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How to Start Investing in Stocks

Learning how to start investing in stocks can be a good way to build wealth. Due to the magic of compound interest, a small amount can eventually grow to a big amount if properly managed. The world’s most famous investor, Warren Buffett, for example, started investing in equities around six decades ago and is now one of the richest men in the world.

Grace Groner, a secretary at Abbott Laboratories, bought three special shares of Abbott in 1935 and became a millionaire multiple times over. On the account of compound interest, millions of other investors have had success stories where their retirement and financial future is now secure.

While there are tremendous rewards, investing in stocks also comes with risk. Stocks can sometimes fall 90% in one day due to bad earnings reports or unexpected news. Companies go bankrupt, costing many investors everything they invested. Even buying a diversified basket of stocks can be risky as the broader market has gone down 50% multiple times before.

First, Learn the Two Types of Investing

Given the risk and reward of stocks, it is important to have a correct way of investing that fits one’s financial goals and risk-tolerance. Generally speaking, there are two types of investing, passive and active. Passive investing is where one accepts the market return and tries to minimize fees and taxes as much as possible. This style of investing generally includes:

Passive investing

  • Market ETFs, such as buying the SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust (NYSE:SPY). The SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust  ETF gives investors exposure to the S&P 500, which reflects a broad swath of diversified large-cap U.S. companies. The ETF has a gross expense ratio of 0.0945% per year, which is very low versus that of other alternatives. The  SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust’s performance has also done well on a long time line.
  • Mutual funds that try and mimic market returns. These mutual funds may be a little higher priced than comparable ETFs but might be more accessible for certain retirement accounts.

Active investing

Active investing is where an investor trusts himself/herself or a professional fund manager to try and beat the market. This method generally requires a substantial amount of research and access to the latest breaking news. Although active can generate higher returns, the style generally has higher fees and has a higher risk.  Active investing includes:

  • Mutuals funds, where professional mutual fund managers charge a certain annual fee and use the money to do research and pick a basket of stocks to try and beat the market.  
  • Hedge funds, which is generally for high net worth individuals and institutions. Hedge fund managers differentiate themselves from mutual funds by going short at times to potentially deliver high risk-adjusted returns. Due to having more resources, the bigger hedge funds may also do more research on specific companies.
  • Individual investor. This generally means that the investor does his/her own research on a company, and buys or sells stocks based on the latest news or upcoming catalysts. The investor can generally buy a stock and hold forever (and collect dividends along the way), or he can hold for an intermediate amount of time or he can day-trade. Of the three styles, day-trading is perhaps the riskiest due to the uncertainty of the market and the high associated fees.

Determine Your Financial Goal and Risk Tolerance

Generally speaking, passive investing in a low-cost market ETF such as the SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust and holding for the long run is perhaps the best choice for the majority of investors out there. Holding for more than one year generally reduces one’s taxes if there is a capital gain, and the low annual ETF fees provide more of a return to investors.

For those who want to actively invest but don’t have the time/skills to do it themselves, picking a mutual fund/hedge fund with lower fees and a solid track record could be useful. Although past performance does not predict future returns, a long track record of success may indicate a solid research strategy and good risk controls.

For those do-it-yourselfers who want to actively invest themselves, deciding what type of stocks to buy depends on one’s financial goals and risk tolerance. If an investor is younger, more risk tolerant, and has the goal of capital appreciation, buying a basket of riskier securities, such as tech stocks, growth stocks, and small caps could be more of a fit. Although the securities are riskier and more volatile, they could potentially deliver higher returns in the long run.

If an investor is older, less risk tolerant, and has a goal of optimizing fixed income, buying boring stable stocks such as Dow Jones index companies and Dividend Aristocrats (companies that have raised their payouts for 25 years or more) could be a better fit. Generally, Dow Jones index companies and Dividend Aristocrats have wide moats and pay nice dividends in good times and bad. Those companies are generally less risky than tech stocks or small caps.

How to Make Your First Investment

Step 1: Research the company

In terms of the actual process to invest in stocks, an investor would first need to do some research on a company. This can be done by browsing financial statements from the SEC, checking basic price action and news from Yahoo Finance, and using sentiment analysis from Twitter/Stocktwits. An investor should also generally need to determine what catalysts lies ahead, so as not to get caught off guard by events.

Potential catalysts, or events that cause a stock to move, include earnings report dates, investor presentation days, etc. Generally, companies have one purpose and one purpose only – to make money for their investors. Good companies to invest in are generally profitable, can maintain their profitability in good times and bad, and can grow their profits in the future.  

Step 2: Determine the amount to invest

Secondly, an investor would need to determine how much he/she wants to invest in a company’s stock. Buying a share, or the stock, of a company, gives an investor part of the ownership of the company.

Generally speaking, investors should only invest an amount they could afford to lose. Since stocks can be volatile, anything can happen, and stocks can go down a lot. Shorting a stock, or profiting in case a stock falls, is generally a bad idea as it could potentially expose an investor to unlimited losses if stock spikes.

