Vertical Spreads Explained Simply: Understand Option Spreads in 5 Minutes

Look. Everyone explains vertical spreads like they're super complicated — but they're not. In fact, by the end of this article, you're going to understand exactly what a vertical spread is (a way to lower your risk *and* your reward), how to put one on (click buy *here*, click sell *here*), and why you would use them (probably to make your bet cheaper). We'll include a real-life example (which turned out to be spot-on), with a real-screenshot from a real brokerage — and a few advanced tips and tricks to take your vertical spreads to the next level

Justin Nugent

This article was last updated on 11/09/2022.

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Vertical spreads (like credit spreads and debit spreads) are useful trading strategies that allow traders to mitigate risk while maintaining leveraged exposure to equities.

Vertical Spreads: Explain it Simply, Please

So… Explain that in English.

Imagine you’re looking at an option chain, and the options are expensive. You want to make a “reasonable” bet, the only problem is the reasonable predictions are way above your price range. Spreads let you adjust that price significantly lower by selling another option against the one you really want to buy. Basically, that means you can subtract the price option you sold from the option you bought. It’s a lot like selling a covered call, except instead of holding 100 shares, you’re holding another call.

When you trade a vertical spread, you’re making a bet that the price of a stock will reach the strike price of that short option — the one you sold — by the expiration date. If it does — congratulations, you win! And what do you win? The difference between the two strike prices * 100. For example, imagine you think a $100 stock is about to dump. You kind of want to buy the $100 put, but you look at the price, and whisper to yourself “that ain’t happening.”

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So you deploy a debit spread instead — meaning you click “buy” on that $100 strike put, and at the same time, you click “sell” on that $90 strike put. Now you’ve lowered the price, and it’s game time. And what are the rules of this “game”? You’re betting that the stock is going to fall at least to $90 by the expiration date you chose. It doesn’t matter what happens after that. Stock falls to $1? Falls to $90? Same thing in this game — because your maximum payout is capped. That’s the trade-off of taking on a vertical spread. If you sprung for the straight $100 put, you could have collected on a drop all the way down to $0. With the spread, you’re capped.

Still, with a $100/$90 put debit spread, you get a “max spread value” of $1,000 by the end of the trade. How’d we figure that out? $100 – $90 = $10, * 100 = $1,000. Or you can think of it like, “each penny of the debit spread is worth a dollar.” Or “Each dollar in the debit spread is worth $100.” Either way, if the stock expires at $90, that spread is worth $1,000. No ifs, ands, or buts.

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Now, vertical spreads aren’t just for people who can’t afford to buy a certain option. As we get into this piece, you’re going to discover that there are plenty of reasons you might want to use debit spreads. Maybe the IV is high. Maybe you only think the price of a stock is going to move “a little bit.” Maybe you want to take some money off the table, while still staying in the trade.

There are a ton of real-life reasons why you would want to use vertical spreads. But in order to really explain them, we have to get technical on you first.

If this is too heady for you, feel free to skip the next two sections and head straight to our real-life trading example below, where we identify a real spread in Adobe that turned out to be a perfect example of why you might want to use these option strategies instead of simple calls and puts. Already past that point? Looking for more advanced tips? Check out this free article on the four questions you must ask yourself before taking on a credit spread.

Getting Technical: What are vertical spreads? What are credit and debit spreads?

Vertical spreads are an option strategy that involves buying an option and selling another option with the same expiration date, on the same stock. When you use two different options in the same strategy, they’re called “legs”.

By purchasing an option, you are gaining leveraged exposure to an underlying asset, roughly equivalent to the amount of delta in the option multiplied by 100. 50 delta? That option has leverage roughly equivalent to 50 shares of the stock. By selling an option, you lower the premium cost associated with buying an option. However, your delta also changes, and your maximum profit becomes capped at the strike of your short option.

When you are buying (long) a vertical spread, that’s a debit spread. When you are selling (short) a vertical spread, that’s a credit spread.

To initiate a debit spread, you would buy an option closer to the money while selling another option (with the same expiration date) further out-of-the-money. To initiate a credit spread, you would do the opposite — buy an option further from the money while selling another option closer to the money.

You can make both bullish and bearish bets with debit and credit spreads. To make a bullish bet, you can either sell a put credit spread, or buy a call debit spread. To make a bearish bet, you can either sell a call credit spread, or buy a put debit spread.

How to calculate the max value and max risk of a vertical spread

It’s easy to calculate the maximum value of a vertical spread. You simply subtract the two strike prices from one another and multiply by 100 (don’t forget that options are contracts that represent 100 shares of an asset). For example, if you have a 100/90 vertical spread, the max value is $1,000.

To calculate the max risk (or cost) of a vertical spread, you simply subtract the premium (price) of your long option from the premium (price) of your short option.

Is it a positive number? Congratulations, you are now the proud owner of a debit spread, and that positive number is the amount of premium (the debit) you must risk in order to use the strategy.

Is it a negative number? Then it’s a credit spread, and that negative number is the maximum profit (or credit) that you can gain if the strategy goes your way. In the case of a credit spread, you must allow the brokerage to hold on to collateral — which is the maximum amount you can potentially lose in the trade.

