Man buying stocking on a computer
Westend61/Getty Images

Dollar-cost averaging is one of the easiest techniques to boost your returns without taking on extra risk, and it’s a great way to practice buy-and-hold investing. Dollar-cost averaging is even better for people who want to set up their investments and deal with them infrequently. It’s one of the most powerful investment strategies and it’s great for individual investors.

Here’s what dollar-cost averaging is and how to use it to maximize your investment gains.

What is dollar-cost averaging?

Dollar-cost averaging is the practice of putting a fixed amount of money into an investment on a regular basis, typically monthly or even bi-weekly. If you have a 401(k) retirement account, you’re already practicing dollar-cost averaging, by adding to your investments with each paycheck.

By doing this over time, you’re spreading out buy points and avoiding the need to “time the market.” Timing the market means dumping in all your money at one time, and can be a dangerous practice if you end up investing when a stock hits its high point — risking a huge loss. With dollar-cost averaging, you’ll be buying over time and averaging your purchase prices.

Dollar-cost averaging makes a volatile market work for your benefit. By adding money regularly, you’re going to buy at times when the market is lower, therefore purchasing more shares. When the market moves higher, your regular contribution will buy fewer shares, but you’ll already have shares from prior purchases, so you’ll still gain and won’t completely miss out.

Plus, dollar-cost averaging can offer other benefits. People become fearful when stocks fall, and so to avoid more short-term losses, they stop buying stocks when they get cheap. By setting up a regular buying plan when the markets (and you) are calm, you’ll avoid this psychological bias and take advantage of falling stock prices when everyone else becomes scared.

You can pile up even more shares if you reinvest your dividends, too, which also applies the principle of dollar-cost averaging to those quarterly dividend payouts.

It only takes a little bit of time upfront to set up a buying plan, put it on autopilot and then let your broker handle everything else. And that’s great for individual investors who want to spend as little time as possible dealing with their investments.

[REVIEWS: Check out Bankrate’s brokerage reviews to determine which may be best for you]

How to use dollar-cost averaging

There are two ways that you can set up dollar-cost averaging for your account: manually and automatically. If you opt for the manual route, you’ll just pick a regular date (monthly, bi-weekly, etc.) and then go to your broker, buy the stock or fund and then you’re done until the next date.

If you opt to go the automatic route, it requires a little more time upfront, but it’s much easier later on. Plus, it will be easier to continue buying when the market declines, since you don’t have to act. While setting up your automatic buying may seem like a chore, it’s actually easy.

Here are the steps to make dollar-cost averaging fully automatic.

1. Choose your investment

First you’ll want to determine what you’re buying. Do you want to buy stock? Or will you go with an exchange-traded fund (ETF) or mutual fund?

  • If you opt to buy an individual stock, it’s more likely to fluctuate significantly than a fund will.
  • If you buy a fund, it should fluctuate less than an individual stock and it’s also more diversified, so you won’t be hurt as much if any single stock in the fund declines a lot.

Less-experienced investors usually opt for a fund, and some of the most diversified funds are based on the Standard & Poor’s 500 index. This index includes hundreds of companies across all major industries, and it’s the standard for a diversified portfolio of companies. (If you want to buy an S&P index fund, here are some of the top choices.)

In either case, you’ll need to note the ticker symbol for the security; that’s the short-hand code for the stock or fund.

2. Contact your broker

So you’ve made your choice of investment. Now see if your broker will allow you to set up an automatic purchase plan for that investment. If so, then you’re ready to move on to the next step.

However, some brokers allow you to set up an automatic plan only with ETFs and mutual funds or only with stocks. In that case, you might consider opening another brokerage account that allows you to do exactly what you want. There are other solid advantages to having multiple brokerage accounts, too, and you can usually get a lot of value by having multiple accounts.

3. Determine how much you can invest

So you’ve got a broker who can execute your automatic trading plan, and now it’s time to figure out how much you can regularly invest. With any kind of stock or fund, you want to be able to leave your money in the investment for at least three-to-five years. Since stocks can fluctuate a lot over short periods, try to allow the investment some time to grow and get over any short-term declines in price. That means you’ll need to be able to live only on your uninvested money during that time.

So starting with your monthly budget, figure how much you can devote to investing. Once you have an emergency fund in place, how much can you invest and not need? Even if it’s not a lot at first, the most important point is to begin investing regularly.

4. Schedule your automatic plan

You can set up the automatic trading plan at your broker using the ticker symbol for the stock or fund, how much you want to purchase on a regular basis and how often you want the trade to execute. The exact process for setting this up varies by broker, but these are the basics that you’ll need in any case. If you have further questions, your broker can help.

And if your stock or fund pays dividends, it can be a good time to set up automatic dividend reinvestment with your broker. Any cash dividend will be used to purchase new shares, and you can often even buy fractional shares — putting the whole value of the dividend to work, rather than having it sit for a long time in cash earning little or next to nothing.

Bottom line

Dollar-cost averaging is a simple way to help reduce your risk and increase your returns, and it works to take advantage of a volatile stock market. If you set up your brokerage account to buy stocks or funds automatically and regularly, then you can sit back and do the things you love, rather than spend your time investing. In investing, you can often get better results with less effort.

Learn more: