Stock investing is filled with intricate strategies and approaches, yet some of the most successful investors have done little more than stick with the basics. That generally means using funds for the bulk of your portfolio — Warren Buffett has famously said a low-cost S&P 500 index fund is the best investment most Americans can make — and choosing individual stocks only if you believe in the company’s potential for long-term growth.
Practice, practice, practice. But not with real money. There’s nothing better than hands-on, low-pressure experience, which investors can get via the virtual trading tools offered by many online stock brokers. Paper trading lets customers test their trading acumen and build up a track record before putting real dollars on the line. (Several of the brokers we review offer virtual trading, including TD Ameritrade and Interactive Brokers.)

Not everyone who buys and sells stocks is a stock trader, at least in the nuanced language of investing terms. Most investors fall into one of two camps. Depending on the frequency in which they transact and the strategy driving their actions, they’re either “traders” (think Gordon Gekko in the movie “Wall Street”) or “investors” (as in Warren Buffett).

Devote no more than 10% of your portfolio to trading. Even if you find a talent for investing in stocks, allocating more than 10% of your portfolio to individual stocks can expose your savings to too much volatility. Other ground rules to manage risk: Invest only the amount of money you can afford to lose, don’t use money that’s earmarked for near-term, must-pay expenses (like a down payment on a house or car, or tuition money) and ratchet down that 10% if you don’t yet have a healthy emergency fund and at least 10% of your income funneled into a retirement savings account.
Forums can be another source for question and answer. Two recommendations include Elite Trader and Trade2Win. Just be careful of who you listen to. The vast majority of participants are not professional traders, let alone profitable traders. Heed advice from forums with a heavy dose of salt and do not, under any circumstance, follow trade recommendations.
Overall commission costs can also be affected by new customer promotions. Brokers may give you a chunk of free trades based on your deposit amount. If your deposit gets you a substantial number of free trades, that can write off otherwise higher per-commission costs. Ally Invest offers small incentives for deposits as low as $500. Fidelity Investments, meanwhile, has a higher barrier for entry — it takes a $50,000 deposit, but then you'll get 300 free trades.

Finally, the other factor: risk tolerance. The stock market goes up and down, and if you’re prone to panicking when it does the latter, you’re better off investing slightly more conservatively, with a lighter allocation to stocks. Not sure? We have a risk tolerance quiz — and more information about how to make this decision — in our article about what to invest in.


The best investors are in it for the long haul. Checking your account too often might make you react to the fluctuations in the market too quickly. Personal finance expert Ramit Sethi has written that you should check your investments “probably every few months, with a major review every year.” On many sites, you can also set an alert if a stock dives. Other than that, just set up a quarterly recurring appointment to check in.
Different investors are going to prioritize different things. A day trader, for example, requires speed and flexibility. A first-time trader may value educational resources and reliable customer support. But one thing every trader should care about is cost. Not paying attention to investment expenses is like revving your car engine while filling it with gas. That's why we spent a lot of time balancing price with what each site offered.
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.

Fidelity’s platform wins for user-friendly design, with tools to help take the guesswork out of finding funds and nosing out strategies. Fidelity’s platform lets you explore your options with a slick and intuitive design, complete with color-coded rankings and charts that call out what’s important. You can sort stocks by size, performance, and even criteria like sales growth or profit growth. Want to sort ETFs by the sectors they focus on or their expenses? Done. There’s even a box to check if you want to explore only Fidelity’s commission-free offerings. A few other discount brokers do offer screeners, but none match Fidelity’s depth and usability.
History has shown that investing in stocks is one of the easiest and most profitable ways to build wealth over the long-term. With a handful of notable exceptions, almost every member of the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest people got there because they own a large block of shares in a public or private corporation. Although your beginning may be humble, this guide to investing in stocks will explain what stocks are, how you can make money from them, and much more.
If you want to trade “futures” (agreements to buy or sell assets in the future), Ally Invest isn’t an option. That’s not unusual for an online stock broker — neither Robinhood, Vanguard, nor Fidelity offer futures trading — but you can do it with some of our other top picks, including E*TRADE, Charles Schwab, Interactive Brokers, and TD Ameritrade.

Keep good records for the IRS. If you’re not using an account that enjoys tax-favored status — such as a 401(k) or other workplace accounts, or a Roth or traditional IRA — taxes on investment gains and losses can get complicated. The IRS applies different rules and tax rates, and requires the filing of different forms for different types of traders. (Here’s an overview of the IRS rules for stock traders.) Another benefit of keeping good records is that loser investments can be used to offset the taxes paid on income through a neat strategy called tax-loss harvesting.
Day trading is the strategy employed by investors who play hot potato with stocks — buying, selling and closing their positions of the same stock in a single trading day, caring little about the inner workings of the underlying businesses. (Position refers to the amount of a particular stock or fund you own.) The aim of the day trader is to make a few bucks in the next few minutes, hours or days based on daily price fluctuations.
There are risks associated with investing in a public offering, including unproven management, and established companies that may have substantial debt. As such, they may not be appropriate for every investor. Customers should read the offering prospectus carefully, and make their own determination of whether an investment in the offering is consistent with their investment objectives, financial situation, and risk tolerance.
The best investors are in it for the long haul. Checking your account too often might make you react to the fluctuations in the market too quickly. Personal finance expert Ramit Sethi has written that you should check your investments “probably every few months, with a major review every year.” On many sites, you can also set an alert if a stock dives. Other than that, just set up a quarterly recurring appointment to check in.
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.
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