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Buying and Selling Stocks

To buy and sell stock, you usually need to have an account at a brokerage firm, also known as a broker-dealer, and give orders to a stockbroker at the firm who will execute those instructions on your behalf, or online, where the firm's technology systems route your order to the appropriate market or system for execution. The kind of firm you use will determine how you convey your orders, what types of services you have access to, and what fees you pay to trade your stocks. In general, the more services the firm offers, the more you'll pay for each transaction. Brokerage firms may also charge fees to maintain your account.

Full-service brokerage firms provide research as well as trade executions and may offer customized portfolio management, investment advice, financial planning, banking privileges, and other services. Discount firms offer fewer services but, as their name implies, generally charge less to execute the orders you place. The trick is to find the balance that's right for you. On the one hand, you don't want fees to cut into your returns, but on the other hand, you may benefit from more guidance. You'll want to check what effect the amount you have to invest—or what are known as your investable assets—will have on the level of service you receive and the prices you pay.

You can place buy and sell orders over the phone with your broker or you can trade stocks online. Many firms offer full account access and trading through their Web sites at lower prices than they charge for phone orders. If you do trade online, it's important to be wary of trading too much, simply because it's so easy to place the trade. You should consider your decisions carefully, taking into account the fees and taxes as well as the impact on the balance of assets in your portfolio, before you place an order.

There are ways to buy stock directly through certain companies without using a broker. For example, if you used a broker to purchase a share of stock in a company that offers a dividend reinvestment plan, or DRIP, you can choose to buy additional shares through that plan. DRIPs allow you to automatically reinvest your dividends and periodically write checks to buy more stock. Some companies also offer direct purchase plans, or DPPs, that allow you to buy shares directly from the issuer at any time.

DRIPs and DPPs are usually administered for the company by a third party known as a shareholder services company or stock transfer agent that can also handle the sale of your shares. Transaction fees for DRIP and DPP orders tend to be substantially less than brokerage fees.