Investing $5,000 when you don't want to keep it in the bank

If you’ve managed to scrape together some savings, keeping it in the bank doesn’t look too crash hot.

While you won’t lose money, with interest rates as low as they are, you won’t get much bang for your buck.

It’s the dilemma facing Liz Thomas, a commercial pilot living in Cairns.

“I’ve turned 30 now, and I have some money sitting in the bank. It’s not a huge amount, but I just feel that it’s a bit of a waste that it’s not being invested,” she says.

To help Liz — and everyone else with a decent but not extravagant amount of money to work with — we asked two investment experts for their tips.

To keep things simple, we asked them what they’d do with $5,000, but their advice will be just as useful to those working with smaller sums.

Pay off high-interest debt first

First things first. If you have credit card debt, a car loan or a personal loan, it’s nearly always going to be better for you to pay down the debt than invest elsewhere.

“Paying off a credit card or personal loan charging 10 per cent or more would be a better way to get ahead than making an investment,” says personal finance educator Owen Raszkiewicz.

“You’re guaranteed to save money, it feels great and it’s simple.”

Three questions to ask yourself before you start investing

How long are you prepared to leave the money invested?

As boring as it might seem, if you’re saving for a house, a holiday or a wedding in a few years, it’s likely you’re going to be best off leaving the money in the bank.

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If you’re thinking about taking a riskier route — like an investment in the share market — you need to have a longer time frame.

For Mr Raszkiewicz, three years is the absolute minimum for investing in shares; ideally, you want to be comfortable leaving the money invested for 10.

The reason? The longer you are invested, the more likely you’re going to be able to recover from bad years in the market.

If you invested 10 years ago in an exchange-traded fund (ETF) that tracked the average return of the Australian stock market, you would have earned about 8 per cent each year including dividends.

But it wouldn’t have been a smooth ride. During the 11-month period between late January 2008 and New Year’s Eve that year, the same investment would have lost 34 per cent of its value.

How much are you willing to lose?

As soon as you start looking beyond the safety of term deposits and savings accounts, you run the risk of losing money, says independent financial adviser Debbie Lin.

“You need to set a goal, know your time frame and be realistic,” she says.

If you don’t invest, what’s your best alternative?

By choosing to invest, you miss out on using the money elsewhere. Keep in mind if you have a home loan, you take no risk by paying down the mortgage or putting some money in an offset account.

It’s not investing per se, but you’re still getting ahead financially.

If you don’t have a mortgage, your next-best option is likely to be a savings account or term deposit. While you won’t get a great return, your savings account isn’t going to drop 30 per cent if there’s a recession either.

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If you have debt, paying it off could be a better option than investing elsewhere.(Unsplash: Rupixen)

How to get started in shares

Australian shares have been a great long-term investment, providing both dividends and capital growth. If you’re starting out with $5,000, Mr Raszkiewicz suggests sticking to a low-cost ETF.

He suggests looking at the popular ETFs that track the top 200 (ASX200) or top 300 (ASX300) shares listed in Australia. These also tend to be the funds with the lowest costs, which make them a good starting point for beginner investors.

Other ETFs can give you access to the US and other international share markets, bonds (which are basically IOUs from government and banks) and other assets.

There are also “ethical” ETFs that screen out shares in tobacco and other companies that you might not like to associate with. Whatever you choose, it’s a good idea to diversify so your eggs aren’t all in one basket, says Ms Lin.

“You can always split up your $5,000. Depending on what you’re comfortable with, you could put some in Australian shares, some in international shares and some in bonds,” she says.

The stock exchange, the ASX, keeps a list of exchange-traded products. Keep an eye on the fees, and make sure you read the product disclosure statements before making an investment.

Wait, how do I actually buy shares?

Cheap, online share brokerage services are available from all the major banks and specialist providers, but the application process can be quite involved.

Once you’ve opened an account and deposited some money — which you should be able to do via bank transfer or BPAY — you’re ready to get started.

You’ll need to know the ticker code of the product you want to buy to place an order. Typically, it will cost you $10-$20 in brokerage fees each time you buy or sell shares.

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What about investing in property?

If you’re planning on buying a property in the next few years, the bank could be the best place to park your money.(ABC Everyday: Luke Tribe)

If you plan to buy your own house in the next few years, Ms Lin recommends you keep saving.

You can access property with smaller amounts via the share market by purchasing listed property ETFs or real estate investment trusts. Like most investments, there will be fees and risks involved, so make sure to do your research.

Pros and cons of putting extra money into super

While it might not sound very exciting, putting your extra money in super could be an extremely sensible option.

Your super fund already invests in stocks, bonds, property and other interesting things, and you might be eligible for a tax benefit.

The downside is that any money put into super is locked up for decades. Most people won’t be able to access their super until at least their 60s.

There is an exception under the Government’s First Home Super Saver Scheme, which allows people to access voluntary super contributions for a house deposit under certain circumstances.

“There are a few hoops to jump through with your super fund and the ATO (note: an accountant can help),” Mr Raszkiewicz says.

“Also, keep in mind it typically has to be your first house and there are other criteria, like limits on how much you can add each year, and you must use the money to buy or build a property within 12 months of getting it out of super.”

This article contains general information only. It should not be relied on as finance or tax advice. You should obtain specific, independent professional advice from a registered tax agent or financial adviser in relation to your particular circumstances and issues.