making contributions into suitable investments meant to align with your financial goals, timeline and risk tolerance.
As discussed a bit above, another option to consider is creating an account with a micro-investing app like Acorns.
Suppose you prefer to have a more self-directed investing experience but still rely on automation to fuel your investing. In that case, you might consider an app like M1 Finance.
This investing service allows you to design your custom portfolios with pre-made investment selections or your preferred stocks.
The service also comes with a bank account and debit card if you sign up for their M1 Plus service.
This brokerage/bank account option is the one that gives you the most control over your investments and still enables financial automation.
Best Investments to Consider as a College Student
To make a lot of money off stocks, you need to have a logical investing strategy and style. It’s essential to create a diversified portfolio of index funds and stocks. In general, it’s better to hold high-quality investments long-term rather than short-term.
A good investment is not always a high-yield one. But there are some with really decent returns that might be worth your while to consider.
This is especially true if college students want to look for something more long-term and don’t want to be stressed by watching the constant fluctuations in price or worrying about liquidity.
Initial investment options to consider so you can begin investing include stocks, ETFs and mutual funds.
When many people think about high-yield, high-return investment options, most people tend first to consider stocks.
Investing in stocks is an investment you make by purchasing tiny fractions of ownership in a public company. These small fractional ownership pieces are called shares of a company’s stock.
By investing in their stock, you’re making a bet that the company grows and performs well over time.
You can invest in companies known for financial stability that deliver consistent performance, returns and dividends over time.
These companies are like the “Steady Eddies” recommended by a stock picking service like Motley Fool’s Stock Advisor—or you can go for companies focused on growing rapidly.
If you make wise investments and the company you select grows and performs well, the shares you hold may become more valuable. In turn, they become more desirable to other investors who now have a willingness to pay more for them than you did.
These appreciating assets allow you to earn a return when you sell your stocks down the road.
One of the best ways for those who want to grow their wealth with minimal risk is by investing in stocks of established companies.
The average stock market return has been about 10% per year over the last several decades.
This doesn’t mean every year will return this amount—some may be higher, some may be lower. Just remember, that’s an average across the entire market and multiple years.
If you own individual stocks, their returns vary even more on corporate performance and future-looking investment decisions.
The stock market is a good investment for long-term investors no matter what’s happening day-to-day or year-to-year; they want long-term capital appreciation in growth companies and dividend stocks alike.
Holding equities over long periods is a surefire way to learn how to increase net worth.
Getting started in the stock market can be a daunting task for beginners, though it doesn’t need to be.
The best investing apps for beginners make the process painless and straightforward to get started and continue growing your investment account balance for many years to come.
→ Growth Stocks
Investing is a way of setting aside money that will work for you so in the future, you can reap all the benefits from your hard work. Investing is a means of achieving one’s better future.
Perhaps said best by legendary investor Warren Buffett, investing is “…the process of laying out money now to receive more money in the future.”
Investing aims to put your money to work and grow it over time. Growth stocks take this to another level by seeking capital appreciation as their main investing goal.
Growth stocks belong to growth-oriented businesses, including industries such as technology, healthcare and consumer goods.
Growth companies traditionally work well for investors focused on the future potential of companies.
Growth companies focus on reinvestment and continuous innovation, which typically leads them to pay little to no dividends to stockholders, opting instead to put most or all its profits back into expanding its business.
Despite constantly reinvesting in the business, growth stocks are not without risk. Companies can make poor decisions, markets overvalue stocks, and economic mishaps can derail companies with even the best prospects.
However, for growth stocks as a whole, they tend to provide the best return on investment over time if you can tolerate the volatility that comes with them.
But, take risks cautiously. While growth companies have a higher probability of providing an excellent return when compared to other types of investments, you should balance how much risk you are willing to tolerate.
Some companies grow at breakneck speed but have valuations to match. Taking on too much risk can undermine a portfolio and tank returns.
