What to Do With $5,000

OK, so you've got $5,000 burning a hole in your pocket, and you're itching to do something with it. Here are some ideas.

That $5,000 can give you, your spouse, and your kids a nice vacation to remember. If it's just you, perhaps with a significant other, your money will go even further -- and so can you. A one- or two-week trip to Antarctica can cost $4,000 to $5,000 for a berth in a two-person room. (There will be extra costs involved in getting to the boat, though, among other things. And you might need a zoom lens to better capture those cute penguin faces.)

Invest it
Think seriously about investing that money, especially if you're one of the many millions of Americans whose retirement savings are woefully behind schedule. If that $5,000 is invested in a broad-market index fund, and it earns the market's historical average (never guaranteed, of course) of about 10% per year, in 30 years it will grow to more than $87,000. That may not seem like much, but if you withdraw 4% of that each year in retirement, you'll be getting about $3,500 each year -- all from a one-time $5,000 investment.

It's possible to do even better than the market's average, though, with holdings such as high-quality managed mutual funds. I've been investing more and more in them myself. One of my holdings, for example, is the T. Rowe Price Media & Telecom (PRMTX) fund, which has averaged a 19% annual gain over the past three years and 25% over the past five years. Its top holdings recently included (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) , Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) , America Movil (NYSE: AMX  ) , and XM Satellite Radio (Nasdaq: XMSR  ) . It has a below-average expense ratio of 0.87% and no load, and it's not alone in being a way-above-average mutual fund.

Another strong performer is the Vanguard Capital Opportunity (VHCOX) fund, with a five-year average annual gain of 18%. Its recent top holdings included DirecTV (NYSE: DTV  ) , TJX (NYSE: TJX  ) , and FormFactor (Nasdaq: FORM  ) . This one also has no load and a below-average expense ratio, although it's closed to new investors for the time being.

Lots of terrific funds remain open for business. To discover some of those winners, take a free trial of our Motley Fool Champion Funds newsletter, which has helped me find a bunch of solid performers for my own portfolio. In Champion Funds, we regularly highlight top-notch funds with low fees, strong management, and promising futures. You can access all past issues and see which funds we've recommended (and why) with a free trial.

Give it away
I'm serious. You can do a heck of a lot of good in the world if you strategically donate that $5,000. You can even do a lot by just giving $1,000 and spending the remaining $4,000 in other ways.

If you're seeking impressive organizations for your contributions, spend a little time learning about our annual Foolanthropy charity drive. Every year for the past decade, we've raised funds for some exceedingly worthy organizations that really impressed us. Together, we've raised nearly $3 million.

You might also give to loved ones. Perhaps an aunt, uncle, or parent is missing out on the online revolution. If so, you can buy a solid computer system for that person for less than $1,000. Imagine how you might transform someone's world.

Earn an instant 25% return
If you're saddled with credit card debt, you really should pay it off before investing. While you can hope to earn 10% to 15% or a bit more per year on your investments, you may be forking over 20% to 30% or more per year in interest on your credit card debt. If your interest rate is 25% (which is not all that unusual), paying off $5,000 in debt at that rate will save you from having to pay $1,250 in interest this year.

Remodel your home
Spending money on your house will not only often give you pleasure, but also extra money when you eventually sell. With most remodeling projects, you'll recoup a hefty fraction of what you spent by getting a higher price come sale time. With around $5,000, you may be able to buy a bunch of new windows, replace the siding on your home, get your house painted, or get a new roof.

Remodel yourself
Another option is remodeling yourself. You could go back to school to learn a new skill, or even a new profession. At the online University of Phoenix, for example, you can take courses or earn a degree or professional certificate. At many colleges, you can take a course preparing you for a human resources management certification for around $1,100. At Kaplan University, you may be able to become a forensic nurse if you have $3,400 to spend and 12 months to study. If so, you can earn $55 or more per hour.

If you're interested in learning without collecting credits or certificates, here's a wonderful opportunity that Fool Community member Windowseat wrote to me about:

It's possible to download almost all of the MIT courses and take them at home ... Free knowledge. Free information ... What an incredible gift to the world. Another friend recently alerted me to free Berkeley courses and lectures. You can go a long way on $5,000 with this route.

You can remodel yourself physically, too. Equipping a home gym with fitness equipment can cost less than $5,000, and even as little as $1,000. And a gym membership will generally cost you considerably less than $5,000 per year. In fact, you might just spend $150 on two pairs of sneakers, start a walking or running routine, and invest the rest!

So the next time you find yourself with $5,000, think carefully about how to spend it. That sum could pay you back in all sorts of ways.

This commentary was originally published on Oct. 6, 2006. It has been updated.

Longtime contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of no company mentioned herein. FormFactor is a Motley Fool Hidden Gems recommendation, while is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.

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