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Investing

How Stock Trading Works

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

Ready to start trading stocks? Start by answering a few simple questions: Is your retirement plan humming along with regular monthly contributions (at least as much as your employer matches)? Do you have little to no high-interest rate debt? How about plenty of excess cash beyond your emergency fund?

If you check all those boxes, it may be the right time to start trading stocks. Trading stocks — actively buying and selling portions of ownership in companies — can bring you closer to your favorite corporate brands, it can make you feel powerful and, if the timing is right, there is great potential upside. However, stock trading can also be risky and incredibly difficult to do well, so it helps to be deliberate and know how trading works before you buy your first stock.

What is stock trading?

First, it helps to define a few terms. A share of stock represents a portion of ownership in a company, and trading stock is buying and selling those shares. But how you purchase stocks, and how often, will put you into one or more of the following categories:

Stock investing is owning shares of stocks. You may be invested in a portfolio of stocks through a mutual fund or index fund, hold some individual shares in a long-term retirement account or own shares of your employer’s stock.

Stock trading or active trading involves shorter-term buying and selling to take advantage of market opportunities.

Day trading means you buy and sell a single security within the same day, according to the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA).

Pattern day trading means you conduct four or more “day trades” within five consecutive days, according to the SEC, although day traders often trade throughout the day, attempting to take advantage of any market moves. There are high barriers to entry to day trading, including the ability to maintain at least $25,000 in your account, according to the FINRA.

Pros and cons of trading stock

So why should the average investor want to trade individual stocks — or avoid them? Consider some pros and cons.

Pro. Trading stocks is exciting. Individual stocks represent companies, and trading stocks can feel like a thrilling stake in ownership of a favorite brand. As you research a company and get to know what moves its stock price, you may see patterns that help you find other companies with stock you can trade. You may not get that same sensation purchasing shares of a mutual fund.

Con. Trading stocks carries a higher risk than other types of investments. Buying a mutual fund or index fund, for instance, makes you the owner of an entire portfolio of companies, which reduces the risk of your overall investment. It’s harder to achieve the same level of diversification with individual stocks.

Pro. Stocks offer incredible potential for growth. The stock market has returned an average of about 10% per year historically, compared to around 5% annually for bonds. Individual stocks can be volatile, but can also achieve some amazing returns.

Con. A finance professor from Arizona State University recently crunched the numbers and found that most stocks are terrible investments. Professor Hendrik Bessembinder analyzed common stocks included in the Center for Research in Security Prices (CRSP) database since 1926 as long-term, buy-and-hold investments. The top-performing 4% of companies were responsible for the net gain of the US stock market since that time. The others? Most returned less than one-month Treasuries. Rather than try to select those few winning stocks, you might be better off buying the market’s performance with an index fund.

Pro. Unlike mutual funds, stocks don’t charge annual fees. Index funds charge an average 0.09% of your investment each year, just to be part of the fund. Active mutual funds take an average 0.59%, according to the Investment Company Institute. It may not sound like much, but for buy-and-hold mutual fund investors, these expenses add up over time.

Con. Stock traders pay brokerage fees when they buy or sell shares, which can also add up quickly if you trade actively. Over time, it’s possible the brokerage fees could have a similar impact on your investment as annual fund expense ratios.

How do you trade stocks?

What do you need to start trading stocks? The following will help get you started.

Excess cash. Start trading with money you can afford to lose. Because of the high-risk nature of stock trading, your first attempts may be unsuccessful or you could turn a profit early on. Avoid big bets until you’re comfortable in the market. “Think of it as Atlantic City money,” says Tom Henske, CFP with Lenox Advisors in New York. “I tell clients, if you want to do it, you should go in willing to lose half the money you invest. If losing $25,000 would be too much, then you shouldn’t invest $50,000.” Even if you’re a trading whiz, Henske says, “No single holding should represent more than 5% of an individual’s portfolio. If you have $100,000 in net worth, you should go in with less than $5,000.”

A brokerage account. Traders need an account to access and hold stocks. You can open an account through a brokerage, which can also provide access to a wide variety of bonds, mutual funds, exchange-traded funds and so on.

