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By Chris Taylor
November 10, 2020
Filip Fröhlich for Money

For investors looking to grow their portfolios these days, here is a hard truth: You have limited options.

In this extended era of low rates, average interest on savings accounts is close to zero. Fixed income is not much better, with 10-year Treasurys offering well below 1%.

That’s not even enough to keep up with annual inflation, let alone grow your savings for a comfortable retirement. That leaves one primary weapon in your arsenal: Equities, or shares in publicly-traded companies.

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The stock market

There is more risk involved with buying stocks than with bonds or other investments, but there is also more potential return. Looking through a long-term lens of many decades, stocks are a smart place to be – returning an average of 9.2% a year over the last 140 years, according to data from Goldman Sachs.

Compound that return over many decades of your working life, and you can see why stocks are a core component of most portfolios. They not only offer potential share-price appreciation, but income generation as well, if they provide a dividend (a regular payment to shareholders).

Using a simple growth calculator at Investor.gov, if a young saver chips in $500 monthly and enjoys 7% compounded stock returns over 40 years, that adds up to an impressive $1.2 million.

“With stocks there is a greater potential for reward, which is why they are a core part of most investors’ portfolios,” says Michael Kealy, an education coach with brokerage TD Ameritrade in Salt Lake City. “Historically they have provided returns north of other asset classes. There is more risk on the table – but there are ways to offset that risk.”

How to buy stocks:

Stocks for beginners:

Here are three steps to start buying stocks:

1. Decide between a mutual fund and individual stocks

2. Decide which stocks to own

3. Selling stocks: Consider taxes and risks

1. Funds vs Stocks

So where does a new investor begin in buying individual stocks? If your primary savings vehicle is a company 401(k), you will typically be presented with a menu of mutual funds, which are baskets of large numbers of stocks. (The exception to that rule is stock in your own company, which may indeed be offered within that plan.)

For most investors, mutual funds are the wiser path, since they offer more diversification and less risk. But if you are interested in buying shares in individual stocks, you can certainly do that elsewhere — in traditional or Roth IRAs, for instance, which are retirement accounts that let you select from a wider universe of investment options.

Stock brokers

Or you can trade stocks in a regular taxable brokerage account, at popular online brokers like TD Ameritrade, Merrill Edge, E*Trade or Schwab. Many investors these days are even gravitating towards apps like Robinhood, which appeal to the mobile and tech-savvy mindset of younger savers.

Every brokerage offers its own educational tools, which new investors should take full advantage of.

“Whatever platform you are using, there will be a comprehensive set of research to help you make the most informed decision possible,” says Aron Levine, Bank of America’s President of Preferred and Consumer Banking and Investments. “You have to educate yourself, because you don’t want to pick stocks based on the latest rumor in the news or what you heard in the hallways.”

How to buy stocks online

Before selecting a brokerage, do your due diligence and look into fee structures, like how much they charge you to make a trade. It could be zero — in other words commission-free — at some online brokers, or it could be a modest amount like $15 or $20.

Just keep in mind that if there are fees associated with trading, frequent buying and selling will eat into your overall returns. Even if those costs seem small at first, they can add up in a big way: In fact one well-known study found that frequent traders underperformed the broader market by 6.5%, largely because of trading costs.

Part of that market lagging is that individual investors are just not skilled at successfully timing the market. We react emotionally instead of rationally, buying when stock prices are too high and selling when they are too low. So for most investors, a Warren Buffett-like buy-and-hold strategy is usually the better way to go: Purchase shares in a company you believe in, at a reasonable price, and then leave it alone and watch it grow.

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2. How to pick the right stocks

How do you go about deciding which shares to buy? That’s the million-dollar question, and an inherently personal one, to which no one can give you the answer. But two typical schools of investing thought are “growth” versus “value.”

Growth stocks tend to look more expensive when compared to their current earnings, but their future potential as an expanding business justifies the higher price. Think of prominent technology companies, which have typically looked very pricey in recent decades, but have grown by leaps and bounds – and rewarded investors handsomely.

“How much growth is anticipated, should be one of your very first considerations,” says TD Ameritrade’s Kealy. “You want to see future expected earnings that are well above the past, and to find that out you can research earnings estimates from company analysts.

“When looking for attractive investments, one conventional valuation metric is price relative to earnings (P/E ratio): How much share price am I spending, compared to future earnings?”

That’s where the alternate approach of “value” investing can come in. For any number of reasons – like a broader economic slowdown, or disappointing quarterly results, for instance — a stock may be beaten down at the moment, but as a result it is on sale. Snap up that discount, wait for a rebound, and you should be well-positioned for solid returns going forward.

Another key metric to consider is dividend payout. In that way stocks can be an ongoing source of income, especially for those nearing retirement who would like an additional stream of cash in addition to pensions or Social Security. The average yield of S&P 500 stocks is around 1.5%, but if you pick and choose wisely, many companies are offering 3% or more – which far exceeds what most fixed-income products are offering at the moment.

3. Sell stocks

If you do pick a stock winner, congratulations – but just remember that in taxable accounts, Uncle Sam will want his taste. Short-term gains are taxed at ordinary income rates, while longer-term holdings fall under the capital gains rates of 0%, 15% or 20%, depending on income level. There are no capital gains taxes for buying and selling within traditional IRAs, although eventual distributions are taxed as regular income. Roth IRA investment gains are entirely tax-free, since the initial contributions were after-tax.

Another caveat about investing in individual stocks: Even if you are talking about big, well-known companies, there is a fair amount of risk involved here. As we saw during the financial crisis of 2008-9, unexpected events can take down respected and long-standing firms – and if they crash out, your investment can go to zero.

“Especially in the last six months, there has been a big rush into equities, with young investors getting excited by single stocks,” cautions Bank of America’s Levine. “That creates a great deal of risk, because those investments can go rapidly up or down, with nothing to balance them out.”

One strategy to reduce risk can be to limit such speculative stock picking to a relatively small percentage of your portfolio, while devoting the rest to broader mutual funds and other asset classes like fixed income. That overall balance should steady the ship during market storms, and prevent dramatic swings and rash decisions.

You can also try your hand at stock picking by using a practice account, or what is called “paper trading”. TD Ameritrade, for instance, has a platform called Thinkorswim where new traders can get familiar with how the process works, without putting any actual money on the line.

“It’s basically Monopoly money, and you can see what plays out without it being a live account,” says Kealy. “It’s a good way to practice and build confidence, because education is so important for investors who are dipping their toes in for the first time.”

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Advertiser Disclosure

The purpose of this disclosure is to explain how we make money without charging you for our content.

Our mission is to help people at any stage of life make smart financial decisions through research, reporting, reviews, recommendations, and tools.

Earning your trust is essential to our success, and we believe transparency is critical to creating that trust. To that end, you should know that many or all of the companies featured here are partners who advertise with us.

Our content is free because our partners pay us a referral fee if you click on links or call any of the phone numbers on our site. If you choose to interact with the content on our site, we will likely receive compensation. If you don't, we will not be compensated. Ultimately the choice is yours.

Opinions are our own and our editors and staff writers are instructed to maintain editorial integrity, but compensation along with in-depth research will determine where, how, and in what order they appear on the page.

To find out more about our editorial process and how we make money, click here.

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