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Options vs. stocks

Both hold the potential for profit — but one is substantially more complex than the other.

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Both stocks and options carry unique advantages and drawbacks. One is better for beginners, while the other should only be handled by seasoned investors.

  • Consider options if you’re an experienced investor.
  • Consider stocks if you’re a new or long-term investor.

What’s the difference?

When you buy a stock, you essentially purchase a slice of ownership in a company. And the size of that ownership depends on how many shares the company has on the market. Purchasing stock turns you into a shareholder because you own, or hold, shares — at least until you sell them. Stocks vary in price, from penny stocks worth fractions of a dollar to blue-chip stocks worth thousands per share. Stocks can be bought and sold during market hours through a brokerage account.

An option is a contract to buy or sell a stock. The contract gives the investor the option to purchase or sell a set number of shares at a set price by a specific date. The number of shares accessible through the contract depends on the contract multiplier. Most options contracts have a contract multiplier of 100.

An options contract is just that: an option. You’re not obligated to buy the corresponding stock, but you can if you choose to. Unlike stocks, options don’t represent ownership of a company. An option is merely a contract that locks in a stock price for purchase or sale over a set period of time.

  • Stocks
    • Can be bought or sold through a brokerage account
    • Have inherent value based on the performance of the company they belong to
    • Can be held indefinitely, potentially earning dividends
    • Value fluctuates with the movement of the market and the performance of the company
  • Options
    • Can be bought or sold through a brokerage account
    • Derive their value from stocks
    • Can’t be held indefinitely — they’re worthless past their expiration date
    • Have a set value at expiration

Benefits

Both options and stocks have benefits specific to the way they’re traded.

Options

Options contracts have plenty to offer — if you know how to trade them:

  • Flexible. Unlike stocks, which are limited in execution, you can profit from options contracts in many ways. Investors can exercise the option, purchase shares and hold onto the shares. They can exercise the option, purchase shares and sell the shares. Or they can sell the contract to another investor.
  • Less capital. Since options represent the value of an opportunity — not the full value of the stocks themselves — investors need less capital to get started. Unless they exercise the option and purchase shares, investors only pay the premium to purchase the contract.
  • Exponential profit. Options traders have the potential to earn a higher profit with less upfront capital by using leverage to anticipate the movement of a stock.

Stocks

Stocks are a staple in many investor portfolios. Why? Because they’re easy to trade and have many benefits:

  • Buy low and sell high. When you buy a stock, you’re essentially betting that the price of that stock will go up. Whether you sell in a week, a month or a year, selling a stock for more than you paid earns you a profit.
  • Simple. It’s hard to argue with the simplicity of stocks. They’re one of the most straightforward, beginner-friendly securities on the market. You pay what the stock is worth at the time of purchase, and when you sell, you receive the current market value of the stock.
  • Dividends. Some stocks offer dividends: regularly scheduled payouts for shareholders based on the performance of the company. Investors can earn passive income just for holding shares of a dividend-paying stock.
  • Low expenses. Most trading platforms today offer commission-free stock trades, which means you can buy and sell shares to your heart’s content without worrying about fees eating into your profits.

Risks

Whether your trade stocks or options, you risk losing capital.

Stocks

The value of a stock is inextricably tied to the performance of the company it belongs to. Another big factor is the market’s overall movement.

When you buy a stock, your money is locked into the investment until you sell. And while there’s no decision deadline — at least, not in the way options contracts operate — you may face losses by holding onto a poorly performing stock.

And what if the company you’ve invested in goes out of business? You’ll lose your investment entirely.

In some ways, there’s more risk associated with buying stocks than buying options contracts. If you buy an options contract and the stock tanks, the most you’ll lose is the premium you paid for the contract, which may only be a couple hundred dollars. But if you’ve poured funds into buying the stock outright and the company folds, you’ll lose everything you invested.

Options

Options trades carry risk for two reasons: they’re complex and they require leverage.

Whether you’re buying or selling an options contract, there are many decisions you need to make. You’re not just betting on whether the stock will rise or fall.

Be aware of how economic events could affect the business over the course of the contract. Since options have an expiration date, you’re taking a time-sensitive gamble.

