How to Invest in ETFs - NerdWallet (2024)

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Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) can be an excellent entry point into the stock market for new investors. They’re cheap and typically carry lower risk than individual stocks since a single fund holds a diversified collection of investments.

ETFs for beginners

One way for beginner investors to get started is to buy ETFs that track broad market indexes, such as the . In doing so, you’re investing in some of the largest companies in the country, with the goal of long-term returns.

» More: See the best in terms of historical performance.

Other factors to consider include risk and the fund’s expense ratio, which is the amount you’ll pay in fees every year to own the fund — the lower the expense ratio, the less it will eat into your returns.

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Types of ETFs

There are many types of ETFs that can expose your portfolio to different assets and markets. These include:

  • Stock ETFs.

  • Bond ETFs.

  • Specialty ETFs.

  • Sustainable ETFs.

  • Commodity ETFs.

  • Factor ETFs.

  • Currency ETFs.

By including other sectors and types of investments within your investment portfolio, you're diversifying your assets. Diversification brings down risk. In the event that one company or sector does not perform well, you have many others that may support the performance of your portfolio as a whole. You should evaluate your financial plan to decide if any of these types of ETFs are right to include in your portfolio. You'll need to consider your investment goals and risk tolerance.

How to buy an ETF

Here’s how to find and buy ETFs in just a few steps.

1. Open a brokerage account

You’ll need a brokerage account to buy and sell securities like ETFs. If you don’t already have one, see our resource on brokerage accounts and how to open one. This can be done online, and many brokerages have no account minimums, transaction fees or inactivity fees. Opening a brokerage account may sound daunting, but it’s really no different than opening a bank account.

If you’d rather have someone do the work of investing for you, you might be interested in opening an account with a robo-advisor. Robo-advisors build and manage an investment portfolio for you, often out of ETFs, for a low annual fee (typically 0.25% of your account balance). Because robo-advisors offer curated investment portfolios, you may not be able to find and invest in the ETFs outlined above. But that’s part of their appeal — the robo-advisor picks investments for you.

» Check out our list of the top robo-advisors.

To screen and invest in the specific ETFs you want, you’ll need a brokerage account at an online broker.

» Want to compare options? See the full list of our best brokers for ETF investors.

2. Find and compare ETFs with screening tools

Now that you have your brokerage account, it’s time to decide what ETFs to buy. Whether you’re after the best-performing broad index ETFs or you’d like to search for others on your own, there are a few ways to narrow your ETF options to make the selection process easier.

Most brokers offer robust screening tools to filter the universe of available ETFs based on a variety of criteria, such as asset type, geography, industry, trading performance or fund provider.

There are thousands of ETFs listed in the U.S. alone, so screeners are critical for finding the ETFs you’re looking for. Try using the below criteria in your brokerage’s screener to narrow them down:

  • Administrative expenses. Also known as expense ratios, these expenses cut into profit, so lower is better. According to Morningstar, the asset-weighted average expense ratio for passively managed funds was 0.12% in 2020, so this could be a good number to start with in your screener. You’ll find, though, that some popular ETFs have expense ratios much lower than this, so don’t be afraid to screen for below the average.

  • Commissions. These are fees you pay per transaction when you buy or sell an ETF. Fortunately, commissions are virtually nonexistent at most major online brokers these days, but it’s a good idea to check before you buy. Brokers that charge a commission often offer select ETFs commission-free.

  • Volume. This shows how many shares traded hands over a given time period — it’s an indicator of how popular a particular fund is.

  • Holdings. You’ll be able to see the top holdings in the fund, which simply means the individual companies the fund invests in.

  • Performance. You know the saying: “Past performance doesn’t indicate future returns.” But it still can be useful to compare the performance history of similar funds. Look at a fund's long-term performance, so three-year, five-year or 10-year performance instead of one-year for example, to get a sense of how it has performed historically.

  • Trading prices. ETFs trade like stocks; you’ll be able to see current prices, which dictates how many shares you can afford to buy.

» Still not sure how it works? Learn all about ETFs first.