Step 3: Determine your timeline

This includes when to exit if things go bad, as in when a stock falls below a certain level, i.e. a pain point. There are three timelines, short term like day-trading, intermediate term like swing trading, and long term, such as buying-and-holding.

Step 4: Pick the broker

Once an investor has done research on a company, determined how much to invest, and determined what his/her timeline is, the investor can either go call a brick and mortar broker, such as Scottrade, sign up for an account, fund the account, and then place a ‘Buy’ order on the stock.

Take a look at some of our top choices for brokers below.

Broker Best For Commissions Account Minimum Choose your platform
Ally Investment
  • Active traders
  • Beginners looking to start trading
  • Low fees
$4.95 volume discount available $0
Get started securely through Ally Investment's website
1 Minute Review

If investors are on the hunt for a bargain broker, Ally Invest could be the one. With low commissions across the board, Ally Invest (formerly TradeKing) stops potential investors in their tracks with its especially low mutual fund commissions. Commissions on stocks and ETFs are notoriously inexpensive as well, and for more active traders or those with larger account balances, commissions can dip as low as $3.95 per trade.

Pros
  • Volume discounts available
  • Among the lowest fees in industry
  • Good for every experience level
  • Excellent customer service
Cons
  • Lacks physical locations
Current Promotion

$3.95 per stock trade for Active Traders at Ally Invest

eTrade
  • Mobile traders
  • Traders looking for research and data
  • Investors looking for retirement planning guidance
$6.95 for fewer than 30 trades/quarter. $0
Get started securely through eTrade's website
1 Minute Review

E-Trade is best known for its user-friendly browser, desktop and mobile trading platforms and its extensive research and educational information. E-Trade may not have the lowest commissions compared to discount online brokers, but customers certainly get their money’s worth from E-Trade’s comprehensive offerings.

Pros
  • Extensive resources
  • Full banking services
  • Easy-to-use platforms
Cons
  • Limited access to ETrade Pro
  • Higher commissions than discount brokers
Current Promotion

60 days of commission-free trades with deposit of $10,000 or more

Interactive Brokers
  • Forex traders
  • Professional traders
  • Frequent traders with a thirst for different order types (63!)
$0.005 per share minimum $1 and maximum 0.5% of trade value; volume discount available $0 for cash account, or a margin account with $2,000
Get started securely through Interactive Brokers's website
1 Minute Review

If you consider yourself a sure-footed professional trader, Interactive Brokers might be a major possibility for you, particularly if you’re adept at navigating tricky trading platforms (can you say 124 option indicators?) or have done more than just dipped your toe a “coupla times” into the complex world of international markets.

Pros
  • If you’re into trading on margin, you’re in luck. Interactive Brokers offers the lowest rates in the industry.
  • Low pay-per-share commissions on stock trades (up to 1,000 shares) and on options trades (up to 20 contracts)
  • Vast order types options for professional traders
Cons
  • Interactive Brokers charges account fees (including annual, transfer, closing an inactivity fees) and offers an extremely complex trading platform
Current Promotion

Lower minimum activity requirements ($3/month) and opening account minimum requirement ($3,000) for clients 25 and younger.

TD Ameritrade
  • Beginner investors
  • Advanced traders
  • Investors who want portfolio-building advice.
$6.95 $0
Get started securely through TD Ameritrade's website
1 Minute Review

This publicly listed discount broker, which is in existence for over four decades, is service-intensive, offering intuitive and powerful investment tools. Especially, with equity investing, a flat fee is charged, with the firm claiming that it charges no trade minimum, no data fees, and no platform fees. Though it is pricier than many other discount brokers, what tilts the scales in its favor is its well-rounded service offerings and the quality and value it offers its clients.

Pros
  • Superior technology
  • No account minimum balance
  • Excellent customer support
  • Premier data and news partnerships
Cons
  • Slightly higher commissions
  • Can be for more advanced users
Current Promotion

Trade commission–free for 90 days & get up to $2500

Step 5: Buy the stock

There are generally two types of ‘Buy’ orders, market order, and a limit order. A market order will execute the purchase at the present market price, while a limit order will only execute if the price falls at or below the limit price. Although a limit price might give an investor a lower price of entry, there is no guarantee that the limit order will execute.

Step 6: Sell the stock

Once an investor’s goal has been achieved or a pain point has been crossed, the investor can ‘Sell’ the stock, again with either the market order or the limit order, and use the proceeds to reinvest.

Final Thoughts

Investing in stocks can be a good way to build wealth. Although accepting the general market return and passively investing has historically worked out for many people, active investing, such as buying and selling stocks for oneself, could potentially generate greater returns.

To do active investing, an investor would need to do some research on the company, read the latest news, determine how much he/she is willing to invest, and sign up for a broker account. Once the broker account is approved and funded, the investor can ‘buy’ and ‘sell’ a stock, and potentially profit.

If you’re interested in buying your first stock, check out some of the best online stock brokers for beginners.