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.
In terms of diversification, the greatest amount of difficulty in doing this will come from investments in stocks. As mentioned earlier, the costs of investing in a large number of stocks could be detrimental to the portfolio. With a $1,000 deposit, it is nearly impossible to have a well-diversified portfolio, so be aware that you may need to invest in one or two companies (at the most) to begin with. This will increase your risk.
The most common order types: market, limit, and stop (see my guide, Best Order Types for Stock Trading). Market orders buy or sell immediately at the current best market price. Limit orders only buy or sell these shares at, “$xx price or better”. Lastly, stop loss orders are combined with a market or limit to trigger once $xx price hits. For new investors just getting started, I always suggest just sticking with market orders.
Since Vanguard is the largest mutual fund provider in the world, it doesn’t charge a fee for most mutual fund trades. However, other kinds of trading are more expensive, with $7 per option and up to $20 per stock/ETF. For that reason, we don’t recommend Vanguard for beginning or low-volume traders. However, Vanguard is an excellent choice for retirement investors interested in long-term, high-volume earnings, or those looking for a place to take their IRA. In fact, Vanguard is one of our picks for the best IRA accounts.
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TD Ameritrade has been a powerful player in the online stock trading ecosystem for years. The flipside to such robust platforms? Cost. Even though TD Ameritrade lowered its fees in 2017 from $9.99 to $6.95, pretty much every other major discount broker slashed its prices, too. TD Ameritrade remains one of the more expensive options out there, even with more than 100 commission-free ETFs. Though its pricing structure is more expensive than those of some of the other discount brokers, there are many traders who think it's a best-in-class trading platform.
Now, imagine that you decide to buy the stocks of those five companies with your $1,000. To do this, you will incur $50 in trading costs—assuming the fee is $10—which is equivalent to 5% of your $1,000. If you were to fully invest the $1,000, your account would be reduced to $950 after trading costs. This represents a 5% loss before your investments even have a chance to earn.
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.
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”).
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.
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.