Investing in the stock market is one of the best ways to grow your savings over the long term.
If you’re just starting out, it can feel like there’s a lot to learn before you can start buying shares. But the reality is a lot simpler. One of the most important factors is just getting started.
This guide will cover everything you need to know to start investing in the stock market.
Before diving in, it’s important to remember when you invest, your capital is at risk. This means the value of your investments can fall as well as rise, so you might get back less than you originally invested.
Remember that everyone has their own goals and unique financial circumstances. These, along with your tolerance for investment risk and time horizon, should inform the mix of assets you choose and whether or not IPOs belong in your portfolio.
Our resource hub for investing in the stock market might be able to help make that blend a bit clearer for you and our guide on how to invest in stocks is a great start for a first-timer's investment decisions.
And if you are still unsure of how to pick investments, speak to a qualified financial advisor to develop your own investment strategy.
🎯 Key takeaways
Investing in stocks is one of the best ways to grow your savings over the long term.
Time is the most important growth ingredient, the longer you can leave your investments to grow the better.
Don’t complicate it. Build a diversified portfolio, invest regularly and don’t fiddle - check in now and again.
Investing for beginners
What is investing?
Investing is about trying to do more with your money.
Simply put, investing is putting money aside today with the aim that it will be worth more in the future.
Why should you invest?
Keeping cash in the bank is one way to save but when it comes to growing your savings, it’s unlikely to be the best option.
Over time, the value of money and what you can buy with it, changes.
More often than not, prices will rise (in economic talk, this is inflation). It’s not really a problem in the short term - £1,000 today will be close to £1,000 tomorrow or even next month.
This makes cash a good option for your emergency savings or money you’ll need to use soon. But over a longer time frame, your savings left as cash will start losing value.
Here’s an example of how rising prices can affect the value of your cash, the longer you leave it.
Disclaimer: The table shows how inflation can erode savings throughout the years. This table is just for illustrative purposes only and does not use real inflation rates.
This is where investing comes in.
Investing is about growing your wealth over the long term. The aim is to make a return higher than inflation so that your real wealth grows and your purchasing power is greater in the future.
Investing in the stock market has historically been a great way to do this. If you have a long-term approach, it will likely continue to be so.
Remember though, when you invest, your capital is at risk.
💡 More on why invest.
What are stocks and why invest in them?
When you buy a share in a company, you become an owner of that company. And as an owner, you’ll share in the ups and downs of the business which lead to the value of stocks falling and rising over time.
Some businesses also pay out part of their profits (known as dividends) to investors and this is another way they can share in the success of a business.
In exchange for becoming an owner in a business and taking on the risk of the potential ups and downs in performance, investors have historically been rewarded with a higher rate of return on their cash and an opportunity to grow their savings.
What about the stock market?
Stock markets are where we go to buy and sell shares, they are our access point for investing in stocks.
Before we get stuck into how to invest, it’s important to understand why the stock market can be a good place for your savings in the first place.
Over the long term, economies tend to grow. They grow because populations (in most places) grow, and productivity (our ability to produce more goods and services with the same pair of hands) also grows. If economies grow over the long run, it's fair to assume company profits in aggregate should also grow.
Over time, stock prices tend to track underlying profit growth. And that’s why if we showed you a chart of a stock market, over the long term it rises.
Do they rise all the time? No. Stock markets are designed to move as they take in new information - the good, the bad and the OK.
How to invest in stocks
6 steps to investing in stocks
- Set your investment goals
- Understand how you feel about the risks that come with investing
- Pick your investments
- Get to grips with investment analysis basics
- Decide how you’d like to invest
- Top tips for managing your portfolio
Before you start investing it's important to decide what you want to get out of it.
Some people invest to save for their retirement. Others may have a specific future purchase in mind or just want to beat inflation.
Understanding your goals is important because it should help set investment foundations like how much to invest and what to invest in.
How you feel about risk is important to figure out before you start investing in stocks.
The simplest way to think about risk is how much money you are comfortable losing in exchange for seeing it gain value. The more risk you take on, usually the more you stand to lose or gain.
How comfortable you are with risk and in turn how much you’re willing to take will depend on your own circumstances and things like:
- How much money you have leftover after essentials each month
- How you feel about the value of your money falling as well as rising
- How long you plan to stay invested
If you are investing over a long period of time, you can probably afford to take on more risk than someone that’s going to need to sell their investments in the near future.
If you don’t have a huge amount of cash, either to invest or in savings, then you’ll probably want to take on less risk than someone with millions in the bank.