The type of broker you choose will depend on your needs. Large, full-service brokers offer trading advice but are sometimes known to aggressively push investments. If you’re looking for lower trading fees and a bit more freedom, an online discount broker may be more appealing. Online brokerages generally offer the same investment selection and trading capabilities. You may not get personal advice, but some online brokers offer things like third-party analyst research and tools to help compare stocks.
When comparing online brokers for stock trading, ask the following questions:

  • Are there trading fees or account minimums? There are reputable online brokers offering trades as low as $4.95 with no account minimums. Some companies charge a fee per share instead. If you plan to trade more complicated investments, such as options, compare those fees as well.
  • What are the trading capabilities? Some brokerages offer sophisticated investments (e.g. options, futures) and strategies (e.g. ladders, swaps). These are not for beginners, but they may of interest at some point, so compare the capabilities of different online firms to find what suits you.
  • Can I get help researching stocks? From video tutorials to company analysis and data to user-friendly tools that make complex trading easy, brokerages find different ways to engage and educate investors. Take advantage of as much information as you can.

Investment ideas. One of the biggest mistakes a trader can make is to seek out “hot stocks” or buy based on investment buzz. Instead, consider the strategies, sectors or companies that are of interest to you and start to build from there. Are you looking for companies in growth mode, or value stocks that pay regular dividends? Could you build a sector-like portfolio with a handful of stocks?

If you have companies in mind, a next step is to research their fundamentals. You can get to know the company’s price-to-earnings ratio, revenue and income. Also consider the competition, the company’s importance in the market, the executive management, operational efficiency and so on. Your brokerage platform may help connect some of these dots for you.

A buy/sell strategy. Do you plan to invest a lump sum? Or buy shares at regular intervals to create substantial positions over time? What are your goals for the money? How much risk can you afford to take? These are important questions for any investor to consider.

Additionally, give some thought to how long you will hold the stock or at what price you might sell it. In general, it helps to have a long-term outlook as an investor. Sometimes, however, there are reasons to sell. If prices for a stock spike, for instance, it may make sense to move money out of it. If share prices fall, you might consider buying more shares at a discount. Whatever your strategy, it should not be driven by panic or fear caused by dips or swings in the market.

A target share price. If you have your eye on a stock at a certain share price, you can set something called a limit order, instructing the broker to buy stock when it hits a specific share price. Alternatively, a market order can be made to buy shares at whatever the current price is.

There are also tools like stop-loss orders that allow you to determine an automatic price at which to sell your stock shares. These orders come at an extra cost, so use them wisely if at all.

4 things to know before you start stock trading

  1. Start virtually. Some online brokers offer virtual or “paper trading” accounts that let you practice trading before investing real money. If you’re not ready to sign up with a broker, search for a free online tool that lets you track a stock portfolio.
  2. Beware low-quality investments. Watch out for penny stocks, also known as microcaps, which let you trade companies with very low share prices. Penny stocks might sound like great deals, but they are volatile, oversold and can be downright sketchy. And remember, it’s not just the price of the investment that makes it cheap, but the price compared to what it’s worth.
  3. Time in the market > market timing. Even the sharpest investor sentiment is slow compared to the market’s speed. It’s not easy to keep up. Consider a longer-term buy and hold strategy when trading stocks.
  4. Watch the margins. Some brokerages will allow you to pump up the number of shares you purchase by lending you the funds to do it. It’s known as a margin account, and it increases your risk because you can lose more than you have invested. The Securities and Exchange Commission has some recent guidance on margin accounts to consider before opting for this type of account.

3 simple alternatives to stock trading

Still not sure whether to start stock trading? There are simpler ways to try and make money in the market. Consider the following stock trading alternatives.

  • Exchange traded funds (ETFs). ETFs trade like stocks but offer broad market diversification. You can buy in for the cost of a single share (plus trading costs), with minimal annual fees.
  • Robo-advisors. These automated financial advice algorithms use your responses to a simple questionnaire to help you build a low-cost investment plan.
  • Index funds in a Roth IRA. It may sound boring, but a Roth IRA offers serious tax advantages for longer-term, eligible investors. You can trade anything within a Roth, but a stock index fund is easiest and can provide the performance of the larger market at a low annual fee.

Stock trading is just one tool in a wealth-building arsenal — and not the most effective for the average investor, says Henske. “There’s so much transparency in today’s markets, it’s very hard for even a professional money manager to beat an index,” Henske says. “When you trade stock on your own, you’re saying you know more than the markets know. It’s not easy to do.”

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.

