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Low-minimum mutual fund investments

- Alan Lavine and Gail Liberman

The problem nowadays: Virtually all financial services companies want to do business with the high-net-worth because those customers supposedly are more profitable.

So where does that leave the rest of us?

Unfortunately, with increasingly fewer options.

Mutual funds are one of the easiest, lowest-cost ways to invest the family money. You get professional management and diversification. Plus most funds are part of a group of mutual funds, offering a wide array of investment options.

But today, families often have to save up to make their first investment in a mutual fund. That's because most fund groups require at least $2,000, according to data of Morningstar Inc., Chicago.

Perhaps the biggest heartbreaker came last November. The Vanguard Group, one of the lowest-cost no-load fund families, reported that the minimum to invest in most of its funds is now $3,000. Even its education savings account minimum is $2,000! That's quite a change from the early days of mutual funds, when only $1,000 or less typically was required.

So which mutual funds can you start investing in if you don't have much cash?

Vanguard did leave one fund open to us peons. You can invest in the Vanguard Star fund for $1,000. This fund, which invests in other Vanguard funds, keeps 60 percent in stocks and 40 percent in bonds. It has grown at a 13.5 percent annual rate over the past three years. The fund carries a rating of four stars out of a high of five stars by Morningstar. A five-star Morningstar rating means a fund has the best returns with the least amount of risk compared with similar-type funds.

Have a 401 (k) plan, pension plan, IRA or do business through a financial adviser? If so, you might be able to start investing with less money. But keep in mind that mutual funds sold through financial advisers typically charge commissions. You can save loads or commissions if you go through a no-load fund group directly through its toll-free number.

Rather do your own investing at a lower cost?

You still can invest $50 upfront and $50 monthly through the "Automatic Asset Builder" at the T. Rowe Price family of funds, Baltimore. The catch: You must have the money automatically deducted from your checking account or paycheck monthly. T. Rowe Price manages over $170 billion and has a large number of stock and bond funds that carry four-star and five-star Morningstar ratings. Some of T. Rowe Price's five-star rated funds include Capital Appreciation Fund, Mid-Cap Value Fund, Personal Strategy Growth Fund, Personal Strategy Income Fund and Summit Municipal Income Fund.

Under normal circumstances, however, T. Rowe Price requires $2,500 initial investment. So if you stop contributing under the Automatic Asset Builder and if your balance is less than $500, your account could be closed if you don't heed the group's notice to bring the balance to $1,000. You also could face a $10 annual "small account fee" if you've stopped automatically investing and your balance is less than $2,000.

There's only one low-minimum no-load fund group in which you still can invest--no strings attached, according to Morningstar. The Nicholas Mutual Funds, Milwaukee, Wis., which manages $2 billion in assets, requires just a $500 initial investment in certain funds. They include:

  • Nicholas Fund, which invests in both large growth as well as undervalued stocks. The fund carries a three-star out of five-star Morningstar rating. It has grown at 15.6 percent annually over the past three years and outperformed the S&P 500, a measure of the overall stock market.

  • Nicholas High Income Fund. This fund, which carries only two Morningstar stars, invests in high-yield bonds issued by companies with poor credit ratings.
Beware. Just because you find a fund minimum that you can afford nowadays does not necessarily mean this fund is for you. You could be better off having money automatically invested into a bank savings account. Then invest after you save enough to meet the higher minimum balance requirement of a more appropriate fund.


Spouses Gail Liberman and Alan Lavine are syndicated columnists. Their latest book is "Rags to Retirement (Alpha Books)." You can e-mail them at MWliblav@aol.com.

To read more columns, please visit the column archive.

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