It’s important to note that both credit and debit spreads carry defined risk. That means you cannot lose more than you initially risk when putting on either strategy. In other words, your max risk is what you paid.

Are all the numbers getting confusing? Let’s look at a real-life example.

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Real-Life Example of a Credit and Debit Spread: Adobe (ADBE)

debit or credit

In the above example, we’re looking at a real options chain from June 16th, 2022 in Adobe ADBE. Notably, this is one day before earnings, and because of the high IV associated with earnings events, these options are looking pricey. Sounds like a great opportunity to limit our maximum risk with a vertical spread.

Let’s imagine we want to make a bearish prediction: Adobe (ADBE) will fall to at least $355 by June 17th. (Which by the way, it did.) Which would be a better strategy to use: A put debit spread, or a call credit spread?

The easy way is to let volatility decide. If you think the implied volatility is high, and about to come down, you should arm yourself with a credit spread, because credit spreads are negative vega. That means they stand to benefit from a drop in volatility.

If you think the opposite – that the IV is too low, and bound to increase, you should opt for a debit spread. They’re positive vega, which means they benefit from an increase in volatility.

So to answer the question from earlier: With the IV high, earnings incoming, and IV crush in bound, the right choice in this situation is likely a credit spread.

In this case, you could do that by buying the out-of-the-money $370 strike call (at a mid-price of $11.40), and selling the in-the-money $355 strike call ($19.80). $11.40 subtracted by $19.80 = -$7.40, which is the maximum profit (or credit) associated with this trade. The maximum risk (collateral) is $7.60, and your breakeven is $362.40.

Vocab check: Breakeven — The stock price a trade must reach in order for the trader to “get back” what they initially risked.

Ready to start trading credit spreads? Try Smart Spreads — credit spread trade ideas crafted by a licensed CMT, around key technical levels, delivered straight to your inbox every week.

Call Credit Spreads vs. Long Puts: Pros and Cons

Let’s compare the $370/$355 call credit spread to the long $370 put from Adobe’s option chain.

One big difference between these two trades is the breakeven. In the example above, the $370 put costs the trader 15.63 (using the mid price, rounded up at the half-penny). That means the breakeven is $354.37. Compare that to the breakeven of the $370/$355 call credit spread we built above, which carries a breakeven of $362.40. That’s a difference of two percentage points. Because the breakeven of the credit spread is closer to the money, that makes it easier for this trade to become profitable.

And in the case of Adobe, which fell to about $355 on the expiration date, we know in hindsight that the credit spread would have been a much more effective tool than a long put. The credit spread finished with near full profitability, the long put didn’t even reach breakeven.

However, imagine that by the expiration date, Adobe (ADBE) dropped to $300! An unlikely event, but on the eve of an earnings event, anything is possible. The long $370 put described above would now be worth roughly $70.00 (a real-dollar amount of $7,000). Conversely, that spread is capped at a max value of $15.00 ($1,500), meaning no extra-credit beyond a share price $355 (the short leg). In extreme cases like this one, a long put would take the cake.

Other use cases for the credit spread

The above scenario in Adobe looks at a situation where the options are expiring in one day. However, many traders use credit spreads for an entirely different purpose: collecting theta decay.

By selling a spread that is already out-of-the-money, you expose yourself to positive theta. That means that unlike your standard long call or put (which are negative theta), you benefit from the passage of time. Even if the underlying stock doesn’t move, your spread is gaining value with each passing moment.

The downside of this strategy is that you must often risk more in collateral than you stand to gain in credit. That’s because probability is already in your favor — it’s more likely that the options (which are out-of-the-money) remain OTM.

Other use cases for the debit spread

Debit spreads don’t have to be bought all at once. Rather than buying the whole thing in one clip, you can leg in! Remember that long calls on their own will always have a higher delta than their debit spread equivalent. Higher delta means a faster move in price.

Traders can get the best of both worlds when they leg into spreads. To perform this move, you would first buy the call leg, and later, once the call is profitable, sell a further out-of-the-money call against it at the same expiration — thus “locking in” a portion of the profit, while maintaining some exposure to the position!

This is a popular strategy that Market Rebellion Co-Founder Jon Najarian uses all the time.

Conclusion

Learning about options can feel overwhelming, but it’s worth it. And when you have someone who’s actually in it for you, who’s actually explaining things in simple, human-terms, it’s a lot easier. That’s what we specialize in at Market Rebellion. We know there are a million websites out there copy-and-pasting the same tired, technical definitions off of Investopedia. We strive to be different. For the individual trader, we really want to explain things in the most palatable way, while still leaving space to explain the many advanced tips and tricks that options allow.

We think every option strategy is like a tool. The more strategies you can master, the larger your toolbox becomes, and the more jobs you can do.

But your work isn’t done yet! Get out there and experiment with these strategies — preferably with paper trading, until you get comfortable. Not only that, but by learning the ins and outs of these strategies, you’ll build the foundation to discover other, more advanced options strategies, like iron condors and more!

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