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The 7 Best Robo-advisors of 2020

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

If you’re new to the world of investing in stocks and bonds, knowing where to begin can be an intimidating prospect. Robo-advisors could be the best choice to start your investing journey. They make putting money in the market simple and intuitive utilizing smartphone apps and sophisticated computer algorithms.

Robo-advisors invest your money in diversified portfolios of stocks and bonds that are customized to your needs. Since computers do the work, they are able to charge much lower fees than traditional wealth advisors.

They begin the process with a questionnaire to assess your financial goals and your risk tolerance. Based on your answers, robo-advisors purchase low-cost exchange-traded funds (ETFs) for you and adjust the portfolio — or rebalance, as they say on Wall Street — on a regular basis, with no further intervention required from you.

To match your risk tolerance, robo-advisors offer more aggressive portfolios containing a greater percentage of stock ETFs, or more conservative ones containing a greater percentage of bond ETFs. The robo-advisor will also consider your age in developing your portfolio.

How we chose the best robo-advisors

We regularly review the latest robo-advisor offerings — we’ve evaluated 19 different ones in this round — and have selected our top choices. All of the robo-advisors on this list may well be worth considering, with those at the top scoring the best in our methodology.

To determine our list of the best robo-advisors, we focused on management fees and account minimums, and also considered ease of use and customer support.

The top 7 robo-advisors of 2020

Robo-advisorAnnual Management FeeAverage Expense Ratio (moderate risk portfolio)Account Minimum to Start
Wealthfront0.25%0.09%$500
Charles Schwab Intelligent Portfolios0.00%0.14%$5,000
Betterment0.25% (up to $100,000), 0.40% (over $100,000)0.11%$0
SoFi Automated Investing0.00%0.08%$1
SigFig0.00% (up to $10,000), 0.25% (over $10,000)0.15%$2,000
WiseBanyan0.00%0.12%$1
Acorns$12/yr0.03%-0.15%$5
Fees
N/A
Account Minimum
$100 one-time deposit or $20 monthly deposit
Promotion
N/A
Fees
N/A
Account Minimum
$0
Promotion

Three months free for new customers who are referred by an existing Betterment account holder

Fees
N/A
Account Minimum
$100
Promotion

N/A

Wealthfront — Low fees, high APR for cash account

Wealthfront
Wealthfront’s stand-out features are its low annual cost and free financial planning tools. The 0.25% management fee and 0.09% average ETF expense ratio adds up to one of the lowest annual costs on this list. In addition, Wealthfront includes a cash management account with an attractive 1.27% APY.

Wealthfront continues to steal share in wealth management as customers fed up with high fees leave traditional brokerages and wealth advisors. Human interaction is intentionally minimal at Wealthfront: This could be a benefit to those who want to be left alone, or a drawback for those who would prefer personal attention or who have complicated tax situations.

Wealthfront’s key attributes:

  • Fees: Management fee of 0.25%, plus 0.09% avg ETF expense ratio
  • Minimum starting deposit: $500
  • Investing strategy: Wealthfront invests your money in one of 20 different automated portfolios. Each portfolio is a different mix of 11 low-cost ETFs, which are rated with risk scores from 0.5 (least risk) to 10.0 (most risk).
  • Average annual return over the past five years: 5.40% per year, based on Wealthfront’s mid-level 5.0 risk score.
  • Other notable features: Tax-loss harvesting (see below for a full explanation of tax-loss harvesting) comes standard, also includes an FDIC-insured cash management account yielding 1.27% APY.

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Charles Schwab Intelligent Portfolios — Brand-name brokerage

Charles Schwab
Intelligent Portfolios can be a smart choice, but do not be misled by the 0% management fees — investing with this robo-advisor still comes at a cost. Intelligent Portfolios requires users to hold 6% to 30% of deposited funds in cash at a 0.70% APY, which will eat into overall returns in years where the market returns above 0.7%. This is on top of an average 0.14% expense ratio for a moderate portfolio. The $5,000 minimum deposit to open an account may also be too high a bar for investors just starting out.

That said, Intelligent Portfolios has an exceptionally detailed description of their ETF selection methodology, and a major brokerage like Schwab can be a good launchpad for folks who anticipate getting deeper into investing. Intelligent Portfolios users get access to Charles Schwab’s 300 U.S. branch locations where you can talk to advisors and handle administrative tasks in person.

