Whether you're ready to open your first discount brokerage account or simply wondering if you're getting the best service for your money from your current one, here are 10 things to consider.
1. Trading commissions
Surprise! Cheaper is not always better. We know you've probably figured that out, but the price per trade at a discount broker may also indicate the level of customer service that comes with it. If you aren't trading in and out of stocks very often (and you shouldn't be), and you're not too concerned about whether your trade is executed within 15 seconds or two minutes (and you shouldn't be), there really isn't a significant difference among the brokers charging $7 to $20. If you go much cheaper than that, you may have trouble getting someone on the telephone to answer any questions you may have. And if you're paying much more than that, you should expect near-flawless service.
2. Other fees
You'll get a good idea of what we find important as far as additional fees are concerned in this comparison chart of our broker sponsors. Beyond the trading commissions, you'll find that brokerages may charge other fees, including fees for transferring assets into the account, fees for closing an account, IRA custodian fees, wire transfer fees, account inactivity fees, annual fees, and fees for not maintaining a minimum balance. If you know your needs, you won't end up paying for services you don't need.
3. Minimum initial deposit
If you're just starting out, consider what you'll be able to comfortably invest initially. Some brokers have account minimums, so find the one that best fits your budget. We have more on this topic here.
4. Customer service
For Fools, customer service is a biggie. If nothing else, you should put some time into researching a broker's service before you sign on the dotted line. In the case of discount brokers, customer service includes website performance and interface. Check out each brokerage's website. Is the interface intuitive? Can you find what you're looking for without having to click 65 links? Is it speedy? If talking to a live human is important to you, test their phone service. Does the brokerage answer the phone promptly? Is there an office nearby, just in case you need to talk face-to-face? (Not everyone does, but if that's important to you, put it down on your checklist.) You'll definitely want to see how the brokerage does at sending you all relevant material you ask for online.
Finally, check out The Motley Fool Discount Brokers discussion board for invaluable insight into the praise and complaints being put forth regarding each of the major brokerages. It's an active board, with many strong opinions. Understand that those with complaints are more likely to post their thoughts than satisfied customers.
5. Traditional banking services
This might not be tops on your list, but if you want to consolidate your PINs and pennies, think about looking for a brokerage account that can accommodate your banking needs. Many brokers now offer:
- Money market sweeps
- Check writing and bill payment
- Visa cards
- Direct deposit
- ATM cards
Your cash will typically attract higher interest rates in a brokerage money market account versus the typical savings or checking account. Check out our banking area for more details.
Some brokerages market their research as a real plus. That's fine, but you probably don't want to pay for it. There's plenty of research available on the Web (including right here at Fool.com). Some of the offerings include analyst reports, real-time quotes, and detailed financial data.
7. Mutual funds
No-load mutual funds can be purchased directly from mutual fund companies, so unless you're a mutual-fund trading addict, the availability of thousands of mutual funds in one location probably shouldn't affect which broker you choose. While you may purchase some no-load mutual funds from discount brokers without paying a transaction fee, some brokers do charge a fee for funds -- so be sure to check on this before making a purchase. And, of course, if there's a particular mutual fund family that you're set on using, make sure that the brokerage you select offers that family of funds.
8. Investment product selection
All the brokerages offer stocks traded on the major exchanges, and most will offer equity mutual funds. But there are a number of other investment vehicles that you may wish to use. If you're interested in risking your hard-earned moolah on over-the-counter (OTC) bulletin board stocks (shame on you!), you'll have to see which brokerages offer them. Other choices such as options, government bonds, corporate bonds, and the like are not available through every brokerage. Determine what you expect you'll need -- we're fans of just plain old stocks, especially if you're young -- and act accordingly.
9. Other methods of getting your trades executed
What if the Internet breaks? We'd all probably get a bit more exercise and sun now and then. Seriously, though, sometimes you may not have access to a computer. Check out whether the brokerages you're considering also have touch-tone phone trading, and how that works. Sometimes you just might want to place an order through a real, live person, and many discount brokerages offer that option, too.
10. Other freebies and perks
We wouldn't suggest making too big a deal about the freebies. After all, they are one-time things, and $100 or a new Koosh ball probably isn't going to be worth the hassle if you soon find that you've made the wrong choice and have to move your account elsewhere. Still, free money is free money (and Kooshes are a great way to relieve stress). So if you find yourself deadlocked on which brokerage to go with, cash (or some other perk) can be a persuasive tiebreaker.
Finally, remember this: If you're only making five, six, 10, even 20 trades in a year, the difference between paying $7 per trade and $20 per trade isn't significant. We think it's better to make customer service a priority and not sweat about most of the other stuff. After all, how much did you ever worry about which bank to open your first checking account with? The differences are about the same.