All investments carry risk, but there are specific risks associated with trading options that investors won’t encounter elsewhere. And that’s because options contracts use a contract multiplier to leverage the investment position. Most options contracts have a contract multiplier of 100, which means the option represents a contract for 100 shares.

  • Risks for buyers
    If you purchase an options contract, you’re an options buyer. Most investors, especially investors new to options, will fall into this category.

    For buyers, the contract multiplier simply represents an investment opportunity. As the buyer of an option, you’re not obligated to exercise the contract, so if your prediction was wrong about the movement of the stock, you simply let the contract expire worthless. At most, you’ll lose the premium you paid to purchase the contract.

  • Risks for sellers
    Options sellers, also called options writers, sell contracts to options buyers. They make money on the premiums that options buyers pay to buy a contract.

    If an options writer sells a contract to an options buyer and that buyer chooses to exercise the option, the seller must fulfill the terms of the contract, no matter how steep the loss. And since there’s no limit on how high a stock can rise, options sellers put themselves at considerable risk and can see dramatic losses.

Crunching numbers: Is options trading better than stocks?

Let’s say you’re interested in investing in Company XYZ, which trades at $100 per share.

You purchase 10 stocks of Company XYZ, shelling out $1,000 total. You also purchase two call options for Company XYZ’s stock at a strike price of $110. Each option has a $5 premium, a contract multiplier of 100 and expires within 30 days. In total, you pay $1,000 to purchase the options contracts.

Here’s what happens to your initial investments in two scenarios.

The stock price goes up to $125
  • You make a $250 profit on your stocks
  • You make a $2,000 profit on your options contracts
The stock price falls to $80
  • You lose $200 on your stocks
  • You lose $1,000 on your options contract

Can stock ever become completely worthless?

Yes, if a company goes bankrupt and the stock drops to $0 before being delisted, it’s possible to lose your full investment. But stocks often take a long time to get down to $0, especially if they’re worth a lot when you buy in, which means you’ll likely have opportunities to sell before a stock becomes worthless.

While all stock-based investments are inherently risky, there’s a much higher chance of losing your full investment with an options contract than if you buy stock outright.

How to choose

Are stocks or options a better fit for your portfolio? Here’s how to decide:

  • Experience. Let your experience level guide your investments. Stocks are best for those just starting out, while options require more trading experience and market knowledge.
  • Capital. Options trades make use of leverage to amplify profits with less capital.
  • Margin trading. Most options trades are executed through margin accounts, which is a special investment account that lets you borrow funds from your broker. If you prefer to use the cash you have on hand, you may prefer stocks.
  • Timeline. Stocks are best for those using a long-term buy and hold strategy, while options have shorter turnarounds.
  • Risk tolerance. How much are you willing to lose? There are risks associated with both securities and the right asset for your portfolio will hinge on your risk tolerance.

Compare trading platforms

Name Product Available asset types Stock trade fee Option trade fee Annual fee
Vanguard
Stocks,Mutual funds,ETFs,Forex
$0
$1
$20 per year
Get a personal advisor when you open an account with at least $50,000.
Robinhood
Stocks,Options,ETFs,Cryptocurrency
$0
$0
0%
Make unlimited commission-free trades in stocks, funds, and options with Robinhood Financial.
Interactive Brokers
Stocks,Bonds,Options,Mutual funds,Index funds,ETFs,Forex,Futures,Cash
$0
$0 + $0.65/contract, $1 minimum
0%
IBKR Lite offers $0 commissions, and IBKR Pro offers advanced tools for professional traders.
Tastyworks
Stocks,Options,ETFs,Futures
$0
Stocks & ETFs: $1/contract to open, $0 to close, $10 max/leg
Futures: $2.50/contract to open, $0 to close
0%
Trade stocks, options, ETFs and futures on mobile or desktop with this advanced platform.
M1 Finance
M1 Finance
Stocks,ETFs
$0
$0
0%
A robo-advisor that puts you in the driver’s seat with fully-customizable portfolios.
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Compare up to 4 providers

Disclaimer: The value of any investment can go up or down depending on news, trends and market conditions. We are not investment advisers, so do your own due diligence to understand the risks before you invest.

Bottom line

Both stocks and options have their place, each with a unique set of benefits and risks to consider. Before you invest in either, explore your account options across multiple platforms to find the best brokerage for your needs.

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