The solution to both is investing in stock index funds and ETFs. While mutual funds might require a $1,000 minimum or more, index fund minimums tend to be lower (and ETFs are purchased for a share price that could be lower still). Two brokers, Fidelity and Charles Schwab, offer index funds with no minimum at all. Index funds also cure the diversification issue because they hold many different stocks within a single fund.
Our experts suggest you begin by looking at your own life. “Buy what you know, where you are. If you can, identify good companies locally,” says Randy Cameron, a portfolio manager and investment advisor with 35 years of experience. “Look for companies you and your friends are talking about, ones with plans to go national.” As for how much time and money you need, “start with what you have,” he says. There is literally no minimum to get started, and starting with just one share is better than putting things off.
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.
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.
Now that you've learned the basics of stock trading, you can get into the specific ways you can make money. Our trading stock strategy guide is a collection of articles explaining real-life techniques you can use to begin trading stocks. You'll learn how investors like Warren Buffett lower their cost basis through using stock options, how other stock traders make money by anticipating dividend changes, and much more.
When it comes to research, Fidelity is in a league of its own. The intellectually curious can dive into research from more than 20 providers, including Recognia, Ned Davis, and McLean Capital Management. Fidelity’s Learning Center featured videos are organized by topic, but they don’t stop after explaining the concept; they also cover how to apply principles to your own Fidelity investments.
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.
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.”
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.
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.