But this isn’t your typical market, and you can’t show up and pick your shares off a shelf the way you select produce at the grocery store. Individual traders are typically represented by brokers — these days, that’s often an online broker. You place your stock trades through the broker, which then deals with the exchange on your behalf. (Need a broker? See our analysis of the best stockbrokers for beginners.)
Stock mutual funds or exchange-traded funds. These mutual funds let you purchase small pieces of many different stocks in a single transaction. Index funds and ETFs are a kind of mutual fund that track an index; for example, a Standard & Poor’s 500 fund replicates that index by buying the stock of the companies in it. When you invest in a fund, you also own small pieces of each of those companies. You can put several funds together to build a diversified portfolio. Note that stock mutual funds are also sometimes called equity mutual funds.
You're probably looking for deals and low prices, but stay away from penny stocks. These stocks are often illiquid, and chances of hitting a jackpot are often bleak. Many stocks trading under $5 a share become de-listed from major stock exchanges and are only tradable over-the-counter (OTC). Unless you see a real opportunity and have done your research, stay clear of these.
One of the most common mistakes in stock market investing is trying to time the market. Time the market, or “market timing,” means trying to figure out the best time to get in the market, or invest. It also means the best time to get out of the market, or sell. It’s not easy to be right on both ends. It can be unsettling to experience market volatility, so that’s why it’s important to understand the difference between savings (which are more stable) and investments (which can be more volatile). It’s the time in the market that is more important, not necessarily timing the market.
Payout ratio -- The payout ratio is a good metric for dividend investors to know and is the company's annual dividend rate expressed as a percentage of its earnings. For example, if a company paid out $1.00 in dividends per share last year and earned $2.00, it would have a 50% payout ratio. A payout ratio can tell you if a company's dividend is sustainable or if a dividend cut could be possible.
Buy “the basket”: Can’t decide which of the companies in a particular industry will be the long-term winner? Buy ’em all! Buying a basket of stocks takes the pressure off picking “the one.” Having a stake in all the players that pass muster in your analysis means you won’t miss out if one takes off, and you can use gains from that winner to offset any losses. This strategy will also help you identify which company is “the one” so you can double down on your position if desired.