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.

Since Vanguard is the largest mutual fund provider in the world, it doesn’t charge a fee for most mutual fund trades. However, other kinds of trading are more expensive, with $7 per option and up to $20 per stock/ETF. For that reason, we don’t recommend Vanguard for beginning or low-volume traders. However, Vanguard is an excellent choice for retirement investors interested in long-term, high-volume earnings, or those looking for a place to take their IRA. In fact, Vanguard is one of our picks for the best IRA accounts.

When you've been approved for margin stock trading, you're also eligible to short stock. Almost every successful stock trader has shorted stock at one time or another. When you short stock, you make money when the company's shares fall—or, even better yet, when they crash. The problem is that you can expose yourself to unlimited liability when you do this. 
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.
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.
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.
Commissions for equity and options trades are $6.95 with a $0.75 fee per options contract. To qualify for $4.95 commissions for equity and options trades and a $0.50 fee per options contract, you must execute at least 30 equity or options trades per quarter. To continue receiving $4.95 equity and options trades and a $0.50 fee per options contract, you must execute at least 30 equity or options trades by the end of the following quarter. Regulatory and exchange fees may apply.
Disclaimer: NerdWallet has entered into referral and advertising arrangements with certain broker-dealers under which we receive compensation (in the form of flat fees per qualifying action) when you click on links to our partner broker-dealers and/or submit an application or get approved for a brokerage account. At times, we may receive incentives (such as an increase in the flat fee) depending on how many users click on links to the broker-dealer and complete a qualifying action.
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.
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.
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