Self-Directed Investing Accounts
With a wealth of market information and up-to-the-minute news available at their fingertips 24/7, many retail investors nowadays choose to take their financial future into their own hands with self-directed investing accounts. These self-managed brokerage accounts are proving increasingly popular because they cut out the middleman, lower costs and empower investors by giving them their choice of assets to build their own portfolio or adopt flexible IRA or 401(k) plans.
This guide explains how self-directed investing accounts work, from fees to taxes and bonuses. We have also reviewed and ranked the best self-directed brokerage investment accounts in 2024.
Top Self-Directed Investing Accounts
What Is A Self-Directed Investing Account?
Those who decide to invest in brokerage accounts or retirement savings plans often take a backseat and either let a fund manager decide what to do with their savings or pick between a narrow choice of funds. However, an increasing number of individuals prefer to take the matter into their own hands by using a self-directing investment account that gives them full control over how their earnings are invested.
The growing popularity of this type of account is mainly a product of the internet, which has provided a wealth of financial information and tools to anyone willing to put the hours in. At the same time, individual investors can choose from a wide range of web-based brokers that facilitate self-directed investing.
Types Of Self-Directed Investment Accounts
Classic self-directed brokerage investing accounts are available from brokers that work with retail investors. Some of the big names include Vanguard, Fidelity, Charles Schwab, TD Ameritrade, E*TRADE, Interactive Brokers and Robinhood. This type of self-directed investing account may be more geared toward long-term investments, active trading or a mixture of the two.
Independent Retirement Accounts, or IRAs, are one of the most popular ways for the retail market to invest, due to their tax advantages as well as the range of available assets, which is usually wider than those in an employer-sponsored plan. Additionally, an IRA can be opened alongside a 401k or 403b, allowing investors to get the best of both worlds. IRAs are available from a large number of brokers and in alternative investments, including many of those listed above.
401(k) and 403(b)s are considered desirable since employees often gain considerable benefits from contributions by their employers. This type of account tends to be more limited in terms of self-directed investing, though some plans allow account holders under certain conditions to pick assets that are usually outside the range on offer. Fees for placing trades tend to be higher in these types of retirement accounts than in standard investment accounts or IRAs.
Health Saving Accounts or HSAs offer US investors a tax-effective way to save money for healthcare purposes. Some solutions are self-directed, with investment account holders usually choosing between a relatively limited selection of assets including mutual funds, stocks and bonds.
Assets Available On Self-Directed Investing Accounts
Some accounts—and particularly 401(k) and 403(b) retirement accounts—may be somewhat restrictive in the type of assets on offer, but with standard self-directed investing accounts you should be able to find just about any product you like with the right broker.
Moreover, some recent innovations such as fractional stocks mean that individual traders can now buy a stake in even the biggest companies with the most expensive shares.
Even so, some asset types are more commonly available on self-directed investing accounts than others, and it is worth running through them:
- Mutual Funds – These funds pool cash from large numbers of investors and are professionally managed by an expert who will choose investments in various assets. Individual investors in mutual funds benefit from exposure to a wider number of assets and the manager’s expertise, and both these factors tend to lower risk. The trade-offs are the loss of control over how your money is invested and the fees charged by the fund managers.
- ETFs – Exchange-Traded Funds or ETFs are baskets of assets which are traded on a stock exchange. They allow investors to gain exposure to a particular range of securities or other assets such as commodities without having to buy the stocks individually. Some of the most popular ETFs track the performance of an index, such as the S&P 500, meaning that investors will benefit from the general growth across the index as opposed to the performance of a particular company. Fees vary among ETFs, with actively managed funds usually costing more.
- Stocks – If you want to invest in specific companies from your self-directed investing account there are many ways to do this, with most brokerage accounts and many IRAs giving investors access to stocks on various exchanges. Investing in stocks is a good choice for those who enjoy researching markets and looking for high-value investments. However, individual stocks will be more volatile than ETF ‘baskets’ and may require more active trading, which often means higher fees.
- Commodities – Investing in commodities is a good way to diversify your portfolio and can provide a buffer against bearish market conditions. The most common way to gain exposure to commodities such as gold, oil, metals and others from a self-directed investment account is to either purchase stocks from a specific company or through an ETF that covers the sector.
- Bonds – Bonds are debt instruments which can be guaranteed by a treasury, a public body such as a municipality, or a private body like a corporation. Many self-directed investors access bonds through a mutual fund, but some accounts such as TD Ameritrade allow users to buy bonds directly from issuers with low fees. Bonds provide a fixed income over a set period.