Key attributes of Intelligent Portfolios:

  • Fees: Zero management fee, but customers must hold 6% to 30% of their portfolio in cash at 0.7% APR, plus 0.14% avg ETF expense ratio.
  • Minimum starting deposit: $5,000
  • Investing strategy: Schwab invests your money in a custom portfolio with two main components: ETFs representing up to 20 different asset classes, including stocks and bonds; and cash, in the form of a FDIC-insured cash sweep program earning 0.7% APY. Cash must be between 6% and 30% of the portfolio.
  • Average annual return from 3/31/2015 to 12/31/2018: 3.1% per year for medium-risk portfolio
  • Other notable features: Tax loss harvesting available for accounts over $50K, includes access to in-person assistance at over 300 U.S. branch locations.

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Betterment — Low fees for balances under $100K

Betterment
Betterment offers a full suite of robo-advisor features at low cost with no minimum deposit. The annual management fee for accounts under $100,000 is 0.25%, plus an average 0.11% expense ratio. Unfortunately, accounts over $100,000 will see the annual management fee jump to 0.40%. One advantage Betterment gives to accounts above the $100,000 threshold is that they can actively manage some assets. If active management is your goal, though, you can avoid Betterment’s 0.40% fee by opening a free brokerage account — so if you are managing more than $100,000, you may want to consider a different robo-advisor.

Betterment’s key attributes:

  • Fees: If total balance is less than $100,000, the annual management fee is 0.25% of assets; for balances over $100,000, management fee rises to 0.40% of assets. The average ETF expense ratio is 0.11% (for a 70% stock and 30% bond portfolio).
  • Minimum starting deposit: $0
  • Investing strategy: Betterment invests your money in an automated portfolio comprised of stock and bond ETFs in 12 different asset classes.
  • Average annual return over five years: 6.2% per year on a 50% equity portfolio (July 2013 to July 2018).
  • Other notable features: Tax-loss harvesting comes standard; active management features for clients with $100,000+ balance; several premium portfolios available.

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SoFi Automated Investing — Low costs, great perks

SoFi
SoFi Automated Investing’s 0.00% management fee and ultra-low 0.08% average expense ratio makes it one of the most competitively-priced robo-advisors in the market. Valuable perks come with opening a SoFi account, including free access to SoFi financial advisors, free career counseling and discounts on loans.

Automated Investing’s main downside is that their portfolios are less customizable than its peers’, with only five different risk levels to choose from, as opposed to at least 10 available from others. SoFi does not offer tax loss harvesting yet, though this may change in the near future.

SoFi Automated Investing’s key attributes:

  • Fees: Zero management fee, plus 0.08% avg expense ratio.
  • Minimum starting deposit: $1
  • Investing strategy: All SoFi Automated Investing portfolios are actively managed. This means that real humans at SoFi decide the makeup of the five model portfolios, which they believe will add value beyond what passive investing offers. SoFi invests your money in one of five portfolios of low-cost ETFs, covering 16 different asset classes. Each of the five portfolios has two versions: one is for taxable accounts and the other for tax-deferred or tax-free accounts, like IRAs and Roth IRAs. SoFi only rebalances portfolios monthly, versus some peers which check for this opportunity daily.
  • Average annual return over five years: 6.78% per year on the moderate risk portfolio (60% stocks / 40% bonds).
  • Other notable features: Commission-free stock trades in separate Active Investing accounts. SoFi’s combined checking/savings product, SoFi Money, offers 1.10% APY on deposits. Customers must open this account separately.

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SigFig — Free access to advisors

SigFig
Free access to financial advisors by phone and 0.00% management fees on the first $10,000 deposited are SigFig’s biggest strong points. On deposits over $10,000, management fees rise to 0.25%. Expense ratios are on the high side compared to the competition, at an average of 0.15%.

One of SigFig’s peculiarities is that they do not hold your assets. If you open a new account, SigFig will open an account at TD Ameritrade for you and then manage it. Current TD Ameritrade, Fidelity and Charles Schwab customers can also use SigFig’s robo-advisor services.

The $2,000 minimum deposit may put SigFig out of reach for some, but SigFig is worth a look for investors looking to keep robo-advisor costs low.

