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Money Leaks: Mutual Fund Fees

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I’ve always said that when it comes to investing, there’s only one thing you can control – your costs. You can’t control whether your mutual fund or your stocks will go up or down, but you can control how much you pay for each transaction. By doing a little bit of homework up front, you can make sure that more of your money works for you and less goes into the pocket of the broker holding onto your cash and shares.

Fortunately for all of us, brokers and mutual fund companies are compelled to disclose these fees and expenses in a very up front way. By doing a little bit of homework, you can easily compare different funds on the basis of cost to help you make a decision on where to invest.

This is the latest edition of our Money Leaks series.

There are two types of mutual fund fees you need to look at:

  • Sales Loads: A sales load is a fee charged when you sell or buy shares of a fund. Typically, when you buy a mutual fund with a load, that money is given to the broker for a commission. It’s a way of rewarding that broker for selling shares of the mutual fund. Sales load are usually charged on the purchase of shares. Deferred sales loads are fees charged at redemption, or sale, of shares. They may not use the term load, they might call it a commission or a redemption fee, but the idea is that you should try to keep these fees to a minimum.
  • Expense Ratio: Expense ratio is a fancy phrase for annual fee. All mutual funds will charge an expense ratio, which is expressed as a percentage of assets. It is used to cover a variety costs that the mutual fund incurs.

The easiest comparisons are index funds. In theory, index funds try to match the index they are based on and are generally very close. The differences come from the speediness of a fund’s reaction to change. That explains why the returns on supposedly identical index funds may be different. Since all things are supposed to be equal, it’s easy to compare index funds from different companies to find the best one for you. Fidelity’s Spartan 500 Index has an expense ratio of 0.10% with no load. Vanguard’s 500 Index Investor fund has an expense ratio of 0.17% with no load. All else being equal, Fidelity’s is a more affordable option if you can manage the $10,000 minimum (versus a $3,000 minimum at Vanguard).

So, the next time you go to invest in a mutual fund, be sure to check the fees and ensure you aren’t overpaying for the same product!

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2 Responses to “Money Leaks: Mutual Fund Fees”

  1. For this very reason, I’m considering selling (or at least, not continuing to purchase) the mutual funds in my portfolio, and start purchasing index funds or ETFs. The flat percentage fees really add up!

    • govenar says:

      Mutual funds always seemed like too much of a hassle, dealing with minimum investment amounts and requirements for holding at least 90 days or whatever, and different types of fees. So I’ve only bought ETFs and don’t own any mutual funds (outside of my 401k at least). And I usually only buy ETFs at a brokerage where trades are free.


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