The online brokerage community has grown by leaps and bounds in the last few years, which is great for investors who like to participate in online stock trading. The competition has forced innovation, cheap online stock trades, and additional features such as educational and training centers, articles, videos, free webinars, chat rooms and forums, social networking, free tax software to track gains and losses, and more. Not all of these features are available at all discount brokerage firms, and some stock brokers offer better value than others.
Our goal is to show you some of the best values in the discount brokerage space, and show you some of the top features they offer. We have focused on the more popular firms that consistently appear in the industry awards reviews, including those by SmartMoney and Kiplinger’s. This brokerage comparison chart will give you some basic information on pricing structures, and below the comparison chart are some unique features about each of these online brokerage firms. Hopefully you can use this information to find the discount online brokerage that is best for your needs.
Best Online Discount Brokerages
|Discount Brokerage Firm||Cost Per|
|TradeKing||$4.95||$4.95 + $0.65||TradeKing Review|
|OptionsHouse||$4.95||$4.95 + $0.50||OptionsHouse Review|
|TD Ameritrade||$9.99||$9.99 + $0.75||TD Ameritrade Review|
|Firstrade||$6.95||$6.95 + $0.75||Firstrade Review|
|Scottrade||$7.00||$7.00 + $1.25||Scottrade Review|
|E*TRADE||$9.99||$9.99 + $0.75||E*TRADE Review|
|OptionsXpress||$8.95||$12.95 minimum; $1.25 per contract, |
for more than 10 (active trader rates,
see site for other pricing).
|Capital One Investing|
|$6.95||$6.95 + $0.75||ShareBuilder Review|
Discount Brokerage Features
Each of these brokers has some features that set it apart from the others. Check out these overviews for more information.
TradeKing: TradeKing is a personal favorite of mine. They have a slick and easy to use interface, cheap stock trades, an exceptional learning center, free webinars, free access to Maxit Tax Manager to track your gains and losses, and more. TradeKing’s pricing structure is among the best in the business for discount stock trades, including for investors who prefer to trade options. TradeKing also offers to reimburse new customers up to $150 to transfer their assets to TradeKing. For more information, or to open a TradeKing account, visit http://www.tradeking.com/.
E*TRADE: E*TRADE is offers a full-service brokerage firm and an online bank which makes it easy to link accounts and transfer funds to and from. E*TRADE has won numerous awards for both their brokerage services and their online savings accounts. While their trades are not the cheapest of the listed brokerages, they offer a wide array of services and features not found with many other online discount brokerages. New customers can get free stock trades for 60 days when they open a new account and fund it with a $10,000 minimum deposit within 60 days. Trade Free for 60 Days and Get up to $600 when you open an E*TRADE Account!
OptionsHouse. Options House offers the lowest prices for a standard online stock trade out of the brokerages listed in this review. A standard stock trade only costs $4.95 and options trades that are among the best in the industry (see OptionsHouse review for more details). OptionsHouse was rated #1 by Barron’s in user experience. This is a great brokerage for investors who are concerned with cost per trade. While options traders may be able to find a lower average cost based on their trading habits, OptionsHouse scores points for their user interface, software, and other features, making them a solid option for investors of all types. OptionsHouse boasts no maintenance fees, volume requirements, or monthly minimums. For more information or to open an account, visit: http://www.optionshouse.com/.
TD Ameritrade: TD Ameritrade is among the top-ranked online brokers, according to third party ratings by Barron’s and Kiplinger’s. Stock trades aren’t the cheapest at TD Ameritrade, but you get one of the industry’s top education and training platforms, and one of the top rated research platforms. Add in no account minimums, no monthly maintenance fees, and the ability to make trades online, on your mobile phone, or at one of over 100 physical locations, and you have a winning combination. For more information, or to open a TD Ameritrade account, visit https://www.tdameritrade.com/.
Firstrade: Founded in 1985, Firstrade.com has one of the longest legacies of the discount brokerage firms. Firstrade gives stock traders and investors low commissions, low margin rates and a three second execution guarantee. Firstrade offers regular brokerage accounts, retirement accounts, and Education Savings Accounts with no minimum initial deposit and no maintenance or inactivity fees. Firstrade has access to over 10,000 mutual funds and offers new customers up to 100 free trades. The standard rate is $6.95 per trade, making them one of the lowest priced options out there. For more information, or to open a Firstrade account, visit http://www.firstrade.com/.
Scottrade: Scottrade has 25 years of experience and one of the best reputations in the brokerage industry. The $7 trades are right in the middle of the price range out of these online brokers, but Scottrade is the only discount brokerage on this list featuring brick and mortar offices where you can visit a broker for face to face meetings. No maintenance or inactivity fees, low stock trades, free online workshops, the Scottrade community, research and educational tools and tax tracking software make Scottrade a great fit for day traders and the casual investor alike. Scottrade will reimburse new customers up to $100 to transfer their holdings to Scottrade. For more information, or to open a Scottrade account, visit Scottrade’s website.
