So you want to invest in stocks. Terrific! After all, studies have shown that over the long run, stocks tend to significantly outperform just about all other investment alternatives. But how will you invest in stocks? Well, you will probably need a brokerage account. They're relatively easy to set up and use online.

Of course, you can still do things the old-fashioned way, especially if you would like to talk with someone face-to-face throughout the process and perhaps use a brokerage with brick-and-mortar locations. If so, just find a reputable brokerage near you and head over there. To open a brokerage account, you'll simply have to fill out some paperwork and then fund your account with a check, cash, or some other option.

Setting up your brokerage account
You'll probably find it easier to do this mostly online, though. Perhaps start by doing a little research to determine which brokerage you want to patronize. You'll find reviews and comparison sites online, such as our Broker Center. Make a list of the factors that matter most to you and choose a brokerage that meets all or most of your needs. These factors might include low fees and trading commissions, a low minimum amount to open an account with, a wide range of available mutual funds, a nearby brick-and-mortar location, ample available research reports, a reputation for good customer service, and so on. Some brokerages offer special features, such as banking services (think check-writing or bill-paying) and financial planning.

Choose a brokerage and then print out an application form for the kind of brokerage account you want to open (or fill out the form online). You will probably have to choose between an individual account for you and a joint one, perhaps with your spouse. You can also choose to open an IRA account -- either the traditional kind or a Roth IRA, both of which offer tax advantages, or a rollover IRA account.

Using your brokerage account
Once you have your account set up, you can log in at the brokerage's website with your brokerage account number and the password you set up. There, you can see your account balance and any holdings, and you can access tools such as stock screeners and stock research reports.

When you want to buy or sell a stock (or other available investment, such as a mutual fund), you can place your trade order easily online -- or (often for a higher fee) on the phone or in person. There are a few kinds of orders you should know about, as well as some terms. The two main kinds of orders are market and limit. A market order tells the brokerage to execute your trade at the current price. This is often the fastest and simplest way to trade, but it should be used carefully if you're buying a security that isn't traded very often or is more volatile than average. In that case, or if you simply want more control over the process, you can place a limit order. This instructs the brokerage to execute your buy order only at a price no higher than the one you specify -- or to execute your sell order for a price no lower than the one you specify. Limit orders can help you avoid unpleasant surprises, but if you set your limits aggressively, you may not get in or out of the security at all.

Some excellent choices for your first investments include a simple, low-fee, broad-market index fund, such as the Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF (NYSEMKT:VTI) and/or some big, dividend-paying blue chips, which the Vanguard Dividend Appreciation ETF (NYSEMKT:VIG) offers you in a convenient single investment.

That's really all that's involved in getting a brokerage account set up and starting to use it. Of course, to maximize your performance and minimize regrettable investments, you should keep reading and learning about investing.