Stocks To Trade
Oct. 25, 202316 min read

Cash or Margin Account: Differences, Pros, and Cons

Tim BohenAvatar
Written by Tim Bohen

You will need to decide between cash or margin when setting up an account. This blog will inform you about how to decide between a cash and margin account. 

Essentially, cash accounts only let you trade money you have in your account, while margin accounts let you borrow money for your trades.

These accounts serve as the foundation for your trading activities, dictating how you can buy and sell securities. Understanding the differences, pros, and cons of each is crucial for making informed trading decisions.

Scan this article because it serves as your blueprint for understanding the intricacies of cash and margin accounts, helping you trade with confidence.

I’ll answer the following questions:

  • What Is a Cash Account and How Does It Work?
  • What Are the Benefits and Risks of a Cash Account?
  • What Is a Margin Account and How Does It Work?
  • What Are the Benefits and Risks of a Margin Account?
  • How Do Cash and Margin Accounts Differ in Terms of Purchasing Power?
  • Can You Short Sell Stocks in a Cash Account?
  • How Do You Choose Between a Cash and Margin Account?

Let’s get to it!

Table of Contents

What Is a Cash Account?

A cash account is a type of brokerage account where you can only trade with the money you’ve deposited. No credit or loans are involved. In my years of trading and teaching, I’ve found that a cash account is often the best starting point for beginners.

How Does a Cash Account Work?

In a cash account, you can only buy stocks or other securities up to the amount of cash you have in the account. Once you make a trade, the funds used are “locked” until the trade settles, usually within a T+2 settlement period.

Benefits of a Cash Account

When it comes to trading, especially for those just starting out, a cash account can be a solid choice. Brokerage firms often recommend these accounts for beginners. Why? Because they offer a straightforward way to invest without the complexities of margin loans or leverage. You’re only investing money you actually have, which minimizes liability and eliminates the need for collateral. Plus, you don’t have to worry about margin calls or interest fees. For example, if you have $5,000 in your account, that’s your limit. It’s a simple, no-frills way to get into the markets, and it’s compliant with FINRA rules and disclosure requirements.

While cash accounts offer reduced risk and straightforward management, they also come with limitations, particularly when it comes to day trading. The absence of margin means you’re confined to the cash you have on hand, which can be a bottleneck for active traders. If you’re considering day trading within a cash account, you’ll want to understand the rules and limitations. Learn more about day trading in a cash account to make an informed decision.

No Interest Charges

Since you’re only trading with your own money, there are no interest charges in a cash account. This can be a significant advantage for long-term investors.

Simplified Management

Managing a cash account is straightforward. You don’t have to worry about margin calls or complex requirements, making it easier to focus on your trading strategies.

Reduced Risk

With a cash account, you’re not borrowing money, so the risk of losing more than you’ve invested is eliminated. This is a crucial benefit, especially for those new to the trading world.

No Margin Calls

In a cash account, since you’re not borrowing any money, you won’t face any margin calls, which can be stressful and financially damaging.

Clearer Budgeting

You can only spend what you have, making budgeting simpler and more transparent.

Better for Beginners

Cash accounts are generally better for beginners because they offer a straightforward way to start trading without the complexities and risks associated with margin trading.

No Short Selling

You can’t engage in short selling with a cash account, which can be seen as a benefit for those who prefer to avoid this high-risk strategy.

Risks of a Cash Account

However, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows with cash accounts. The limitations can be a downside. For instance, you’re restricted by the amount of cash you have on hand, which could limit your investment options. You can’t leverage your positions, meaning you might miss out on potentially profitable trades. Also, you have to be mindful of the T+2 settlement rule, which can affect how quickly you can execute trades. Brokerage firms and FINRA have strict rules about “free riding” and “good faith” violations, so you need to be aware of these when managing your cash account.

One risk often overlooked in cash accounts is the limitation imposed by the Pattern Day Trader (PDT) rule if your account falls under $25,000. This rule can restrict your trading activity, making it difficult to capitalize on market opportunities. To navigate these waters effectively, it’s crucial to be aware of day trading rules under $25k.

