There are several more brokerages that offer great services. But these 5 should be all the analysis you need.
I’ve learned three important things about online brokerage firms. First, there are a lot of them. You’ve probably heard of many discount sites that allow you to trade stocks online such as Zecco or Scottrade. I’m guessing there are a lot of online brokers you’ve never heard of (Sogotrade may be one example). Second, while on the surface they can all seem similar, when you dig deep into what these brokers offer, you’ll find big differences. For example, not all of them offer the same account types. With some you can’t buy mutual funds, while others offer more mutual funds than most, and the stock trading tools available to you vary from one discount broker to the next. The third thing I’ve learned is that the cost of these discount firms can be tricky to understand, and in the end, maybe not the most important factor. Because I watch every dime we spend, it may seem odd that cost isn’t the most important factor to me (after all, we are talking about “discount” sites, not full service brokerage firms). It’s important to understand a few things about the fees discount online brokers charge.
How Much Will You Pay To Buy and Sell Equities Online?
All of the firms make a point to advertise how much you pay to buy or sell stocks, mutual funds, options, or other equities. Zecco made a big splash several years ago advertising free trades (Zecco’s commission structure has changed since then). Today most trades at discount sites run from about $2.50 to $12 per trade. The key to remember, however, is that many of these firms charge additional fees, depending on how you use your account. These additional fees may include fees for large buy or sell orders, fees to buy or sell stocks trading at less than $1, account maintenance fees, account inactivity fees, and of course interest if you buy on margin.
Because these fees vary among discount brokers, the starting point is to understand how you will use your stock trading account. Will you trade frequently or just once or twice a month (or quarter)? Do you want to set up an automatic investment plan? Will you be buying stocks and mutual funds, or do you also plan to trade options? The answers to these questions will help you narrow the selection and ultimately pick the best broker for you investing needs.
As I mentioned above, cost is not a critical factor for me because I won’t be trading a lot–once or twice a month at the most. So the difference between a $3 trade and a $7 trade is just not that significant.
Factors to Consider Other Than Cost
The cost is just one of many factors to consider. The others include ease of use, customer service, types of accounts offered, investing tools, type of investments you intend to buy, and account minimums. I’ve highlighted these and other factors below in the summary of the best online discount brokers. But just like cost, it’s important to know your investing goals when you evaluate your options. For example, account minimums may be a non-issue for you if you plan to invest a significant amount of money. Likewise, if you are looking for a specific account type (like an IRA), you can quickly eliminate the discount stock brokers that do not offer that account type.
Summary of The Best Online Discount Brokers
1) Scottrade: Scottrade is high on my list of potential discount brokers for IRA accounts. There are several reasons why I lean toward Scottrade. First, the cost is reasonable, with stock trades costing $7. Broker-assisted trades are $27, but I’ll rarely if ever use a broker. Scottrade ranks well in broker surveys, including Smart Money’s 2009 survey. Its one downside according to Smart Money is its banking services, but most of you won‚Äôt be using its banking services. It offers a number of account types, including IRAs and other retirement accounts. And with a Scottrade IRA account, there are no opening, closing, annual or custodian fees. I also like the site. It’s well organized and easy to navigate. The account minimum is just $500, and there are no inactivity or maintenance fees.
Scottrade has one other feature that I like–physical locations. Among discount online brokers, Scottrade has the largest network of branch offices. While I expect the vast majority of my transactions will be online, it’s good to know that I can talk to a person face to face if I need to.
You can get more information about Scottrade or open an account by visiting www.scottrade.com.
2) Zecco: Zecco was one of the pioneers of online discount stock brokers. Today, Zecco offers 10 free trades per month if you either (1) have $25,000 in your account, or (2) trade at least 25 times per month. Beyond that, stock trades are just $4.95. Zecco offers Forex trading, including a $50,000 practice account if you are new to buying and selling foreign currencies. Zecco also has video tutorials on how to use its tools and resources. Zecco’s video tutorials on basic stock investing are tops.
3) OptionsHouse: At first the word “options” in the name led me to believe that OptionsHouse only allowed you to trade options. Not true. With OptionsHouse, you can trade stocks, options or spreads. The cost to trade stocks is a flat $2.95, making it one of the lowest cost stock trading alternatives. There are no maintenance fees or monthly minimums. According to OptionsHouse, it offers a professional-grade trading platform backed by PEAK6 Investments, one of the largest options trading firms in the world. It is from this platform that OptionsHouse offers an array of professional trading tools.
4) OptionsXpress: OptionsXpress is another broker with a name suggesting it only handles options. But with OptionsXpress, you can trade just about anything including stocks and futures contracts. Stock trades cost $9.95, which is a bit more than some other discount online brokers. With OptionsXpress, however, there is no additional cost for broker-assisted transactions, which makes it a good option for those that want some help with their trades. Perhaps the one thing that OptionsXpress is best recognized for is its trading tools. Smart Money’s 2009 Broker Survey awarded 5 stars to OptionsXpress for its tools. The tools fall into three categories, designed to help traders find investing opportunities, analyze those opportunities, and finally to execute trades. And these tools include an extensive collection of videos.
5) E*Trade: E*Trade was ranked first among discount stock brokers by Smart Money’s 2009 Broker Survey. E*TRade scored high marks across the board in categories ranging from customer service to research to banking services. While it ranked as one of the best in just two categories (banking services and Research), it scored consistently high in all categories. E*Trade’s research resources include portfolio management and analysis, stock and fund screeners, independent research, and risk analyzer. Stock trades cost $9.99 or less depending on trading volume and account balance. In addition, E*Trade is offering up to 100 free trades for new accounts, the details of which you can find on E*Trade’s website‚Ä¶.etrade.com.
and videos every morning!