Today is certainly an uncertain time in the stock market. The market is up, but has it truly recovered? History has shown that when uncertainty reigns, or even just after it has quieted down a bit, is the time to invest. Many times, though, you'll run across the following: "If you had invested $10,000 into company ABC back then, you would have X today." Of course, X is always a large number like $500,000 or $1 million.

I don't know about you , but whenever I see one of those "If you had invested" claims, I always get depressed. Why? Because I don't have $10,000 to invest all at once!

Like a lot of you, I make a modest salary, pay my bills, and save for the future. I think I'm getting ahead when I manage to save a few hundred dollars each month. Then I read a statement like the one above and I despair at ever making it.

So what to do?
Maybe you are in the same position, able to save what seems like just a little bit each month. Is it worth investing that little bit? You tell me. A friend of mine turned a measly $220 investment in SYSCO into $57,000. Granted, it took him 27 years, but what an X! On average, he earned about 23% per year by investing in the food distribution giant.

Back when my friend made that investment, he paid a very large commission, both because he bought a few shares rather than a 100-share "round lot" and because brokers charged a lot at the time. Paying such large commissions back then tended to keep small investors, ones like you or me with only a few hundred dollars to invest at a time, locked out.

Today, though, discount brokers such as TD Ameritrade or Scottrade will charge you less than $10 per trade, and they no longer charge extra for buying less than a round lot.

Many brokers also provide other features that make this a better time than ever before for small investors to get started in the market. Maintenance fees for low-balance accounts are often a thing of the past, and many have direct deposit plans, which let you put a portion of your paycheck directly into your account every payday. Saving is effortless when you never "see" the money.

It doesn't take much
Instead of the $10,000 mentioned above, let's see what a small investment in a few different companies would have done.

  • Just $500 in fertilizer supplier Agrium (NYSE:AGU) 10 years ago would be worth $2,640 today -- a beautiful annual return of 18%, even after its big decline at the end of last year. Of course, an investment in competitor Chemical & Mining Co. of Chile (NYSE:SQM) would have done quite a bit better at 31% annually. That would have gotten you to over $7,550, an astounding 15-bagger.
  • A similar-sized investment in Symantec (NASDAQ:SYMC), maker of the popular Norton line of computer defense software, would be worth some $2,150 today, returning a superior 15.7% per year.
  • Coal-to-gas company Sasol (NYSE:SSL) would have gotten you to more than $3,200, starting from just $500. That's a very happy-making six-bagger.
  • Annual returns greater than 20% annual returns would have been had with small investments in energy companies Chesapeake Energy (NYSE:CHK) or Southwestern Energy (NYSE:SWN) and retailer Urban Outfitters (NASDAQ:URBN).

That's the way to riches -- starting with just a few hundred dollars and combining it with time. Anyone can do that. If you're in school, now is the time to start. If you've been working for a few years, even many years, now is the time to start. If you've just retired, given the longer life expectancies today, it certainly can't hurt to start. In other words, get started.

"Thank you, sir! May I have another?"
The trick, of course, is knowing which stocks to pick. Analyzing stocks takes time. You have to read the annual and quarterly reports, look at margins and returns on equity or assets, and evaluate management. It's a big commitment, and it can be difficult to fit in between work, family, and watching the Nationals play.

If you're looking to get a handle on your investments without sacrificing all of your free time, consider joining Fool co-founders David and Tom Gardner at Motley Fool Stock Advisor. They'll recommend two stocks each month, keep you up to date on the picks (they've just had their semi-annual reviews), and tell you when to sell -- if that time comes.

Plus, their performance speaks for itself: Their picks are beating the S&P 500 by more than 40 percentage points on average. You can check out the service free for 30 days by clicking here. There is no obligation to subscribe.

Already subscribe to Stock Advisor? Log in here.

This article was originally published on Feb. 27, 2007. It has been updated.

Jim Mueller owns shares of Sysco, Agrium, and Chesapeake Energy, but no other company mentioned. Chesapeake Energy, Symantec, and Sysco are Inside Value recommendations. Sasol and Sysco are Income Investor selections. Sasol is also a Global Gains recommendation. The Fool owns shares of Chesapeake Energy. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.