Measure your returns against an appropriate benchmark. This is essential advice for all types of investors — not just active ones. The bottom-line goal for picking stocks is to be ahead of a benchmark index. That could be the Standard & Poor’s 500 index (often used as a proxy for “the market”), the Nasdaq composite index (for those investing primarily in technology stocks) or other smaller indexes that are composed of companies based on size, industry and geography. Measuring results is key, and if a serious investor is unable to outperform the benchmark (something even pro investors struggle to do), then it makes financial sense to invest in a low-cost index mutual fund or ETF — essentially a basket of stocks whose performance closely aligns with that of one of the benchmark indexes.
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).
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Warren Buffett is the best example to hit this point home. In 2008, he bet some hedge fund managers $1 million that they wouldn’t be able to make more money in a decade than a cheap, boring index fund. An index fund uses simple investing algorithms to track an index and doesn’t require active human management. Conversely, hedge funds stack management fees on top of trading fees to pay for the time and knowledge actual strategists are putting into your investments.

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One drawback of Robinhood’s simplicity is that as of 2019, you can only trade stocks, ETFs, and options on the platform — not bonds, mutual funds, or futures, and you can’t short-sell. But Robinhood is our “Best for Beginners” pick, and most first-time investors will probably want to stick to the basics. If you’re interested in bonds and mutual funds, Ally Invest has the best rates of our top picks. If you want to try futures trading, E*TRADE and Charles Schwab are your best bets.
“I know stocks can be a great investment, but I’d like someone to manage the process for me.” You may be a good candidate for a robo-advisor, a service that offers low-cost investment management. Virtually all of the major brokerage firms offer these services, which invest your money for you based on your specific goals. See our top picks for robo-advisors.
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