Mutual funds are supposed to be the easy way for small investors to put their money to work in the market. But many fund companies make it hard, if not impossible, to invest just a few hundred dollars.

Giants such as

Vanguard

,

Fidelity

and

T. Rowe Price

make you pony up more than two grand to open a regular, taxable mutual fund account. (The account minimum at Fidelity and T. Rowe Price is $2,500. At Vanguard it's $3,000.)

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Meanwhile, other firms are raising their required minimum investments.

TIAA-CREF

, the giant pension fund manager that also runs a family of funds, once let you in the door with just $250. But late last year that amount jumped to $1,500.

Of course, the mutual fund business is just that -- a business. Small accounts don't make much economic sense for a fund company because they are just as expensive to service as large accounts. And with the market's drop in the last two years, firms are cutting costs wherever they can. (Some fund companies, including Vanguard and T. Rowe Price, also will hit you with a small but additional annual fee if you keep a low balance in your account.)

But don't let that stop you from trying to invest the little bit of money you've saved. There are several ways you can get around these minimum investments.

First, you can check out a fund's company automatic investment plan. A fund company will often lower the investment minimum if you simply agree to make regular automatic contributions to your mutual fund account directly from, say, your checking account. T. Rowe Price, for example, will let you open an account with no money down if you invest just $50 a month moving forward.

And you don't have to sign anything that binds you to that commitment. You can stop making those regular contributions and still have the account that you opened.

Unfortunately, Vanguard and Fidelity won't give you a break if you sign up for their automatic investment programs. But you

can

get in for less if you open an IRA.

That's another tack to try. Most fund companies have lower minimums on IRA accounts. Through the 2001 tax year, you could contribute only $2,000 to an IRA in one year anyway. (That maximum IRA contribution increases to $3,000 in 2002, or $3,500 if you're over age 50.)

At Vanguard and T. Rowe Price, the minimum for an IRA account is $1,000. Fidelity asks only for $500 to open an IRA.

If those two strategies don't work, look for funds or fund companies with low minimum investments. These days they're harder to find than folks who'll admit they still work for Arthur Andersen. But they're out there.

There are some smaller fund families that want only $1,000 to open an account, including

Harbor

and

FMI

. The Harbor funds are managed by outside money managers, and you can invest with some of the best. Celebrated PIMCO bond manager Bill Gross runs the

(HABDX) - Get Report

Harbor Bond fund. Sig Segalas of Jennison Associates has built a solid record on the large-cap

(HACAX) - Get Report

Harbor Capital Appreciation fund. Two FMI funds that are worth inspection: its

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Stock and

(FMIOX)

Focus funds. The

(JENSX) - Get Report

Jensen fund, which I wrote about last week, also has a $1,000 minimum.

If you have less than that, you should take a look at the Excelsior funds run by

U.S. Trust

. The minimum here is only $500. The

(UMBIX)

Excelsior Value & Restructuring fund is managed by Dave Williams, who takes bets (and makes money) on turnaround stories.

Of course, you don't want to pick a fund based on the investment minimum alone. Any decent fund should have low expenses, an experienced manager and a strong track record. Once you've found a fund with all those qualities, you just have to figure out how to get your money into it.