Commissions are the easiest place to start when it comes to cost control. Today's market features a diverse field of broker-dealers that provide a wide range of services and technology to meet the needs of many different types of traders. Commission rates vary widely, and higher rates do not always equate to better value. For typical active retail traders, intense competition in the online brokerage business has led to option commissions well below $1.00 per contract at some of the largest e-brokers. A sliding scale for high levels of monthly contract volume and additional discounts for contracts priced under a dime can get rates down to a quarter per contract in some cases. In addition, some brokers now waive commissions entirely for clients closing short option positions for a nickel or less as a gesture to promote responsible risk reduction. Shop around and look for a commission schedule that matches your trading style. Small lot traders should watch out for minimum ticket charges, and additional hidden costs for things like assignments and monthly market-data fees. The primary downside to these low rates is very limited customer service and limitations on how orders are directed to the market, but for traders who know what they are doing there is little reason to pay the full-service brokerage fees that are often three to five times these rates. Interestingly, institutional accounts often pay much higher fees to trade, with $3.00 per contract a common rate for the higher level of risk and broker-dealer capital required to execute the largest blocks.
If your commission schedule is at the high end of the range, don't be afraid to ask your broker for a discount. Account retention is a very high priority at all broker-dealers, and you may be surprised at how quickly your broker offers a discount to stay. If that doesn't work, and your capital base permits, consider opening a secondary brokerage account at one of the discount internet-based brokers. While there are drawbacks to managing two separate accounts, often times the difference in fees and trading platform functionality make this an optimal solution.
Exchange fees passed through by some brokers are another important factor to keep an eye on when trading. Lately, many exchanges have adopted a 'maker-taker' fee model, in which additional fees are charged for orders lifting offers or hitting bids (i.e. taking liquidity). With many brokers routing customer orders according to complex internal algorithms, it can be difficult to know when these fees will be incurred. Additional exchange fees include proprietary index royalties and fees for excessive cancels, resulting in a complicated and potentially costly fee structure in some cases.
The most significant cost for options traders is that of bid/ask spread. While penny pricing has resulted in tighter markets for many options, the difference between the bid and ask effectively represents a cost you will be forced to incur to get in and out of a trade. For example, in the following trade we can see a buyer paid $3.65 for 156 out of the money Apple ( AAPL) calls: