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The first-timer’s guide to buying stocks

STEP 1: FIND A BROKER THAT YOU LIKE There are a lot of online brokers out there. So many, in fact, it can be overwhelming to weed through all the options — good and bad — and then confidently choose one. Social scientists call this “information overload”. We call it inconvenient. To make the search easier, we created this shortlist of standout picks from our partners and included their pros, cons and current offers.

Summary of The first-timer’s guide to buying stocks

Merrill Edge

on Merrill Edge's website

Merrill Edge

4.5

NerdWallet rating 
Merrill Edge

Fees

$0

per trade

Account Minimum

$0

Promotion

Up to $600

cash credit with qualifying deposit

on Merrill Edge's website


Promotion

Up to $600

cash credit with qualifying deposit

Why we like it

Merrill Edge offers high-quality customer service, robust research and low fees. Customers of parent company Bank of America will love the seamless, thoughtful integration, with a single login to access both accounts.

Pros

  • Robust third-party research.

  • Integrated with Bank of America.

Cons

  • Advanced traders may find fewer securities on offer.

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Robinhood

on Robinhood's website

Robinhood

4.0

NerdWallet rating 
Robinhood

Fees

$0

per trade

Account Minimum

$0

Promotion

One free stock

for new account owners

on Robinhood's website


Promotion

One free stock

for new account owners

Why we like it

Robinhood is truly free: There are no hidden costs here. You’ll give up a few things in exchange for free trades — trading tools, research, education, investment options beyond stocks and ETFs — but if limiting costs is your No. 1 concern, Robinhood is a solid choice.

Pros

  • No account minimum.

  • Streamlined interface.

  • Cryptocurrency trading.

Cons

  • No retirement accounts.

  • No mutual funds or bonds.

  • Limited customer support.

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E*TRADE

on E*TRADE's website

E*TRADE

4.5

NerdWallet rating 
E*TRADE

Fees

$0

per trade

Account Minimum

$0

Promotion

$50 or more

when opening an account, with code: WINTER21

on E*TRADE's website


Promotion

$50 or more

when opening an account, with code: WINTER21

Why we like it

E*TRADE has long been one of the most popular online brokers. The company's $0 commissions and strong trading platforms appeal to active traders, while beginner investors benefit from a large library of educational resources.

Pros

  • Easy-to-use tools.

  • Large investment selection.

  • Excellent customer support.

  • Access to extensive research.

  • Advanced mobile app.

  • Commission-free stock, options and ETF trades.

Cons

  • Website can be difficult to navigate.

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SoFi Active Investing

on SoFi Invest's website

SoFi Active Investing

4.5

NerdWallet rating 
SoFi Active Investing

Fees

$0

per trade

Account Minimum

$0

Promotion

Free

career counseling plus loan discounts with qualifying deposit

on SoFi Invest's website


Promotion

Free

career counseling plus loan discounts with qualifying deposit

Why we like it

SoFi Active Investing's $0 trading commission and $0 account minimum is attractive to new investors, but a lack of investment choices such as mutual funds and bonds is a drawback for those saving for retirement.

Pros

  • Commission-free stock and ETF trades.

  • Cryptocurrency trading.

  • Fractional shares available.

  • No account minimum.

  • Free financial counseling.

Cons

  • Small selection of tradable securities.

  • Limited track record.

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TD Ameritrade

on TD Ameritrade's website

TD Ameritrade

5.0

NerdWallet rating 
TD Ameritrade

Fees

$0

per trade

Account Minimum

$0

Promotion

None

no promotion available at this time

on TD Ameritrade's website


Promotion

None

no promotion available at this time

Why we like it

TD Ameritrade meets the needs of both active traders and beginner investors with quality trading platforms, $0 commissions on online stock, options and ETF trades and a large selection of mutual funds.

Pros

  • Commission-free stock, ETF and options trades.

  • Free research.

  • High-quality trading platforms.

  • No account minimum.

  • Good customer support.

  • Large investment selection.

Cons

  • No fractional shares.

Read Full Review

STEP 2: Pick your stocks

Once you’ve set up and funded your brokerage account, it’s time to pick stocks. A good place to start is by researching the companies you already know as a consumer.

Don’t let the deluge of data and real-time market gyrations overwhelm you as you conduct your research. It’s important to keep your goals simple. Find companies that make you want to be part owner.

