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Beginner’s Guide to Options: How to Get Started

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

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Options trading can become quite complex, but at their heart, options are all based on a basic formula. An option is a right to buy or sell a security at some future date at some specific price. Those specifics are governed by the option contract. Investors find options interesting because of the potential to earn huge returns, though that comes at the cost of risking a significant loss.

If you’re looking to get started in the world of trading options, here’s what you need to know about them.

What is an option?

An option is a contract between a buyer and seller that entitles the option buyer to purchase or sell a security, usually a stock, at a given price — the strike price — by a certain time.

Options are essentially a bet on which way a stock will move. Buyers pay the seller a fee, called a premium, and if the “underlying” stock finishes above or below the strike price (depending on the option type) when the option expires, it’s worth money.

There are generally two outcomes for an option:

  1. If the underlying stock doesn’t make the buyer’s anticipated move, the option expires worthless. When this happens, the buyer loses the premium and the seller keeps it. The seller’s profit is the buyer’s loss.
  2. If the underlying stock does make the anticipated move, the option is “in the money.” The option’s profit is the difference between the strike price and the stock price. In this case, as the option nears expiration, the buyer typically exercises the option — either putting up cash to buy the stock or selling it at the strike price, depending on the type of option — and records a profit. The buyer’s profit is the seller’s loss.

One option is called a contract, and each contract represents 100 shares of the stock. For example, if you buy or sell three contracts, your options position tracks the movement of 300 shares of stock.

Options allow investors to capture a stock’s movement while paying a much smaller upfront cost, the premium. This means that options can allow investors to enjoy the full upside of a stock’s move without paying the stock’s full price — that’s the real attraction of options trading.

In other words, options magnify the returns, both on the upside and on the downside. While an investor can earn virtually unlimited upside, he or she also can suffer a complete loss of the premium paid.

Types of options: calls and puts

There are two broad types of options — call options and put options — and they entitle buyers and sellers to different things. Here’s a quick way to keep calls and puts straight: Calls become more valuable when the stock rises, while puts become more valuable when the stock falls.

A call option specifies the price at which a stock can be purchased by some future date, and this option increases in value as the stock rises.

  • A call buyer expects the stock to go up, making the option more valuable. A call buyer profits when the option’s premium costs less than the difference between the stock price and the strike price at expiration.
  • A call seller (or writer) expects the stock to fall or stay flat, making the option less valuable. A call writer profits when the option’s premium costs more than the difference between the stock price and the strike price at expiration.
  • A put option specifies the price at which a stock can be sold by some future date, and this option increases in value as the stock falls.
  • A put buyer expects the stock to go down, making the option more valuable. A put buyer profits when the option’s premium costs less than the difference between the stock price and the strike price at expiration.
  • A put seller (or writer) expects the stock to rise or stay flat, making the put less valuable. A put seller profits when the option’s premium costs more than the difference between the stock price and the strike price at expiration.

One thing to note on employee stock options: Sometimes companies grant employees stock options as a perk of employment. These options entitle employees to buy the company’s stock at a specified price by a certain time, usually much longer than options that are found on the exchanges.

Employee stock options are always call options — no management team would want to allow its employees to wager on the company’s decline. These stock options usually will expire worthless if the employee does not exercise them, and they do not trade on an exchange.

How options trade

While it’s most common to talk about options with stock as the deliverable, there can be options on almost anything — even, perhaps most famously, on movie scripts. Regular options on an exchange can be written on stocks, exchange-traded funds and major indexes such as the S&P 500 and the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

Still, stocks are the most common deliverable, though not all stocks have options. A highly liquid options market — having lots of buyers and sellers — exists on primarily the largest and most liquid stocks. The market’s smallest stocks may not have much (or any) options activity, or the market may not even exist for them.

Stocks with options on them usually have one option expiring each month, on the third Friday of the month. However, higher-volume stocks may have options that expire on a weekly basis.

The most liquid options markets have another feature not available in less liquid markets: long-term options called long-term equity anticipation securities (LEAPS). That’s a clunky name for options with expirations that go out as far as two years or so. In other respects, they function like standard options. LEAPS give traders more for their bet to be right.

Are options risky?

Yes and no. Any financial security can be risky if investors don’t know what they’re doing, and so it is with options. Because options magnify the upside and downside of an investment, they can be risky in some situations. But in other situations, investors actually can use options to reduce risk. The key thing to understand is how options expose the investor to gains and losses.

