An online brokerage account likely offers your quickest and least expensive path to buying stocks, funds and a variety of other investments. With a broker, you can open an individual retirement account, also known as an IRA — here are our top picks for IRA accounts — or you can open a taxable brokerage account if you’re already saving adequately for retirement elsewhere.
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CAUTION – Like paid subscriptions, be very careful with classes and courses. Most are easily over $1,000 and are sold with promises of acquiring valuable knowledge. Their fantastic sales funnels will suck you in, take your money, excite you during the course, then leave you with a strategy that was profitable five or ten years ago, but is no longer relevant today. That, or you simply do not yet have the expertise required to be successful and trade the strategy properly.
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.
Three other common strategies you may hear traders refer to include momentum trading (buying shares of very fast growing companies and selling them for a profit before they inevitably peak in price), swing trading (using technical analysis to identify a trading range, and then buying and selling shares as the stock trades within that range), and penny stock trading (buying shares of very small companies whose stocks trade for less than $1 a share).
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.
Since Betterment launched, other robo-first companies have been founded, and established online brokers like Charles Schwab have added robo-like advisory services. According to a report by Charles Schwab, 58% of Americans say they will use some sort of robo-advice by 2025. If you want an algorithm to make investment decisions for you, including tax-loss harvesting and rebalancing, a robo-advisor may be for you. And as the success of index investing has shown, if your goal is long-term wealth building, you might do better with a robo-advisor.
Discount brokers used to be the exception, but now they're the norm. Discount online brokers give you tools to select and place your own transactions, and many of them also offer a set-it-and-forget-it robo-advisory service too. As the space of financial services has progressed in the 21st century, online brokers have added more features including educational materials on their sites and mobile apps.
You may see a number of sales charges called loads when you buy mutual funds. Some are front-end loads, but you will also see no-load, and back-end load funds. Be sure you understand whether a fund you are considering carries a sales load prior to buying it. Check out your broker's list of no-load funds, and no-transaction-fee funds if you want to avoid these extra charges.
Shouldn’t I just choose the cheapest broker? Trading costs definitely matter to active and high-volume traders. If you’re a high-volume trader — buying bundles of 100 to 500 shares at a time, for example — Interactive Brokers and TradeStation are cost-effective options. Ally Invest offers $3.95 trades ($1 off full price) for investors who place more than 30 trades a quarter. Commissions are less of a factor for buy-and-hold investors, a strategy we recommend for the majority of people. Most online brokers charge from $5 to $7 per trade. But other factors — access to a range of investments or training tools — may be more valuable than saving a few bucks when you purchase shares.
That's because — get this — the wealthiest 10% of households own 84% of all stocks—and that includes pension plans, 401(k) accounts and individual retirement accounts (IRAs) as well as trust funds, mutual funds and college savings programs like 529 plans. That means 90% of American households own the remaining 16% of all stock. These sobering stats come courtesy of Edward N. Wolff, an economist at New York University, who tells the New York Times “For the vast majority of Americans, fluctuations in the stock market have relatively little effect on their wealth, or well-being, for that matter.
Give yourself a few thousand in fake money and play investor for a bit while you get the hang of it. “Just start. Even with just a virtual portfolio. Start and then commit to building over time,” says Jane Barratt, CEO of investment education and advisory company GoldBean. “Don’t expect anything major to happen in a short time — build your money muscles by taking risks in a virtual portfolio.” To experiment with trading before getting your feet wet with real money, try TD Ameritrade's paperMoney, a virtual trading platform.
This leaves the $1,000-investor with the option of a discount broker. Discount brokers have considerably lower fees, but don't expect much in the way of hand-holding. Fees are low because you are in charge of all investment decisions – you can't call up and ask for investment advice. With $1,000, you are right on the cusp in terms of the minimum deposit. There will be some discount brokers that will take you and others that won't. You'll have to shop around.
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Fidelity’s platform wins for user-friendly design, with tools to help take the guesswork out of finding funds and nosing out strategies. Fidelity’s platform lets you explore your options with a slick and intuitive design, complete with color-coded rankings and charts that call out what’s important. You can sort stocks by size, performance, and even criteria like sales growth or profit growth. Want to sort ETFs by the sectors they focus on or their expenses? Done. There’s even a box to check if you want to explore only Fidelity’s commission-free offerings. A few other discount brokers do offer screeners, but none match Fidelity’s depth and usability.
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.
How much money do I need to start investing in stocks? The amount of money you need to buy an individual stock depends on how expensive the shares are. (Share prices can range from just a few dollars to a few thousand dollars.) If you want mutual funds and have a small budget, an exchange-traded fund (ETF) may be your best bet. Mutual funds often have minimums of $1,000 or more, but ETFs trade like a stock, which means you purchase them for a share price — in some cases, less than $100).
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.
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.