March 27: Online Investing Basics

by David Jenyns on March 27, 2007

If you’d like to pick your own stocks and funds, and have the convenience of seeing your investment portfolio 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, you might want to consider choosing an online brokerage firm.

The advantages of using an online firm is that there are lower commission rates than if you used a full service broker. You can make as many or as few trades as you desire. You are responsible for choosing your investments. Before choosing an online brokerage firm, research all of the costs associated with the firm. Remember to look for more than just the lowest commission fee per trade. Many online brokerage firms with slightly higher commission fees actually offer more tools and research capabilities for their investors. If a higher commission fee is matched by extra investor support the additional cost may be well worth it. Also take note of the minimum balance requirements and maintenance fees. Sometimes firms with lower commission fees make up the difference with a higher required minimum balance.

There are a few key factors that make an online brokerage firm trustworthy and professional. Good brokerage sites offer glossaries of financial and investment terms to help their investors. There may also have free and unlimited access to news and research from third-party sources to help investors make better decisions. A telephone number for customer assistance is also a desirable feature. However, keep in mind that the customer service department can only help with the mechanics of the online brokerage site. They aren’t there to help you choose stocks or offer investment advice.

If you like the convenience of investing online, there are several brokerages to choose from. Two of the most well known discount online brokerages are Ameritrade and ShareBuilder; please note that there are many other options available.

With Ameritrade, there is a minimum balance requirement of $1000. With that balance, you can open an individual account. There is a quarterly maintenance fee of $15, but only if the account has less than $2000 of liquidation value. The fee will be waived if a minimum of four trades have been made within a six-month window. The fee can also be waived if the account is an IRA, rather than an account for stock investing.

Market orders for stock are charged a $10.99 commission fee by Ameritrade. Limit orders are also charged a $10.99 commission fee. Commissions for mutual funds are $17.99 for buying and selling no-loan funds. For buying a load mutual fund there are no fees charged. A load mutual fund is the term used when there is a fee charged by the mutual fund manager. For those who want a riskier option, Ameritrade also offers margin accounts (borrowing loans) and short accounts (borrowing securities).

Ameritrade has many brick and mortar branches around the country if you prefer to walk into a branch rather than conduct your business online. This allows investors to have the flexibility of having both an online and a walk-in brokerage.

Sharebuilder has many options for investors to choose from. This service allows investors to build varied portfolios in almost 5,000 different stocks and funds. You can also buy and sell in real-time. There are three investment plans to choose from with Sharebuilder; Basic, Standard and Advantage. These investment plans are recurring. Investors instruct the system in how much they want to invest, and have complete control over when the investments are made and which companies they invest in. The system works by allowing the investor to specify a dollar amount to be deducted from their checking or savings account on a monthly or weekly basis.

Sharebuilder’s Basic plan has no monthly fee. With the Basic plan, investors are charged $4 per investment and are also able to trade in real-time for $15.95. Limit orders in real-time are $19.95. Sharebuilder’s Advantage plan makes it possible for investors to buy stocks for as little as $1 with 20 automatic investments. The monthly fee for the Advantage plan is $20. Real-time trade commissions are $11.95, and there are tools available for investors use such as a portfolio performance tool. ShareBuilder has no account or investment minimums at any level, and there are no inactivity fees.

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