Dollar-Cost Averaging vs. Lump-Sum Investing: Which Is Better?

It’s more than just market timing and risk tolerance

A potential investor considers where to put his money
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Table of Contents
Table of Contents

Investors with a sizable amount of money have two options: They can invest it all at once, in what’s also known as lump-sum investing; or they can invest equal amounts of money on a regularly scheduled basis, a strategy known as dollar-cost averaging.

Lump-sum investing comes with higher risk accompanied by the potential for higher returns, while dollar-cost averaging limits your overall risk and may deliver more conservative returns. Each has its benefits, and the best option for you will depend on your investment objective.

What’s the Difference Between Dollar-Cost Averaging and Lump-Sum Investing?

Dollar-Cost Averaging Lump-Sum Investing
Investing equal amounts of money on a regular schedule, regardless of market conditions Investing all your money at once
Minimizes your overall market risk by spreading investments over a longer period Exposes all your money to market risk immediately
Lower average price per share over time Price per share depends on market conditions at the time of market entry

Scheduled Investments vs. Timing the Market

Dollar-cost averaging helps remove emotions from investing by scheduling your purchases to be processed at regular intervals regardless of market conditions. You might have $25,000 available to invest but aren’t sure when the optimal buying time is. So you decide to schedule 10 buy orders, each $2,500 over the next 10 months, to be invested whether the market is up or down.

Lump-sum investing, on the other hand, is investing all your money at once. Rather than spreading out your buy orders over time, you would take the full $25,000 and invest it upfront at the most optimal time.

Placing a trade at an opportune time is often referred to as “timing the market”—using fundamental and technical analysis to time your investment to make the biggest profit.

Risk and Reward

As the saying goes, “High risk, high reward; low risk, low reward.” Dollar-cost averaging is a strategy often used to help manage risk exposure, which usually also leads to more conservative returns as compared with the potential returns of lump-sum investing.

By scheduling out your investments to be processed over a period of time, you are limiting your losses should the market take an unexpected nosedive. This is possible because you didn’t invest your money all at once. In fact, you may be lowering your average purchase price because you have upcoming scheduled investments that will be processed at potentially lower prices.

While you may be lowering your overall risk by dollar-cost averaging, you may be losing out on overall return potential. When you might have invested all your money at the market bottom, you only invest little by little, so only the amount invested at the market bottom will get the high returns.

Lump-sum investing is a riskier investment strategy but also has the potential for much higher returns.

When you invest all your money at once, you immediately get full exposure to market growth (or decline). Let’s say you have $25,000 to invest and decide to invest it all at once into a Standard & Poor’s 500 index fund. During the next six months, the stock market rises by 10%, which means your whole portfolio also grows by 10%.

Had you invested only moderate amounts rather than a lump sum during this six-month market growth period, you would have a lower expected return because only part of the $25,000 is exposed to that total 10% growth. However, the contrary is also true. If you invest $25,000 in an S&P 500 index fund, the market could tank 10% in the next six months, resulting in larger losses than experienced by the dollar-cost averaging investor.

Price Per Share

When you make scheduled investments regardless of current economic conditions, you will likely buy more shares when prices are low and fewer when prices are high. For example, if you invest $25,000 over 10 months without concern for market conditions, you will buy in at many different price points. When averaged out, your price per share may turn out to be much lower than if you tried to pick the optimal price and invested your money all at once.

If you invest the full $25,000 at once, your price per share is dependent on the current market conditions at the time of making the investment purchase.

Special Considerations

Keep in mind that when following a dollar-cost averaging strategy, you are not avoiding market loss and may be forgoing potential returns at the cost of lower risk.

When lump-sum investing, you are not guaranteed higher returns and are exposing yourself to greater market risk.

Depending on the type of investment purchase, keep in mind that you may pay more brokerage fees overall with dollar-cost averaging because you are making multiple purchases, rather than a single lump-sum purchase.

Dollar-Cost Averaging vs. Lump-Sum Investing Example

Mark the investor has $12,000 available to invest. He is exploring his options and has decided to put it into an S&P 500 index exchange-traded fund (ETF). Mark has two choices: He can invest it all at once and buy $12,000 worth of ETF shares today, or he can invest $2,000 per month for six months. Here is a hypothetical example of each scenario.

If Mark invests the full $12,000 upfront, his purchase price per share would be $100 for a total of 120 shares. This is an example of lump-sum investing. See the table below for details.

Lump-Sum Investing Example
Month Amount Invested ETF Share Price Total # Shares
1 $12,000 $100 120
TOTAL $12,000 $100 (average) 120

However, if Mark invests $2,000 per month for six months, he potentially can lower his purchase price per share. This would be an example of dollar-cost averaging.

Dollar-Cost Averaging Example
Month Amount Invested ETF Share Price Total # Shares
1 $2,000 $100 20.00
2 $2,000 $98 20.41
3 $2,000 $97 20.62
4 $2,000 $99 20.20
5 $2,000 $100 20.00
6 $2,000 $101 19.80
TOTAL $12,000 $99.17 (average) 121.03

By dollar-cost averaging in this case, Mark lowered his average price per share and was able to acquire 121 shares, as opposed to 120 shares if he had invested it all at once in a lump sum.

Which Is Right for You?

Dollar-cost averaging may best suit investors who:

  • Want to take emotion out of investing and avoid timing the market
  • Wish to limit their market risk over time
  • Want to possibly lower their average price per share
  • Have little investing experience

Lump-sum investing may best suit investors who:

  • Don’t let emotions determine their investment decisions
  • Have a higher risk tolerance
  • Seek to achieve the highest potential returns
  • Have experience researching investments and determining the optimal buying price

The Bottom Line

Dollar-cost averaging is investing equal amounts of money on a regular basis, regardless of market conditions. It is an investment strategy widely used to remove emotion from investing, lower average price per share, and limit market risk by spreading it out over a period of time. Lump-sum investing occurs when investors put in all their money for a stock purchase at once. They are often trying to time the market and buy at the optimal price for maximum potential profit. Lump-sum investing comes with more risk but often can promise higher potential returns.

The goal of investing is to “buy low, sell high.” Deciding when is the best time to buy is a tough task to tackle. Choosing which option is right for you will depend on your risk tolerance, investment objective, and overall investment experience.