FOR people who have had little money and even less market savvy, the investment scene has always been a forbidding place. But the market is a lot more user friendly these days. Starting with as little as $50, you can become part of an investment club, buy into stock programs for the mini-investor, take out small accounts, or use a discount broker. And you can learn as you earn.
There is a lot more out there for the small investor, says Elizabeth Fowler, author of ``Every Woman's Guide to Profitable Investing'' (AMACOM, New York. $17.95).
The American Association of Individual Investors (AAII), for example, is a nonprofit, educational corporation that develops programs and services for the independent investor. ``We don't tell you what stock to buy,'' says William Anderson, an AAII financial analyst.
But for $48 a year, the organization will send valuable educational information to its members: the AAII Journal (sent out 10 times a year); an annual guide to no-load mutual funds; and a newsletter on computerized investing. The organization hosts national meetings and local chapter workshops for its members as well.
AAII was established in 1979 and its 98,000 members posted an average return of 19 percent in '85, compared with 18 percent for Standard & Poor's 500 index and other market references. And this difference is generally much higher after management fees and commissions are deducted from market-calculated returns, Mr. Anderson says.
Mini-investor programs are another low-cost way to buy stocks. The Sharebuilder Plan, for example, developed by Merrill Lynch, provides the very small investor with a way to acquire fractions of shares as well as whole units.
You can invest any dollar amount you want - with a minimum of $25 - at a cost of up to 4 percent less than is charged for regular Merrill Lynch transactions under $5,000.
If, however, you want to buy and sell stock yourself, but lack even the basic knowledge or enough cash to do so, investment clubs are another route.
Formed by friends, neighbors, work colleagues, or even members of a church, investment clubs offer a supportive and friendly way to learn about investing without risking large amounts of money. Most clubs have no more than 10 or 12 members.
And while ``it's difficult to join a club, it's not hard to start your own,'' says Thomas O'Hara, chairman of the National Association of Investment Clubs (NAIC).
There are more than 7,000 NAIC clubs around the country, and most only require a minimum monthly deposit of $20 to $25 (although some start out with more in order to build a large enough pool of money to make some purchases early on).
They generally meet monthly, at which time each member pays a set amount (from $10 to $100 a piece) into a common pot. This pot is then invested in stocks selected by the group after a majority vote based on the members' own research.
Because it takes ``between three and five years for a club to be steadily worth what it should be,'' half of all clubs fold within 18 months, because members are disappointed that they haven't made a fortune in the first year, Mr. O'Hara says.
Members of an inexperienced club should be prepared to lose money for as long as two years, and should be aware that they could earn a better return elsewhere in the meantime. If members lack patience or a long-term investment philosophy, the club will soon run into problems.
Nor are investment clubs restricted to beginners, O'Hara says. A great many sophisticated investors use clubs regularly as a source of ideas for their personal accounts, he says. (NAIC's address is 1515 E. Eleven Mile Rd., Royal Oak, MI 48067.)
For those who prefer to plunge directly into the stock market, the jump has been made less painful by the proliferation of the discount broker.
While a full-commission broker can often prove essential in directing those who can easily get lost on Wall Street, ``you should go with a discounter'' whenever possible, says Peter Passell, author of ``Where to Put Your Money 1987'' (Warner Books, New York. $3.95).
However, full-service companies do often have lower minimum charges on deals involving low-priced stocks. And one winning stock decision could help make up for the broker's higher commission. He or she may even knock as much as 30 percent off the regular fee. Value brokers charge a percentage of the dollar value of each transaction.
But once you feel ready to make your own stock-market decisions, and buy larger numbers of shares and high-priced stock, you don't need to pay for advice. ``The only time you need a full-service broker, is when you want to buy products that aren't available elsewhere,'' says Mr. Passell, who is also a financial writer at The New York Times.
Because discounters usually provide no research or investment advice, their commission costs are automatically lower. Many are competing by providing additional specialized services, however.
While the broker may have a minimum fee per order, charges are substantially lower than at a full-service house. For example, 100 shares of a $50 stock will cost between $90 and $98 in full-service firms, but between $30 and $50 at a discounter.
And the majority of discount brokers have Securities Investor Protection Corporation insurance of at least $500,000 per client and are subject to the same regulations as traditional brokers.
It's important to choose a broker that allows you to read more than just stocks or to buy stocks on margin, which means borrowing up to 50 percent of the stock's purchase price from your broker). And you should also expect to be paid interest on cash in your account, as well as being given stock quotes during market hours.