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How to invest in stocks: the basics
Investing in stocks means buying shares of ownership in a public company. Those small shares are known as the company’s stock, and by investing in that stock, you’re hoping the company grows and performs well over time. When that happens, your shares may become more valuable, and other investors may be willing to buy them from you for more than you paid for them. That means you could earn a profit if you decide to sell them.
Investing in the stock market is a long game. A good rule of thumb is to have a diversified investment portfolio and stay invested, even when the market has ups and downs. One of the best ways for beginners to learn how to invest in stocks is to put money in an online investment account, which can then be used to invest in shares of stock or stock mutual funds.
With many brokerage accounts, you can start investing for the price of a single share. Some brokers also offer paper trading, which lets you learn how to buy and sell with stock market simulators before you invest any real money.
» Don't have a brokerage account? Learn what it is and how to open one.
How to invest in stocks in six steps
1. Decide how you want to invest in the stock market
There are several ways to approach stock investing. Choose the option below that best represents how you want to invest, and how hands-on you'd like to be in picking and choosing the stocks you invest in.
A. "I'd like to choose stocks and stock funds on my own." Keep reading; this article breaks down things hands-on investors need to know, including how to choose the right account for your needs and how to compare stock investments.
» See our roundup of the best online brokers
B. "I'd like an expert to manage the process for me." You may be a good candidate for a robo-advisor, a service that offers low-cost investment management. Virtually all of the major brokerage firms and many independent advisors offer these services, which invest your money for you based on your specific goals.
» View our picks for the best robo-advisors
C. “I’d like to start investing in my employer’s 401(k).” This is one of the most common ways for beginners to start investing. In many ways, it teaches new investors some of the most proven investing methods: making small contributions on a regular basis, focusing on the long-term and taking a hands-off approach. Most 401(k)s offer a limited selection of stock mutual funds, but not access to individual stocks.
» Learn more about retirement accounts
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2. Choose an investing account
Once you have a preference in mind, you're ready to shop for an investment account. For the hands-on types, this usually means a brokerage account. For those who would like a little help, opening an account through a robo-advisor is a sensible option. We break down both processes below.
An important point: Both brokers and robo-advisors allow you to open an account with very little money.
The DIY option: Opening a brokerage account
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, or you can open a taxable brokerage account if you’re already saving adequately for retirement in an employer 401(k) or other plan.
We have a guide to opening a brokerage account if you need a deep dive. You'll want to evaluate brokers based on factors such as costs, investment selection and investor research and tools.
The passive option: Opening a robo-advisor account
A robo-advisor offers the benefits of stock investing, but doesn't require its owner to do the legwork required to pick individual investments. Robo-advisor services provide complete investment management: These companies will ask you about your investing goals during the onboarding process and then build you a portfolio designed to achieve those aims.
This may sound expensive, but the management fees here are generally a fraction of the cost of what a human investment manager would charge: Most robo-advisors charge about 0.25% of your account balance. And yes — you can also get an IRA at a robo-advisor if you wish.
One thing to note is that although robo-advisors are relatively inexpensive, read the fine print and choose your provider carefully. Some providers require a certain percentage of an account to be held in cash. The providers generally pay very low interest on the cash position, which can be a major drag on performance and may create an allocation that is not ideal for the investor. These required cash allocation positions are sometimes more than 10%.
If you choose to open an account at a robo-advisor, you probably needn't read further in this article — the rest is just for those DIY types.
3. Learn the difference between investing in stocks and funds
Going the DIY route? Don't worry. Stock investing doesn't have to be complicated. For most people, stock market investing means choosing among these two investment types:
Stock mutual funds or exchange-traded funds. Mutual funds let you purchase small pieces of many different stocks in a single transaction. Index funds and ETFs are a kind of mutual fund that track an index; for example, a Standard & Poor’s 500 fund replicates that index by buying the stock of the companies in it. When you invest in a fund, you also own small pieces of each of those companies. You can put several funds together to build a diversified portfolio. Note that stock mutual funds are also sometimes called equity mutual funds.
Individual stocks. If you’re after a specific company, you can buy a single share or a few shares as a way to dip your toe into the stock-trading waters. Building a diversified portfolio out of many individual stocks is possible, but it takes a significant investment and research. If you go this route, remember that individual stocks will have ups and downs. If you research a company and choose to invest in it, think about why you picked that company in the first place if jitters start to set in on a down day.
The upside of stock mutual funds is that they are inherently diversified, which lessens your risk. For the vast majority of investors — particularly those who are investing their retirement savings — a portfolio made up of mostly mutual funds is the clear choice.
But mutual funds are unlikely to rise in meteoric fashion as some individual stocks might. The upside of individual stocks is that a wise pick can pay off handsomely, but the odds that any individual stock will make you rich are exceedingly slim.
» Interested in funds? See our list of the best brokers for ETF investing
4. Set a budget for your stock market investment
New investors often have two questions in this step of the process:
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).
How much money should I invest in stocks? If you’re investing through funds — have we mentioned this is the preference of most financial advisors? — 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 their portfolio in stock funds; the rest would be in bond funds. Individual stocks are another story. A general rule of thumb is to keep these to a small portion of your investment portfolio.
» Got a small amount of cash to put to work? Here’s how to invest $500
5. Focus on investing for the long-term
Stock market investments have proven to be one of the best ways to grow long-term wealth. Over several decades, the average stock market return is about 10% per year. However, remember that’s just an average across the entire market — some years will be up, some down and individual stocks will vary in their returns.
For long-term investors, the stock market is a good investment no matter what’s happening day-to-day or year-to-year; it’s that long-term average they’re looking for.
The best thing to do after you start investing in stocks or mutual funds may be the hardest: Don’t look at them. Unless you’re trying to beat the odds and succeed at day trading, it’s good to avoid the habit of compulsively checking how your stocks are doing several times a day, every day.
6. Manage your stock portfolio
While fretting over daily fluctuations won’t do much for your portfolio’s health — or your own — there will of course be times when you’ll need to check in on your stocks or other investments.
If you follow the steps above to buy mutual funds and individual stocks over time, you’ll want to revisit your portfolio a few times a year to make sure it’s still in line with your investment goals.
A few things to consider: If you’re approaching retirement, you may want to move some of your stock investments over to more conservative fixed-income investments. If your portfolio is too heavily weighted in one sector or industry, consider buying stocks or funds in a different sector to build more diversification. Finally, pay attention to geographic diversification, too. Vanguard recommends international stocks make up as much as 40% of the stocks in your portfolio. You can purchase international stock mutual funds to get this exposure.
Best stocks for beginners
The process of picking stocks can be overwhelming, especially for beginners. After all, there are thousands of stocks listed on the major U.S. exchanges.
Stock investing is filled with intricate strategies and approaches, yet some of the most successful investors have done little more than stick with stock market 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.
The S&P 500 is an index consisting of about 500 of the largest publicly traded companies in the U.S. Over the last 50 years, its average annual return has been more or less the same as that of the market as a whole — about 10%.
The bottom line on investing in stocks
Learning how to invest in stocks can be daunting for beginners, but it’s really just a matter of figuring out which investment approach you want to use, what kind of account makes sense for you, and how much money you should put into stocks.
If you're tempted to open a brokerage account but need more advice on choosing the right one, see our latest roundup of the best brokers for stock investors. It compares today's top online brokerages across all the metrics that matter most to investors: fees, investment selection, minimum balances to open and investor tools and resources. Read: Best online brokers for stock investors »