Not everyone who buys and sells stocks is a stock trader, at least in the nuanced language of investing terms. Most investors fall into one of two camps. Depending on the frequency in which they transact and the strategy driving their actions, they’re either “traders” (think Gordon Gekko in the movie “Wall Street”) or “investors” (as in Warren Buffett).
What is stock trading?
The term stock trader typically refers to someone who frequently buys and sells stocks to capitalize on daily price fluctuations. These short-term traders are betting that they can make a few bucks in the next minute, hour, days or month, rather than buying shares in a blue-chip company to pass along to their grandkids someday.
Stock trading can be further refined based on certain criteria:
Active trading is what an investor who places 10 or more trades per month does. Typically, they use a strategy that relies heavily on timing the market, trying to take advantage of short-term events (at the company level or based on market fluctuations) to turn a profit in the coming weeks or months.
Day trading is the strategy employed by investors who play hot potato with stocks — buying, selling and closing their positions of the same stock in a single trading day, caring little about the inner workings of the underlying businesses. (Position refers to the amount of a particular stock or fund you own.) The aim of the day trader is to make a few bucks in the next few minutes, hours or days based on daily price fluctuations.
Passive investing is what long-term investors do — and the intent behind their actions is very different. Their approach to buying and selling stocks is considered passive in that they tend not to transact often. Instead of relying mostly on technical analysis (as active traders do) and trying to time the market, passive investors use fundamental analysis to carefully examine the strength of the businesses behind the ticker symbols and then buy shares with the hope that they’ll be rewarded over years — decades, even — through share price appreciation and dividends.
How to start trading
If you’re trying your hand at stock investing for the first time, know that focusing on anything but long-term results will expose you to frequent bouts of agita. Most investors are best served by keeping things simple and investing in a diversified mix of low-cost index funds to achieve — and this is key — long-term outperformance. Because, oof… the short-term ups and downs in the market can be brutal.
That said, learning the logistics of how to buy stocks and earmarking a small sliver of your investable assets to buy individual stocks online can be fun and profitable. And at worst? As long as you don’t put money you can’t afford to lose on the line, stock trading will be a temporary diversion that leads to limited losses, lessons learned and a few self-deprecating stories to entertain dinner guests.
How to survive
Wherever you fall on the investor-trader spectrum, these stock trading tips can help ensure safe trading:
Devote no more than 10% of your portfolio to trading. Even if you find a talent for investing in stocks, allocating more than 10% of your portfolio to individual stocks can expose your savings to too much volatility. Other ground rules to manage risk: Invest only the amount of money you can afford to lose, don’t use money that’s earmarked for near-term, must-pay expenses (like a down payment on a house or car, or tuition money) and ratchet down that 10% if you don’t yet have a healthy emergency fund and at least 10% of your income funneled into a retirement savings account.
Practice, practice, practice. But not with real money. There’s nothing better than hands-on, low-pressure experience, which investors can get via the virtual trading tools offered by many online stock brokers. Paper trading lets customers test their trading acumen and build up a track record before putting real dollars on the line. (Several of the brokers we review offer virtual trading, including TD Ameritrade, OptionsHouse, TradeStation, Interactive Brokers.)
Lower risk by building positions gradually. There’s no need to cannonball into the deep end with any position. Taking your time to buy (via dollar-cost averaging or buying in thirds) helps reduce investor exposure to price volatility.
Measure your returns against an appropriate benchmark. This is essential advice for all types of investors — not just active ones. The bottom-line goal for picking stocks is to be ahead of a benchmark index. That could be the Standard & Poor’s 500 index (often used as a proxy for “the market”), the Nasdaq composite index (for those investing primarily in technology stocks) or other smaller indexes that are composed of companies based on size, industry and geography. Measuring results is key, and if a serious investor is unable to outperform the benchmark (something even pro investors struggle to do), then it makes financial sense to invest in a low-cost index mutual fund or ETF — essentially a basket of stocks whose performance closely aligns with that of one of the benchmark indexes.
Ignore “hot tips.” WallStreetHotShot4721 on the EZMillion$Trade forum and the folks who pay for sponsored ads touting sure-thing stocks are not your friends, mentors or bona fide Wall Street gurus. In many cases, they are part of a pump-and-dump racket where shady folks purchase buckets of shares in a little-known, thinly traded company (often a penny stock) and hit the internet to hype it up. As unwitting investors load up on shares and drive the price up, the crooks take their profits, dump their shares and send the stock careening back to earth. Don’t help them line their pockets. If you’re looking for a guru, bookmark Warren Buffett’s annual letters to shareholders for commonsense advice and observations on sane, long-term investing.
Keep good records for the IRS. If you’re not using an account that enjoys tax-favored status — such as a 401(k) or other workplace accounts, or a Roth or traditional IRA — taxes on investment gains and losses can get complicated. The IRS applies different rules and tax rates, and requires the filing of different forms for different types of traders. (Here’s an overview of the IRS rules for stock traders.) Another benefit of keeping good records is that loser investments can be used to offset the taxes paid on income through a neat strategy called tax-loss harvesting.
Keep your perspective. Being a successful investor doesn’t require finding the next great breakout stock before everyone else. By the time you hear that XYZ stock is poised for a pop, so have thousands of professional traders and the potential likely has already been priced into the stock. It may be too late to make a quick turnaround profit, but that doesn’t mean you’re too late to the party. Truly great investments continue to deliver shareholder value for years, which is a good argument for treating active investing as a hobby and not a Hail Mary for quick riches.
Choose your trading partner wisely. To trade stocks you need a broker, but don’t just fall for any broker. Pick one with the terms and tools that best align with your investing style and experience. A higher priority for active traders will be low commissions and fast order execution for time-sensitive trades. Investors who are new to trading should look for a broker that can teach them the tools of the trade via educational articles, online tutorials and in-person seminars. Other features to consider are the quality and availability of screening and stock analysis tools, on-the-go alerts, easy order entry and customer service.
See NerdWallet’s round-ups of the best brokers for beginners and best online platforms for active traders/day traders for our top picks in these categories. Or plug in your preferences to the broker selection tool below to see some personalized options.
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No matter what, the time spent in learning the fundamentals of how to research stocks and experiencing the ups and downs of stock trading — even if there are more of the latter — is time well spent, as long as you’re enjoying the ride and not putting any money you can’t afford to lose on the line.