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Hands stretched out and holding a stack of Canadian $20 and $2 coins.Getty Images/iStockphoto

There's a tax on bad decision-making when choosing an investment firm.

It's called the account transfer-out fee and it can cost you up to $150 when you pull an account from one firm and send it to another. Online brokerages have made major progress in reducing costs for investors in recent years, but they still ding clients as they walk out the door. Banks do it, too, and so do full-service advisory firms.

It's hard to imagine a worse way to spend $150 than watching your old investment firm pull that cash out of your account before transferring it. So, however much effort you plan to put into selecting a firm, do a little extra. My annual ranking of online brokers can help you pick a few firms that look like a good fit. Continue your research by asking these firms for a trial account that will give you access to the full client website. Check the trading page to see how well it works for you, inspect the research offering to see if there's anything of interest. How does the site mesh with your level of investing knowledge? Does it assume you know more than you do?

Some online brokerage firms have investor centres you can visit. Often located in downtown office buildings, these offices are a great place to get to know a firm. Don't hesitate to go in with a list of questions, and drop any worries you have about looking like a know-nothing. Having almost tapped out the market for active traders, online brokers are aggressively seeking mainstream investing customers. Gen Y investors without much money to invest are also welcome – they're part of the reason why most brokers now charge everyone a flat $10 per stock trade, not just higher net worth clients.

In a way, beginners have the most to lose when moving money from one firm to another. With $15,000 in your account, a $150 transfer-out fee amounts to 1 per cent of your assets. That's substantial at a time when five-year Government of Canada bonds yield about 0.9 per cent.

Finally, be sure to ask your new investment firm if it will cover the transfer fee charged by your old firm. The bigger the account you bring over, the more chance you have of not having to pay that tax on bad decision-making.

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