Limited Purchasing Power

You can only trade with the money you’ve deposited, limiting your purchasing power.

T+2 Settlement Rule

The T+2 settlement rule means you have to wait two business days after a trade to access your funds, which can be limiting.

Good Faith Violations

If you sell a security before the funds from the initial purchase have settled, you could be subject to a good faith violation, which comes with penalties.

What Is a Margin Account?

A margin account allows you to borrow money from your brokerage to purchase securities, offering the potential for higher returns but also higher risks.

How Does a Margin Account Work?

In a margin account, you can borrow money from the brokerage to buy stocks or other securities. The amount you can borrow is usually a percentage of your account’s total value.

Benefits of a Margin Account

Margin accounts, on the other hand, offer a different set of advantages, especially for those looking to take their investing to the next level. These accounts allow you to borrow money from your brokerage firm, effectively increasing your purchasing power. This leverage can amplify your gains, but it’s a double-edged sword. You can also diversify your portfolio more effectively, and you have the option to short sell. Brokerage firms usually provide a range of products and options for margin trading, but it’s crucial to understand the rules and fees involved, as mandated by FINRA and the brokerage house itself.

Margin accounts offer the flexibility to engage in various trading strategies, including those that are not typically available in retirement accounts. However, using a Roth IRA for day trading is an alternative that some traders explore for its tax benefits. If you’re curious about how a Roth IRA can fit into your trading strategy, check out this guide on day trading in a Roth IRA.

Increased Purchasing Power

Margin accounts increase your purchasing power, allowing you to buy more than you could with just your deposited funds.

Leverage Potential

Using borrowed funds can amplify your gains, but it’s a double-edged sword that can also amplify losses.

Flexibility in Trading

Margin accounts offer more flexibility, allowing you to take advantage of a wider range of trading strategies, including short selling.

Short Selling Capability

Unlike cash accounts, margin accounts allow you to engage in short selling, offering the potential for profit even in a declining market.

Diversification Opportunities

With increased purchasing power, you can diversify your portfolio more effectively.

Potential for Higher Returns

The leverage provided by a margin account offers the potential for higher returns, although it comes with higher risk.

Access to Advanced Trading Strategies

Margin accounts give you access to more complex trading strategies that can potentially yield higher returns.

Cash Flow Flexibility

Margin accounts offer more flexibility in terms of cash flow, allowing you to enter and exit positions more freely.

Risks of a Margin Account

The risks of a margin account are primarily tied to its benefits. The ability to borrow funds (margin loan) comes with the liability of paying it back with interest. If your investments go south, you’re still on the hook for the loan, and you might have to liquidate other assets as collateral. Margin calls are a significant risk; if your account value drops below a certain level, you’ll have to deposit more funds immediately. It’s essential to read all disclosure content and understand the fees and rules set by the brokerage firm and regulatory bodies like FINRA.

Potential for Larger Losses

Using borrowed money can amplify your losses, potentially resulting in the loss of more than your initial investment.

Margin Calls

If your account value falls below a certain level, you’ll face a margin call, requiring you to deposit more funds or sell off assets to cover the deficit.

Interest Charges

Borrowing money through a margin account isn’t free; you’ll incur interest charges that can eat into your profits.

A Detailed Overview of Margin Accounts

Margin accounts are complex financial products offered by brokerage firms, and they come with their own set of rules and requirements. For instance, you’ll need to maintain a minimum balance, usually around 50% of the total value of your positions. These accounts offer various investment options, including shares of stock, options contracts, and other financial products. However, they also require a thorough understanding of leverage, margin calls, and interest fees. It’s crucial to ask questions and gather all the information you need before diving in.

Initial Investment for Opening a Margin Account

To open a margin account, you’ll typically need a minimum initial investment, often around $2,000.

Purchasing Power with a Margin Account

Your purchasing power in a margin account is determined by the amount of equity you have and the leverage provided by your brokerage.