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How to Invest in ETFs - NerdWallet (4)

3. Place the trade

The process for buying ETFs is very similar to the process for buying stocks. Navigate to the “trading” section of your brokerage’s website; in this context, “trade” means you’re either buying or selling an ETF. You’ll buy the ETF using its ticker symbol — here’s more on that and other basic terms you’ll need to know:

Ticker symbol

The unique identifier for the ETF you want to buy. Be sure to check you have the correct one before proceeding.

Price

The current trading price is determined by:

  • A “bid,” or the highest price buyers are willing to pay.

  • An “ask,” or the lowest price sellers will take in exchange.

Number of shares

The number of shares you wish to buy.

Order type

These basic order types should suffice, though additional options may be available:

  • Market order: Buy ASAP at best available price.

  • Limit order: Buy only at a specified price (or lower).

  • Stop order: Buy once a specified price has been reached (the stop price), executing the order in full.

  • Stop-limit order: When stop price is reached, trade turns into a limit order and is filled to the point where specified price limits can be met.

Commission

Price per trade the brokerage will charge for its service. Most major brokerages now offer commission-free ETF trades.

Funding source

The bank account linked to your brokerage account — be sure it has sufficient funds to cover the total cost.

And here’s what that looks like within a brokerage, in this case Vanguard:

How to Invest in ETFs - NerdWallet (5)

Before you execute your order, you’ll have an opportunity to double-check that everything is correct. Make sure your order is set up as intended: Check the ticker symbol (ETFs with similar ticker symbols can be wildly different), order type and that you haven’t made a “fat finger” error — for example, typing 1,000 shares when you intended to buy only 100.

4. Sit back and relax

Congratulations, you’ve just bought your first ETF. These funds can help form the basis of a well-diversified portfolio and serve as the first step in a long-lasting investment in the markets. There’s no need to compulsively check how this ETF (or your other investments) are performing, but you can access that information when you need it by checking the ticker symbol on your brokerage’s website or even just by typing it into Google.

If you're wondering how your brand new ETF purchase might affect your long-term investment goals, you can look at different scenarios (e.g. 9% or 5% annual returns) using an investment calculator.

Frequently asked questions

How is an ETF different from a stock?

When you buy individual stocks, you’re buying shares of a single company. An ETF holds a collection of several stocks, bonds, commodities or a combination of these, and each share you purchase gives you a slice of all of them. This is an easy way to diversify your portfolio. To build this diversification with individual stocks, you'd have to do significant research and purchase shares in many different companies.

Are ETFs safer than stocks?

In many situations, ETFs can be safer than stocks because of their inherent diversification. If you buy shares of a stock and the company performs poorly, the value of your stock goes down. If that’s the only stock in your portfolio — or even one of a few — that can be a big blow to your finances. However, if you’d purchased shares of an ETF and one or two stocks in the ETF perform poorly, the other ETF holdings can offset those losses.

Are ETFs good for beginners?

ETFs can be some of the best investments for beginners. They’re relatively inexpensive, available through robo-advisors as well as traditional brokerages, and tend to be less risky than investing individual stocks. (Robo-advisors are online investment advisors that build and manage a portfolio for you, often using ETFs because of their low cost.)

Learn more about sector ETFs:

  • 15 Best-Performing Energy ETFs.

  • How to choose the right biotech ETFs for you.

  • Why gold ETFs are having a record year.

  • Marijuana ETFs: On a Roll or Up in Smoke?

  • Understand .

  • Invest abroad? Check out China ETFs.

Neither the author nor editor held positions in the aforementioned investments at the time of publication.

How to Invest in ETFs - NerdWallet (2024)

FAQs

How to invest in ETFs for beginners? ›

How to buy an ETF
  1. Open a brokerage account. You'll need a brokerage account to buy and sell securities like ETFs. ...
  2. Find and compare ETFs with screening tools. Now that you have your brokerage account, it's time to decide what ETFs to buy. ...
  3. Place the trade. ...
  4. Sit back and relax.
Jan 31, 2024

How can we invest directly in ETF? ›

How to buy ETF?
  1. Set up a brokerage account. To purchase and sell shares, you'll need a brokerage account.
  2. Using screening tools, you may find and compare ETFs. Now that you have your brokerage account, you must determine which ETFs to purchase.
  3. Put in the trade order.

How much money do I need to invest to make $3,000 a month? ›

Imagine you wish to amass $3000 monthly from your investments, amounting to $36,000 annually. If you park your funds in a savings account offering a 2% annual interest rate, you'd need to inject roughly $1.8 million into the account.

