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The Short Answer

Ready to Invest? Here's How to Get Started

There's more to investing than trading stocks.

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Editor's note: This article originally ran on Feb. 3, 2021.

Online trading apps and lower fees have made investing more accessible than ever, sparking new (or renewed) interest in trading stocks. But buying stocks is just one way to get into the stock market. You can also use other vehicles, like mutual funds and exchange-traded funds to start investing.

But whether you want to invest in individual stocks, funds, or other securities, you'll need to open an investment account with a brokerage.

Here are some things to know before you get started:

What Is a Brokerage?
A brokerage, or stockbroker, is a company that’s licensed to buy and sell securities like stocks, bonds, and funds. Individuals can also be licensed stockbrokers. Most brokerages offer both retirement accounts and brokerage accounts, which are also referred to as taxable accounts. You'll owe taxes on any income that comes from investments in a taxable brokerage account. Retirement accounts, like traditional and Roth IRAs, are subject to different sets of rules.

While retirement accounts offer considerable benefits, many investors use brokerage accounts to buy and sell securities. Like a bank account, you can transfer money into and out of a brokerage account. You own the money and securities in your account, and you can sell your investments at any time. The brokerage acts as the middleman between you and the investments that you want to buy.

If you want to make your own investment decisions, setting up an account with an online broker is a great low-cost option.

How to Choose an Online Broker
Not all online brokers are alike. Here are the questions you should consider when deciding where to open an account:

  • Does the brokerage offer the investments I want?
  • Will I be charged commissions?
  • What are the account fees?
  • Is there an account minimum?
  • Does the brokerage offer the data or other resources I need?
  • Will I be able to get customer support if I need it?

Understand Your Investment Options
Most brokers have similar investment offerings, but check to make sure that you can purchase the kinds of securities that you want. Common investment types include stocks, options, bonds, mutual funds, and ETFs. Some brokerages will also give you access to futures and cryptocurrencies. It's important to understand what you'll be able to invest in before you go through the process of opening an account.

Though rarely done, a brokerage can restrict or adjust the menu of securities that you can buy using their platform. For example, Robinhood and a few other online brokers placed buying restrictions on GameStop and a handful of other stocks after they saw a huge surge in purchases. This move sparked a negative response from both investors and some politicians.

Look Out for Fees
Commissions are fees that are charged when you buy or sell securities. They may vary by security type. While some online brokers still charge transaction fees, many have eliminated commissions altogether.

Beyond commissions, a brokerage may charge an annual fee to maintain your account. Be on the lookout for other fees as well. For example, you may be charged when you transfer money out of your account, or you may be charged a fee for inactivity. Find an online broker with small or zero annual fees and try to avoid those with inactivity fees.

Know What You Need for an Account
Many online brokers don't have account minimums. That means you don't have to have a certain amount of money to open an account or start investing. If you can't or don't want to dedicate a large sum of money to your brokerage account, you'll want to find one that doesn't require a minimum.

If you're making your investing decisions on your own, it's important to have the resources you need to be informed. In addition to the tools you need to make trades, some brokerages offer educational materials. Whether you're an investing beginner or more experienced, look for an online broker whose resources meet your needs.

You Might Want to Talk to a Human
One of the benefits of an online brokerage is that you can conveniently manage your account entirely online, but there might be times when you have questions or technology issues prevent you from accessing your account online or on the broker's app. If that happens, it's comforting to know that you can get someone on the phone.

Be Honest With Yourself
Stock investing might not be right for you. You may not want to take the time to manage a brokerage account at all. If you want to take a more hands-off approach, you can use a full-service brokerage with an advisor who manages your account or a robo-advisor, a lower-cost alternative. Robo-advisors provide financial-planning services driven by computer algorithms. You may also consider simply investing in a target-date fund, whether in a retirement or a taxable brokerage account.

There are many ways to get started with investing. Find the path that works for you.

Margaret Giles does not own (actual or beneficial) shares in any of the securities mentioned above. Find out about Morningstar’s editorial policies.