💡 More info on investment risk.
As we’ve discussed, stocks represent ownership in a company and give you the opportunity to share in the current or future success of a business.
Many big-name firms have stocks that you can buy. That could be everything from global tech names or big banks to popular fashion labels and car brands.
But it doesn’t just have to be big companies, lots of smaller companies have shares too. Smaller companies tend to attract more adventurous investors, they can be newer businesses with more to prove.
📱 See the full list of US and UK stocks you can invest in via the Freetrade app.
Some company stocks can be pricey. In the past, this may have meant they were out of reach for many.
But today a number of stockbrokers offer investors access to fractional shares. These are parts of a single share that you can buy. For example, if a share cost $1,000, you could buy half, or $500-worth, of that share.
Fractional shares can be a great way to start investing with little money required.
📱 See the full list of fractional shares you can invest in via the Freetrade app.
You don’t have to choose each individual stock if you don’t want to. With an exchange-traded fund (ETF) you can invest in a collection of stocks or other assets in one go.
Most ETFs tend to track an index - like the S&P 500 or NASDAQ.
In the financial world, an index is a group of stocks or other assets combined and used for analysis or understanding how a market as a whole is performing.
For example, the S&P 500 is an index made up of the 500 largest companies trading on the US stock market.
An ETF that tracks the S&P 500 is a simple way of investing in the companies that make up the index.
From a practical point of view, this is much cheaper and faster than buying shares in each of those 500 companies. It also provides investors with a more diversified portfolio, reducing the risk that they may lose a large amount of money.
The downside to ETFs is they mean you cannot capture the outsized returns that individual stocks sometimes can. You can also still be subject to market crashes, some of which may have a long-lasting impact on returns.
📱 See the most popular ETFs you can invest in via the Freetrade investing app.
Investment trusts are usually set up by asset management firms.
Once they’ve been established, they are listed on a stock exchange, allowing investors to buy shares in them.
The funds raised from their initial share sale are then used to invest in different assets.
For example, an investment trust might focus on buying stocks in the tech industry. Others hold a broader range of stocks and invest in industries as varied as telecoms, finance and energy.
Like ETFs, investment trusts are a great way to invest in lots of different shares or assets in one go.
📱 See the full list of investment trusts you can invest in with Freetrade.
One popular type of investment trust is known as a real estate investment trust — or REIT.
As the name implies, REITs invest in real estate. They’re a good way for people to put money into the real estate market, without having to pay huge sums to actually buy a property.
REITs also tend to invest in different types of property which mean you could get exposure to everything from retail to data centres or digital infrastructure.
📱 See the full list of REITs you can invest in with Freetrade.
IPOs and SPACs
You may have heard about IPOs (initial public offerings) and SPACs (special purpose acquisition companies) before. They tend to be one of the more talked about newsworthy topics when it comes to investing.
That’s often because unlike the different types of investments we’ve mentioned above, both IPOs and SPACs allow investors to invest in companies that are just arriving on the stock market. They might not be new companies (although they often are younger) but they are new investment opportunities.
A key thing to know about investing in both IPOs and SPACs is that they tend to be much higher risk. This means they tend not to be the best option for anyone just starting to invest. If you do decide to invest in an IPO, it might be best to start with a small amount and gradually build up over time.
Whether you decide to go pick your own stocks or go down the ETF or investment trust route, before investing you need to understand what you’re about to invest in.
What does the company do and how does it make money? What companies does the ETF or investment trust invest in, are they the companies you expected?
Different investors take different approaches.
Each investor will have different goals and in turn different criteria when it comes to deciding, what makes a good investment.
Do you know how the business works?
That doesn’t mean being ready to make a slide deck on it, but rather checking you understand how the business or investment makes money. And given it’s an investment, how might it make you money? Cue the fundamentals.
This is a broad term but it refers to anything likely to impact a company or another type of investment. What are the factors that could mean it does well and what are the factors that could cause the opposite?
In considering all the factors, your goal as an investor is to determine whether you’d like to invest in the company and if so, what a fair value for the stock might be. You could choose to look at its financial statements, company management, brand image, and regulations facing the industry at large.
Fundamentals can’t tell you everything about a stock, but they can be a good place to start.
Does it make money?
The two biggies here are revenue and profit.
- Revenue — this is how much money a company makes from selling its goods and services. Investors generally want to see a company is making a stable or increasing amount of money. If not then there should be a good reason for it.