What is the best ETF to invest $1000 in? ›

If you're interested in investing in an ETF and have $1,000 that you can spare to invest -- meaning you already have an emergency fund saved and have paid down any high-interest debt -- the Vanguard S&P 500 ETF (NYSEMKT: VOO) is a great option.

How many ETFs should I own as a beginner? ›

Experts agree that for most personal investors, a portfolio comprising 5 to 10 ETFs is perfect in terms of diversification.

Is it OK to just invest in ETFs? ›

ETFs can be safe investments if used correctly, offering diversification and flexibility. Indexed ETFs, tracking specific indexes like the S&P 500, are generally safe and tend to gain value over time. Leveraged ETFs can be used to amplify returns, but they can be riskier due to increased volatility.

Can I invest in ETFs on my own? ›

You can start small by creating a person ETF for yourself, even using fractional shares to seed the fund. Beginning investors may choose to invest in existing ETFs instead.

What's the best ETF to buy right now? ›

The best ETFs to buy now
Exchange-traded fund (ticker)Assets under managementExpenses
Vanguard 500 Index ETF (VOO)$432.2 billion0.03%
Vanguard Dividend Appreciation ETF (VIG)$76.5 billion0.06%
Vanguard U.S. Quality Factor ETF (VFQY)$333.3 million0.13%
SPDR Gold MiniShares (GLDM)$7.4 billion0.10%
1 more row

Can I buy ETFs without a broker? ›

Can I Trade ETFs Online Without a Traditional Broker? You can trade ETFs by setting up a regular account through an online broker, a mobile trading app, or a robo-advisor provider.

What if I invest $200 a month for 20 years? ›

Investing as little as $200 a month can, if you do it consistently and invest wisely, turn into more than $150,000 in as soon as 20 years. If you keep contributing the same amount for another 20 years while generating the same average annual return on your investments, you could have more than $1.2 million.

How to invest 100k to make $1 million in 10 years? ›

The simplest path from $100,000 to $1 million

The simplest way to invest your money is by using a simple broad-market index fund. An index fund that tracks the S&P 500 or a total stock market index typically has low fees, and it's going to closely match what the overall stock market returns.

How much money a month to make $100,000 a year? ›

$100,000 a year is how much a month? If you make $100,000 a year, your monthly salary would be $8,333.87.

How much should I invest in an ETF for the first time? ›

You can put $500 in a stock ETF and $500 in a bond ETF to achieve a diversified two-asset-class portfolio which, though simple, can be a great start toward building a portfolio appropriate for your goals. ETFs can be a simple way to build incrementally toward your long-term plan.

What is the riskiest ETF? ›

In contrast, the riskiest ETF in the Morningstar database, ProShares Ultra VIX Short-term Futures Fund (UVXY), has a three-year standard deviation of 132.9. The fund, of course, doesn't invest in stocks. It invests in volatility itself, as measured by the so-called Fear Index: The short-term CBOE VIX index.

Which ETF has the best 10 year return? ›

Top 10 ETFs by 10-year Performance
TickerFund10-Yr Return
VGTVanguard Information Technology ETF19.60%
IYWiShares U.S. Technology ETF19.58%
IXNiShares Global Tech ETF18.20%
IGMiShares Expanded Tech Sector ETF17.95%
6 more rows

How much money do you need to start an ETF? ›

How Much Does It Cost to Start an ETF? $100,000 to $500,000 for SEC regulation costs. The lower end is for plain-vanilla funds that don't stray from the basic strategy of mimicking a single large-cap index. About $2.5 million to seed the ETF with initial purchases of assets.

Should beginners buy ETFs? ›

Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) are ideal for beginning investors due to their many benefits, which include low expense ratios, instant diversification, and a multitude of investment choices. Unlike some mutual funds, they also tend to have low investing thresholds, so you don't have to be ultra-rich to get started.

How do you make money from an ETF? ›

How do ETFs make money for investors?
  1. Interest distributions if the ETF invests in bonds.
  2. Dividend. + read full definition distributions if the ETF invests in stocks that pay dividends.
  3. Capital gains distributions if the ETF sells an investment. + read full definition for more than it paid.
Sep 25, 2023

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