OptionsXpress by Charles Schwab. OptionsXpress has a flat fee of $8.95 per trade for all standard US based stock trades. There is an Active Trader Rate for options which kicks in when you makes 35 or more option trades per quarter. OptionsXpress has no inactivity or maintenance fees regardless of how much you have in your account, and does not charge for streaming quotes or standard withdrawals. OptionsXpress offers free webinars, free trading tools, free advanced research and the option of a personal coaching program. For a limited time, you can also get a $1o0 sign up bonus when you open a new account and fund it with a minimum of $500 and make a minimum of 3 trades in the first 12 months
of enrollment. For more information, or to open an OptionsXpress account, visit http://www.optionsxpress.com/.
Capital One Investing (formerly ShareBuilder). Capital One Investing used to be known as ShareBuilder, which was part of the ING Direct brand that was purchased by Capital One after the financial crisis in 2008. Capital One rebranded the brokerage and made a few important changes, many of which appear to bring their trading platform more in line with the competition. Where ShareBuider was designed around low-cost automatic investments, Capital One Investing is a more traditional brokerage firm with low-cost real time trades, the ability to make options trades, and much more. You can invest with a small starting investment, as there are no minimum requirements to open an account, no inactivity fees, and no minimum trade requirements. Capital One Investing also offers an educational and training center and a variety of premium features. To top it off, you can easily link your Capital One 360 account to make money transfers in or out fast and easy. For more information, or to open a an account, visit www.capitaloneinvesting.com.
Which Investment Firm is Best?
As you can see by the above comparison chart, there is a wide range of prices and features with these brokerages, which should cover just about anyone. I recommend reading the section below to help you learn how to compare the different brokerages and determine which online discount brokerage is the best for your needs. We also have a list of prominent IRA providers if you are considering opening an IRA.
How to Compare Online Brokers
Not all online brokerages are created equal. Here are some of the major areas to consider when comparing online brokerages
Commissions and Other Trading Related Expenses
One of the first features many investors look at first is cost. While lower is generally better, the overall cost per trade may not be the most important factor if you are not a frequent trader. Saving a $1 per trade on less than 10 trades per year won’t have a major impact on your bottom line. On the other hand, day traders and other high-volume investors will want to look for the lowest commission per trade, and will also want to compare other expenses, discounts for high volume traders, etc.
Here are some of the different factors to consider when comparing commission costs between online brokerages:
- Commissions for Market or Limit Trades
- Options Trades
- Automatic Investing or Reinvesting
- Cost of Buying No Load Mutual Funds
- ETF trade fees
- Cost of trading on margin
Other common costs to compare:
Assisted Trades: Some brokerages charge extra if you need personal assistance when making a trade. Most platforms are easy enough to manage without this added feature, so you won’t need it or every trade. Just be sure to understand what the trading fee will be so you don’t have any surprises (and be sure to check with the broker’s online knowledge base or customer service before placing a broker assisted trade – you can usually handle most trades on your own).
Account Minimums & Inactivity Fees: Some brokerages require customers to maintain a minimum balance to avoid fees, while others may charge customers for inactivity if they don’t make a certain number of trades within a set time frame. I am primarily a buy & hold investor, so my personal preference is to avoid brokerages that nickel and dime customers with these types of fees. Most discount brokerage firms don’t charge these fees, but be aware that some brokers do.
Differential Pricing for Commissions: Many brokerages charge a flat fee per trade, while others offer differential pricing. This is most common for accounts that maintain a certain minimum account balance, or for accounts that exceed a set number of trades per month, quarter, or year. For example, E*TRADE charges $9.99 per trade, or $7.99 when you make at least 150 trades per quarter.
Most brokerage firms allow investors to trade just about any stock held in the major US markets. But there are some different types of investments you may wish to trade that may or may not be available at every brokerage firm. Good examples include certain mutual funds and ETFs. Here are some more factors to consider when comparing discount brokerages.
Mutual Fund and ETF Availability: Not all mutual funds and ETFs are available at all brokerages. Many of the major mutual fund and ETF families are widely available, but be sure to check with your brokerage before assuming you will have access to everything.
Dividend Reinvestment Plans: Many investors prefer to automatically reinvest their dividends so they can continue having their money work for them without having to think about it. However, not all brokerages make it easy to do this. If you want to automatically reinvest your dividends, then look for brokerage companies that offer free Dividend Reinvestment Plans (DRIPS). These plans allow investors to automatically reinvest their dividends without being charged another commission. Be sure to look for brokers that allow investors to purchase fractional shares of companies, otherwise you won’t be able to put your entire dividend to use.
