If you've never invested directly in the market before, the process of getting started can seem daunting. From knowing your investment style to screening and selecting stocks, it's easy to get lost in the weeds.
But if you think you may be ready to give it a shot, the first question you'll have is likely to be: How much money do I need to begin investing?
Setting Up an Investing Account
If you're a new investor with limited funds, an online, no-frills brokerage account might be just the thing you need. If you go that route, the amount you need to open an account can be below $1,000, depending on which brokerage you pick. Few require initial investments of more than $2,500, and some brokers will let you open retirement accounts with no minimum at all. Many large banks also offer brokerage services.
But the opening amount is just the beginning of the investment you'll make in your brokerage.
Funding the account is the first step. Once you start investing, you will have to pay other fees, including the various trading commissions to buy stocks, mutual funds, and options, as well as maintenance fees and potential low-balance penalties.
The online brokerages vary widely in terms of trading fees, self-service and broker-assisted trades, and the types of tools and research available to customers. Don't be fooled -- many online brokers will promise low trading fees or special promotions, but then hit you with an annual or maintenance fee. Use a tool like The Motley Fool's Getting Started with Brokers or Mint.com to compare brokers across a variety of screening criteria, including fees, services, and special promotions.
You may also get money back as interest earned on the cash you hold in your account. Often that cash is automatically swept into a money market mutual fund or account. While the interest rates are paltry right now, at least your idle cash earns something while you wait to make a trade.
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Test-Drive Before You Decide
Most brokerages offer an array of online services. Many are incorporating mobile access and even smartphone apps into their basic service lineups. As with any service, the level of sophistication varies depending on the broker.
If you're constantly glued to your smartphone, go ahead and download a few of the apps from brokers you're considering. You won't get account access, but you should be able to see several of the tools available and whether or not they'll meet your needs. Barring that, check out online videos of how the apps work, either on the broker's site or on YouTube, where someone, somewhere, has posted a how-to video of just about everything.
If you think you'll need a little extra help to get started, put a brokerage's customer service to the test. Some have excellent customer service, available via phone, email or chat; others have extended wait times to receive a response even to basic questions or chats that sound overly scripted and robotic.
If you want to know that you can get a real, live person when you need help, call the broker's toll-free number and say you have questions about opening an account. While one representative might not represent the entire pool of service people you'll always get, such calls are a great way to evaluate how friendly, responsive, and knowledgeable the company may be if you become a customer.
Motley Fool contributor Molly McCluskey appreciates your comments. Follow her on Twitter @MollyEMcCluskey.