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What Is a Brokerage Account and How Do I Open One?

A brokerage account is an investment account you open with a brokerage firm. You can use a brokerage account to buy investments.
Aug. 20, 2019
Brokers, Investing, Investments
5 Signs It's Time to Switch Online Brokers
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A brokerage account is an investor’s connection to the stock market. You can open a brokerage account with a brokerage firm, like an online broker or stockbroker. We’ll go through the details of what a brokerage account is, how it works, and how to open one.

Definition of brokerage account

A brokerage account is a taxable investment account you can open with an investment company or brokerage firm. There is generally no fee to open a brokerage account. Once your brokerage account is open and funded, you can use the money you’ve deposited to buy investments, like stocks or mutual funds. The brokerage firm helps you place investment orders, and typically collects a commission for doing so. (See our recommendations for brokerage firms.)

Brokerage accounts offer you access to a range of different investments, including stocks, bonds, mutual funds, index funds and exchange-traded funds. Many brokers also offer more complex investments, like options, forex or futures, as well as safer investments like CDs, bonds and cash management accounts.

How does a brokerage account work?

Many brokers allow you to open an account quickly online. You can fund the brokerage account by transferring money from your checking or savings account, a process that takes a few days to a week. You can also transfer money from one brokerage account to another if you decide to change brokerage firms.

You own the money and investments in your brokerage account, and you can sell investments and withdraw that money at any time. The broker holds your account and acts as an intermediary between you and the investments you want to purchase. Most brokers allow you to purchase investments on their websites, by filling in an order ticket.

There is no limit on the number of brokerage accounts you can have, or the amount of money you can deposit into a brokerage account each year. (The exception: Retirement accounts, discussed below, have rules for contributions and eligibility.)

Which investment account is right for you?

There are several types of brokerage accounts. Which is right for you will depend on your investing goals, what kind of investments you plan to purchase and how much help you’d like in choosing and managing those investments. Either way, it’s easy to get started: You will not pay a fee to open an account, and most of the below options have low or no account minimums.

Online or discount brokerage account

This is an investment account with an online brokerage company, like E-Trade or Merrill Edge. Once you’ve funded an account, you can buy and sell investments through the broker’s website. Brokers offer a range of investments, including stocks, mutual funds and bonds. If you want to purchase and manage your own investments, an online brokerage account is for you.

Here’s a comparison of several brokers we recommend (we also have a full list of our recommended brokers here):

Trade Fee

$6.95

$6.95

Account Minimum

$0

$0

Promotion

300

300

$0 online stock and ETF trades, no minimum deposit required

Trade Fee

$6.95

$6.95

Account Minimum

$0

$0

Promotion

60

60

days of commission-free trades with qualifying deposit

Trade Fee

$6.95

$6.95

Account Minimum

$500

$500

Promotion

Up to $600

Up to $600

cash credit with a qualifying deposit

Managed or full-service brokerage account

This is a brokerage account that comes with investment management, either from a human investment advisor or a robo-advisor.

A robo-advisor is a low-cost alternative to a human investment manager: These services use computers to choose and manage your investments for you, based on your goals. You can be largely hands-off with one of these accounts, as the service will keep tabs on your portfolio and make sure you’re invested appropriately. We have a full list of recommended robo-advisors, but below is a comparison of several top-rated offerings:

Management Fee

0.25%

0.25%

Account Minimum

$500

$500

Promotion

$5,000

$5,000

amount of assets managed for free

Management Fee

0.25%

0.25%

Account Minimum

$0

$0

Promotion

Up to 1 year

Up to 1 year

of free management with a qualifying deposit

Management Fee

0%

0%

Account Minimum

$100

$100

Promotion

Free

Free

career counseling plus loan discounts with qualifying deposit

Retirement account

This is a tax-advantaged investment account specifically designed for your retirement savings, such as a Roth or traditional IRA. Because of that, unlike taxable brokerage accounts, retirement accounts place restrictions around when and how you can withdraw the money.

If you want to invest for retirement (and you’re already contributing enough to earn a 401(k) match, if your employer offers one), you should open an IRA. You can open an IRA at any of the online brokers or robo-advisors listed above. (We also have a list of the best IRA providers.)

Note: We don’t recommend investing money you need within the next five years. If you’re saving for a short-term goal, skip the brokerage or investment account and consider these options for short-term investments.

How to open a brokerage account

Setting up a brokerage account is a simple process — you can typically complete an application online in under 15 minutes. (In most states, you’ll need to be 18 to open your own account, but here’s how parents can set up a brokerage account for their kids.)

Once you’ve opened the investment account, you’ll need to initiate a deposit or funds transfer. The broker will walk you through the process. Once the transfer is complete and your brokerage account is funded, you can begin investing.

You might be asked if you want a cash account or a margin account. A margin account allows you to borrow money from the broker in order to make trades, but you’ll pay interest and it’s risky. Generally, it’s best to stick with a cash account at first.

» Looking for some guidance to start investing? Here’s how to invest in stocks

Nervous about investing?

Given a long time horizon, money invested in the stock market can grow tenfold, compared to sitting in cash or a low-rate savings account where you run the risk of actually losing purchasing power to inflation.

But despite that, 39% of Americans say they aren’t investing, according to a 2018 online survey commissioned by NerdWallet and conducted by The Harris Poll. Of them, 32% say they prefer to have money in cash versus investing because it’s easier to access their money, and 28% say they prefer to hold cash because they don’t know how to invest (that’s where the aforementioned robo-advisors can come in handy). Another 28% think investing is too risky. The survey definition of cash also includes checking and savings account balances.

In reality, when you’re investing for a long-term goal like retirement, not investing is risky — most people simply can’t save enough to fund their retirement needs. Stock market returns pick up the slack.

According to NerdWallet’s survey, Americans on average currently hold $32,286 in cash. (Worth noting: The median amount Americans have in cash is just $2,000, suggesting some wealthy savers are skewing the average figure.)

While everyone should have some emergency cash on hand, anyone who keeps excess cash is doing so at a cost. Our calculations show that over 30 years, every $10,000 kept in cash instead of investing amounts to roughly $44,000 in lost returns.

Curious what your excess cash is costing you? Run your own numbers with the calculator.

METHODOLOGY

This survey was conducted online within the United States by The Harris Poll on behalf of NerdWallet from June 14-18, 2018, among 2,024 U.S. adults ages 18 and older. This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. For complete survey methodology, including weighting variables and subgroup sample sizes, please contact Julianne Rowe at jrowe@nerdwallet.com.

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