Brokers who sell mutual funds through contractual investment plans will be the first to tell you these plans are a great way to get started because investors can get in for as little as $50 a month.

Unfortunately, these plans also are accompanied by exceedingly high sales charges that can take up to half of your first year's investment and somewhere between 8% and 12% over the life of the plan. That's money only the broker benefits from.

Among the better known funds sold through contractual plans are

Fidelity's

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Destiny I and

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Destiny II,

Aim's

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Summit plan and

Franklin Templeton's

(TECAX)

Capital Accumulator.

Since these plans are designed to make it easy for you to keep investing by automatically withdrawing a predetermined amount of money each month directly from your checking account, there seems little reason to continue to pay for a broker's advice -- especially when many fund companies are willing to get you started on a low-minimum plan for free.

While fund companies don't generally advertise their free low-minimum investment options (because they are not immediately profitable for the fund company) many will let you invest with $100 or less if you agree to continue contributing regularly until you reach the fund's minimum -- generally $2,500 in a non-IRA account. Then you can let that money ride, or better still, continue investing once you've got the bug. The good news is, you get all of your initial investment working for you right away, and you don't have to bust your budget.

At least one well-known fund family is willing to let you begin investing with just $25. If you've got $50 to spare, there are many more choices available. Make that $100 and you can get started almost anywhere.

In fact, there are so many low-minimum funds we decided to help narrow the field -- just to make it easier.

To get the most bang for your buck, we eliminated funds with sales charges (load funds) and looked only at top-performing funds with below-average expense ratios from established fund firms. (The two largest firms -- Fidelity and

Vanguard

-- do not offer free low-minimum plans.)

Topping the low-minimum list are two mutual funds offered by the pension fund giants at

TIAA-CREF

.

The nonprofit organization has successfully managed retirement funds for generations of educators. Now, with nearly $250 billion in assets under management, the investment behemoths also offer mutual funds. The funds are available for as little as $25 to start. All the firm asks is that investors agree to make subsequent investments of $25 or more, either monthly or quarterly, at least until the account reaches $250.

While these funds are new, their managers are not. At the helm of one of the firm's annuity accounts since 1994, Jeffrey Siegal has averaged an annual 26.8% for investors, according to TIAA-CREF. Last year he repeated the same stellar performance managing TIAA-CREF's new

(TIGEX)

Growth Equity fund, up 36% -- more than 7 percentage points better than the S&P 500, according to

Lipper

.

Carlton Martin has been in charge of North American investments for the

CREF Global Equities Account

-- an annuity fund -- since its 1992 inception. During that time the fund returned an average 16.4% per year. In 1998 Martin began running the firm's new

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Growth & Income mutual fund. The new fund ended its first year up 30.5% -- nearly two percentage points higher than the S&P 500.

Popular mutual fund firm

T. Rowe Price

will allow you to open an automatic investment account with an initial investment of $50 and subsequent monthly investments of at least $50. The fund firm -- which has about $150 billion in assets under management -- offers a top-notch

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Blue Chip Growth fund that has beaten the S&P 500 three out of the last five years. Larry Puglia has headed the fund since 1993.

The same $50 will get you into

Transamerica's

mutual funds. Like the TIAA-CREF funds, these funds are relatively new, but the firm is not. Transamerica Investment Services has been managing money for more than 30 years and has $35 billion under management. Every one of the firm's active stock mutual funds whipped the S&P 500 last year. The oldest fund,

(TEQUX)

Premier Equity has beaten the benchmark every year since it first began more than three years ago. The fund experienced a manager change in May 1998, so its team is not as proven as other funds on the list. But the management philosophy of concentrating assets in a handful of large growth stocks and holding those stocks long term remains the same.

Finally, seasoned fund adviser

Dreyfus

offers an investment option for its funds that calls for $100 initially and $100 a month subsequently. The firm has a lot of funds, and not all have fared well. But the Dreyfus

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Appreciation fund is tough to top. The 14-year-old fund has beaten the S&P 500 four of the last five years. It's been under the watchful eye of Fayez Sarofim since 1990. Sarofim's stealth buy-and-hold strategy for investing in blue chip companies has kept the fund near the top of the performance charts over the last 10 years. Meanwhile, turnover in the portfolio is almost nonexistent, making this not only a top-performer but also a winner in tax efficiency.

All of these funds share a common thread. They are diversified large-company portfolios that invest primarily in blue-chip stocks -- a good place to begin an investment portfolio. And while it's true that shares in large companies have risen precipitously in the last few years and therefore may be in for a cooling-off period, few would argue that companies like

General Electric

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,

Microsoft

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and

Merck

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have what it takes to grow over time, making them good bets for the long haul. Still, it's important for new investors to keep in mind that unlike bank accounts, mutual funds are not insured and investors could lose money.