Popular investing apps that let you trade for free, or next to nothing

  • Broker commissions and other fees can cost frequent traders hundreds of dollars each year — thousands, in some cases.
  • Full-service brokerages range from 0.25 percent to 0.75 percent of a trade's total value. Annual maintenance fees of 0.25 percent to 1.5 percent of the assets can add up even quicker.
  • But investment apps such as Robinhood, Fundrise, Acorns and others waive fees entirely, or nearly so.

Investing is a risky venture. At any given time, the money you hoped would generate healthy returns can disappear with little warning. So why spend more than you have to on fees for everything from trades to account maintenance to not using a service frequently enough?

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Broker commissions and other fees can cost frequent traders hundreds of dollars each year — thousands, in some cases. And oftentimes the assistance you get for that money is negligible. Full-service brokerages range from 0.25 percent to 0.75 percent of a trade's total value. And annual maintenance fees of 0.25 percent to 1.5 percent of the assets can add up even quicker.

Even discount brokerages, like Etrade, carry fees that are higher than some people's comfort zones. (You'll pay $6.95 for fewer than 30 trades a quarter and $4.95 for 30 or more per quarter.) But there are alternatives — some of which waive fees entirely and others that charge very minimal ones.

Of course, you'll need to find a trading solution that works best with your investment strategy and finances. Fortunately, there are an ever-growing number to choose from. To find the one best suited for you, determine how deep down the investing rabbit hole you want to dive. Are you willing to research the stocks you buy and trade, or would you rather rely on a preselected portfolio? Do you plan on investing regularly, or is this just an experiment? And how much are you prepared to invest initially? Carefully read the terms and features of each app before committing to it, and don't be afraid to cash out and try a different one if you don't feel your needs are being met.

Robinhood

Probably the best known of the latest round of investment apps, Robinhood doesn't charge users to trade stocks, ETFs and options. The investment tools, such as charting and research reports, are fairly rudimentary, so you'll probably want to do your homework elsewhere. And you can only buy full shares, unlike some competitors.

One thing that truly makes Robinhood stand out, though, is its option to trade cryptocurrencies, including bitcoin and Ethereum, in some areas. The expansion is ongoing, but it's currently available in 17 states, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin.

"Robinhood makes it easy for the new investor to get started, but they also, thanks to additions like cryptocurrencies and options, try to make some of the advanced trading abilities available for beginners," said financial planner and personal finance expert Dominique Broadway.

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WiseBanyan

Like Robinhood, WiseBanyan doesn't charge trading fees or account-management fees. Its focus is a bit more narrow, though, letting users invest only in ETFs (including partial shares). This is also a tool for people who want to invest but aren't exactly sure where they want to put their money. As a robo-advisor, it asks what your goals are, then takes things from there, investing in the ETFs it believes are best suited to maximize growth.

Like Robinhood, WiseBanyan doesn't offer research tools and you're unable to talk to a human. Additional features, like a tax protection plan that lowers users' taxable income, are available at a small monthly fee of $20 or 0.24 percent of your account value.

Acorns

Unlike some of the other tools listed here, which have no fees, Acorns charges users $1 per month. But it aims to take the pain out of investing for people who have trouble parting with their cash. User can set up daily, weekly or monthly automatic investments or link their account to their credit or debit card and round up each purchase to the next dollar, investing that spare change into an ETF portfolio from Vanguard or iShares.

"It lowers people's guards when they don't want to pull the trigger on buying stock," said Broadway. "It's great for people who are just starting out or are in college. ... I like that they're sticking with typical investments and not options or cryptocurrencies or things people just don't understand. They're offering something for the everyday investor."

M1 Finance

There are no trade or account-management fees for M1 Finance, but you will need to invest a minimum of $100 for brokerage accounts and $500 for retirement accounts. It has built-in tax efficiency (meaning, it lowers your taxable income) and lets you set maximum cash balances, so your money is rarely sitting idle. Users choose the companies they want to invest in and set a target weight of each company (i.e. 25 percent of your portfolio dedicated to Apple stock). The M1 tool will do the rest, automatically allocating the correct amount to each stock moving forward. Users can choose between individual stocks, ETFs or professionally pre-selected portfolios.

Fundrise

While most investing apps focus on the stock market, Fundrise targets people whose focus is on real estate. It's crowdfunding, of a sort. Money is invested into private market real estate investment trusts (REITs). Users can contribute as they want or set up recurring contributions to their accounts. As of April 2018, the company has more than $300 million in assets under management. The app requires a $500 minimum investment, and you will pay 1 percent of your total portfolio value per year in fees.

"It's a great way to get into real estate and let other companies do the footwork for you," said Broadway.