So you want to begin investing in stocks but don't know how to start? Forget about questions of finding the best stocks to invest in, or trying to limit risk -- let's say you literally don't know even the first step to take to begin investing.

That's actually not uncommon.

I find that following a checklist makes any project easier. So let me lay out the first five steps for you right here -- and then we'll address the details in a moment.

  1. Set up an online brokerage account.
  2. Fund your brokerage account.
  3. Pick a stock.
  4. Identify the stock ticker.
  5. Buy that stock!

Now, let's address the details of these five steps, beginning with...

The numbers 1, 2, and 3 laid out on a wooden surface.

It only takes a few simple steps to start investing in stocks. Image source: Getty Images.

Set up an online brokerage account

Their marketing departments may disagree with me on this one, but I don't believe there's much difference  among the major discount brokers at this point. Schwab, Fidelity, E*Trade, Ameritrade -- they all charge commissions of roughly $5 to $7 on every stock trade.

Each broker's website is pretty easy to navigate, too. And as far as ease of setting up an account goes, they're all pretty eager to take your money. As they used to say on the commercials, "operators are standing by," ready and willing to talk you through any issues with setting up your first online brokerage account.

Not that it's a terribly complicated process. Basically, setting up an online brokerage account consists of Googling the name of any of the brokerages I mentioned, visiting the website, and clicking a prominently displayed button labeled "open an account." A series of pages will then open for you, requesting your name and contact information, your Social Security number, your annual income, and your net worth. They'll also ask precisely what kind of account you want to open -- individual or joint? Brokerage or retirement? With fries or without?

If you've ever opened up an online banking account with your bank, this process won't be very much different from that one.

Fund your brokerage account

Also similar to a bank account, once your online brokerage account is open, the brokerage will ask you to "fund" it. You can do this in any of several ways -- for example, by mailing a check or making an electronic deposit directly from your bank. If you happen to sign up with a brokerage that has a physical office nearby, you could even walk in and hand someone a duffel bag full of cash.

Caution: Some brokerages will require a minimum initial deposit. Schwab, for example, requires $1,000 to start with. Others, such as Ameritrade, have no minimum at all. If you have only a little money to start out with, you will want to check on this requirement before going through all the virtual paperwork of setting up an account. But once you've met the minimum for your particular broker, you're ready to start trading.

Pick a stock

At long last, we get to the fun stuff. What stock do you want to buy?

Actually, scratch that. Here's a better question: What company do you love? Are you a devoted buyer of Chevrolet trucks? If so, then maybe General Motors (GM 0.23%) is the stock for you. Were you first in line when Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Rogue One, or Beauty and the Beast opened at the cineplex? Then maybe you should take a look at Disney (DIS -1.34%) stock. Disney owns the Marvel, the Star Wars, and, of course, the Disney movie franchises.

Identify the stock ticker

"But wait!" you say. Your brokerage account doesn't have a place for you to enter an order for "General Motors" or "Disney." There's just this one little box on the screen for entering trades, and it's only big enough for four or five letters -- max. (And Disney has six letters!)

Never fear. Company names, as you may have noticed from watching CNBC, are usually abbreviated as stock "tickers" consisting of anywhere from one to five letters -- and it's those ticker symbols you enter when buying or selling a stock. But figuring out which ticker represents a little difficulty. Simply type into Google "[company name] ticker" -- that is to say, for example, "general motors ticker" -- and you'll be presented with the correct ticker for the stock you want to buy.

In the case of GM, such a search would inform you that General Motors is tickered "NYSE: GM," which means it's listed on the New York Stock Exchange as ticker "GM"; whereas Disney is tickered "NYSE: DIS," also on the NYSE, as "DIS." A stock on the Nasdaq Stock Exchange would be a little different, with a ticker in the format "Nasdaq: XXXX" with anywhere from one to five letters.

Buy that stock!

With this information in hand, you're ready to place your trade. Enter the stock symbol for the company you want to buy (or sell). Pick an action (buy or sell). Enter the number of shares you want to buy or sell, and confirm whether you're willing to pay whatever the current price is for that stock (that's a market order), or whether you're willing to wait and hope the stock reaches a specified price (a limit order).

Your broker will then probably give you a chance to "preview" your order to make sure all the details are as you want them, and then you'll be asked to confirm these details and execute the order.

At which point -- congratulations! You've begun investing in stocks.