Instead, you might consider investing in a growth-oriented investment fund through a robo-advisor service like M1 Finance with their Domestic Growth and Global Growth Expert Portfolio Pies.
These invest in U.S. and global-based growth equities, respectively and purchase broad swaths of growth companies and not just concentrate your risk in a handful.
2. Index Fund Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs)
Thanks to events like the Gamestop market mania of early 2021, or the sudden rise of Dogecoin, SPACs or other meme stocks, many people expect quick and high returns on investing in the stock market. But because of its volatility, this is not guaranteed.
One way to diffuse this risk and still earn good returns over time, consider using index funds as an ETF to build diversification into your portfolio.
For beginning investors, using these funds to build entire investment portfolios can make a lot of sense. They provide instant diversification with low costs all-in-one investment. Over time, these are safe investments that build considerable wealth.
To understand what makes diversification powerful, let’s go through a thought experiment on these long-term-oriented, low-risk investments.
What’s better than one company that generates an average annual return of 10%? Two companies that earn an average annual return of 10%.
What’s even better than that? Thousands of companies taken together that generate this kind of return consistently.
Why? Because any one company can befall a disaster, suffer a significant setback or even go out of business. Your risk tolerance need not be as high to invest in these safe investments (over long periods).
Suppose you own shares of a fund holding stock of different companies. In that case, you avoid torpedoing your portfolio because you spread the risk out to several companies.
While markets overall can drop in tandem on major economic news, by holding several companies in index funds simultaneously, your portfolio won’t take on any added risk of specific companies failing.
If you can hold through this market tumult and continue to stand firm for years to follow, the market has always rewarded you in the last century.
As an example, think back to the Great Recession back in 2008. If you had owned an S&P 500 index fund, your eyes might have watered as you saw your position lose almost half its value in just a few months.
But, if you managed to hold, your same S&P 500 index fund investment would have averaged 18% per year over the next decade. Just imagine if you’d bought more of the index fund when it fell!
The lesson here? Suppose you can see your stock portfolio as an illiquid basket of securities and can only add to them. In that case, you can rest easy knowing your money will come back strong over the long term.
3. Mutual Funds (All-in-One Investment Portfolio)
Investing can be a daunting task for any investor. Still, many believe that young investors benefit from setting up mutual fund accounts at an early age.
These investment vehicles act like ETFs by purchasing a securities bundle attempting to fulfill some stated investment aim.
Mutual funds build portfolios of underlying investments through pooling your money with that of other investors.
This creates a more extensive collection of stocks, bonds and other investments, called a portfolio. Most come with a minimum initial investment requirement.
When a mutual fund’s securities’ values change, the net asset value (NAV) adjusts accordingly by calculating how much more—or less—the fund would have to sell its investments for to fulfill shareholder redemptions.
This price changes based on the securities’ value in your portfolio at the end of each market trading day.
Owning a mutual fund in and of itself does not grant the investor ownership to the underlying securities. They only own the mutual fund shares themselves.
Mutual funds can be stock funds, bond funds, a combination of them or investments in other assets.
Retirees tend to hold a combination of stock funds and bond funds in their retirement portfolios because they both can pay dividends and deliver the upside of stock investments.
Mutual funds come in two types: passively managed and actively managed mutual funds.
Managers of an active mutual fund management company buy and sell investments based on their stock research and the fund’s investment strategy.
The goal of portfolio management is typically to outperform a comparable benchmark—a commonly used but risky approach.
Passively managed mutual funds attempt to recreate the performance of a benchmark index like the S&P 500, Dow Jones Industrial Average or Barclays Corporate Bond Index. These are simply index funds but in mutual fund form.
You can invest in mutual funds through:
All of these types of investment accounts will allow you to reap the long-term rewards of compounding returns in a diversified investment.
Should You Invest if You Have Student Loans?
You never want to default on your student loans. Doing so would substantially hurt your credit score, possibly result in wage or tax refund garnishment, or even have the loan servicer sue you.