Two important points in this regard:

  • An option buyer can never lose more money than he or she invests. A buyer’s loss is capped at the total amount of the investment. In exchange, the buyer could earn nearly upcapped gains.
  • Conversely, an option seller can lose more than he or she receives in premium income. A seller can lose many times the value of the premium received and may even have to send more money to the brokerage to cover the loss. The loss can be uncapped.

It’s important to re-emphasize that an option buyer can lose the entire premium if the stock does not make the expected move in share price by expiration. So, not only must the investor predict where the stock will move, but he or she must get the timing right too. If not, the seller pockets the premium.

What are some basic options strategies?

Based on these principles, some options strategies have limited risk (and some are even used by risk-averse retirees).

  • Call buying: potentially unlimited upside at the cost of the premium
  • Put buying: very high upside at the cost of the premium
  • Covered calls: selling a call when you already own the underlying stock, a retiree favorite

Meanwhile, other options strategies can have significant risk.

  • Naked calls: Writing a call when you don’t own the underlying stock exposes you to potentially unlimited loss if the stock rises.
  • Put writing: Expect a sizable loss if the stock falls markedly.

However, used in moderation and with lower-risk strategies, options can increase an investor’s total return.

Is options trading right for you?

Options trading typically works best for investors who want to be actively involved in the market. You won’t need to trade every day or even every week, but you have to pay attention to the market, where stock prices are heading and what might move them. That requires a significant time commitment.

So, if you’re unwilling or unable to make this kind of commitment, trading options probably isn’t for you. That’s fine because many studies have shown that passive investors — those who buy a fund and simply hold — tend to do better than active investors.

But if you’re still interested in giving options a go, you’ll want to understand your own risk tolerance and temperament. Like investing in stock, options investing is best for those with an even temperament and those who are able to emotionally handle the fact that they’re trading the possibility of major downside with the chance for significant upside.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

James F. Royal, Ph.D.
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James F. Royal, Ph.D. is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email James here

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What Is the Fiduciary Rule?

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

When a professional agrees to become a fiduciary and abide by fiduciary duty, it means they have agreed to put the interests of their clients ahead of their own. For financial advisors managing your life savings, this seems like an obvious requirement. But right now, it’s not.

Today, financial advisors may choose to be a fiduciary or not. However, the fiduciary rule could change that very soon. Both federal and state regulators are reviewing different fiduciary rules that would set tougher requirements regarding how advisors can invest your money.

This is not the first time regulators have tried to pass a fiduciary rule. Read on for our coverage of the past and present status of the fiduciary rule, plus a look at what might be coming in the future.

How would a fiduciary rule impact financial planning?

Not all financial advisors work as fiduciaries, which means they don’t have to put your interests first when they recommend products. Depending on their qualifications, an advisor may only need to follow a suitability standard instead of a fiduciary standard. Under the suitability standard, a financial advisor can suggest products and investments that fit your needs but aren’t necessarily the very best option available for you.

A classic example would be an advisor who offers two investment funds that are similar in performance and both fit your needs, but one charges a higher fee and gives the advisor a larger commission. A fiduciary would need to recommend the low-cost option, whereas a suitability advisor could recommend the higher-priced one.

If an industry-wide fiduciary rule was passed, it would prevent conflicts of interest like this. For more information on how fiduciary duty works for the industry, as well as what advisors already work as fiduciaries, check out this guide.

Why is a fiduciary rule needed now?

The fiduciary rule is needed more now than ever. Americans today are far more involved in managing their retirement investments than was the case in generations past, when people were much more likely to have had employer-managed pensions. Employer-sponsored pensions fall under the scope of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), a government rule that requires the person supervising the pension to have fiduciary duty for employees covered by the plan.

But ERISA does not apply to personal financial advisors, which creates a fiduciary gap. This is why there has been a push by both federal and state regulators to change the rules and protect investors who need to be involved in managing their own retirement savings.

Nicholas Hofer, a financial advisor and CFP from Boston, sees this shift as a good thing. “There is no question that being held to a fiduciary standard is important,” he said. “If firms are not willing to put their client’s interests first, the entire financial advisory industry is in jeopardy.”

Implementing the fiduciary rule could also help the industry as a whole, according to Harold Pollack, a University of Chicago professor and financial author.

“The rule helps consumers distinguish sales pitches from unbiased advice,” said Pollack. “If you’re charging consumers $250 per hour for genuinely valuable advice, it is hard to compete with a nominally free or cheap financially-conflicted competitor whose business model is to steer her consumers into unwise or overpriced investments.”

Are there downsides to a fiduciary rule?

While a standard fiduciary rule can seem like an overall good thing, past proposals have faced their share of criticism. Since many firms and advisors work under a looser standard, a stricter ethical code could hurt their profits and reputation.

