If you buy individual stocks for your portfolio, you might be familiar with limit orders. If you aren’t familiar with limit orders, you should be, as they are a great tool to ensure that you don’t pay too much, and can also be used to save money.
That majority of retail investors probably use either market orders or limit orders when they buy individual stocks. Market orders are simply orders to buy* at the best available price (which is usually the currently listed price). Problems can arise, however, if the price of the stock rises between when you hit “buy” and when the order is actually filled.
By using limit orders, you state the highest price that you are willing to pay for the security (ie. you set a limit on what you will spend). This means that if the price of the stock moves up you will not be hit with a higher than anticipated purchase price. You have given instructions that clearly state that you won’t pay more than a certain price.
I have seen recommendations to set the limit order price at the current market price, or slightly above the market price (say one or two cents) to ensure that you get your shares without paying too much. This is solid advice if you are happy with the current market price, and absolutely must have those shares. Personally, I usually use limit orders to wait for a better price.
Ninety-eight percent of the time I set my limit order to below the current market price and wait out the day to see if my order is filled. This system started because I dislike paying commission, and wanted to lower my purchase price in order to cover the cost. If, for example, I must pay $9.95 in commission and want to buy 100 shares, I would place a limit order to ten cents below the market price. If the order goes through, I would have saved $10 on the stock purchase, which would equal out the commission cost.
Gradually, however, I started lowering my limit order to reflect what I was hoping to pay.
I recently bought 300 shares of a company I like and set my limit price to 25 cents below what the stock was trading. The stock dropped later in the day and my order was placed, saving me about $65 ($75 saving minus $9.95 commission) compared to if I had merely bought at the market price earlier in the day.
Using limit orders in this way means that you sometimes need to be patient. About a year ago it took me five trading days to buy the shares of a great company. The stock never fell to my offer price over the first four days. I got lucky on the fifth day, however, as the stock dropped significantly before I had placed my limit order. Because of that, I was able to buy into that business at an even lower price than I had been prepared to pay. Thank you Mr. Market!
Unfortunately, the down side to this method is that potential upside may be missed. Another wonderful business that I wanted to own was already very cheap in December 2009. I placed my limit order to cover the commission cost, but the stock went up… and up. I placed my limit orders diligently, but finally decided to abandon the idea as it continued to climb in January, and bought close to the market price. I missed out on about a week of upside, but have enjoyed the ride since. This is a situation where I should have bought at the market price in the beginning. Not because of hindsight, but because I already knew it was cheap, and I really liked the business. I let my emotion of “commission avoidance” get in the way.
So there are some pros and cons to making a limit order below market price, but I generally feel that the pros outweigh the cons. Regardless if you set your limit price at, above or below the market price, at least you know what you are paying.