Cash Account vs Margin Account: Key Differences

By Laurel Tincher · October 13, 2023 · 9 minute read

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Cash Account vs Margin Account: Key Differences

When opening a brokerage account to invest in securities, investors can choose between a margin account or a cash account. The main difference between the two accounts is that with a margin account an investor can borrow from their broker, whereas with a cash account, they can’t.

There are reasons for choosing either account, and it’s important for investors to understand them both in order to make the best decision for their own financial goals.

What Is a Cash Account?

A cash account is an investment account with a brokerage firm that requires investors to purchase securities using the cash balance in that account at the time of settlement. With a cash account, investors can’t borrow money from the broker, and they can’t take short positions on margin.

If they don’t have cash available they can also sell securities in their account to purchase different ones. Investors have two business days to pay for securities they buy with their cash account, according to the Federal Reserve’s Regulation T.

How Does a Cash Account Work?

Cash accounts allow both institutional and retail investors to buy securities using whatever amount of money they put into their account. For instance, if they deposit $3,000 into their account, they can purchase $3,000 worth of securities.

Pros and Cons of a Cash Account

The main advantage of a cash account is that investors can’t go into debt to their broker using one, as they might with a margin account. They have no borrowing ability, and thus, can only lose what they have deposited in cash. Using a cash account can provide a much simpler experience for beginner investors as well.

As for the downsides, a cash account does not allow investors to utilize leverage (as they would with a margin account) to potentially generate outsized gains. Investors are more or less tied to their cash balance, and may be limited in what they can do without using margin.

Cash Account Regulations to Be Aware Of

There are several regulations that investors should keep in mind when it comes to cash accounts, pertaining to having enough cash in their account to pay for securities.

Cash Liquidation Violations

Transactions can take a few days to settle, so investors should always sell securities before purchasing new ones if they are using that money for the purchase. If there is not enough cash in the account to pay for a purchase, this is called a “cash liquidation violation.”

Good Faith Violation

A Good Faith Violation occurs when an investor buys a security, buys another security, then sells it to cover the first purchase when they don’t have enough cash in their account to cover the purchase.

Free Riding Violation

In this type of violation, an investor doesn’t have cash in their account, and they attempt to purchase a security by selling the same security.

Benefit of a Cash Account: Lending

One benefit of cash accounts is that investors can choose to lend out money from their account to hedge funds, short sellers, and other types of investors. The account holder can earn interest or income from lending, known as securities lending or shares lending.

If a cash account holder wants to lend out cash or shares, they can let their broker know, and the broker will provide them with a quote on what borrowers will pay them. Securities that earn the highest interest rates are those in low supply and high demand for borrowers.

These tend to be securities with a lower trading volume or market capitalization. If an investor lends out shares of securities, they can earn interest while continuing to hold the security and earn on it as it increases in value. Account holders may need to meet minimum lending requirements.

💡 Quick Tip: How do you decide if a certain trading platform or app is right for you? Ideally, the investment platform you choose offers the features that you need for your investment goals or strategy, e.g., an easy-to-use interface, data analysis, educational tools.

What Is a Margin Account and How Does It Work?

Using a margin account, an investor can deposit money but they can also borrow money from their broker. This allows investors to use leverage to buy larger amounts of securities than a cash account allows, but if the value of securities goes down, the investor will owe the broker additional money and lose the initial amount of funds they deposited into the account.

Margin accounts also charge interest, so any securities purchased need to increase above the interest amount for the investor to start seeing profits. Different brokers charge different interest rates, so it’s a good idea for investors to compare before choosing an account.

Usually there is no deadline to repay a margin loan, but the debt accrues interest each month, so the longer an investor waits the more they owe. The securities held in the account act as collateral for the margin loan, so if needed they can be used to pay it off.

Recommended: What is Margin Trading?

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Other requirements generally associated with margin accounts include:

Minimum Margin

Investors must deposit a minimum amount of cash into their account before they can start investing and borrowing. Each broker may have a different minimum, but the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) requires investors to have either $2,000 or 100% of the purchase amount of any securities the investor wants to buy on margin, whichever amount is lower.

Initial Margin

Usually investors can only borrow up to 50% of the purchase amount of securities they want to buy. For example, if an investor with $3,000 in their account, can borrow $3,000, allowing them to purchase $6,000 worth of securities.

