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.
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.
Like Fidelity and Vanguard, Charles Schwab is one of the older brick-and-mortar investment brokers that successfully modernized its trading platform for the Internet Age. Of all our picks, Charles Schwab is the best option for advanced traders who want a full buffet of options (stocks, ETFs, options, bonds, mutual funds, futures) and an impressive suite of research tools. Best of all, even with all the perks Charles Schwab offers, it’s still one of the lowest-cost trading platforms, with cheaper fees than E*TRADE or TD Ameritrade on most trades.
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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.
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.
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Seminars can provide valuable insight into the overall market and specific investment types. Most seminars will focus on one specific aspect of the market and how the speaker has found success utilizing their own strategies over the years. Examples include Dan Zanger and Mark Minervini. Not all seminars have be paid for either. Some seminars are provided free which can be a beneficial experience, just be conscious of the sales pitch that will almost always come at the end.
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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.
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.