The question isn’t about whether you should always make your student loan payments (you should!) but instead what you should do with other money you have.
Let’s say you earn enough money to cover your expenses and have a fully-funded emergency fund.
Should you use the extra money, such as a stimulus check, to pay more towards your student loans? Or should you invest it?
In general, when people have debt, it’s advised to compare the interest rates on your debt to the expected returns on investments.
For this reason, it’s usually advised to pay off credit card debt before investing because credit card interest rates can be extremely high.
However, many types of student loans have low interest rates. The average interest rate for federal student loans falls between 2.75% and 5.30%.
Private student loans typically have higher rates, often double digits. The stock market averages a 10% return per year (slightly less after accounting for inflation).
Suppose your student loan interest rates are lower than what you can make through the stock market. In that case, it’s often wise to invest simultaneously while paying off your student loans rather than paying extra towards your loans.
This strategy assumes you have fixed-rate loans.
For example, let’s say you’ve calculated that you have an extra $100 you can contribute either to your student loan balance or invest towards retirement each month.
You currently have a student loan of $28,000 with a 5% interest rate and a monthly payment of $296.
You’ve opened an investment account and put in an initial $1,000 but haven’t added to it yet. You’re expecting the stock market to have a 10% annual return rate.
If you choose to pay an extra $100 per month towards your loan, you could pay off the loan in seven years and save $2,435 overall.
Comparatively, if you invested $100 every month in that same seven years, you could earn an extra $8,400. This is a situation where you should be investing while you still have student loans.
How do You Invest and Manage Student Loan Debt?
It can be challenging to pay for essentials (food, shelter, etc.), chisel away at student loan debt, save for a house, and still invest as much money as you want to.
According to a TIAA-MIT AgeLab study, 84% of American adults say student loans negatively impact how much they can save for retirement.
Some people can’t make any retirement contributions at all, and 26% of those people blame their student loan debt as the reason.
Ideally, you pay off your student loans and invest simultaneously. Your student loans likely have lower interest rates than market returns.
How much money a person can invest varies significantly. You don’t want to default on your student loans, so always pay your minimums.
Only invest small amounts if that is all you can afford. For most people, it makes sense to prioritize investing over paying ahead on student loans. Compare your loan interest rates and expected market return to see if this is true for you.
Even if you can only invest a few dollars each month, it will make a difference. Unexpected money, such as a prize or tax return, represents excellent investment opportunities as it doesn’t hurt your budget.
If your budget is too tight to manage your student loan payments and invest, make your loan payments. Look into refinancing your student loans with a service like Splash Financial. You may be able to lower your monthly payments and then have extra monthly cash to invest.
What is the Best Investment Plan for a Student?
An investment plan considers your financial goals to determine what you should invest in, how long you hold your investments and other investing details.
No one investment plan works universally for all students. While students’ investments plans should have similarities because they are around the same age, the specifics may vary.
When creating an investment plan, new investors should start by writing down realistic, specific goals. The goal of “becoming a billionaire as soon as possible” represents a vague and unrealistic goal.
A better goal would be to “have $1,000,000 in retirement savings by age 65.” After setting your goals, calculate how much you would have to invest each month to make that goal a reality.
It’s a bit trickier to estimate investment earnings than what you would make with the money in a high-yield savings account. Investor.gov has a compound interest calculator that can help you estimate your earnings.
Remember, these aren’t the exact numbers you will eventually earn. Depending on how the market performs over the years, you may have more or less money in your account.
After calculating what you would need to invest monthly, see if it is realistic in your budget after subtracting living expenses. Adjust your goal and monthly investment budget if necessary.
You can then choose your investment style. College students with long-term goals should invest aggressively in high-risk investments, such as stocks.
Decide what types of investments you want, let’s say a mix of stocks and index funds to start. You’ll then need to pick your specific investments.
Always thoroughly research investments with websites and other apps or tools before purchasing.
Learn what data investors look at when researching stocks and have set criteria that investments need to pass for you to invest in them.
