An online brokerage account is the most convenient place to buy stocks, but it’s far from your only option. If you see yourself as a hands-on investor who likes researching companies and learning about markets, an online brokerage account is a great place to get started buying stocks.
Online brokerages offer taxable accounts and tax-advantaged accounts. If you want to buy stocks to fund your retirement, consider an individual retirement account (IRA) that offers you certain tax advantages, like tax-deferred growth of your investments and potential tax credits on your tax return. If you’re investing for a day sooner than retirement—or you’ve already maxed out your retirement accounts—look to a taxable brokerage account. While they don’t offer the tax advantages of IRAs, they also don’t have any limitations on how much money you can deposit or when you can withdraw funds.
Your online brokerage of choice might also ask if you want to open a margin account. With a margin account, the brokerage lends you money to buy stock. This lets experienced investors buy more shares of stock with less of their own money in exchange for some additional costs and much more risk.
Direct Stock Purchase Plans
If you’re already identified stocks that you’d like to buy, you may consider a direct stock purchase plan. Not all publicly traded companies participate in direct stock purchase plans, but many of the largest, most popular names do, and you don’t need a brokerage account to buy stocks this way. You’ll most likely be charged additional fees, however.
Direct purchase plans are almost always administered by third parties, rather than the companies themselves. The two most common direct purchase plan administrators are ComputerShare and American Stock Transfer & Trust Company (AST). Both firms charge additional fees for direct purchase plans. In contrast, most online brokers charge zero commissions to buy and sell shares of stock.
Take Coca-Cola. You can buy a one-time amount of $500 of Coca-Cola stock on ComputerShare for a $5.00 fee, or set up at least 10 recurring $50 purchases for a $2.50 fee. Either way, there’s a $0.05 processing fee for every share bought. Reinvesting any dividends incurs a charge of 5% amount invested up to a maximum of $5. ComputerShare will round up your investment with fractional shares, if necessary.
With the ready availability of low- and no-fee online brokerages, many direct purchase plans have fallen out of favor. However, they may allow investors to purchase a specific company’s shares at a slight discount, which may help make up for the fees they charge. Carefully evaluate the benefits of investing using a direct stock purchase plan before you make your first purchase.
Full-service brokers provide well-heeled clients with a broad variety of financial services, from retirement planning and tax preparation to estate planning. They also can help you buy stocks. The trouble is full-service brokers charge steep commissions compared to online brokers.
For wealthy individuals without a lot of extra time to stay on top of their complicated financial lives, full-service brokers offer special treatment as well as a high level of trust. If all you want to do is buy stocks, a direct purchase plan or an online brokerage is a better choice.
Robo-advisors are automated investing platforms that evaluate your financial goals, investing timeline and risk tolerance. When you sign up for a robo-investor, the platform asks you a series of questions to evaluate these factors and then invests your money in a managed portfolio of exchange traded funds (ETF) that’s tailored to your needs.
The thing about robo-investors, though, is that you’re not buying stocks directly—you’re buying a portfolio of ETFs. Some of those funds will almost certainly be stock ETFs, like the SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust (SPY), which strives to match the performance of the S&P 500 stock index. But others could be broad bond funds, like Vanguard Total Bond Market ETF (BND), which invests in fixed income securities.
That doesn’t make robo-advisors a bad choice for your investing dollars, especially if you’re more of a hands-off investor. Just keep in mind that robo-advisors may not be your first choice if you want to buy stocks.