- Cryptocurrencies – Despite their high volatility and some very rocky periods over the years, crypto has become a relatively popular investment type. Some self-directed brokerage accounts allow investors to directly trade in cryptos, though many ETFs or digital currency funds also provide exposure for retirement accounts. Alternatively, IRA holders can directly purchase crypto by setting up an LLC.
- CFDs – In some countries, including the US, brokers such as eToro offer investors exposure to markets and assets through a financial product called contracts for difference or CFDs. These allow investors to speculate on the price movement of assets, and CFDs are often also traded with leverage. Bear in mind that, while you will profit or lose money from the price movements of CFDs in the same way as a normal stock investment, and can also earn money from dividends, you will not actually own the asset in question.
- Private Debt – Private debt has gone from being a niche investment to a mainstream one which can be accessed through self-directed accounts such as IRAs. Private debt investment can come through a variety of instruments, including mortgage notes and corporate debt offerings. Since the returns on private debt are often not correlated with stock market performance, they can provide a welcome amount of diversification, and often come with high returns—though the risk may also be higher, in turn.
Pros Of Self-Directed Investing Accounts
There are several reasons traders choose a self-directed account for their investments, including the obvious – keeping control over your savings – but also some that are not so evident:
- Choose Your Investments: The most basic reason to choose self-directed investing is also one of the most important. While many pensions and other investment plans limit you to a small selection of funds to choose between, the best self-directed accounts will give you a choice of hundreds of assets, from ETFs to individual stocks to commodities – and even some more exotic assets such as real estate.
- More Control: With more assets available, you have more control over how you allocate your funds. This means you can fine-tune your portfolio to suit your risk appetite or follow your predictions about the direction of markets. It also makes it easier to change your portfolio balance by selling and buying assets as you see fit.
- Lower Fees: The wider range of available assets can already cut down costs for investors, as they will not be limited to choosing between funds with high fees. Those looking to trade actively will also have the freedom to choose a brokerage and investments with the lowest fees.
- Self-Reliance: Picking your investments means you don’t need to worry about trust issues such as conflicts of interest. Some guided investment plans may have a vested interest in selling you specific stocks or other investments. Making the choice yourself removes that nagging doubt.
Cons Of Self-Directed Investing Accounts
At the same time, this type of account will not suit everyone, for various reasons:
- Time & Effort: Although there are some relatively straightforward ways for inexperienced investors to make money from markets, even these will require some work to research. Some will prefer the hands-off approach of managed trading accounts.
- Higher Risk: Managed or guided accounts often allow you to easily select an estimated level of risk for your investments. If you pick your own, you are taking the risk level into your own hands, and it isn’t always easy to find the right balance.
- Clashes With Pension Plans: Some employee pension plans give investors little or no control over how their funds are invested. If it is a choice between self-directing investments and gaining the benefits of tax relief and employer contributions, many will choose the latter.
Comparing Self-Directed Investing Accounts
The best choice of self-directed account will depend on your individual needs, and in particular whether you are looking to open a standard brokerage account, an IRA, 401(k) or something else.
However, there are a few important factors to take into account when choosing self-directed brokerage accounts:
Fees come in a variety of forms. TD Ameritrade, Charles Schwab, Fidelity Morgan Stanley Chase and many other self-directed investing accounts offer 0% fees on stock trades, but many other brokers will charge a commission per trade. However, the importance of trading commissions depends on how actively you intend to trade, as there may be other costs too:
- Annual service fee, charged as a flat fee or a percentage of the assets in your account
- Fees for transferring your portfolio or funds to a different investment account
- FX charge for buying assets on a foreign market
- Fees for optional tools/data
- Monthly subscription fees
- Inactivity fees
- Withdrawal fees
Different brokers and trading platforms offer access to different assets and markets. Most self-directed accounts will offer exposure to a wide range of markets through ETFs and mutual funds, but those who want to be more proactive with their self-directed account will value having a diverse range of assets on offer, such as CFDs and cryptos.
Some self-directed investing brokers offer users incentives, such as bonus money for signing up. These are usually tiered, meaning you will earn more if you deposit a larger initial amount. For example:
- Axos Bank offers a flat $200 bonus for new investors in its Self-Directed Trading account who deposit at least $2,000, make two trades with $25 each and maintain a balance of $2,000 for 90 days.
- JP Morgan offers a $125 bonus to new investors with a $25,000 initial deposit, through to a $300 bonus for deposits of $100,000+ and $625 for $250,000+.
- Citi Self Invest offers $100 to new accounts with a $10,000 deposit, scaling up to $200 with $50,000 and $500 with $200,000.
Tools & Education
Analysis tools and educational resources are useful for self-directed trading accounts as they provide investors with a handy way to read markets and research investments. These can come in the form of online guides, up-to-date charts, and even robo-advisors or similar automated tools that help you pick investments.