Automatic Investment Plans: Some investors prefer to automatically invest the same amount of money each month in the same stock, bond, or mutual fund. This is very similar to investing in your 401k at work. This works best for investors who regularly have a little extra cash to invest each month. This feature allows investors to create their own investment schedule and stick to it. Look for n investment firm that doesn’t charge for this feature.
Tools & Services
This is perhaps the most exciting area that separates the different online brokerages. Many firms offer a variety of online tools and services, including educational and training resources, webinars, advanced stock filters and research tools, real time quotes, advanced analysis, cost-basis tracking for tax purposes, and much more.
Full service, banking, and other features. Some brokerage firms are willing to hold your hand, while others expect you to be able to handle everything more or less on your own. Some brokerages offer full-service banking. This can be convenient, as you can keep all your savings, checking, and investments under one roof.
Mobile Trading Platforms & Apps. Most brokerages now offer apps for your smartphone or tablet. Not everyone wants to trade on the go, but having that flexibility can help you avoid being trapped behind a desk and give you the ability to take advantage of market movements when you’re out and about.
Promotional Offers and Sign Up Bonuses
The brokerage community is very competitive, and many brokerage firms are willing to give new customers some form of bonus for opening a new brokerage account. Common promotions include:
- Free stock trades – usually limited to a certain number or time frame,
- Cash bonus – often a flat rate for a new funded account, or a tiered bonuses based on the amount of the initial deposit
- Other bonus – I’ve seen promotional offers that include free iPads or Kindles, free GPS units, computers and computer monitors, and more.
- Transfer fee reimbursement – most brokerages charge an ACAT Transfer fee to transfer your assets out of their brokerage. ACAT transfer fee refunds are a popular sign up bonus because it removes a barrier to moving funds to a new brokerage.
Here are some brokerage coupon and promo codes that can get you some free trades or free bonus money when you open a new account.
- Capital One Investing.
- E*TRADE – Free Stock Trades for 60 Days.
- ShareBuilder Promo Codes.
- TD Ameritrade.
TradeKing will reimburse new customers up to $150 to transfer their assets to TradeKing. Be sure to visit the the TradeKing site for more information about the TradeKing Asset Transfer program, or click the picture below for more information.
Customer Service and User Reviews
Don’t overlook customer service. Many brokerage companies offer 24-7 customer service, while others may have more limited hours. You should also consider whether they offer phone support, chat, email, or other forms of service.
Individual reviews are also important. We do our best to review a variety of products and services on this website. But our use and needs may differ from yours. It’s generally a good idea to consider multiple sources. And if possible, give the brokerage a test drive before committing all your investments to their service. One way to do this is to see if the brokerage firm offers a “play” account, where you can open an account and make stock trades with play money while you learn how their platform operates. Many firms offer these types of accounts for free. Another option is to open an account and test the waters before making actual live trades. Again, the purpose is to give yourself familiarity with the platform before moving the bulk of your investments to that company.
Choose Your Brokerage Base on Your Needs
Investing is personal. And every investor may have different needs. The high volume trader may value certain features or commission structures, while the buy and hold investor may prefer a brokerage that offers other features, such as full-service banking. The above feature lists should give you a good starting point to consider which features are important to you. Use your personal feature list to narrow down your choice to the best option for your needs. All the mentioned brokerage firms on this page should also be a good starting point, as they all offer something unique.
Do You Have More Than One Brokerage Account?
Many investors have more than one brokerage account. There can be good reasons for this, including specialized trading needs, taking advantage of lower trading costs, utilizing premium features or services through a different broker, avoiding the expense or time involved with consolidating accounts, or other reasons.
Having multiple trading accounts can have benefits, but it can also complicate your finances. For example, it’s one more account to look at when calculating your net worth, one more set of investments to deal with when rebalancing your assets, more sets of tax forms, etc. I can’t help you with the taxes, but I can help you with the first two problems.
If you are dealing with multiple accounts, then it’s highly recommended to link your investment and other financial accounts to an account aggregator. These software programs will link all your assets to automatically show you your net worth and other valuable information. Some of them will even show you your asset allocation and make recommendations on how and where to rebalance your portfolio. We have a list of some free online tools to help you do this. But I’ll skip to the punch line and just recommend the one I use – Personal Capital.
Personal Capital is free, easy to use, and will help you understand your total financial picture, including your net worth, asset allocation, how much you pay in fees, and where you can rebalance to get your portfolio in shape. It’s 100% online and uses bank-level security features to track your investments.
Photo credit: Alex E. Proimos.