The 2010s have been a boom era for online stock brokers. According to Statista, between 10% and 15% of all U.S. adults used an online broker at least once in 2018. While some major brokerages have remained the same (Charles Schwab), others have gone through mergers and acquisitions (E*TRADE acquired OptionsHouse; TD Ameritrade and Scottrade merged; TradeKing is now Ally Invest), and a new generation of millennial-focused brokers (like Robinhood and Acorns) has kept the old guard on its toes by lowering commission rates and minimum deposits. After digging into 25 trading platforms, here are the factors that set our top picks apart from the crowd.
Ignore “hot tips.” WallStreetHotShot4721 on the EZMillion$Trade forum and the folks who pay for sponsored ads touting sure-thing stocks are not your friends, mentors or bona fide Wall Street gurus. In many cases, they are part of a pump-and-dump racket where shady folks purchase buckets of shares in a little-known, thinly traded company (often a penny stock) and hit the internet to hype it up. As unwitting investors load up on shares and drive the price up, the crooks take their profits, dump their shares and send the stock careening back to earth. Don’t help them line their pockets. If you’re looking for a guru, bookmark Warren Buffett’s annual letters to shareholders for commonsense advice and observations on sane, long-term investing.

If you’re trying your hand at stock trading for the first time, know that focusing on anything but long-term results will expose you to frequent bouts of agita. Most investors are best served by keeping things simple and investing in a diversified mix of low-cost index funds to achieve — and this is key — long-term outperformance. Because, oof… the short-term ups and downs in the market can be brutal.
Thinkorswim, on the other hand, is a powerhouse designed for the advanced. This desktop application regularly racks up awards for its superior tools and features, things any other broker would charge a premium for — research reports, real-time data, charts, technical studies. Also included: customizable workspaces, extensive third-party research, a thriving trader chat room, and a fully functional mobile app.
Keep your perspective. Being a successful investor doesn’t require finding the next great breakout stock before everyone else. By the time you hear that XYZ stock is poised for a pop, so have thousands of professional traders and the potential likely has already been priced into the stock. It may be too late to make a quick turnaround profit, but that doesn’t mean you’re too late to the party. Truly great investments continue to deliver shareholder value for years, which is a good argument for treating active investing as a hobby and not a Hail Mary for quick riches.
How much money should I invest in stocks? If you’re investing through funds — have we mentioned this is our preference? — you can allocate a fairly large portion of your portfolio toward stock funds, especially if you have a long time horizon. A 30-year-old investing for retirement might have 80% of his or her portfolio in stock funds; the rest would be in bond funds. Individual stocks are another story. We’d recommend keeping these to 10% or less of your investment portfolio.
A mentor could be a family member, a friend, a past or current professor, co-worker, or any individual that has a fundamental understanding of the stock market. A good mentor is willing to answer questions, provide help, recommend useful resources, and keep spirits up when the market gets tough. All successful investors of the past and present have had mentors during their early days.
In addition to attractive pricing, Ally offers a quality platform that gives you access to the entire universe of stocks and ETFs. Where some discount brokers focus on only one kind of trader (for example, options traders or high-net-worth investors), Ally Invest provides an excellent experience for investors of all kinds. A focus on discounted costs can sometimes be a red flag for quality, but Ally truly delivers with sophisticated calculators, profit-loss estimators, and more. Ally also offers a robust research library that incorporates visual slides and interactive media into its market data.

That’s because there are plenty of tools available to help you. One of the best is stock mutual funds, which are an easy and low-cost way for beginners to invest in the stock market. These funds are available within your 401(k), IRA or any taxable brokerage account. An S&P 500 fund, which effectively buys you small pieces of ownership in 500 of the largest U.S. companies, is a good place to start.