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Investing Strategies to Grow Your Wealth During Graduate School

Tips for getting started now, even if you are on a tight budget.

April 15, 2018

Emily Roberts received a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from Duke University in 2014. She is the founder of the websites Personal Finance for PhDs, PhD Stipends, Postdoc Salaries, and Evolving Personal Finance. Connect on Twitter with @PFforPhDs.

The most important investment you make during graduate school is in your career. But alongside that primary objective, many graduate students also invest money during their training.

By far the top challenge or impediment to investing during graduate school is the low pay, and only a fraction of graduate students are financially able and ready to invest. However, investing even a small amount of money on a regular basis throughout graduate school can have an enormous impact on lifetime wealth. The even better news is that the process of investing itself is simpler and easier than you probably think.

Many investors, both novice and experienced, fall into the trap of thinking that to maximize their investment outcomes, they should focus on choosing the best investments. In fact, there is no reliable way to pick winning investments. There are only three aspects of your investments that affect your investment outcome that you can control: your savings rate, your investment asset allocation, and the cost of your investments.

This article outlines how to grow your wealth during graduate school by optimizing those three factors and implementing a few other key strategies.

Choose Passive Investments

Empirical studies have borne out time after time that passive investing is a more successful strategy than active investing after costs are factored in. Basically, what that means is that buying a set of investments that is representative of a market sector overall (e.g., the entire stock market) is more successful in the long term than trying to pick winners from that same sector. In trying to beat the market, both professional investors and individual investors consistently fail to even match it.

Passive investing is a far simpler strategy than active investing and much less time-consuming to initiate and maintain because there are plenty of high-quality passive investment products available. To enact a passive investing strategy, buy an index fund or an indexed exchange traded fund (ETF). For example, there are index funds and ETFs that reflect the entire stock market or the S&P 500, among numerous others.

Maximize Your Savings Rate

Instead of putting your time and energy into agonizing over your investment choices and trying to optimize them, direct it toward increasing your savings rate into your investments. You can free up more cash flow for your investments by decreasing your expenses or increasing your income.

As simple as that sounds, every grad student knows that both time and money are very tight during this phase of life. If you pursue increasing your income or decreasing your expenses, you must be very selective about how you do so. The following posts discuss both of these strategies in much more detail.

Decreasing your expenses:
How to Embrace the Frugal Life
Give Yourself a Raise: Evaluate Your Fixed Expenses
Give Yourself a Raise: Prepare Your Own Food Even with a Busy Schedule
Give Yourself a Raise: Find Inexpensive Entertainment on or Near Campus
The Best Kind of Frugality for a Busy Grad Student
Stack Frugal Strategies for Long-Term Saving

Increasing your income:
Simultaneously Earn Extra Income and Advance Your Career
Can a Graduate Student Have a Side Income?
Side Income Series

Pick an Asset Allocation and Stick with It

Your asset allocation is the percentage of your investment that is in each asset class or sub-asset class. The three main asset classes are stocks, bonds, and cash. Your asset allocation should be chosen with respect to your investing goal. For a very long-term goal, such as retirement for someone in her 20s or 30s, a very aggressive asset allocation is appropriate, such as 80-100% stocks. If you are a DIY investor, your brokerage firm can help guide you to an appropriate asset allocation.

Your asset allocation should change as the timeline on your goal grows shorter, but not quickly or dramatically. A common pitfall that investors fall into is trying to time the market by changing their asset allocation, i.e., they pull money from stocks into bonds or cash when they anticipate a stock market drop and then try to find the right time to push it back in. While the theory of selling high and buying low is fine, it’s almost impossible to successfully time the market, even for professionals. Instead, maintain your appropriate asset allocation and ride the market down and up.

Minimize Investing Costs

All investments have costs associated with owning and transacting them. You can think of those costs as directly coming out of your investment returns. Over the course of several decades of investing, these costs can reduce your balance in retirement by hundreds of thousands of dollars!

In fact, costs are one of the big reasons that active investment strategies fail to perform as well as passive investment strategies. While active strategies sometimes do generate higher top-line returns than passive strategies, their higher cost almost always knocks the real return experienced by the investor below than that of passive strategies.

With mutual funds, index funds, and ETFs, the cost of owning the investment is expressed very clearly in its expense ratio (a percentage). A low-cost ETF or index fund will have an expense ratio of a couple tenths of one percent or lower, while a high-cost, actively managed mutual fund will have an expense ratio of one percent or higher. For a passive strategy, look for funds with very low expense ratios.