Maintenance Margin

Both before and after purchasing securities, investors must hold a certain amount in their account as collateral. The investor must own at least 25% of the assets (cash or securities) in their account when they have taken out a margin loan. If the amount in the account dips below this level, the investor may receive a margin call, requiring them to either deposit more cash into their account or sell some of their securities. This could occur if the investor withdraws too much from their account or if the value of their investments decreases. This is one of the main risks of margin accounts.

Margin Account vs Cash Account

There are some similarities between margin accounts and cash accounts, but there are some key differences in terms of the monetary requirements for investors to consider when choosing which type of brokerage account works best for them. The type of account you choose will have an impact on the amount of money you’re able to invest, and the risk level that accompanies it.

The accounts can be equated to a debit card vs. a credit card. A debit card requires the user to have funds available in their account to pay for anything they buy, while a credit card allows a user to spend and pay back the expense later.

Similarities Between Margin and Cash Accounts

Both are brokerage accounts that allow investors to purchase securities, bonds, funds, stocks, and other assets in addition to holding cash. (You typically can’t have a margin account in a retirement account such as an IRA or Roth IRA.)

Differences Between Margin and Cash Accounts

Margin accounts allow investors to borrow from their broker and typically require a minimum deposit to get started investing, while cash accounts don’t. However, margin accounts usually don’t come with additional fees.

On the other hand, cash account holders may only purchase securities with cash or settled funds, and cash accounts don’t allow short selling, or ‘shorting’ stocks.

Should You Choose a Margin Account or a Cash Account?

Although being able to borrow money with a margin account has benefits in terms of potential gains, it is also risky. For this reason, cash accounts may be a better choice for beginner investors.

Cash accounts may also be better for long-term investors, since investments in a margin account may go down and force the investor to have to sell some of them or deposit cash to maintain a high enough balance in their account. This could result in an investor being forced to sell a security at a loss and missing its potential price recovery.

With a cash account, the value of securities can rise and fall, and the investor doesn’t have to deposit any additional funds into their account or sell securities at a loss. Investors may also choose a cash account if they want to “set it and forget it,” meaning they invest in securities that they don’t want to keep an eye on all the time since they will never owe the broker more money than they invested – as discussed.

The risk level on a cash account will always be lower than with a margin account, and there are less risky ways to increase returns than by using margin.

On the other hand, for investors interested in day trading, margin accounts may be a great choice, since they allow the investor to double their purchasing power. They also allow investors to short trade. Margin account holders can borrow money to withdraw to pay for any life expenses that need to be paid off in a rush.

Since there is no deadline to pay off the loan, the investor can pay it back when they can, unless the value of the stocks fall. Traders can also borrow money to buy stocks when the market is down or to prevent paying capital gains taxes, but this requires more experience and market knowledge.

Margin accounts provide flexibility for investors, who can choose to use them in exactly the same way as a cash account.

💡 Quick Tip: How to manage potential risk factors in a self-directed investment account? Doing your research and employing strategies like dollar-cost averaging and diversification may help mitigate financial risk when trading stocks.

The Takeaway

The main difference between cash accounts and margin accounts is that margin accounts allow investors to borrow money from their brokers, extending their trading abilities and the use of leverage as a part of their strategy. This can have advantages and disadvantages, and depending on their specific strategy and goals, investors should consider everything before deciding to use one or the other.

Both cash and margin accounts are commonplace in the investing space, and investors are likely to run across both – and figure out which is a best fit for their strategy. It may be beneficial to speak with a financial professional for guidance.

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Can you trade options on cash and margin accounts?

It will depend on the specific broker, but there are some types of options that require a margin account to trade. An example would be futures contracts – but again, it’ll depend on the specific brokerage or platform.

Should a beginner use a cash or margin account?

It may be better for a beginner to start out using a cash account to invest, as they’re simpler and involve less risk than a margin account. If a beginner uses a margin account without a proper understanding of margin, they could find themselves owing their broker money.

Can you have a cash account and a margin account at the same time?

Yes, you can have cash and margin accounts at the same time, often at the same brokerage. It’s possible to also have different types of accounts at different brokerages or on different investment platforms.

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