Maintenance Requirements for a Margin Account

Brokerages have maintenance requirements that you must meet to continue trading on margin. Failure to meet these can result in a margin call.

Buying Stock on Margin

When you buy stock on margin, you’re essentially borrowing money from the brokerage to cover part of the purchase price.

Trading on Margin

Trading on margin involves borrowing funds to purchase securities, amplifying both potential gains and losses.

Additional Funds Required for Trading on Margin

If you’re trading on margin and your account value falls below the maintenance margin, you’ll need to deposit additional funds.

Types of Securities Eligible to Trade on Margin

Not all securities are eligible for margin trading. It’s crucial to check with your brokerage to know which ones you can trade on margin.

Credit Card Use in a Margin Account

Some brokerages allow you to link a credit card to your margin account, but this is generally not recommended due to high interest rates.

Potential Losses from Trading on Margin

Trading on margin carries the risk of significant losses, potentially more than your initial investment.

Margin Calls and How They Work

A margin call occurs when your account value falls below the maintenance margin. You’ll need to deposit more funds or sell assets to meet the requirement.

A Detailed Overview of Cash Accounts

Cash accounts are often the go-to choice for beginner investors and those who prefer a more straightforward approach to investing. These accounts are less complex than margin accounts, offering a simpler set of investment options. You won’t have to worry about interest rates or maintaining a certain level of collateral. However, cash accounts come with their own set of rules, such as the T+2 settlement period for trades. These accounts are generally easier to manage, making them a popular choice for those new to the markets or those who prefer a more conservative approach to investing.

Cash Account Requirements

Opening a cash account usually requires less paperwork and initial investment compared to a margin account.

Cash Account Settlement Period

Cash accounts have a T+2 settlement period, meaning you have to wait two business days after a trade to access your funds.

Who Cash Accounts Are Ideal For

Cash accounts are generally better suited for beginners and those who prefer a lower-risk trading environment.

Cash Accounts Vs. Margin Accounts

The main difference between cash and margin accounts lies in the ability to trade on borrowed funds. Margin accounts offer more flexibility but come with higher risks and costs.

Should You Open a Cash or Margin Account?

The choice between a cash and margin account depends on your trading goals, risk tolerance, and level of experience. If you’re new to trading, a cash account is often the safer option.

Key Takeaways

Choosing between a cash and margin account is a crucial decision that will impact your trading strategy and potential returns. Understand the pros and cons of each to make an informed decision.

There are a ton of ways to build day trading careers… But all of them start with the basics.

Before you even think about becoming profitable, you’ll need to build a solid foundation. That’s what I help my students do every day — scanning the market, outlining trading plans, and answering any questions that come up.

You can check out the NO-COST webinar here for a closer look at how profitable traders go about preparing for the trading day!

Do you use a cash or margin account? Let me know in the comments!

FAQs of Cash Accounts vs Margin Accounts

Can I Lose More Money Than I Deposit in a Margin Account?

Yes, trading on margin carries the risk of losing more than your initial deposit, especially if the market moves against you.

Are There Interest Charges Associated with Margin Accounts?

Yes, margin accounts come with interest charges for the money you borrow, which can add to your costs and reduce your profits.

Can I Short Sell Stocks in a Cash Account?

No, short selling is not allowed in cash accounts. You’ll need a margin account to engage in this strategy.

What Brokers Offer Both Cash and Margin Accounts?

Choosing the right brokers is crucial when you’re deciding between a cash or margin account. Some brokers specialize in serving specific purposes, such as day trading, long-term investments, or options trading. It’s important to align the broker’s offerings with your individual needs, especially when it comes to the types of orders they support and the companies you wish to invest in. Always consider opinions from reliable sources before making a choice.

How Do Cash and Margin Accounts Affect Banking Needs?

The case for choosing between a cash and margin account could directly influence your banking needs. For instance, a margin account may require you to have a more flexible banking setup to manage potential margin calls. Make sure to review the order types supported by your bank and whether they align with the companies you’re interested in. Diverse opinions suggest that a robust banking setup can be beneficial in managing a margin account effectively.