Watch out as well for fees tacked on top of the expense ratio of the fund you purchased itself; these are often charged by the person or institution managing the account, such as a 401(k) administrator, a financial advisor, or a roboadvisor. Make sure that you have a compelling reason for paying such a fee before signing up for one, because it will come directly out of your returns.

Dollar Cost Average

The strategy of dollar cost averaging (as opposed to irregular lump sum investing) is to invest a set amount of money on a regular basis. If you receive a regular stipend/salary, this translates to investing the same amount of money every pay period, ideally through an automated transfer.

One of the big advantages of dollar cost averaging is that committing to the strategy prevents you from attempting to time the market. When you use your discretion over the timing of your investment schedule, many of us will try to guess whether the market is on an upswing or downswing and shift our buying behavior accordingly. This is rarely a successful strategy, whether it is done haphazardly or very deliberately.

In fact, dollar cost averaging actually guarantees that you “buy low and sell high” to a degree. Because you invest the same dollar amount every period, when the market is low you buy more shares and when it is high you buy fewer shares.

Use a Roth IRA

If your investing goal is to save for retirement – likely the first investing goal you should set as it is the longest-term – it is a great idea to use a tax-advantaged retirement account. A tax-advantaged retirement account protects your investments from taxes over the decades between your contribution and withdrawal in retirement; paying tax year after year would otherwise eat away at your returns. Therefore, using a tax-advantaged retirement account maximizes your returns, as long as you abide by the restrictions on access that it imposes.

Virtually no graduate students have access to a tax-advantaged retirement account through their universities; therefore, an individual retirement arrangement (IRA) is their only option if they are eligible. IRAs are set up independently and managed entirely by the investor. This may sound like a big responsibility, but this freedom of choice means you can pick the optimal investments for you.

IRAs come in two varieties: traditional and Roth. Roth IRAs are generally recommended for current lower-earners with great income growth potential, so they are an excellent fit for graduate students!

Get Started ASAP

Probably the biggest investing ‘mistake’ you can make is to procrastinate getting started. On average, the stock market ends two out of every three years higher than it started; if you’re ready to start investing but put it off, more times than not you miss out on earnings that could have gone into your coffer. I frequently speak with graduate students who stay stuck in investing analysis paralysis for years on end. You can always course correct if you realize you made a poor choice with your investments initially, but you can never recover lost time. So even if you aren’t confident you’re making the perfect investment, just get started!

My Experience with Investing During Graduate School

Investing is one of my favorite subjects on which to teach, write, and coach, and my enthusiasm for the subject is due to the thrilling experience I had with investing during my seven years of PhD training. Starting at $0 in 2007, my husband (also a grad student over the same period) and I together grew our retirement investment portfolio to approximately $75,000 by the time we defended in 2014. The success we experienced is largely attributable to our aggressive and increasing savings rate and the long bull market that started in 2009.

I had an inauspicious start with investing when I first opened and funded my Roth IRA. I didn’t actually purchase the investment I intended to when I opened my account, so my money was going into cash! The really embarrassing part of the story is that I didn’t catch my mistake for over a year. When I finally did, I moved my IRA from that first brokerage firm to one I preferred and made sure that all my money went into my investment of choice, a target date retirement fund.

Deciding that a target date retirement fund was right for me only took a couple hours of research, and as it’s a set-it-and-forget-it strategy I have spent zero time over the last decade-ish maintaining it (though I do regularly check the balance). Instead of spending my time and energy monkeying with my choice of investments, I used them to find ways to add more money to my investments.

When I first started contributing to my Roth IRA in 2007, I saved 10% of my gross income, which was $200/month. After we married and combined finances, my husband and I set a lofty goal to max out two Roth IRAs each year. We used frugal strategies to incrementally reduce our spending to free up more money for investing. (Our top five frugal strategies alone helped us reduce our yearly spending by approximately $6,000.) While we didn’t quite achieve our goal during grad school, we did end with a 17.5% retirement savings rate.

Investing is about far more than just numbers to me. Investing throughout graduate school has not only given my family financial security, but it enabled both my husband and I to pursue our post-PhD dream jobs, even though they are risky and less remunerative in the short term.

I want other graduate students to experience a similar degree of financial freedom as soon as possible in their lives, which is why I am such a proponent of investing even during the incredibly financially challenging graduate training period. If you’d like to go even deeper into this subject matter, sign up for my free 7-day email course on investing for early-career PhDs.

[Image from Flickr user Sergiu Bacioiu and used under Creative Commons Licensing.]


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