Stock investing is filled with intricate strategies and approaches, yet some of the most successful investors have done little more than stick with the basics. That generally means using funds for the bulk of your portfolio — Warren Buffett has famously said a low-cost S&P 500 index fund is the best investment most Americans can make — and choosing individual stocks only if you believe in the company’s potential for long-term growth.
Robo-advisors like Wealthsimple, Wealthfront, and Betterment use algorithms to determine your investment strategy. You just plug in your time frame and risk tolerance and their computers do the rest. And because they’re targeted for a younger crowd, fees are rock bottom. Wealthsimple and Betterment both have no account minimum, while Wealthfront requires $500. Wealthsimple charges an annual 0.5% advising fee; Wealthfront and Betterment charge just 0.25%.
In terms of volume, Interactive Brokers is technically the largest online stock trading platform in the U.S. It also advertises itself as the “lowest cost broker,” and for good reason: It only charges a startlingly low $0.005 per trade on stocks, ETFs, options, bonds, mutual funds, and futures (plus a 7 cent per contract fee for options). Technically, that’s still higher than Robinhood, but Robinhood only offers stocks, ETFs, and options (and as we noted above, Robinhood does skim some money off the top of trades via “payment for order flow”).
That said, learning the logistics of how to buy stocks and earmarking a small sliver of your investable assets to buying individual stocks online can be fun and profitable. And at worst? As long as you don’t put money you can’t afford to lose on the line, stock trading will be a temporary diversion that leads to limited losses, lessons learned and a few self-deprecating stories to entertain dinner guests.
Unlike most online stock trading platforms, Robinhood doesn’t charge a commission fee every time you buy or sell stocks, ETFs, or options. If you’re a high-volume trader, or a beginner without much cash to spare, that makes Robinhood an attractive alternative to the $5 to $7 fees per trade offered by competitors. However, Robinhood does rake in “payment for order flow” by rounding regulatory fees up to the nearest penny and pocketing the difference. “That means if you buy a stock for $100.00, Robinhood earns 2.6 cents from the market maker,” says co-founder and co-CEO Vlad Tenev, whereas “other brokerages earn rebates and charge you a per-trade commission fee.”
Thinkorswim, on the other hand, is a powerhouse designed for the advanced. This desktop application regularly racks up awards for its superior tools and features, things any other broker would charge a premium for — research reports, real-time data, charts, technical studies. Also included: customizable workspaces, extensive third-party research, a thriving trader chat room, and a fully functional mobile app.
If you’re an active, high-volume trader who dabbles in all kinds of assets, Interactive Brokers is a great option, since you can trade just about anything without losing $5 to $7 on every transaction. The platform interface isn’t nearly as user-friendly as Robinhood’s, nor as intuitive as TD Ameritrade’s; however, if you’re the kind of investor who’d benefit the most from Interactive Brokers (i.e., an experienced one), you’ll know your way around a candlestick chart already.
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.
$4.95 commission applies to online U.S. equity trades in a Fidelity retail account only for Fidelity Brokerage Services LLC retail clients. Sell orders are subject to an activity assessment fee (from $0.01 to $0.03 per $1,000 of principal). Other conditions may apply. See Fidelity.com/commissions for details. Employee equity compensation transactions and accounts managed by advisors or intermediaries through Fidelity Clearing & Custody Solutions® are subject to different commission schedules.
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.