- Profit — this is the money left over after a business pays for the costs to run the business (think raw materials, employees and rent etc.). How much money does it have left? With money left over a business has more options. It could invest in the business to grow, pay some of it to investors in dividends or just stash it away for trickier times (say, a pandemic…).
💡 It’s worth pointing out that profit isn’t a given, particularly with newer businesses and those firmly in growth mode. These types of companies will inherently be higher risk because they have a lot more to prove.
Are you paying the right price?
Once you’ve figured out you’d like to invest, many investors want to check they’re paying the right price. You don’t want to be paying a price so high it’s unlikely your investment will ever be worth more. Or, it might end up worth a lot less. On the other hand, what might seem like a low price is also not necessarily an indication of value. Different investors do this in all sorts of ways but we’ll share the most common one.
Price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio
A P/E ratio tells you how much a company’s shares cost relative to its profit. It’s calculated by taking a company’s current share price and dividing it by its earnings per share. It gives you an idea of how expensive a company’s shares are, in relation to how much money the company makes. It’s probably the most common metric used to gauge how expensive a company’s shares are.
💡 More on how to pick stocks.
We all have different things we’re aiming for, different financial circumstances and ultimately different lives. How one person invests may or may not suit someone else.
To help you think about how you’d like to go about investing your money, here are a few common investing strategies.
Passive vs active
A distinction often made between investors is whether they have an active or passive strategy. In reality, many of us will do a bit of both but here’s a quick breakdown:
A core-satellite strategy lets you combine elements of both passive and active investing in your portfolio.
Passive investments form the core part of your portfolio while you choose more specific investments to make up the rest of the portfolio.
With a passive core, most of your portfolio will perform in line with the market it’s tracking. But it also means you can still get some of the main benefits of passive investing (i.e. a low cost and broader investment).
Satellite investments could include stocks, investment trusts, or even more specialised ETFs and will help nudge your portfolio into more specific areas.
Ideally, your satellite investments would be areas that you think could grow at a faster rate than the market, or be assets (such as bonds or commodities) that might perform well at different times to the rest of your portfolio.
Investing vs trading stocks
Investing in stocks and trading stocks are often used to mean the same thing - buying stocks.
And while we don’t suggest getting too hung up on terminology, it’s a good idea to understand the different behaviour of investors and traders.
Sell your investments for a profit (capital gains)
The simplest way to make money from stocks (or any investment for that matter) is to sell them for a higher price than you bought them at. This is known as a capital gain and it can be subject to tax if you don’t hold your investments in a tax-efficient account like a SIPP or an ISA.
Your investments pay you an income (dividends)
Dividends are where a company pays out part of its profits to its shareholders.
These payments are generally in cash and are shown on a per share basis. So you’ll receive a certain amount of money for every share you own in a company.
It's important to remember, the fact a company pays a dividend doesn’t say much about how good it is as a business.
Lots of high performing companies don't pay dividends and plenty of businesses that are less promising still do.
Compounding is not a direct source of income in the way capital gains or dividends are. But it’s one of the greatest benefits of being a long-term investor.
Compounding in its simplest form is growth on an already growing investment pot. And the longer you can give it, the more powerful it becomes.
The chart below shows compounding in action. Both £1,000 investment pots grow at 5% each year but the pot that was invested when you were 25 grows to a much bigger size. It’s time, not extra cash that’s created this difference.
Disclaimer: Please note this chart is just an example and is not a guide to realistic returns. Continuous 5% growth is not realistic, some years it could be more and some years less. Investments can rise and fall in value, so you may get back less than originally invested.
What returns to expect
When it comes to what returns to expect, the key thing to keep in mind is that over the long term (five, 10 years and beyond) stock markets tend to rise.
It won’t be a continuous rise, there will be dips along the way. But what’s important is that underpinning the stock market is a whole host of businesses, looking for ways to grow, innovate and ultimately thrive.
See this for yourself and take a look at the performance of the major world markets like the S&P 500 UK All-Share Index over the last few decades.
💡 Learn more: Investing during stock market corrections
How to buy shares
We’ve covered the basics of why you might invest, so here’s a step by step guide to getting down and doing it.
Buying your first shares
1. Understand if shares are right for you
Most people can buy shares but as we mentioned products like ETFs and investment trusts will give you the opportunity to invest in a bunch iof stocks in one go.
2. Pick your investments
3. Find a share dealing platform right for you
When you want to buy and sell shares you don’t go knocking on the stock exchange door yourself, a stockbroker does that for you. There are pros and cons to every online broker, as it all depends on what you are looking for.
