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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.
To keep costs as low as possible, famous investors like John Bogle and Warren Buffett recommend buying and holding the entire stock market. Known as passive investing, it is a buy and hold strategy where you buy an entire market index, typically the S&P 500, as a single mutual fund or exchange traded fund (ETF). By buying an entire index, you are properly diversified (have shares in ~500 large companies, not just one), which reduces your risk long term. In fact, John Bogle is credited with creating the first index fund.
Worth noting: A 401(k) is a type of investment account, and if you’re participating in one, you may already be investing in stocks, likely through mutual funds. However, a 401(k) won’t offer you access to individual stocks, and your choice in mutual funds will likely be quite limited. Employer matching dollars make it worth contributing despite a limited investment selection, but once you’re contributing enough to earn that match, you can consider investing through other accounts.
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.
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.