Despite the great advances in synthesis and structural determination of atomically precise, thiolate-protected metal nanoclusters, our understanding of the driving forces for their colloidal stabilization is very limited. Currently there is a lack of models able to describe the thermodynamic stability of these 'magic-number' colloidal nanoclusters as a function of their atomic-level structural characteristics. Herein, we introduce the thermodynamic stability theory, derived from first principles, which is able to address stability of thiolate-protected metal nanoclusters as a function of the number of metal core atoms and thiolates on the nanocluster shell. Surprisingly, we reveal a fine energy balance between the core cohesive energy and the shell-to-core binding energy that appears to drive nanocluster stabilization. Our theory applies to both charged and neutral systems and captures a large number of experimental observations. Importantly, it opens new avenues for accelerating the discovery of stable, atomically precise, colloidal metal nanoclusters.