ETF vs. Mutual Fund: What’s the Difference?


When it comes to investing for the future, the magic of compound interest can be a powerful tool. By placing your money in the stock market, you’re allowing it to grow over time with relatively little effort. However, understanding how to allocate your assets properly and diversify your investment portfolio can be a daunting task. That’s where exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and mutual funds come into play.

Both ETFs and mutual funds offer simple and effective ways to diversify your stock portfolio without having to buy individual stocks. They allow you to spread your investment across numerous stock options, reducing your overall risk and increasing your chances of growth.

In this article, we’ll dive deeper into the differences between ETFs and mutual funds, their pros and cons, and how to determine which one is right for your personal investment goals.

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What’s the difference between ETFs and mutual funds?

At their core, both ETFs and mutual funds are pools of money invested in an array of stocks, bonds, and potentially other securities and assets. These investments are managed by third-party individuals or corporations, alleviating the need for you to perform extensive research and manual transactions to gain market exposure.

The Key Differences

While ETFs and mutual funds share similarities, there are several key differences that can impact your decision when choosing the right investment vehicle for your portfolio:

  1. Active Management: Mutual funds (except for index funds) are actively managed by qualified financial professionals who monitor and adjust the fund’s assets based on market performance. This can provide a sense of security for long-term investors. ETFs, on the other hand, are typically passively managed and track a specific index or sector.
  2. Trading Flexibility: ETFs can be traded on a daily basis, just like individual stocks, allowing investors more control over their investments. Mutual funds can only be bought and sold at the end of the trading day at their Net Asset Value (NAV).
  3. Investment Minimums: ETFs generally have lower initial investment requirements than mutual funds, as you can often buy a single share at a relatively low price. Mutual funds typically have higher minimum investment thresholds.
  4. Fees and Expenses: ETFs often have lower expense ratios and fewer fees compared to mutual funds. This can be attributed to their passive management style and lower operating costs.

ETF vs. Mutual Fund: Pros and Cons

To help you decide which type of investment is best for your goals, let’s dive deeper into the advantages and disadvantages of ETFs and mutual funds.



  • Lower start-up investments: With the ability to buy a single share, ETFs often have lower initial investment requirements compared to mutual funds.
  • Lower fees: ETFs typically have lower expense ratios, and fewer additional fees like marketing and distribution costs.
  • Greater transparency and flexibility in trading: ETFs can be traded like stocks throughout the day, and their holdings are usually disclosed daily. This offers more control and transparency for investors.
  • Tax efficiency: ETFs tend to be more tax-efficient, potentially resulting in lower tax liabilities for investors.


  • Lack of active management: Most ETFs are passively managed, so investors looking for professional oversight may prefer mutual funds.
  • Potential trading costs: While ETFs generally have lower expense ratios, frequent trading could result in higher transaction costs, offsetting their cost advantages.

Mutual Funds


  • No commissions on trades: Mutual funds can be bought and sold without paying additional commission fees, which may be beneficial for investors who trade frequently. Some brokerages also offer commission-free ETFs, but these may have higher expense ratios than other ETFs on the market.
  • Active management: Mutual funds are more likely to be actively managed by financial professionals, which can be appealing to investors seeking expert oversight and decision-making.
  • Automatic investments and withdrawals: With mutual funds, you can set up automatic transactions, making it easier to invest and withdraw funds on a consistent basis.


  • Higher fees: Mutual funds typically have higher expense ratios and additional fees compared to ETFs, which can eat into your returns over time.
  • Less trading flexibility: Mutual funds can only be bought and sold at the end of the trading day at their NAV, offering less control and flexibility than ETFs.
  • Potential capital gains tax liabilities: Due to their structure, mutual funds may result in increased capital gains taxes and subsequently, higher tax obligations for investors.

Choosing the Right Investment Vehicle for Your Personal Portfolio

Ultimately, the best choice between an ETF and a mutual fund depends on your individual financial goals, risk tolerance, and investment preferences. Both options provide broad market exposure with relatively low effort and expense, but you may find one more appealing based on your unique circumstances.

Considerations for ETFs:

  • If you have limited funds to invest initially, ETFs may be a more accessible option due to their lower start-up investments.
  • If you prefer more control over your investments and the ability to trade throughout the day, ETFs offer the flexibility you’re looking for.
  • If tax efficiency is a priority, ETFs tend to have a lower overall tax liability compared to mutual funds.

