What are some things you should consider when comparing brokerages and choosing one? Fees are one big factor to examine. Find out how much you'll be charged in commissions for various transactions and services. Since some discount brokers set up their fee structure to encourage high-volume trading, find out whether you're required to make a minimum number of trades per year or per quarter and whether additional fees are imposed for not meeting the trading requirements. Here are some other considerations:

  • The minimum initial deposit. Some brokerages require at least several thousand dollars, while others have no minimum.
  • Usability and service. If the brokerage offers online trading, check out its website's interface and see how easy it is to navigate and use. Ask some questions and see how responsive the customer service is.
  • Banking services. Some brokerages now offer banking services, such as check writing, money market accounts, credit cards, ATM cards, direct deposit, and more -- some with no fees. Look into these if you're interested. It might benefit you to consolidate bank, money market, mutual fund, IRA, and other accounts to take advantage of the attractive one-stop shopping options offered by some discount brokers today.
  • Research. Some brokerages now offer free company research for their customers. This can be attractive, but know that there's also research available for free or for a reasonable price online.
  • Mutual fund offerings. Many brokerages offer a variety of mutual funds. If you're interested in some particular funds, check to see which brokerages offer them. Know, though, that you can usually purchase no-load mutual funds directly from their companies.
  • Non-stock offerings. If you're interested in bonds, for example, see whether they're offered.
  • Convenience. Would you rather place trade orders through an actual person, touch-tone phone, or the Web? See which brokerages offer what you want.

Some of these factors are more important than others. For example, if you trade only twice a year, commission costs might not matter as much. To guide your decision, make a list of all the services you need and how vital they are. Then evaluate each contender on each category.

Learn more about some good brokerages and how to choose the one that's best for you in our Broker Center, which also offers a handy comparison chart.

Examples of full-service ("full price," we like to say) brokerages include Merrill Lynch (NYSE:MER) and Morgan Stanley (NYSE:MWD). Examples of discount brokerages include Fidelity, Schwab (NYSE:SCHW), Ameritrade (NASDAQ:AMTD), E*Trade (NYSE:ET), and Toronto-Dominion's (NYSE:TD) TD Waterhouse.

Finally, learn more at our Discount Brokers discussion board and in these articles: