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Words they live by in the investment industry: Small accounts get small consideration.

So it follows that the record of investment firms in welcoming young people as customers was pretty terrible until recently. The rise of digital investing – taking orders and sometimes providing advice online or via mobile device – has changed all that for the better by making small accounts more economical to serve.

Suddenly, there are all kinds of ways for young adults to get started as investors while keeping their costs to a minimum. There’s a free stock-trading app, and another app with zero commissions for investing in exchange-traded funds. Several online brokers offer special pricing for young clients that can reduce their costs significantly, and there are also robo-advisers to consider.

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With a six-figure portfolio, paying $5 to $10 to buy stocks or exchange-traded funds is nothing to complain about. But for a young investor with a small portfolio, these costs are prohibitive. Biweekly purchases of a balanced ETF (more on these in a moment) at $9.95 per trade works out to an annualized fee of 1.7 per cent on a $15,000 account. For context, the bonds or bond funds in a portfolio might yield about 1 per cent these days.

Further costs for young investors might include annual administration fees of $100 or more for registered retirement savings plan accounts or $100 in account maintenance fees per year (often charged on a $25 per quarter basis).

Special deals for young investors are available at several online brokers, but they’re not well-publicized and thus easy to miss out on. Some examples:

  • For students, CIBC Investor’s Edge reduces its regular flat $6.95 commission for trading stocks and ETFs to $5.95 and waives the $100 annual fee on registered and non-registered accounts.
  • For investors 30 and younger, National Bank Direct Brokerage provides 10 free trades a year and then lowers its regular price of $9.95 per trade to $4.95; also, account admin fees are waived.
  • For investors aged 18 to 30, Qtrade Investor offers a flat commission of $7.75, down from the usual $8.75, as well as waiving quarterly admin fees.
  • For clients 25 and younger, Scotia iTrade will waive the $100 annual admin fee on RRSPs and the $100 per year maintenance fees on small non-registered accounts.
  • The Kick Start Investment Program at Virtual Brokers allows an investor to buy (or add to) up to five ETFs each and every month, for no commission. Normally, the cost is $50 a year for this service, unless you’re a student or have graduated within the past two years.

Do-it-yourself investing happens to make great sense for young investors. Investment advisers are notoriously uninterested in young clients for the most part, unless they happen to be the kids of rich clients. Also, the needs of young investors may be too small-scale to justify the fees advisers charge.

Bank mutual funds are an easy way to get started investing, and they’re friendly to rookie investors because they can be bought at no cost. On the negative side, bank mutual funds too often combine lacklustre returns and hefty fees.

The ideal product for young investors? Consider the balanced ETF, with fees as low as 0.2 per cent (mutual fund management expense ratios are typically in the 2-per-cent-plus range).

Balanced ETFs hold underlying funds that produce blends of stocks and bonds suitable for conservative, middle-of-the-road and aggressive investors. A twentysomething could easily choose an aggressive approach, with the understanding that there will be rotten years on the way to good long-term results. Long term, by the way, means 10 years or more.

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The Wealthsimple Trade app is a zero-commission way to buy and sell balanced ETFs, as well as other ETFs and stocks. The lack of commission costs invites frequent stock trading that eventually does more damage than good, but a disciplined investor could use it to stuff money into balanced ETFs on a regular basis.

TD GoalAssist, from Toronto-Dominion Bank, is another app for mobile devices that offers a cost-effective way for young people to invest. Pick one of TD’s own balanced ETFs and contribute money whenever you like with no commissions to pay. GoalAssist also lets you set investing goals and track how you’re progressing.

Robo-advisers are another way for young adults to get help in building diversified ETF portfolios. For a fee starting at roughly 0.5 per cent, a robo-adviser will assess your needs with an online questionnaire and then suggest a diversified grouping of ETFs. Investing is a simple matter of electronically transferring money to your robo-adviser, which then contributes it proportionally to the ETFs in your portfolio.

Robo-advisers typically have lower fees for larger accounts, but a young investor still gets a fair deal.

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