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.
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Stock mutual funds or exchange-traded funds. These mutual funds let you purchase small pieces of many different stocks in a single transaction. Index funds and ETFs are a kind of mutual fund that track an index; for example, a Standard & Poor’s 500 fund replicates that index by buying the stock of the companies in it. When you invest in a fund, you also own small pieces of each of those companies. You can put several funds together to build a diversified portfolio. Note that stock mutual funds are also sometimes called equity mutual funds.
While E*TRADE’s baseline fees are a little high ($6.95 for stocks/ETFs, $6.95 plus 75 cents per contract for options) compared to Ally Invest, Charles Schwab, and Fidelity, E*TRADE does offer volume discounts. If you make more than 30 stock/ETFs trades per quarter, the fee drops to a very competitive $4.95, and if you trade more than 30 options per quarter, the contract fee goes down to 50 cents. That makes E*TRADE a good fit for active traders who keep a close eye on the market.
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.
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.
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.
TD Ameritrade has been a powerful player in the online stock trading ecosystem for years. The flipside to such robust platforms? Cost. Even though TD Ameritrade lowered its fees in 2017 from $9.99 to $6.95, pretty much every other major discount broker slashed its prices, too. TD Ameritrade remains one of the more expensive options out there, even with more than 100 commission-free ETFs. Though its pricing structure is more expensive than those of some of the other discount brokers, there are many traders who think it's a best-in-class trading platform.
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.
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.)
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.
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.