How to Get Your Kid Started With Investing

Finance

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My daughter recently lost $80 in her bedroom. It’s just gone. One theory is that we accidentally donated it to Goodwill, since she had stored it in an old book and we’d been clearing out a lot of junk. But it got me thinking: What would be a better place to keep money she’s not using?

She’s been bringing in some respectable allowance earnings with the chores she’s taken on recently. Plus, she always receives some money for birthdays, and she doesn’t spend much. Maybe an investment account?

While the investing rules are a little different for minors compared to adults, it’s not hard to get your child started investing. Even if they only make a little money, the experience may encourage them to start investing for retirement early in adulthood, which can set them up for life. Here’s how to show your kid the basics of investing.

Determine what kind of account to set up

Children can set up savings, checking, or brokerage accounts using the Uniform Transfers to Minors Act (UTMA) or the Uniform Gifts to Minors Act (UGMA). All they need is an adult (presumably you) to sign on as the account’s custodian. This means you have to approve what your child does with the money until your kid is of age, which is 18 or 21, depending on what state you live in. Because the funds or investments in a UTMA legally belong to your child, once they’re in this account, they can only be spent for your child’s benefit. You can’t deposit $100 in your child’s UTMA account and later decide you want it back or transfer it to another child.

Setting up a UTMA account is much like setting up any other account. You can walk into a bank or credit union and open one for your child by filling out some paperwork and showing your identification, or you can go online to sign up for one with a firm such as Vanguard.

Your child could also set up a UTMA 529 savings plan. The 529 is a college savings vehicle that has tax advantages, but also comes with restrictions on how it can be spent. More on that below.

Aside from a traditional brokerage account, your child could also try a micro-investing account, since they’re likely to be starting with a small amount of money. You can set up a custodial account through Stash or Stockpile — in fact, Stockpile even works with BusyKid, an app that helps families track kids’ chores and pay their allowances digitally.

Besides an investment account, you may also need to open a checking or money market UTMA for your child and link it to the brokerage account, as a way to fund the brokerage account and a place to receive dividends and other proceeds.

Unless they have earned income from working, your kids can’t set up a traditional or Roth individual retirement account. (See also: 9 Essential Personal Finance Skills to Teach Your Kid Before They Move Out)

Figure out what investment vehicles to use

Once their account is set up, kids have access to the same investment products that adults do, such as mutual funds, individual stocks, or exchange-traded funds. Which products they choose depends on their interests, how much money they have to start with, and how actively they wish to invest.

A child who is interested in following one or more companies in the news and making active investment choices may want to buy individual stocks. Look for a brokerage firm with no minimum initial deposit (or a low one) and low trade fees. While this is a concrete and exciting way to start understanding the stock market, make sure that kids understand that for the long haul, many financial advisers recommend investing in funds over individual stocks.

If your child doesn’t have any individual companies in mind, but would like to invest in the market as a whole, a mutual fund such as an S&P 500 index fund is a great way to go. Good ones have low expenses, meaning that your kid gets to keep more of his/her investment. Unfortunately, mutual funds do tend to require minimum investments. For instance, to buy shares in Charles Schwab’s often-recommended S&P 500 index fund, you need to open a Schwab brokerage account with a $1,000 initial deposit. However, there is one way around that: You can also open a Schwab account with a $100 deposit — but you have to deposit an additional $100 each month until the account has a $1,000 balance.

Your child could also buy exchange-traded funds, which work a lot like mutual funds but tend to have lower minimum investments.

Another way to get started with a small initial investment is to use one of the micro-investing apps mentioned above, which split one share of stock or of an ETF and sells the investor a fraction of it. These apps can make getting started very simple for young kids by characterizing investments by category. In exchange for making things this simple for you, these services usually charge a monthly fee; Stash’s is $1 per month.

While your child could also opt to invest in Treasury bonds or certificates of deposit, at today’s low interest rates, this probably wouldn’t be a very exciting way for them to learn about investing.

What about taxes?

Does your child have to pay taxes on their investment gains? Do they have to file their own tax return? The answer to both questions is, “It depends.”

If your child’s investment income is less than $1,050, don’t worry about it; you don’t need to report this to the Internal Revenue Service. If the child’s investment income is less than $12,000, the parent can opt to report it on their own tax return, or file a separate return for the child. At more than $12,000, you have to file a tax return for your child.

What rate will your kid pay? Unearned income up to $2,100 will get taxed at between 0 percent and 10 percent, depending on what kind of income it is. After that, your child’s unearned income will be taxed at your rate, no matter if you file separately or together. So don’t imagine that you can save a bundle on taxes by transferring all your investment accounts to your kids — the IRS caught on to that gambit years ago.

If your child chose to put their money in a UTMA 529 plan, they never have to pay federal taxes (and generally not state taxes either) on the earnings, as long as they spend it on qualifying educational expenses, such as tuition and textbooks.

Will investing hurt their chances of getting college aid?

It’s important to note that when it’s time to apply for college financial aid, assets in the child’s name count against them more than assets in the parents’ name. Unless you’re sure your family won’t qualify for financial aid — and outside of the 1 percent, that’s not usually something you can be sure of in advance — encourage your child to choose shorter-term goals for their investment account. They could choose a goal of anything from buying a new Lego set, to a week of sleep-away camp, to their first car.

Again, putting their investments in a 529 plan changes the situation a bit. Even if the child is the account owner, the financial aid officers consider assets in a 529 account a parental asset. This is great, because only about 5 percent of parental assets count against financial aid eligibility, compared to 20 percent of student assets in a non-529 UTMA account.

If your student does invest college savings in their own name, have them spend their own money first before you tap into a 529 plan or any other savings you are holding for their education.