“Firms that rely on fees and commissions for profits could face fallout if their clients have not been fully informed about their business model,” said Hofer. As a result, not all advisors are happy about the change.

Though you may not be that concerned about an advisor’s profit margins, this could lead to firms increasing other fees or tightening up their standards for what kind of clients they’d accept, as smaller accounts may no longer earn enough to cover overhead costs. For example, an advisor may set a limit where they only accept clients with at least $250,000 of assets, meaning middle and lower-class investors could be priced out of the financial advisor market.

Having a strict fiduciary rule could also limit what kind of investments are available, as everyone would be shoe-horned into the supposedly “best” low-cost approach. Investors who want to try something different would potentially struggle to find advisors willing to meet their express preferences.

Finally, what counts as the best investment isn’t always clear, something the SEC Chairman Jay Clayton pointed out in a recent speech on the subject: “Many different options may in fact be in the retail investor’s best interest, and what is the “best” product is likely only to be known in hindsight.” But despite these concerns, government regulators have decided to press forward with a few fiduciary rules.

The Obama Administration fiduciary rule

The Obama Administration first proposed an industry-wide fiduciary rule back in 2016. This law would have applied to any financial advisor selling products or giving advice for a retirement plan, like a 401k or an individual retirement account (IRA). It didn’t apply to financial advisors giving investment recommendations for a regular brokerage account, though.

Some ways advisors would have needed to meet the fiduciary standard under this rule included:

  • Putting the client’s interests first for investment recommendations.
  • Avoiding potential conflicts of interest for commission and fees.
  • Properly disclosing how they are compensated, such as whether they are fee-only or fee-based.
  • Being transparent about why they were proposing different options.

When the current administration took charge in 2017, it moved to review the rule as part of its drive to reduce government regulations. While the Department of Labor initial continued implementing the Obama Administration’s rule, industry groups sued the government and a federal court ultimately struck the law down in 2018.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) fiduciary rule

After the cancellation of the Obama administration’s fiduciary rule, the SEC decided to take its own look at implementing a fiduciary rule. In June of 2019, the SEC proposed an update to its regulations for advisors depending on the services they offer: Broker-dealers, who make money selling products and investments, versus advisors, who make money charging for advice.

Before the new proposed ruling, firms that registered with the SEC, known as Registered Investment Advisors (RIAs), had to follow a fiduciary standard. Broker-dealers could just follow a suitability standard for recommending products.

The SEC ruling would toughen the standards for broker-dealers — now they need to make recommendations in the “best interest” of clients. While not as strong as a fiduciary duty, it is tougher than the suitability standard. Brokers must be able to justify the risks, costs and benefits of a recommendation to prove it’s in a client’s best interest. Both types of financial advisors would also need to provide a standardized disclosure form explaining their fees, services and potential conflicts of interest.

The proposed SEC fiduciary rule is not as strong as the Obama fiduciary rule, which would have put the fiduciary standard on broker-dealers selling products for retirement accounts The SEC fiduciary rule is currently scheduled to launch in June 2020.

The Department of Labor (DOL) fiduciary rule

The DOL has not given up on launching its own fiduciary rule. While it has yet to formally propose anything, Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta has said the DOL is studying the SEC ruling to guide a new DOL fiduciary standard.

The Obama DOL fiduciary rule was tougher than the SEC regulations, as it covered broker-dealers selling products. Any additional DOL fiduciary rule could further tighten standards for the industry. But while the government is making some moves, Pollack is still disappointed that the DOL let the Obama fiduciary rule die in court.

“I favor the strongest possible fiduciary standards,” he said. “To the extent that SEC and DOL rules are weaker than the Obama administration sought to impose, I regret these departures.”

State fiduciary rules

With the federal fiduciary rule up in the air, several state governments decided to pick up the slack and launch their own regulations for advisors operating within their borders.

New York has passed tougher standards for life insurance and annuities, so advisors selling these products need to meet a best interest standard. Nevada, New Jersey and Massachusetts are also reviewing or preparing to launch laws that would make a fiduciary standard apply for broker-dealers and investment advisors in their states. Maryland considered a similar law, but the bill didn’t pass.

This creates a tricky landscape because the way your financial advisor can make recommendations may depend on where you live.

The fiduciary rule: What’s next?

Creating an overarching fiduciary rule for investment advisors will not be easy but Eric Roberge, CFP® and founder of Beyond Your Hammock, thinks the industry badly needs one as there’s too much confusion regarding who offers what.