You don’t want to make a purchasing decision based on a fear of missing out (FOMO) or a biased internet thread.
Your investment plan might include a step where you consult with professionals, whether from a stock investment newsletter you subscribe to like the Motley Fool, a robo-advisor, or a certified financial advisor.
Track your investment plan and make adjustments as you see fit.
College students should focus primarily on long-term investments, so don’t stress too much about temporary downturns. Allow the market to correct itself.
Is a Roth IRA Good for a College Student?
A Roth IRA is one of the best investments a college student can make when they start investing because of the tax benefits.
The vast majority of college students will end up making more money post-college than during college. A Roth IRA lets you take advantage of your currently low tax rate. Money contributed to a Roth IRA is after-tax money set aside toward retirement.
Since you’ve already paid taxes on the money, you get tax-free withdrawals later when you’re likely in a higher tax bracket. You also don’t pay taxes on the capital gains.
Roth IRAs have many investment options, such as stocks, ETFs, bonds, mutual funds, REITs, and more.
Note that a student can’t contribute more to a Roth IRA than they earned that year. For example, suppose a student only made $3,000 through a part-time job. In that case, that is all the person can contribute, regardless of the current year’s maximum contribution limit.
Only the income you report to the IRS counts, and scholarship money or money from parents doesn’t count.
A college student has more options for using a Roth IRA than just saving the entire account for retirement. Once you’ve gotten a job after graduation, you’re allowed to take distributions up to $10,000 to use towards buying a first home.
Distributions also won’t be taxed if used for qualified higher education expenses, such as tuition, fees, or supplies.
Should College Students Invest through a Traditional IRA?
A benefit of traditional IRAs is that contributions are tax-deductible. However, most college students don’t have very high tax rates.
It’s almost always wiser for college students to invest in a Roth IRA rather than a traditional IRA.
It’s possible to contribute to both a traditional and a Roth IRA. Still, the maximum yearly contribution you can make applies to both IRAs combined. Rather than put some in each account, college students should max out their Roth IRA with the best investments, if possible.
While the Roth IRA contributions aren’t tax-deductible, they are only taxed at your current tax rate (typically low in college). You can take tax-free withdrawals later and don’t pay taxes on investment income either.
If you have money you could contribute to a traditional IRA, usually it would be best to invest it in a Roth IRA instead. Remember, you can’t contribute more than you earned that year.
How Much Money Should College Students Invest?
College students should invest as much money as they can afford after accounting for all expenses, including money towards an emergency fund. Don’t spend more than you can afford.
Some simple math can help you calculate how much you would need to invest to reach your goals. Let’s say your goal is to max out your Roth IRA for the year.
The current annual contribution maximum is $6,000. To reach your goal, you would therefore need to contribute $500 per month.
Rather than a certain number, you may choose to invest a percentage of your earnings. Let’s say you have a part-time job and a significant emergency fund built up.
You might set aside 10% of your wages to put towards investments.
If your brokerage allows fractional investing, you won’t have to wait until you have enough for a full share of a stock you desire. You can buy a partial share.
Even $20 a month helps. Once you see how your money grows, you’ll likely want to invest more.
You don’t need to invest every spare penny, and it’s fine to use some of your funds on recreational activities. Just remember that the more you invest now, the brighter financial future you will have.
About the Site Author and Blog
In 2018, I was winding down a stint in investor relations and found myself newly equipped with a CPA, added insight on how investors behave in markets, and a load of free time. My job routinely required extended work hours, complex assignments, and tight deadlines. Seeking to maintain my momentum, I wanted to chase something ambitious.
I chose to start this financial independence blog as my next step, recognizing both the challenge and opportunity. I launched the site with encouragement from my wife as a means to lay out our financial independence journey and connect with and help others who share the same goal.
I have not been compensated by any of the companies listed in this post at the time of this writing. Any recommendations made by me are my own. Should you choose to act on them, please see the disclaimer on my About Young and the Invested page.