SigFig’s key attributes:

  • Fees: Zero annual management fee for the first $10,000; management fee rises to 0.25% of assets on balances over $10,000. Average ETF expense ratio of 0.15%, depending on allocation.
  • Minimum starting deposit: $2,000
  • Investing strategy: SigFig invests your money in an automated portfolio based on how you indicate you want to invest. Each portfolio is made of ETFs from Vanguard, iShares and Schwab, comprising stocks and bonds in nine different asset classes. The specific ETFs SigFig invests in will vary based on whether your account is held at TD Ameritrade, Fidelity, or Schwab.
  • Average annual return over five years: 5.45% per year for moderate portfolio (as of 4/24/2019)
    Other notable features: SigFig has a free portfolio tracker that allows investors to track their entire portfolio’s performance across multiple brokers.

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WiseBanyan — No-frills choice for beginners

WiseBanyan
A 0.00% management fee for core robo-advisor functionality makes WiseBanyan a good choice for beginning investors who can get by with a no-frills offering. Make sure to notice that they still charge a 0.12% average ETF expense ratio, so it is not completely free.

WiseBanyan charges premiums for features that come standard with other robo-advisors, including tax loss harvesting (0.24% of assets up to $20/month max), expanded investment options ($3/month) and auto-deposit ($2/month). If you care about these other features, do the math based on your own portfolio size to compare WiseBanyan to its peers.

WiseBanyan’s key attributes:

  • Fees: Zero management fee, plus average ETF expense ratio of 0.12%. Premium features carry additional fees and higher expense ratios.
  • Minimum starting deposit: $1
  • How WiseBanyan invests your money: For basic Core Portfolio users, portfolios comprise ETFs across nine asset classes, with an average expense ratio of 0.03% to 0.69%. If you upgrade to the Portfolio Plus Package, you gain access to 31 total asset classes with exposure to ETFs tracking oil and gas, precious metals and other industries, with an average expense ratio of 0.03% to 0.75%.
  • Average annual return over five years: Not provided
  • Other notable features: Premium offerings, including tax loss harvesting (0.24% /month up to $20/month max), Fast Money auto-deposit ($2/month) and Portfolio Plus ($3/month).

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Acorns — Unique savings functionality

Acorns
By rounding up the spare change from your transactions and placing it into an investment account, Acorns provides a clever way to get started with investing. The main drawback is that, until you have more than $4,800 deposited in an Acorns Core account, the $1/month fee will actually be proportionally higher than the 0.25% management fees that most competitors charge.

Acorns does not offer tax loss harvesting, joint accounts, or access to financial advisors currently. Still, if you’re looking for an easy way to start investing, give Acorns a shot.

Key attributes of Acorns:

  • Fees: $1/month for Acorns Core, plus ETF expense ratios ranging from 0.03% to 0.15%
  • Minimum starting deposit: $5
  • How Acorns invests your money: Acorns invests your money in one of five automated portfolios— notably, this is a more limited number of portfolios than some other competitors. Each portfolio comprises ETFs across seven asset classes.
  • Average annual return over past five years: Not provided
  • Other notable features: Offers two add-on accounts for expanded functionality with Acorns Later retirement product ($2/month) and Acorns Spend checking account ($3/month).

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What is a robo-advisor?

A robo-advisor is a service that uses computer algorithms to invest customers’ money in portfolios customized to their needs. Since robo-advisors create these portfolios using automated algorithms, they can charge a fraction of what human advisors do and still offer advanced benefits like auto-rebalancing and tax-loss harvesting to boost overall returns. Most robo-advisors start with a questionnaire to assess your financial goals, risk tolerance and assets. Based on the answers, the robo-advisor allocates your investments accordingly.

How do I choose the right robo-advisor?

When considering which robo-advisor to choose, you should focus on management fees, minimum balances, ease of use and customer support. The lower the fees, the more money stays in your account. The top robo-advisors typically charge a flat management fee of 0.00% to 0.50% of your deposited balance. In addition, you pay an expense ratio to cover the fees charged by the companies offering the ETFs that comprise your investment portfolio. Note that some robo-advisors claim to offer zero management fees, but still charge an expense ratio.

Make sure you are comfortable leaving your deposits with a robo-advisor for the medium to long term — think five to eight years. There are a number of robo-advisors with $0 account minimums and most are under $5,000 today.

How do I open a robo-advisor account?