“I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with professionals who sell products, but what we do need in the industry, for the benefit of the people who need professional services, is more transparency,” he said. “Without a standard fiduciary rule, consumers have a very hard time distinguishing who is there to provide objective, in-your-best-interest advice — and someone who is a more of a salesperson with the financial incentive to sell products.”

Hopefully, the future fiduciary rules can achieve these goals so consumers can feel more confident in taking recommendations from financial advisors. In the meantime, since this is not yet the industry standard, make checking whether an advisor is a fiduciary one of the questions you ask before signing up.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

David Rodeck
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David Rodeck is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email David here

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Is It Ever a Good Idea to Max Out Your 401(k)?

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

The earlier you start saving for retirement and the more you contribute, the better. But should you max out your 401(k)? Whether maxing out your 401(k) is a good idea really depends on your personal financial situation.

The maximum amount you can contribute to your 401(k) is currently $19,000 a year if you are under age 50, and $25,000 if you are 50 or older. Once contributed, this money usually can’t be withdrawn until age 59½ without incurring penalties.

If you stash away this money now, you’ll be giving up part of your income and possibly making it more challenging to achieve other financial goals, such as saving up to buy a house or paying off your student loan debt. Still, you want to make sure you have enough cash saved to retire when you want to.

Should I max out my 401(k)?

There are a number of exceptional reasons to consider maxing out your workplace retirement account if you’re financially able.

As a baseline, you should at least make sure you’re saving enough to secure your entire employer match, if your workplace offers one. This match is a specific amount of “free money,” usually offered as a percentage of your own contribution, that your employer might offer to incentivize you to save for retirement.

But reaching your retirement goals may require contributing beyond your employer match. Alex Caswell, a financial advisor at RHS Financial, said three main reasons that people usually aim to maximize their 401(k) include:

  • Saving enough to actually retire one day
  • Reducing taxable income to save on taxes
  • Growing wealth on a tax-advantaged basis

Additionally, most people drastically underestimate how much they’ll need to retire one day, and many forget that retirement could last up to 30 years or even longer, Caswell said.

“Somehow you will need to make a fraction of your annual income grow and accumulate to the point where it can provide for you fully every year,” he said. “When you think about it from this perspective, it becomes very clear how important it is to contribute as much as you can.”

With all this being said, stashing $19,000 in your 401(k) each year can be easier said than done. While saving for retirement should be a financial priority, it shouldn’t necessarily come at the expense of other important financial goals, like building up an adequate emergency fund or paying off high interest debt.

You also don’t necessarily have to do all of your retirement saving in your 401(k) plan — especially if it has high fees or limited investment options.

Financial goals to complete before you max out your 401(k)

Depending on your salary and financial situation, it may make sense to check off some important to-dos before you start maxing out your 401(k). If you’ve already crossed all of these off your financial to-do list, that could also be a sign that you’re well-positioned to max out your 401(k).

Here are some of the most important goals you should consider when weighing whether you can realistically afford to max out your 401(k).

Building up an adequate emergency fund

Roger Whitney, host of the podcast Retirement Answer Man, says that it’s important to build up an emergency fund before you start maxing out your retirement fund. “Think of an emergency fund as the financial airbag of your life,” he said.

Having an emergency fund can give you financial options when anything unexpected comes up and help you keep your long-term assets for the long term. If you don’t have an emergency fund, you may be forced to deplete your resources if you face a job loss or a financial emergency.

How much should you save? Caswell suggests saving three to six months of expenses in a “safe and liquid bank account,” such as a high-yield savings account.

Paying off high-interest debt

You may also want to consider paying off high-interest debt before you max out your 401(k) entirely, advised financial planner Brandon Renfro.

If you have high-interest credit card debt, for example, it may be a good idea to go ahead and get that paid off first, he said. That’s because the average credit card interest rate is nearly 17% as of the date of publishing, meaning you’ll pay a lot in interest each month if you carry this debt over the long term instead of prioritizing paying it off.

Purchasing an adequate amount of life insurance

Make sure you have enough life insurance coverage to provide for your family if you were to suddenly pass away.

This shouldn’t be too difficult considering how inexpensive term life insurance coverage can be. Still, if you’re stretching yourself too thin to max out your 401(k), it might be tough to add another monthly bill.

Purchasing enough disability insurance coverage in case you’re unable to work

The importance of disability insurance is also worth taking into consideration when deciding whether to max out your 401(k). You should purchase enough disability insurance to provide coverage if you wind up being unable to work for six months or longer, said financial planner Ryan Inman.

Remember that your 401(k) funds can’t be used to replace your income if you cannot work for some reason without paying a hefty penalty. Disability coverage, on the other hand, can help you pay your bills and living expenses until you can get back to work.

