How to Invest in Stocks: The Complete Beginner’s Guide
The stock market is an intimidating topic. It’s right up there with life insurance, mortgages and filing your own taxes.
In fact, a lot of people don’t even consider stock investing because they assume they don’t have enough money to get started.
Good news: It’s not as scary as you think. And you probably have enough money to start investing right now.
Before we dive into what types of stocks and funds you can invest in, let’s cover the basics.
When you buy a share of a stock, you own a small part of the company. Think of it this way: You have money now, but you hope to make more money later. The company needs money now so it can use it to grow and earn more money later.
Stocks are essentially trading your cash today for a promise of more money down the road.
The downside is if the company performs poorly. In that case, you may lose your investment. The stock market is risky business, which may lead to you to wonder why you shouldn’t just stow your money in a savings account.
Enter funds. An investment fund is a pool of money you can use to invest in various assets, including stocks. By giving small amounts of money to many companies — rather than a lot of money to one company — investment funds are betting on the success of the stock market overall. As a result, they’re much safer.
OK, now we can dive in!
What Different Ways Can I Invest in the Stock Market?
These are the main options for the beginning investor:
Low-cost index funds and exchange-traded funds
Have you ever heard people say they’re trying to “diversify their portfolio?” The first step to doing that is investing in mutual funds.
Mutual funds are investment programs that combine stocks, bonds and cash. This blend of assets gives you a more diverse portfolio.
Then if one stock takes a hit, the effect on you will be relatively small. On the flip side, your overall rate of return won’t skyrocket if a single stock increases in value, either.
Mutual funds are typically managed by professionals. This means you’ll put in less work than if you took care of everything yourself because they buy and sell stocks for you, but you’ll pay for things like commissions and management fees.
Low-Cost Index Funds and Exchange-Traded Funds
Index funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) are types of investment funds, but the approach is more passive than that of a regular mutual fund.
Rather than being actively managed by a professional, these funds track an index. Indexes such as the S&P 500 track stock market trends by following a sample group of stocks. Costs are low because less work goes into managing these funds.
There are some key differences between index funds and ETFs. The main distinction is that index funds can only be sold or bought at the end of a business day. ETFs, however, can be traded throughout the day — similar to stocks.
Some people prefer ETFs because if a particular stock’s value drops during the business day, they can sell it off rather than waiting until the end of the day, when it could be even lower.
But this nimbleness comes at a price. ETFs have a small trading fee, whereas index funds do not. While some people prefer one over the other, nothing is stopping you from investing in both.
Two big perks of these types of investments are that they are well-diversified and have low fees compared to other actively managed funds.
“One of the biggest things that erodes your investment gains is fees,” said Robert Farrington, founder and CEO of The College Investor. “The less fees, the more money you can keep in your pocket.”
As a beginning investor, your mind might go to big name companies like Apple, Nike or Netflix. You may be tempted to think: If only I invested in a few shares of Apple in 1980, I’d be a millionaire!
While buying stock in individual companies is certainly an option, for new investors, it’s not the wisest one.
First of all, buying stocks individually is a risky way to go. If the stock’s value increases, you could make some major moolah. However, if the value drops and you have a significant amount of money invested, you could lose big.
Second, investing isn’t a novice’s game. Advice from professionals who study companies, industries and stocks will be invaluable. These experts can make much more educated decisions about which stocks to buy. You can reach out to a professional for advice, or you may decide to let them make your stock picks for you through accounts such as mutual funds.
Malik S. Lee, a certified financial planner and founder of Felton & Peel Wealth Management, told us that “people think because they’ve Googled something” that they’re now an expert.
“It can go terribly wrong,” Lee said.
So don’t fall into that trap.
How Much Money Do I Need to Invest in Stocks?
It all depends. Actively managed mutual funds typically have steep minimum investments — in some cases well into the five figures. But there are companies that give you access to top market research and planning professionals with a starting balance of just $2,500.