Most robo-advisors can have you up and running with an account in a few minutes. Typically you create a username, fill out a questionnaire to assess your financial goals and risk tolerance and connect your profile to a bank account. There may be some additional steps required for verification depending on the robo-advisor.

What other features should I consider?

Robo-advisors offer a host of additional features, including tax loss harvesting, cash management options, checking accounts and rewards programs. Cash management can provide a meaningful compliment for users who keep some of their portfolio in cash. Some robo-advisors offer an APY of more than 2.00% on cash management accounts. Tax loss harvesting can make a difference for users looking to lower tax exposure.

What is tax loss harvesting?

Tax loss harvesting is a tax strategy that some robo-advisors offer to help clients reduce their tax bill. Generally, this involves selling an asset that has lost value for a loss, using that loss to offset capital gains taxes or income taxes, then purchasing a similar but not “substantially identical” asset to maintain exposure to the asset class. The details behind each robo-advisor’s strategy can get complicated and should be looked at in detail to make sure you understand what you are getting into.

Capital losses from tax loss harvesting can be used to offset capital gains and can potentially offset up to $3,000 (or $1,500 if married and filing separately) of ordinary income.

What if my robo-advisor goes out of business?

While not a pleasant thought, it is possible that a robo-advisor could go out of business. Most robo-advisors insure clients’ assets through the Securities Investor Protection Corporation (SIPC). This is different from the bank account coverage provided by the FDIC; generally, SIPC coverage includes up to $500,000 in protection per separate account type, with up to $250,000 of cash assets protected.

Keep in mind that the SIPC will take necessary steps to return securities and account holdings to impacted clients, but will not protect against any rise or fall in value of those holdings. This means that if you make a bad investment in a stock, the SIPC ensures you still own that bad stock, but do not replace losses from a poor investment. Some brokers also insure assets beyond the $500,000 in SIPC coverage through “excess of SIPC” insurance.

See the full list of SIPC members at their site, along with a detailed explanation of how SIPC coverage works.

The bottom line

Robo-advisors can be an excellent option for users who are starting their investing journeys, rolling over a 401(k) or who want to minimize the time needed to manage their investments. By creating a customized portfolio based on your financial goals and automatically rebalancing your account, a robo-advisor can help to maximize your return while taking on the right amount of risk.

Because robo-advisors run off of automated algorithms, you should be comfortable with little or no human touch for your investments. The upshot to low human interaction is that fees are generally much lower than with a registered investment advisor, which may be worth the tradeoff as part of an overall financial plan.

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.

Advertiser Disclosure

Investing

What Are Equities and Should I Invest in Them?

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

Equities are shares of ownership in a company. Equity is just another way to describe stock — you’ll hear people use the terms “equity markets” and “stock markets” interchangeably. Investing in equities can be one of the best ways to build your long-term savings. This article covers the basics of what are equities, how do they work and what else you should know about investing in this market.

Equities are how you invest in the stock market

The broad equities definition is the value of a property or a business to the owners after subtracting debts. When you buy a house and begin making mortgage payments, you build home equity, which is the value of your property that you own outright.

Publicly traded companies, like Nike and Tesla, sell shares of their equity to investors to raise money. When you buy a company’s equity — aka its stock — you become a partial owner of the company. This comes with several benefits, including dividends.

Equities pay dividends

As an equity shareholder in a company, you are entitled to a share of its profits based on how much of the company’s stock you own. Companies from time to time will send their shareholders a cash payment called a dividend. The frequency of it depends on the company’s strategy.

Newer growing companies like Uber typically do not pay much in dividends because they reinvest their cash in operations to keep growing. On the other hand, established companies like Coca-Cola focus on paying more dividends to shareholders. So how do you start buying equities as an investor?

The equity market

Investors buy and sell equities from each other through the equity market. When you watch financial news and hear people talking about stock markets, this is what they mean. Some of the larger equity markets in the United States include the New York Stock Exchange and the Nasdaq.

If investors believe a company is doing well and will earn higher profits in the future, the price of its equities will go up. On the other hand, when a company runs into financial trouble, the price of its equities will fall. To access the equity markets, you sign up for a broker who will process your buy and sell trades. We list some of the best online brokers on our site you can use.

Common equity vs. preferred equity

A company can sell two types of equity to investors: common and preferred. With common equity, you earn money when the stock price goes up and when the company issues dividends. You also get the right to vote on certain company matters, like picking the board of directors.

