How to Invest $500

Big things can have small beginnings: $500 is enough to open an account and start investing.

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If investing feels like a rich person’s game, it’s not your imagination: Many investments cater to the wealthy. But there are plenty of ways to invest with a smaller amount like $500.

After all, regularly investing those small chunks over a long time horizon just might be the single best path to building wealth — especially if you have high-interest credit card debt paid off and you're contributing enough to earn any available 401(k) match from your employer.

With brokers and robo-advisors requiring low minimums, it’s possible for anyone to get in on the action. Here are five points to consider when investing $500.

1. Select an investment account

If you're not already saving for retirement — or you are, but not enough — the best place for this money is an individual retirement account.

IRAs are specifically designated for retirement, which means you get tax perks for contributing. There are two main kinds: A traditional IRA gives you an upfront tax deduction, but you'll pay taxes when you take distributions in retirement. With a Roth IRA, you earn no tax benefit today, but you can pull out money in retirement tax-free. Both accounts have rules around contributions and distributions.

You can open an IRA at any online broker or robo-advisor. The process takes less than 15 minutes and can typically be done completely online.

If you're on track for retirement or this money is earmarked for a different long-term goal, you can open a taxable brokerage account instead. This is an all-purpose account with no special tax breaks, which means the money can be used for any reason and there are no rules around how much you can contribute and when you can take withdrawals.

» Want to compare options? Check out our full list of the best online stock brokers for beginners.

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2. Choose hands-on or hands-off investing

Did you go to Google for investing advice because you think $500 isn't enough money to get professional help? Not so. If what you really want is someone to invest this money for you, you should know about robo-advisors.

Robo-advisors will build an investment portfolio for you, based on information you share like your goals and risk tolerance. They're one of the best ways to invest a small amount of money. You'll pay a small management fee for the service, but that fee is typically a percentage of assets under management, which means the amount you pay is tied to your account balance.

» Need help investing? Learn about robo-advisors

If you'd rather learn how to invest this money so you can DIY going forward, read on for the best strategies.

3. DIY investor? Use commission-free ETFs

If you'd rather use this money to learn how to invest so you can do it yourself going forward, that’s a sound strategy, too. However, it’s tough to buy enough individual stocks with $500 to adequately diversify that money. Diversification is important because it spreads your investment around — when one investment goes down, another might go up, balancing things out.

Enter exchange-traded funds. ETFs are a kind of mutual fund, meaning they allow you to purchase a number of different investments in a single transaction. In the case of ETFs, the investments within the fund are designed to track an index, such as the Standard & Poor's 500. When you buy an S&P 500 ETF, it should closely mirror the performance of the S&P 500. Many brokers, especially those geared toward new investors or retirement investors, offer a list of commission-free ETFs that can be traded at no cost.

ETFs are a particularly good choice if you have a smaller amount of money to invest.

ETFs are a particularly good choice if you have a smaller amount of money to invest: They trade through an exchange like a stock; as such, they are purchased for a share price. You could get a few ETFs and be fairly well diversified for $500. Future investments could boost that diversification further. The caveat here? Because ETFs are traded like a stock, they can be subject to broker stock trading commissions, which can quickly eat into the amount you have available to invest.

» Want more options? See a list of the 12 best investments for any age or income

4. Keep cash invested for 5 years or more

Money you need for a financial goal in the next five years shouldn't be invested at all, as you don't have time to ride out the waves of the market. Money for a long-term goal such as retirement should be invested. Time allows your money to grow and bounce back from short-term market fluctuations.

The potential payoff: $500 invested at a 7% return for 30 years will grow to close to $4,000.

Use this windfall to kickstart an investment savings habit by opening an account and auto-contributing $100 more per month.

No, it’s not a ton of cash, but it is eight times your initial investment. Even better would be to use this windfall to kickstart an investment-savings habit by opening an account and auto-contributing $100 more per month. For example, open a Roth IRA with $500 and contribute $100 a month, and after 30 years and with a 7% rate of return, that cash will grow to $122,000.

5. Need the cash sooner? Consider these

With any investment, the more time it has to grow, the better. But life often gets in the way. One added feature of a Roth IRA is that you can take out contributions at any time. (This differs from the rules about earnings, which you have to wait at least five years to withdraw from a Roth IRA. And with traditional IRAs, you have to pay taxes plus a 10% penalty for most withdrawals before the age of 59½.)

If you want to hold on to the cash for a rainy day by feeding your emergency fund, that’s OK, too. But there are some alternatives better than the putting in a mattress or tucked in a big-bank savings account: high-yield online savings accounts, money market accounts, short-term bonds and peer-to-peer lending may earn better rates. (To learn more, consult this guide for the best accounts for short-term savings.)

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