When it comes to choosing the best broker for you, the features and fees.
For features here are some useful questions to ask yourself:
- How experienced am I?
- Which shares do I want to buy?
- What kind of accounts can I set up?
- Do I need support in terms of research?
- What’s the customer service like?
4. Look out for different types of charges and fees
When it comes to fees, there are two types of charges: trading fees (how much it costs to place a trade) and account fees (how much the platform charges to hold your shares).
Trading fees can include things like commission (where the platform charges a fee for buying or selling shares) and FX or foreign exchange fees (which you tend to get when you buy overseas shares like US stocks).
💡 Commission-free share dealing is when you are not charged by a platform or broker to buy or sell shares. This is how Freetrade operates and we are one of only a handful of commission-free platforms in the UK.
Account fees tend to come in two forms. Some platforms charge you a percentage fee based on the value of your investments while others have a subscription fee where you pay for the account such as an ISA or a SIPP.
The key difference between the two is a percentage fee varies in line with the value of your portfolio but a subscription fee stays the same regardless of whether your shares have risen or fallen over time.
Each platform has a different charging structure, so how much it costs to buy shares will differ. You can use our investment fees calculator to compare fees.
5. Understand how your shares will be taxed
Tax isn’t the most dazzling topic but it’s important to understand how shares are taxed in the UK, as it will help you choose the right investment account for you.
6. Choose the right account for your shares
- GIA (general investment account). This everyday investment account has different names depending on the provider. You might see it called a share dealing account or a fund and share account. There’s no tax efficiency, meaning you may have to pay capital gains taxes on any profits and income tax on dividends or interest, over certain annual allowances.
- ISA (individual savings account). This is a tax-efficient account for your investments. You can invest up to £20,000 each tax year and once inside, your shares and other investments can grow free from capital gains and income tax.
- SIPP (self-invested personal pension). This is a tax-efficient account for your retirement savings. You choose how your pension is invested. Once your investments are inside a SIPP, you can’t withdraw any funds until you’re 55 (or 57, from 2028 onwards) but like an ISA, your shares and other investments grow free from UK tax.
7. Open an investment account
Once you’ve chosen your stockbroker and you’re ready to open your account, they’ll need a bit of information from you.
What do you need to open an investment account and buy shares?
- A valid form of photo ID
- Your email address
- Your phone number
- Your national insurance number
- Your bank account details, to link it up and fund your account
8. Add money to your account
With your bank account linked up to your investment account, you’ll be ready to add money to your account.
How much will you need?
Each of us will have a different answer. The two main things to think about are what you’re trying to achieve by buying shares and how much you can afford to spend.
💡 Check out how much money should I invest in stocks.
9. Buy your first share
At this point, you are ready to buy shares online.
To find the share or shares you want to buy, you can use the company name or the stock symbol known as the ticker code (e.g. MCD for McDonald's).
You’ll be shown the current stock price and if you’d like to buy it at that price, you’ll likely be asked how much you want to spend on the shares or how many shares you want to buy.
If the platform lets you buy fractional shares (or partial shares) you’ll be able tospecify how much you’d like to spend. The platform will then tell you how many shares you can buy with that amount.
There are a few different types of buy orders to know about. When you buy a share you’ll likely be asked to specify which one you're after:
- Basic orders are orders executed at a set time each day during market hours. This also tends to be what happens if you buy a share outside of market hours (but not always, see triggered orders below).
- Instant orders are where your order executes instantly and you buy at the best price available now.
- Triggered orders are an instruction to buy when the share price reaches a certain price limit you’ve set. They can be a good way to buy shares outside of market hours at a guaranteed price.
- Limit orders are also types of instructions. Buy limit order, buy shares at a price equal to or below the limit price set by you.
Sell limit order, sell shares at a price equal to or above the limit price set by you.
- Stop-loss order are an instruction where you specify a price to sell your shares at a value equal to or below the stop price set by you.
Most platforms will show you a preview of your order before you buy but keep in mind you only have 15 seconds to accept a live quote.
If you accept the price, the shares will be bought and the cash will be taken from your brokerage account. You’ll receive confirmation and a contract note (try to hang on to these for your tax records).
10. How to build a high performing portfolio
Diversification can involve spreading your investments across different companies, sectors and countries. This way your portfolio isn’t reliant on single firm or industry to make it grow and if one area is not performing so well, other investments could help to offset this.
🗓 Make investing a habit
Instead of waiting for the right moment to invest, you could start by investing small sums regularly. Regular investing means you won’t miss out on the most important growth ingredient - time. It also means you can worry less about the price you pay.
