Investing apps make it easy for beginners. Here’s how I started.

Video how to start investing with robinhood

Although I’ve written and edited stories about the stock market, I’ve never thought about being a player in it. To me, investing meant rich white men running around the NYSE floor yelling “buy…sell” for some unexplained reason. And until recently, my main financial goal, like that of many, was just staying afloat.

But even as this year’s fears and challenges mounted — the global pandemic, furloughs at my job, a big move — I was determined to establish a more robust rainy day fund and (if all went well) more income.

It was time to become an investor.

The stock market, however, can be daunting, especially during volatile times. But behind complicated terms and a slew of changing numbers lies an opportunity for retirement funds, emergency cash, or just another source of income.

Despite some stubborn obstacles, like a lack of financial literary and initial funds, mobile applications such as M1, Invstr, Robinhood or Acorns have certainly removed other barriers of entry for lower-income individuals to start investing.

“This could be part of a bigger-picture solution that maybe does increase the level of financial education,” says Daniel Zajac, certified financial planner and partner at Simone Zajac Wealth Management Group. “And if that’s used in the right manner … there could be value in the long run” to app investing.

A frustrated man lays his head on a table with a down stock chart in the background.

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The decision to invest may seem insensitive when so many people in our nation are unemployed and going further into debt just to survive. Their stories reminded me that we’re all at the risk of financial insecurity at the drop of a hat.

Equipped with some knowledge of the market, a clear goal in my mind was investing $100; there was no reason not to do it.

Investing involves “a massive learning curve for most people,” says Kerim Derhalli, founder and CEO of the Invstr app. “Our advice to new investors is to slow down and think long term … and the more that people can think and operate that way, the more successful they will be.”

Getting started

So first things first: It was time to get my own house in order. Something I never gave any thought was which account do you invest with? After some consideration, I opted to open a separate checking account. Personally, I’m easily overwhelmed so I don’t like having too many accounts to keep track of, but linking any investments to my regular checking account felt like I was placing all my money in the market.

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Then I had to choose the right app for investing that money. I looked into Acorns, which provides an easy method. When you make a purchase on your debit or credit card, the app rounds up to the next dollar amount, investing the difference in ways that fit your goals and appetite for risk. The app charges from $1 to $3 a month, but if you’re using it as a way to begin saving, it might be worth your consideration. While Acorns was a great option that reduced the guesswork of which specific stocks or bonds to buy, it didn’t suit me since I set up a separate account exclusively for investing. It wouldn’t be rounding up any purchases.

I wanted to make it hard on myself – for the sake of knowledge – and have the ability to choose my investments. Ultimately, I went with Robinhood.

And surprise: Robinhood gives you a free stock when you sign-up. Mind you, most of them are valued between $2.50 to $10, but it is free. A $4 value at the time, I got a share in Marathon Oil (MRO). I finally had a stock!

Claiming your free stock.

Remember I mentioned I edited market stories? Because of that, I knew my first buy would be an ETF. Exchange-traded funds are just many investments wrapped in a single package, and they trade like stocks. Think of them as a bundle filled with all the stocks in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index, or from popular parts of the market, like technology and health care.

They say invest in what you know, so I had my eye on Vanguard’s S&P 500 ETF (VOO), but at the time I was looking it was trading around $300. Fear not, you can invest however much by tapping the buy button on Robinhood. So that’s where my $100 went. The app has an automated feature where you can set periodical investments towards a specific stock. I set up a bimonthly $10 allocation to VOO.

Gauging the volatility of some investments often relies on what is going on in the news. I’m more likely to pay attention to companies I’m already partial to. And billionaire Warren Buffett agrees. He says we should all stick to areas we know when we are deciding what companies to invest in.

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“We always say to our users: being diversified is key. Recent events have demonstrated that we simply cannot know what will happen next,” Derhalli says. “When the market drops, as it is bound to, users are more likely to minimize any losses if they are diversified. On the other side, diversification also exposes them to more opportunities for positive returns.”

My new portfolio had a portion of an ETF stock and a free oil one, which in total value at the time was $104. Three days later it’s $115. I made $11 by just tapping a few buttons.

There’s really not much to it other than taking the plunge.

A mini shopping cart sits atop a laptop computer with boxes labeled ETFs, Portfolio Management, REITS and next to the cart a stack of boxes labeled Bonds, Mutual Funds, and Stocks.

Beware of the ‘gamifying’ aspect

“There are tens of millions of millennials and zoomers in the U.S. who want to take charge of their financial future. Overwhelmingly, people want to learn. They want to feel and be in control of their destinies,” says Derhalli.

Just like playing Candy Crush or Angry Birds (I’m really dating myself here), investing apps are bright, easy to follow and sometimes throw virtual confetti at you for making a stock purchase.

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But don’t be fooled by the rush of “winning” or seeing your portfolio value tick up and down. I’m already thinking what my next buy should be and how much more money I should invest because it’s so easy. And investing should be easy, but not at the cost of your mental health or financial well being.

A person looking at charts on a computer

In June, investing through Robinhood may have helped drive Alexander E. Kearns to death. His account displayed a negative $730,165 cash balance in red, which may not have represented a debt at all, but a temporary balance until the stocks underlying his assigned options settled into his account.

After his death, Robinhood founders Vlad Tenev and Baiju Bhatt announced they would be making changes to its interface, educational tools and eligibility rules for investing in options, which are complex and can be risky.

Aligning your investing goals and your level of literacy may also determine which app to use. Acorns can be set to do it for you; Robinhood encourages you to take a more active role.

But there are other options like Invstr, which provides users a Fantasy Finance game to manage a million-dollar virtual portfolio in order to build confidence before risking their own money in the markets.

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“We have had over 50,000 members go through the Invstr Academy. Their returns outperform massively people who don’t use the Academy,” said Derhalli. “We have had 70,000 private leagues created – mini communities within the larger Invstr family. When they invest real money, they start with modest amounts, such as $200 to $300 to test the platform and their skills.”

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Here’s a secret: There’s no actual way to predict how the market will behave on any given day. I see it as a hive mind of individuals who are worried about their money. For example, when Elon Musk smoked weed on the Joe Rogan show two years ago, Tesla’s stock plummeted by 6%. (Personally, I don’t care if Musk is blazed but the majority of people investing in Tesla seemed to think it was an issue.)

What now?

Talk to a financial planner: Take a closer look at your finances and determine if investing is right for you at this moment. While you can search for financial advisers in your area, sometimes your employer provides the service for free or at a reduced price. You can also check with your bank. You also need to establish what your goal is with investing: Do you want to set up a retirement account or maybe just generate some quick cash? And consider the level of risk you are willing to take.

Look at your platform options: I know I’ve focused on mobile apps, but maybe something that’s not in your hands 24/7 works better for you. You can also consider more traditional investment avenues like Fidelity or Charles Schwab.

Keep learning: Most of the investment apps discussed here have an education section (Robinhood, Acorns or Stash), but continuous learning is the only way to feel confident about your investment moves. You can follow the work of Jason Zweig at The Wall Street Journal, Mrs. Dow Jones at her own website or NPR’s Planet Money on TikTok.

Josh Rivera is a Money & Tech NOW editor at USA TODAY.

This column should not be considered financial advice. Contact a professional financial planner to determine if investing is right for you and how it fits into your personal finance goals. The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.