Saving money in a health savings account, or HSA

According to financial advisor Matthew Kircher, health savings accounts (HSAs) offer one of the best tax-advantaged ways to save for high-income individuals.

“This is the only triple-tax-free option available that provides an upfront tax-deduction, tax-deferred growth and tax-free distributions,” he said.

The key to maximizing the HSA is to pay all actual medical expenses out of pocket, with the idea that you keep adding to and growing your account. You do have to have a high-deductible health plan to qualify for an HSA, however.

In 2020, this means a deductible of at least $1,400 for individuals (up from $1,350 in 2019) or at least $2,800 for a family (up from $2,700 in 2019). Maximum out-of-pocket amounts also apply to high deductible plans, and in 2020, your maximum out-of-pocket amount can be no more than $6,900 for individuals ($6,750 in 2019) or $13,800 for families ($13,500 in 2019).

While individuals and families could contribute up to $3,500 and $7,000 to HSA accounts in 2019, respectively, those figures will rise to $3,550 for individuals and $7,100 for families in 2020.

Save up to purchase your first home

Depending on your situation, you may want to prioritize homeownership. If you’re spending a lot of money on rent right now, for example, being able to purchase a place of your own could help you stop renting and start building equity.

“If homeownership is a goal of yours, you may want to get that taken care of before you start maxing out your 401(k),” Renfro said.

When you should max out your 401(k)

While you’ll want to balance your other financial goals, there are situations in which maxing out your 401(k) might be a good idea. You may want to consider maxing out your 401(k) if:

  • You earn a lot and want to reduce your tax bill. Terms may apply.
  • You want to give compound interest a chance to help your money grow, tax-deferred.
  • You’ve achieved some of the important non-retirement goals we’ve outlined above.

In addition to making sure you have enough saved to retire, the tax benefits of maxing out your 401(k) are real.

“Contribution to a regular 401(k) doesn’t get counted toward your income,” Caswell said. “If you are in a high tax bracket, every dollar you manage to protect from taxes will increase the power of that money to grow your wealth. At an annual contribution limit of $19,000, maxing out your 401(k) is one of the most powerful ways to reduce your tax bill.”

And, as we noted, don’t forget about the advantages of letting your money grow in a 401(k). All investments in your 401(k) grow tax-free.

“All the gains, dividends and interest you will incur year after year will be tax-free,” Caswell said. “This is unlike a regular brokerage account where you will receive a 1099 at the end of every year and be saddled with a tax bill.”

Other options besides maxing out your 401(k)

Whether or not you decide to max out your 401(k), there are plenty of other investment options to consider that can also help you to retire on your own terms. You may consider saving for retirement in other places as well, especially if your company’s 401(k) plan carries high fees or lackluster investment options.

Invest in a Roth IRA

According to Renfro, another retirement account option you may want to consider is a Roth IRA, which lets you invest for retirement with after-tax dollars. One strategy is to save enough in your 401(k) to get the employer match and then put anything you want to save above that amount in a Roth IRA, said Renfro.

“Saving in a Roth IRA in addition to a 401(k) can diversify your tax liability and help lower your overall tax rate when considered over multiple years,” Renfro said.

In 2019, most people can contribute up to $6,000 to a Roth IRA. If you’re age 50 or older, you can contribute up to $7,000.

Contribute to a traditional IRA

If you have the option to contribute to a traditional IRA, you may consider it before maxing out your 401(k). While 401(k) accounts are a great savings vehicle, they can be restricted in their investment options,.

“If you are looking for more control of your investment strategy, then you may consider saving in an IRA once you have taken full advantage of the 401(k) match,” Caswell said.

Note that the same contribution limits apply to traditional IRAs as Roth IRAs, and that the limit applies to both accounts combined.

Open a brokerage account

If you’ve already maxed out tax-advantaged retirement savings accounts like your 401(k), you can also consider opening a taxable brokerage account with any firm that offers one, such as Vanguard, Fidelity or Schwab.

Inman says that, while a taxable investment account won’t provide any tax savings, “it will provide another pool of assets to provide you with income in retirement.”

The bottom line

At the end of the day, having enough income in retirement is the underlying goal anyway, right? By contributing to a 401(k), simultaneously pursuing other financial goals and letting time and compound interest do their work, you should be well on your way to a secure financial future. Whether you decide that maxing out your 401(k) is a good idea to get there ultimately depends on your financial situation and other financial goals.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Holly Johnson
Holly Johnson |

Holly Johnson is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Holly here