Only you know what is important to you as an investor -- how often you trade, what level of customer service meets your needs. Only you can decide what investments are right for you and how often -- and by what means -- you need to check up on your little darlings.

Online brokerages come in three general flavors:

  • Super-cheap brokers that charge from $4 to $12 per trade. These are best used by those who plan on trading very frequently, but satisfactory for buy-and-hold investors as well.
  • Mid-priced brokers that charge between $12 and $20 per trade. These brokers justify slightly higher prices with more well-known brand names, and possibly additional services.
  • High-priced brokers that charge more than $20 per trade, typically around $29.95 per trade. (They think $30 trades sound too high, so they knock off a nickel -- but we're not fooled.)

As with many things in life, 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.

Still, pay attention to costs, since all those fees are what can whittle away at your stunning portfolio returns. You can 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
  • fees for not maintaining a minimum balance

Again, know thyself, investor, and you won't end up paying for services you don't need.