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Investing strategies: How dollar-cost averaging makes you money

Experts say that time in the market beats timing the market. Dollar-cost averaging allows you to take advantage of this, but like all investment strategies, it comes with some risks.

When it comes to investing, there are multiple strategies that you can follow.

But one of the most popular among retail investors is a process known as dollar-cost averaging. It allows you to take advantage of time in the market, while also adding discipline to your investing by forcing you to consistently buy even during volatile markets.

But before you start, here is what you need to know about dollar-cost averaging.

What is dollar-cost averaging?

Dollar-cost averaging is an investment strategy that involves contributing a fixed amount to a fund or stock portfolio at regular time intervals, regardless of share prices or market movements at any given time.

When the prices of your chosen stocks or funds go up, your fixed investment will buy fewer shares. When prices go down, it nets you more shares and reduces your average cost per share over time. This way, your investment isn’t as highly impacted by volatility as it would be if you purchased all your shares in one lump sum.

Essentially, you're betting that markets go up over time.

While the past might not be repeated in the future, the ASX 200 has delivered 9.7% per annum including after downturns such as the dot.com bubble and COVID-19. To see how your money could perform, click here. As such, this is often practised with index funds, so that you're dropping money into the ASX 200 or the Nasdaq Composite regardless of the price at the moment.

The major advantage of dollar-cost averaging is that the guesswork is removed by constantly adding to the market regardless of the state of the market.

Simple dollar-cost averaging calculator

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Finder survey: What investment strategies do Australians use?

Response
ETF investing64.29%
Long-term investing55.71%
Dollar-cost averaging32.86%
Buying shares directly24.29%
Round-up investing22.86%
Investing for retirement12.86%
Short-term gains11.43%
I don't have any investing strategies1.43%
Not sure1.43%
Source: Finder survey by Pure Profile of 1145 Australians, December 2023

How does it work?

Let's take a basic dollar-cost averaging strategy in stock ABC.

On the first day of every month, an investor buys $1,000 worth of shares in the company regardless of the price.

MonthABC stock priceShares purchasedShares ownedValue of investment
January$205050$1,000
February$1855.55105.55$1,899.90
March$2147.62153.17$3,216.57
April$1952.63205.8$3,910.20
May$2245.45251.25$5,527.50

By May, a total investment of $5,000 ($1,000 X 5 months) is worth $5,527.50. Had you decided to invest that total during any one of those months, your investment may be larger or lower. In this case, the average price of the stock was the same as the purchase price.

But it’s lower than the stock’s highest price.

By using this strategy, you reduced the impact of volatility in the share price over time.

Although it should be highlighted that this is simply an example and shares can continue to fall over time.

Benefits of dollar-cost averaging

Dollar-cost averaging steers you away from the risk of market timing. Because you’re investing a fixed amount at different intervals regardless of share price, you avoid emotional investing or buying more shares as prices rise and panic selling when they drop.

Dollar-cost averaging keeps you on a steady, long-term investing strategy.

If you've bought quality assets and you believe over the long-term markets go up, then dollar-cost averaging actually allows you to reduce risks in 2 ways. It will stop you from adding a lump sum of cash to the market at any time, giving you more flexibility, and while you'll still experience a loss during a downturn, it ensures set losses. This stops traders from wiping themselves out in one bad trade.

By default, it also forces you to become a saver. If you diligently stick to a dollar-cost average strategy, you'll be forced to save. Say for example you want to add 10% of your pay cheque to the market. By immediately adding 10% of your money every pay cheque, this money will be saved for a future occasion.

Another major perk is it allows you to avoid bad timing. We can all be unlucky and invest just before a share or the entire market falls. But by using dollar-cost averaging, you're putting the same amount of money in each time regardless of market conditions. These smaller amounts more often protect against bad timing. A study by Bloomberg found if you missed the best 40 days on the market between 1995 and 2022 your returns would be just 3.3% compared with the ASX 200's yearly average of 9.5%. Although if you missed the 40 worst days on the market, your returns would increase to 17.5% over the same period.

Aussies are also taking advantage of this strategy even if they are unaware of it. This is because our superannuation system is designed around this. Your employer takes 10% of your money out of your check every payday and invests it in the shares and various other assets with the aim of funding your retirement by the time you're 67.

Downside of dollar-cost averaging

Succeeding in dollar-cost investing assumes share prices will rise, at least in the long run.

But prices are constantly moving, and nobody can predict where they’re heading. So utilising a dollar-cost averaging strategy on shares you know little about can be especially risky. You may end up buying more shares at a time when an exit would be more suitable.

You'll also unfortunately face higher transaction costs. This is because you'll be trading more often when compared with adding a lump sum.

It also takes away timing of the market. While for many retail investors, it is a positive, it also has a major drawback since you'll be buying when markets fall. Theoretically, this could lead to a lower overall return, especially compared with someone who keeps their powder dry during a market fall and buys near the bottom. Although it is worth noting even the very best struggle to time the market.

When is dollar-cost averaging most appropriate to use?

While pretty much any retail investor can in some way benefit from regularly adding money to a share portfolio, this strategy might be more suitable for index funds or mutual funds. This is because you'll constantly be adding to a basket of shares instead of one individual company for that period.

At the same time, this strategy also helps investors ensure they add to all their stocks over a given time frame. While for most, putting money into say 20 or more individual positions might be too much every pay cheque, a dollar-cost average approach can still be beneficial. You'll just need to average your investment over a number of pay cycles or simply invest in the best idea at the time.

But in either case, it’s crucial to examine the fundamentals of any investment before employing a strategy.

Moreover, dollar-cost averaging is best used as a long-term strategy. While markets are in constant flux, prices generally don’t change much in the short term. You have to keep your dollar-cost averaging strategy in play through a long period to benefit from the low prices of a bear market and the high prices of a bull market. Either can last several months or even years.

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Disclaimer: The value of any investment can go up or down depending on news, trends and market conditions. We are not investment advisers, so do your own due diligence to understand the risks before you invest.

Bottom line

Dollar-cost averaging is the process of dividing your total investment in a stock or fund into fixed investments at set time intervals. When done correctly, it can help you hedge against volatility and earn strong profits in the long run. Before you invest, compare stock trading platforms to find one that’s right for you.

To make sure you get accurate and helpful information, this guide has been edited by David Gregory as part of our fact-checking process.
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Writer

Cameron Micallef was a utilities writer for Finder. He previously worked on titles including Smart Property Investment, nestegg and Investor Daily, reporting across superannuation, property and investments. Cameron has a Bachelor of Communication and Media Studies/ Commerce from the University of Wollongong. Outside of work Cameron is passionate about all things sports and travel. See full bio

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