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.
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.
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.
At $4.95 per trade, with no inactivity charge and a $50 full outgoing transfer fee, Ally Invest’s fee structure is about as low as you'll find. Even though a rash of brokers dropped their commissions in 2017 to be competitive with Ally Invest’s $4.95 flat rate, Ally keeps its edge with a zero account minimum and enticing discount for active investors — equity trades drop to $3.95 for users with 30-plus trades each quarter or a balance of $100,000.
Give yourself a few thousand in fake money and play investor for a bit while you get the hang of it. “Just start. Even with just a virtual portfolio. Start and then commit to building over time,” says Jane Barratt, CEO of investment education and advisory company GoldBean. “Don’t expect anything major to happen in a short time — build your money muscles by taking risks in a virtual portfolio.” To experiment with trading before getting your feet wet with real money, try TD Ameritrade's paperMoney, a virtual trading platform.
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).
Securities products and services offered by E*TRADE Securities LLC. Member FINRA/SIPC. Investment advisory services offered by E*TRADE Capital Management, LLC, a Registered Investment Adviser. Commodity futures and options on futures products and services offered by E*TRADE Futures LLC, Member NFA. Bank products and services offered by E*TRADE Bank and E*TRADE Savings Bank, both federal savings banks and Members FDIC. Stock plan administration solutions and services offered by E*TRADE Financial Corporate Services, Inc. All separate but affiliated subsidiaries of E*TRADE Financial Corporation.
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.
Passive investing is what long-term investors do — and the intent behind their actions is very different. Their approach to buying and selling stocks is considered passive in that they tend not to transact often. Instead of relying mostly on technical analysis (as active traders do) and trying to time the market, passive investors use fundamental analysis to carefully examine the strength of the businesses behind the ticker symbols and then buy shares with the hope that they’ll be rewarded over years — decades, even — through share price appreciation and dividends.
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.