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How to Invest in Stocks if You Have $5,000

You’ve dutifully and painfully set aside part of your paycheck each month. You finally have $5,000 saved, with which you could make a down payment on a car, invest in stocks, or buy diamond-studded headphones. These are clearly the only options! But if you’re ready to start playing the stock market, here are some tips and general rules of thumb before you get started.

First, determine if you should even use your savings to invest.

Experts agree that if this is your only $5,000, don’t put it in the stock market. Instead, make sure you have an emergency fund set up. Three to six months’ worth of expenses is a good rule of thumb, says Amin Dabit, director of advisory services at Personal Capital, an online financial advisor. He recommends looking at your income stability to determine where in that range you should fall. For instance, if your income is more variable — say you work in sales or freelance full-time — consider leaning toward six months. But a $500 to $1,000 cushion is better than nothing, says Arielle O’Shea, an investing and retirement specialist at NerdWallet, a personal finance website.

Actually set concrete financial goals. Or prioritize existing ones.

Determining your financial goals can be anxiety-inducing because you’re forced to examine your life goals. Do you plan to get married? Do you want to have kids? When do you want to retire? Is it too late to turn your dog into an Instagram brand and just live off his earnings? “One of the best ways to prioritize your goals is to leverage online tools to get a picture of your overall financial life and then assess your situation,” says Dabit.

For example: Don’t get into the stock market if you’ll need that money in two years to go back to school or buy a car. “The idea of investing is that inherently you’re doing it for a long time,” says O’Shea. “You don’t want to invest in stocks you need in the next five years.” You’ll want those five years to ride out any market volatility.

Nobody likes to lose, but figure out how much of a risk-taker you are.

If you’ve got at least five years, index funds are great for diversification. For the uninitiated: An index fund is a basket of investments designed to track performance of a certain index. One of the best known indexes is the S&P 500, which comprises stock from around 500 of the largest U.S. companies.

Think of index funds like a bento box — you get to invest a little across a bunch of companies through one swift transaction. Look for index funds that have an expense ratio (a fee that covers administrative and management costs) that’s less than half a percent, says O’Shea. Some are less than 0.10 percent.

Be honest with yourself: Are you comfortable taking a 15 percent hit? What about 30 percent? If you can’t stomach that kind of risk, the stock market may not be for you. Consider an FDIC-insured CD or high-yield savings account (more than 0.10 percent), says Dabit.

Bonds are another option for the risk-averse, adds O’Shea. Think of a bond as an IOU. You lend $1,000 to an organization, say your local government, to build a new school and you’ll receive the $1,000 back plus interest over a set number of years. Because a bond is considered a very low-risk investment, the interest is relatively low. (Bonus: Interest from state and local bonds are not subject to federal taxes.)

Take advantage of your job, for a change. Maximize its matching plan.

You work tirelessly for your company — the last thing you want to do is leave free money on the table. Be sure to take advantage of employee-sponsored retirement plans and max out any matching, says O’Shea. If you have a 401(k), chances are you’re already investing in the stock market, likely through an index fund. O’Shea suggests socking away 10 to 15 percent of your pre-tax income for retirement. Dabit makes a similar recommendation: Put aside 20 percent to retire, pay off debt and save for long-term goals like a college fund.

“Just because a goal is short-term doesn’t mean it has to be a priority over a long-term one,” says Dabit.

Open your account and decide if you want to work with a robo-adviser or a broker.

If you’re ready to start buying stocks and managing your portfolio, you’ll need to open a brokerage account. You can choose from a plethora of options for online as well as brick-and-mortar brokerage firms.

If you’re more interested in managing your social calendar than your investments, consider a robo-adviser, a cheaper alternative to a real-life investment manager. You’ll start by answering questions about your goals, risk and time horizon and typically pay a fee around 0.25 percent. A robo-adviser takes the legwork out of selecting and managing your investments (not just limited to stocks). “This is really great for people just starting out or who don’t have complicated financial situations,” says O’Shea.

The most important thing to consider when shopping for a broker, says Dabit, is to communicate directly with a fiduciary — someone who is working in your best financial interest and not driven by, say, commission. Titles can be confusing. The best way to find out is to straight up ask: Are you a fiduciary? “If they’re hemming and hawing—– if they don’t know right away — they’re probably not,” he says.

Some firms offer robo-accounts alongside traditional brokerage accounts.

Minimums won’t be a concern if you have $5,000 burning a hole in your pocket. But you do need to watch out for fees. Look for no-fees accounts and watch for inactivity fees, which penalize you for not making frequent trades.

Consider a Roth IRA if your heart or bank account aren’t fully in it.

If you’re unsure what your goals are, O’Shea recommends a Roth IRA, a retirement account that gives you some flexibility. You can contribute up to $5,500 a year and pay taxes now — meaning you don’t pay taxes when you cash out. The IRS lets you withdraw your contribution (but not the earnings from the $5,000) at any time even though a Roth IRA is designed as a retirement account. “No questions asked, no penalties,” says O’Shea.

Like with any investment, though, your money may be worth less than what you put in once you’re ready to cash out. Still, a Roth IRA could be a great back-up fund.

Whether you’re meeting long- or short-term goals, there’s no fixed path. We realize stock talk isn’t always the most exciting but reading tips and seeking advice — and being savvy about your sources — is the best place to start.