Preferred equity has a few differences. First, preferred stock typically pays a fixed dividend rate, so you get money each year. On common stock, the company can choose when to pay dividends and it might not be every year.

Another difference is if the company ends up going bankrupt, they legally have to pay out preferred equity shareholders first — before they distribute whatever’s left of their remaining money to common shareholders. The downside of preferred equity is that it does not have voting rights. It’s also rarer. While you may be able to buy preferred stock for some companies, most shares on equity markets are common equity.

Why should you invest in equities?

Equities can be one of the most effective ways to build wealth and save for retirement. Over the past few decades, they have posted one of the highest average annual returns, better than other investments like bonds or gold.

By regularly saving money and investing in equities, your savings will benefit from compounding, which is simply where your money makes money. A dollar you put aside now could double, triple and possibly become more valuable in the future thanks to your investment gains.

On the other hand, if you just kept your savings in cash or a bank account with no interest, they won’t grow. This actually decreases your future buying power because of inflation, as prices go up over time. By growing your money with equities, you put yourself in a stronger position in the future while also generating income for today with dividends.

Finally, you can receive tax benefits by investing in equities using a retirement plan, like a 401(k) or a traditional IRA. You can deduct the amount you contribute to these accounts. You save on taxes today while putting aside money for the future. These accounts also delay taxes on your gains, so you don’t owe tax until you take money out.

What is an equity fund?

As a beginner investor, it can feel intimidating figuring out which equities to buy. One way to make things easier is by buying into an equity fund, which is a mutual fund that invests in stocks. Equity funds are mutual funds that combine the money from many small investors to build a large portfolio of different equities. The portfolio is then managed by a professional to meet the fund goals. Some common types of equity funds include:

  • Index fund: Index funds look to mimic the performance of an equity market, like the S&P 500. Rather than trying to guess the top performers, they buy shares of all the companies listed to keep costs low and track the average market return.
  • Active equity fund: In an active equity fund, the manager tries to find and buy the best equity shares in a market to hopefully earn a higher return. Fees can be higher on these funds though versus index funds.
  • Growth equity fund: These funds invest in companies focused on growth, meaning they aren’t paying as much in dividends with the long-term goal to grow their stock price by more.
  • Dividend equity fund: In comparison, dividend equity funds focus more on companies that generate income. Their share price may not grow as much long-term, but they generate more consistent dividend payments.
  • Sector-focused equity fund: Equity funds can also target companies in a specific part of the economy, like energy companies or health care companies.

How does shareholders’ equity work?

Shareholders’ equity shows how much value would be left for a company’s shareholders if it used all its assets (everything it owns) to pay off everything it owes (debts/liabilities). If the company had to shut down today, they would distribute this remaining money to their shareholders.

When a company has high shareholders’ equity, it means that it has more than enough assets to cover its debts. This could be a sign that the company is profitable, shown by a high level of retained earnings on the balance sheet. On the other hand, it could also mean that the company has raised a lot of money from investors. However, if a company has negative shareholders’ equity, it is running into financial trouble because it doesn’t have enough assets to pay off its debts.

How to calculate shareholder equity

Publicly traded companies release their financial statements so investors can check their performance before buying. They list their total shareholders’ equity on the balance sheet so you can look it up there.

You can also do the calculation yourself by adding up all the listed assets, then subtracting all the company liabilities on the balance sheet. If a company has $200 million in assets and $150 million in liabilities, its shareholder equity is $50 million.

You might get equity from your employer

Besides buying shares on the markets, you could also receive equity from your employer. Sometimes they just give shares directly through an equity grant. You could also receive equity stock options, where you are guaranteed to buy shares of a company’s equity at a set price.

If the market price goes higher than that, your options make money. For example, if your employer gives you the option to buy shares at $50, then if the market price goes to $80, you could cash in your option for a $30 per share profit.

When employers offer equity in a compensation package, they usually do so to reward loyal employees. You may need to work a minimum number of years to receive all your equity grants — for example, an employer may offer 1,000 shares, but you only get 20% for every year worked, so you’d need to stay on for five years to earn it all.

If you have any more questions about what are equities, which ones you should pick or your company’s compensation package, consider speaking with a financial advisor. They can help you plan your investments and figure out what role equities should play in reaching your long-term goals.

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