At the lower end, some self-directed brokerage accounts are free to open and have no minimum account balance, but charge a fee per trade. You can use a brokerage account to invest in index funds, ETFs or even individual stocks.
The amount of money you need to invest in individual stocks depends on the share price and the number of shares you want to buy. For example, at the time of this writing, the share price of Apple is around $190. One share of Netflix would be about $370. The prices of individual stocks fluctuate frequently.
This is, again, why it’s a good idea to get advice before buying individual stocks.
How Do I Start Investing in Stocks?
There are three main ways to get in the game: hire a broker, hire a financial adviser or use a robo-adviser. Which option you choose will depend on your situation and preferences.
Hire a Broker
Do you like the idea of making your own investment decisions? Do you want to invest in individual stocks and mutual funds? If this sounds like your cup of tea, hiring a broker is the way to go.
When you open a brokerage account through a firm such as Fidelity or Charles Schwab, you make most of the decisions, but your broker actually does the work of buying, selling and trading for you. He or she will also provide you with advice should you ask for it.
When you hire a broker, you pay them a commission each time they make a transaction for you. Those fees can add up.
Hire a Financial Adviser
If you’re starting out with just a little money, you may want to hire a financial adviser rather than a broker.
Why? Because you don’t pay a financial adviser a commission for each transaction—instead, you pay a fee that’s a percentage of the assets in your account.
When my husband and I first started investing, we decided to hire a financial adviser over a broker to open our individual IRAs because we could only start with $500 each. Our fees were very low.
Don’t worry, financial advisers are licensed professionals with stock analysis experience. The fees just work differently.
Keep in mind that many companies offer the option of hiring either a broker or a financial adviser, so if you’re on the fence, you can call companies such as LPL Financial or Morgan Stanley to talk with someone in more depth.
There’s another option, though: You could use a robo-adviser.
Use a Robo-Adviser
If the hands-off nature and affordability of index funds and ETFs appeal to you, then a robo-adviser may be the best way to go.
Sign up for an account with a reputable robo-adviser, then input your information and investment goals. The robo-adviser will set up your portfolio for you and track an index, such as the Dow Jones or S&P 500.
Robo-advisers are more objective than brokers and even financial advisers, and you’re omitting the possibility of human error.
Robo-advisers are also the most affordable. You’ll still have to pay management fees, but these tend to be much lower than fees for human advisers.
Need a push in the right direction? Here are three of the best robo-advisers out there:
- Stash. The Stash app curates investments from professional fund managers and investors and lets you choose where to put your money — but it leaves the complicated investment terms out of it. You just choose from a set of simple portfolios reflecting your beliefs, interests and goals.
- Acorns. If you’re like most of us and wish your money would just take care of itself, consider starting an investment account through Acorns. You can start small and stack up change over time with its “round-up” feature. That means if you spend $10.23 at the grocery store, 77 cents gets dropped into your Acorns account. Then, the app does the whole investing thing for you.
- Wealthfront. Wealthfront will manage your investment account for free as long as your balance remains under $5,000. Once you pass the $5,000 mark, you’ll pay a relatively low annual fee of 0.25%. You only need $500 to get started.
- Betterment. With Betterment, you receive the first year of account management for free, then pay an annual fee of 0.25%. The main feature that sets Betterment apart is that no minimum balance is required to open an account.
- Schwab Intelligent Portfolios. Initially, Schwab’s account minimum may throw you off—it’s $5,000. The good news? There are no management fees at all.
While Lee of Felton & Peel sometimes recommends robo-advisers to his clients, he noted that human advisers can take a more holistic approach to your financial plans.
“To put it all together, you still need a human for that.”
Professional, human advice is paramount to stepping wisely and carefully into the investment world. While you’re still a far cry from being a hedge fund expert, now you have some tools to get started.
Laura Grace Tarpley is a freelance writer and editor at FluentU. She spends her free time playing with her puppies, Tuna and Gumbo. Follow her on Twitter @lgtarpley.
Staff writer Adam Hardy contributed to this post.