Ready to open a brokerage account but not sure where to start? Wondering if you're getting the best service for your money from your current discount broker? Here are 10 factors that will help you size up a broker and choose the best one for your needs.
1. Trading commissions
Surprise! Cheaper is not always better. The price per trade at a broker may 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 2 minutes (and you shouldn't be), there really isn't a significant difference between the brokers charging $7 to $20 per trade.
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, such as account-maintenance and inactivity fees, but there are even more fees that you might encounter. Think about what services and transactions you're likely to need, and see how much you'll be charged for them.
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
This is a biggie. Spend some time researching a broker's customer service before you sign up. Can you find what you're looking for on its website without having to click through 65 pages? Is it speedy? If talking to a live human is important to you, test the phone service. Is there an office nearby, just in case you want to talk face-to-face? Check out our Brokers discussion board to see what praise and complaints Fools have. It's an active board, with many strong opinions.
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.
Some brokerages market their research as a real plus. That's fine, but it may not be worth paying for. If your brokerage also provides investment-banking services, the analysis might not be completely impartial for fear of alienating corporate clients. There's plenty of unbiased research available elsewhere, including right here at Fool.com.
7. Mutual funds
No-load mutual funds can be purchased directly from mutual fund companies, so unless you're a 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 brokerages offer stocks traded on the major exchanges, and most will offer equity mutual funds. But if you're interested in risking your hard-earned moolah on over-the-counter (OTC) bulletin board stocks (buyer beware!), options, government bonds, corporate bonds, and the like, see which brokerages offer them. They're not available through every brokerage.
9. Other methods of getting your trades executed
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
Don't let freebies count for too much. They're usually onetime perks, 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. So if you find yourself deadlocked on which brokerage to go with, cash (or some other perk) can be a persuasive tiebreaker.
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 often isn't significant. We think it's better to make customer service a priority and not sweat about most of the other stuff. For more on getting the most broker for your buck, visit our Broker Center.
For more personal finance and investing basics, visit our Personal Finance area, our Investing Basics area, and our Fool's School. You can also learn a lot via our acclaimed How-to Guides and online seminars and our book, The Motley Fool Money Guide: Answers to Your Questions About Saving, Spending and Investing .