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12 Good Funds That Won’t Break Your Budget

If you are a beginner investor, it may seem like an odd time to start saving for retirement. Despite the 23% rise in the S&P 500 this year, the third-quarter earnings season suggests companies are still struggling to get back on track. Some investment professionals and market gurus say a pullback may be in store. Nobody wants to invest in a climate like that only to watch their account balance shrink overnight.

But that is a short-term viewpoint for people who are really interested in socking away money for a retirement date that will come 20, 30 or 40 years from now. In fact, investors just starting out don’t have to risk a lot of money. Some funds have low minimum investments — the amount needed upfront to purchase a block of shares — that start at under $500. There’s no need to break the bank right off the bat.

This week the SmartMoney.com fund screen focuses on these low-minimum funds. There are 2,741 funds and share classes in our database that require a minimum investment under $500. We trimmed that universe to 264 by knocking out funds that charged a sales load. We then searched for funds with good long-term track records and cheap annual fees. We were ultimately left with 12 funds. They’re listed on the table below.

This screen produces one of the most eclectic collections of funds we see all year. The table contains well-known actively-run funds and index and international offerings, too. That selection highlights one of the reasons investors may want to take notice of low-minimum funds. If your portfolio lacks exposure to a certain part of the market, these funds offer a low-cost option to fill that hole.

Some of the funds are also good starter kits for younger investors. These funds require a minimum investment one-tenth our usual cut-off. While it may seem difficult to save $500 when student loans or credit-card bills are eating up the monthly budget, studies have shown that even small amounts of money put into the market will add up big over the life of a retirement account. After all, time is on the side of all young investors.

That said, a low minimum shouldn’t be the only reason for investing in a fund. Remember, some fund companies actually reward investors with rock-bottom expense ratios if they do the exact opposite — pony up over $100,000. Fidelity and Vanguard cut the fees on many funds for investors who cross that threshold.

Two fund companies are making return appearances on this list. Amana Income (AMANX), Amana Growth (AMAGX) and Heartland Value (HOVLX) have the criteria we always prefer when considering a fund: low fees, solid management and good long-term track records through the market’s ups and downs.

The Criteria: The equity funds on the table below require a minimum investment less than $500. They are open to new money and charge an annual expense ratio under 1.5%. In addition, they have performance track records during the trailing three- and five-year time periods that put them in the top 40% of their peer groups. As usual, we did not include funds that charged a sales load.

The Bare Minimum
Name Ticker Assets
($ Millions)
YTD
Return
(%)
3-Year
Average
Annual
Return
(%)
5-Year
Average
Annual
Return
(%)
Expense
Ratio
(%)
Minimum
Initial
Investment
Source: Lipper
Note: Data as of Oct. 23, 2009
Amana Growth AMAGX 1324.3 26.26 0.68 9.03 1.31 $250
Amana Income AMANX 903.2 19.16 2.68 9.31 1.33 250
CG Capital Markets Small Cap Value TSVUX 394.1 34.09 -1.02 6.55 0.99 100
Homestead International Value HISIX 118.0 27.97 -2.04 7.67 0.98 500
Homestead Small Company stock ticker HSCSX 60.1 40.90 -0.42 5.92 1.25 500
Homestead Value HOVLX 478.3 25.84 -4.99 3.60 0.70 500
Laudus Growth Investors
U.S. Large Cap Growth
LGILX 141.5 39.59 2.09 6.56 0.80 100
Nicholas NICSX 1384.8 31.20 -1.96 3.51 0.77 500
Schwab Financial Services SWFFX 70.5 19.52 -13.52 -1.90 0.94 100
Schwab International Index SWISX 1398.9 31.19 -2.85 6.51 0.50 100
Schwab S&P 500 SWPPX 8837.3 23.26 -5.05 2.06 0.19 100
Schwab Small Cap Index SWSSX 1214.1 32.21 -3.54 4.05 0.42 100
Recipe
  • Fund Type = *
  • Annualized 3-Year Return (%) = Display Only
  • Rank in Classification (%) (3 year performance) <= 40
  • Annualized 5-Year Return (%) = Display Only
  • Rank in Classification (%) (5 year performance) <= 40
  • Expense Ratio <= 1.5%
  • Load Fund (type) = No Load
  • Minimum Initial Investment <= $500
  • Open to New Investors = Yes
  • Total Net Assets ($ millions) >= 50
  • Year-to-Date Return (%) >= 23

* Does not include fixed income funds

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