⏳ Leave your investments to grow
This is the one to remember. By staying invested, you give your investments the best chance to grow and you can worry less about any short term market movements. You’re also less likely to miss out on any growth periods due to mistimed decisions.
How long should you stay invested? That’s up to you. But you might not want to be investing if you know you’ll need your money back in the next five years.
With investing, the longer you can stay invested, the better.
💡 Learn more: Freetrade’s 10 (+1) investment principles.
How to buy shares - FAQs
What stocks are good for beginners?
There is no right answer when it comes to which shares to invest in first. It's going to be different for each of us.
Spreading your money across different investments is a key first step, so your portfolio isn’t reliant on one thing to grow.
You can do this by choosing a few different companies to invest in or by choosing investments that do it for you like ETFs and investment trusts.
💡 Find out more in our guide on the best investments for beginners.
How many stocks should you own?
Increasing the number of stocks you hold across different sectors should help you to build a diversified portfolio. But when answering the question of how many stocks you should hold, there isn’t a one size fits all answer.
Research over the years has suggested that holding around 30 stocks can help build a diversified portfolio. But that won’t work for everyone.
Here are a few things to think about:
Does researching 30 stocks seem like a lot? If so, ready-made baskets of stocks like ETFs or investment trusts could be a good alternative.
How much money do you need to start?
You don’t need millions to start investing, in fact, thanks to things like fractional shares, you can start investing in US stocks from £2.
How much does it cost to buy shares?
When buying a share there are two costs to be aware of.
Firstly there’s the share price (the cost of one share). Then there’s the transaction cost (how much the platform or broker) charges you to buy a share. Remember, this could include commission and FX fees, but it doesn’t always.
When is a good time to buy shares?
The sooner you get into the stock market, the more time you’re giving your money to grow. So it’s less about timing and more about time.
Trying to time the market doesn’t really work and you should be suspicious of anyone who tells you it does. There’s always a better, and worse, time to buy shares. But if you can give yourself more time in the market, you’ll most likely be better off thanks to the magic of compound interest.
If you understand the level of risk involved in buying shares, you’ve got some spare cash and you feel it’s time to try, then you’re probably ready to do so.
How to find stocks for your portfolio?
Here are a few key things to keep in mind when choosing stocks:
- Invest in stocks where you understand the business, how does it make money?
- Aim for profitable business and growing businesses, ones that could withstand shocks (for example like the COVID-19 pandemic).
- Check the hype and be wary of tips that come from ‘hottest stocks now’ and ‘best stocks to buy now’.
- If you’d rather not choose, look for investments that can give you a ready-made basket of stocks like ETFs and investment trusts.
What happens to a share after you buy it?
When you buy a share on the stock market, you aren’t buying it directly from the company, you’re buying it from an existing shareholder. And once the transaction is complete (in the UK there’s a 2 day settlement period) you become a shareholder.
What to do after you buy stocks?
Forgetting about your shares for a few days, weeks or even months could be a good start. Watching the daily share price ups and downs is not going to make a good viewing or lead to good decisions.
And while we’d suggest not monitoring the share price, keeping an ear to the ground on things that might affect the company over the long term is a wise idea. So is bearing in mind why you bought the shares in the first place and what your goals are.
💡 Check out what to do once you’ve bought your shares for more info.
When to sell your shares?
Being able to buy shares online has sped up the process but it still requires a time, energy and research to get to this point.
Funny then, that as soon as we buy a share, many of us switch our brains to focus on when to sell.
You might see your shares start to climb, and worry it’s time to sell before they drop back down. Or, you might see your shares take a tumble and think it’s game over.
Neither is a particularly useful way to think about things. You need to find a balance.
Share price movements (or volatility for the cool kids) is something to get a handle on. You can then decide what you’re comfortable with. Here are 5 tips for managing volatility.
Selling tends to take as much (if not more) brainpower as buying shares. To help, we’ve written a comprehensive guide to help you think about when to sell your stocks.
This should not be read as personal investment advice and individual investors should make their own decisions or seek independent advice.
When you invest, your capital is at risk. The value of your portfolio, and any income you receive, can go down as well as up and you may get back less than you invest. Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future results.
Eligibility to invest into an ISA or SIPP, and the value of tax savings both depend on personal circumstances and all tax rules may change.
Freetrade is a trading name of Freetrade Limited, which is a member firm of the London Stock Exchange and is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. Registered in England and Wales (no. 09797821).