However, since most self-directed accounts are offered by discount brokers, you shouldn’t expect the most sophisticated tools or one-to-one advice from human professionals.
Choose a broker that offers quick and professional customer support to avoid headaches if anything goes wrong. The best brokers with self-directed investing accounts will have 24/7 support lines in case of an emergency. Some brokerages also allow you to make transactions over the phone, but be aware of additional charges this may incur.
When it comes to a self-directed investment account—particularly one used for retirement savings—your security should be paramount. Investors can protect themselves by choosing a highly-rated broker that is overseen by a national regulator and covered by a body such as the Federal Insurance Deposit Corporation.
Research your broker carefully before signing up and look for one that is well-reviewed and offers security features such as two-factor authentication. Alternatively, head to our list of the top self-directed investing accounts.
Tips For Self-Directed Investors
There is no killer strategy or magic bullet that will turn a newbie into a millionaire overnight, but there are some things to remember when setting out on your self-directed investment journey:
ETFs are a popular way to invest because they cut down risk by giving you a basket of equities, rather than a single stock, and lower costs. Since in the long-run a major index like the S&P 500 will normally continue to grow, it is considered a safer bet for investors who are in it for the long-term.
At the same time, ETFs can be used to gain exposure to commodities and other investments that can act as a hedge if the stock markets begin to fall. While some commodities tend to go up during periods of uncertainty, you could also directly bet against an index by investing in an ETF like the Short QQQ, which takes a leveraged short position on the NASDAQ.
There are many other ways to hedge, including through real estate, direct investment in precious metals, investment in private debt or equity and more.
When To Enter A Market
Another important consideration is choosing the right time to enter a market. If you invest all your money at the top of a bull market, you could quickly make losses that take years to recoup when the stock market falls.
One strategy used by investors to avoid this is dollar cost averaging, in which they make regular investments instead of investing a lump sum at once. This could be in the form of a monthly percentage of your salary, or a weekly or even daily smaller sum. Trading fees are important for this.
Some investors prefer to time their investments by ‘buying the dip’ – a phrase referring to buying at a time when they believe the asset’s value has fallen below a level they are happy buying it at, meaning the investment represents good value.
Be careful if you try to buy the dip during a period of high volatility – this can prove to be costly, as the price can continue to fall beyond expectations. This has given rise to the expression ‘trying to catch a falling knife’, used to describe investors who try to time their investment to coincide with the asset’s lowest price before its next rally.
Final Word On Self-Directed Investing Accounts
Investors can cut out unnecessary fees and take control of their financial future by choosing a self-directed brokerage account. As well as benefiting from sign-up promotions, this type of investment account allows traders to pinpoint the exact area they wish to invest in, while also removing fees associated with account managers.
It is important to choose the right brokerage with self-directed investing accounts, placing particular focus on fees and security. Moreover, you are taking responsibility for your investments, which means you will need to spend the time to properly research the markets and to adopt a strategic and disciplined approach. However, for those willing to do the legwork, self-directed trading accounts can be among the most rewarding and interesting ways to invest in your financial future.
Head to our ranking of the best self-directed investing accounts to get started.
What Is A Self-Directed Investing Account?
A self-directed investing account is exactly what it sounds like – a brokerage account where the investor makes their own decisions on which assets to pick. While the self-directed investor may miss out on the benefit of an established professional’s expert advice, they can ultimately save money on fees and find excellent opportunities by taking the reins themselves.
What Is The Best Self-Directed Investment Platform?
There are many self-directed investment accounts available from a range of online brokers. The best for you will depend on what your needs are – is this a 401(k) or IRA? Are you looking to invest in a particular market or asset? Some other things to look out for when comparing brokers include fees and security. Research a range of brokers online through review sites like ours and find the right account for your needs.
How Does A Self-Directed Brokerage Account Work?
Usually, investors will simply sign up for the account, deposit their funds, and start picking assets through the brokerage account’s interface. Making purchases of some asset types such as bonds or cryptocurrencies may be more complicated. Fortunately, TD Ameritrade and some other self-directed brokerage accounts make bond purchases simple by using a ‘wizard’ with low fees.
How Do I Choose Assets For My Self-Directed Investing Account?
Since this is a self-directed investment account, the choice of assets is up to you, the investor. It isn’t easy to choose, since there is generally a lot on offer, but index tracker ETFs are straightforward and are generally considered to be low-risk.
Can I Transfer An Existing Account To A Self-Directed Investing Account?
This depends on the type of account you wish to transfer and the type of self-directed investment account you want to make the transfer to. It may not be possible to transfer a 401(k) or 403(b) depending on the plan your employer is tied into.