When choosing where to invest, take a look at the company’s annual report — specifically management’s annual letter to shareholders. The letter will give you a ton of insight into what’s happening with the business and provide context for the numbers in the report.

After that, most of the info and tools you need to evaluate the business will be on your broker’s website, such as SEC filings, conference call transcripts, quarterly earnings updates and recent news. Most brokers also provide guides on how to use their tools and even basic seminars on how to pick stocks.

STEP 3: Decide how many shares to buy

You should feel absolutely no pressure to buy a certain number of shares or fill your entire portfolio position in a stock all at once. Consider starting small to get a feel for what it’s like to own individual stocks and whether you have the fortitude to ride through the rough patches with minimal sleep loss. You can add to your position over time as you master stock trading.

STEP 4: Choose your order type

There are two order types that successful investors rely on all the time: market orders and limit orders.

MARKET ORDERS

With a market order, you’re indicating that you’ll buy or sell the stock at the best available current market price. Don’t be surprised if the price you pay — or receive, if you’re selling — is not the exact price you were quoted just seconds before. Bid and ask prices, as they’re called (see our cheat sheet below), fluctuate constantly throughout the day. That’s why a market order is best used when buying stocks that don’t experience wide price swings — large, steady blue-chip stocks as opposed to smaller, more volatile ones.

Before you place a market order, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • A market order is best for buy-and-hold investors who think small differences in price are less important than ensuring that the trade is fully executed or filled.

  • If you place a market order trade “after hours,” when the markets have closed for the day, your order will be placed at the prevailing price when the exchanges next open for trading.

  • Check your broker’s trade execution disclaimer. Some low-cost brokers bundle all customer trade requests to execute all at once at the prevailing price, either at the end of the trading day or a specific time or day of the week.

LIMIT ORDERS

A limit order gives you more control over the price at which your trade is done. If XYZ stock is trading at $100 a share, but you think a $95 per-share price is more in line with how you value the company, your limit order tells your broker to hold tight and execute your order only when the ask price drops to that level. On the selling side, a limit order tells your broker to part with the shares once the bid rises to the level you set.

Limit orders are a good tool for investors buying and selling smaller company stocks, which tend to experience wider spreads, depending on investor activity. Limit orders are also good for investing during periods of short-term stock market volatility or when stock price is more important than order fulfillment.

There are additional conditions you can place on a limit order to control how long the order will remain open. An “all or none” (AON) order will be executed only when all the shares you wish to trade are available at your price limit. A “good for day” (GFD) order will expire at the end of the trading day — even if the order has not been fully filled. A “good till canceled” (GTC) order remains in play until the customer pulls the plug or the order expires; that’s anywhere from 60 to 120 days or more.

There are a few things to keep in mind before you place a limit order:

  • While a limit order guarantees the price you’ll get if the order is executed, there’s no guarantee that the order will be filled fully, partially or even at all. Limit orders are placed on a first-come, first-served basis. This happens only after market orders are filled and only if the stock stays within your set parameters long enough for the broker to execute the trade.

  • Limit orders can cost investors more in commissions than market orders. A limit order that can’t be executed in full at one time or during a single trading day may continue to be filled over subsequent days, with transaction costs charged each day a trade is made. If the stock never reaches the level of your limit order by the time it expires, the trade will not be executed.

FINAL STEP: Start buying stocks

High five! Now you’re ready to invest. To get started choosing a broker, check out our list of standouts to find the right one for you.

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People often identify opening a savings account as their next money move.

Explore Best Savings Accounts of September 2020

American Express® High Yield Savings Account

4.5

NerdWallet rating 
American Express® High Yield Savings Account

APY

0.50%

With $0 minimum balance

Bonus

N/A

at American Express National Bank, Member FDIC

Marcus by Goldman Sachs Online Savings Account

4.5

NerdWallet rating 
Marcus by Goldman Sachs Online Savings Account

APY

0.50%

With $0 minimum balance

Bonus

N/A

at Marcus by Goldman Sachs, Member FDIC

To recap our selections...

NerdWallet's The first-timer’s guide to buying stocks

  • Merrill Edge: Excellent for breadth of research; strong educational offerings
  • Robinhood: Excellent for free stock and ETF trades; no account minimum
  • E*TRADE: Excellent for large selection; low fees
  • SoFi Active Investing: Excellent for cryptocurrency trading; fractional shares.
  • TD Ameritrade: Excellent for a well-rounded online brokerage with top research and educational content.