If you want to invest in the stock market, you'll need to open a brokerage account. And who wouldn't want to own stocks? There is no place over the past 100 years where your long-term savings would have fared better than the stock market -- not in bonds, not in real estate, not in gold, and certainly not in Pokemon trading cards.

Follow this four-step action plan to set up your brokerage account and start investing!

Step 1: How much will you be investing? 

Your first step is to figure out how much dough you plan to start with. Some brokers require a minimum initial deposit of $2,000. Others require $500. And some require no minimum, or accept smaller initial deposits to open an IRA. Once you’ve settled on that figure, jot it down here: 

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Step 2: Determine what you want to invest in.

Are you interested in stocks? Funds? Bonds? All the above? Not every online broker offers them all, so you’ll want to make sure you can buy what you’re after before opening an account. To expedite your fact-finding mission, write down the asset classes (as the pros like to call ‘em) that you’ll likely be investing in here _______________________ and be sure to have this list handy as you do your homework. That way, you won’t be disappointed when it comes time to place your first order.

Step 3: How much is that broker in the window? 

Check out and compare how much different brokers will charge in commissions and fees. For a quick comparison of several major brokerages, head to Fool.com’s Broker Comparison Table, where you can see how some of our website’s sponsors stack up. For extra credit, visit other brokerage sites to see what they bring to the table. You’ll of course want to find out information about trading commissions, but also compare account maintenance fees, IRA custodial fees, and other costs. For just that purpose, here’s a table that lists the types of fees you’ll likely encounter as you do you homework. Just record the names of the brokerages across the top row, the fees and minimums in the proper columns, and voila! You’re in an excellent position to do a little comparison shopping.

 

Broker 1

Broker 2

Broker 3

Broker 4

Stock trades

       

Fund trades

       

IRA fees

       

Inactivity fee

       

Maintenance fee

       

Low Balance fee

       

Minimum balance (taxable account)

       

Minimum balance (IRA)

       

Note: As important as fees are, you shouldn’t simply judge online brokers by how much they charge. Some have a lot more to offer. Eyeball this list to help decide what additional services interest you: phone trades, research products, local offices, check-writing capabilities, and ATM access.

Step 4: Set up your new account.

Now that you’ve found a brokerage that fits your needs, it’s time to open an account. This is usually as easy as downloading the application forms, signing them, and folding them nicely into an envelope with a check to fund your account. Electronic funding options may be available as well. If you opt to go that route, you won’t have to mail a check, of course, but you’ll still need to provide account information — typically in the form of your bank’s routing and your account numbers. Be sure to have a check handy for that purpose or simply jot down the relevant digits in the space provided below:

Routing number — typically the first series of digits on the lower left-hand corner of your check: 

___________________________

Account number — typically the series of digits that follows the colon (:) after the routing number: 

___________________________

We’re big fans of setting up the ability transfer funds electronically from the get-go, but no matter which way you proceed, you should receive confirmation of your ability to start trading in short order. Even easier, by the way, is transferring your loot from your old brokerage account to a new one. Your new brokerage will probably be glad to do all the work for you.