Considerations for Mutual Funds:

  • If you value the expertise and oversight of financial professionals, actively managed mutual funds may be a better fit.
  • If you plan to trade frequently and want to avoid commission fees, mutual funds could be more cost-effective.
  • If you prefer the convenience of automatic investments and withdrawals, mutual funds allow for easy setup and management of recurring transactions.

A Balanced Approach: Combining ETFs and Mutual Funds in Your Portfolio

It’s important to note that you don’t have to choose exclusively between ETFs and mutual funds. Many investors find value in incorporating both investment vehicles into their portfolios to capitalize on the benefits of each. By combining the two, you can create a diversified, balanced investment strategy that caters to your individual needs and preferences.

For example, you might allocate a portion of your portfolio to low-cost, passively managed ETFs for broad market exposure and tax efficiency, while also investing in actively managed mutual funds for targeted growth opportunities and professional management. This approach allows you to take advantage of the unique strengths of each investment vehicle, potentially leading to better long-term returns and a more resilient portfolio.

Understanding the Mechanics of ETFs and Mutual Funds

To fully comprehend the differences, let’s take a look at their underlying mechanics and how they function within the investment landscape.

Creation and Redemption Process


ETFs are created and redeemed through a process involving authorized participants (APs) – typically large financial institutions. When creating new ETF shares, APs assemble a portfolio of underlying securities that mirrors the ETF’s composition and deliver it to the ETF issuer.

In exchange, the issuer provides the AP with ETF shares, which can then be sold on the open market. The redemption process is the reverse of this, with APs exchanging ETF shares for the underlying securities.

This creation and redemption process helps maintain an ETF’s market price close to its NAV. If the market price deviates significantly from the NAV, APs can capitalize on the arbitrage opportunity by creating or redeeming ETF shares, which in turn, helps bring the price back in line with the NAV.

Mutual Funds:

Unlike ETFs, mutual funds do not involve APs or the creation and redemption process. Instead, mutual fund shares are created and redeemed directly with the fund company at the end of the trading day, based on the NAV. As a result, mutual funds are not subject to the same intraday price fluctuations as ETFs and do not rely on an arbitrage mechanism to maintain a consistent market price.

Portfolio Management Strategies


The majority of ETFs are passively managed, meaning they aim to replicate the performance of a specific index or sector. This passive approach results in lower management fees and operating costs compared to actively managed funds. However, there has been a recent surge in the popularity of actively managed ETFs, which attempt to outperform their respective benchmarks through the expertise of portfolio managers.

Mutual Funds:

Mutual funds can be either actively or passively managed. Actively managed mutual funds rely on the expertise of a fund manager to select and manage the underlying securities in an effort to outperform the market.

This active management can lead to higher fees and expenses due to increased research, trading, and operational costs. Passively managed mutual funds, also known as index funds, seek to replicate the performance of a specific index or benchmark, resulting in lower fees and expenses.

Assessing Performance: ETFs vs. Mutual Funds

When comparing the performance, there are several factors to consider, such as historical returns, risk-adjusted performance, and consistency of results.

Historical Returns

While past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results, analyzing historical returns can provide valuable insight into how an investment vehicle has performed over time. Comparing the average annual returns of ETFs vs. mutual funds over various time horizons (e.g., 1-year, 3-year, 5-year, and 10-year periods) can help you gauge their relative performance.

It’s important to remember that individual ETFs and mutual funds can vary significantly in their returns based on their underlying investments, management strategies, and fees. Therefore, it’s crucial to analyze the performance of specific funds that align with your investment objectives rather than relying solely on broad industry averages.

Risk-Adjusted Performance

To effectively compare the performance of ETFs and mutual funds, it’s essential to consider the level of risk associated with each investment. Risk-adjusted performance measures, such as the Sharpe Ratio, can help you evaluate an investment’s return relative to its risk. A higher Sharpe Ratio indicates a better risk-adjusted return, allowing you to compare investments with different risk profiles more accurately.

When comparing mutual funds and ETFs, consider the risk-adjusted performance of each to determine which investment vehicle offers a more favorable balance between potential returns and associated risks.

Bottom Line

When it comes to deciding between ETFs and mutual funds, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. By understanding the key differences, pros and cons, and how each investment vehicle aligns with your personal financial goals, you can make an informed decision that best suits your needs.

Remember to continually evaluate your investment strategy and make adjustments as needed. As your financial goals and circumstances change, your ideal mix of ETFs and mutual funds may also evolve. By staying informed and adaptable, you’ll be well-equipped to keep up with the ever-changing world of investing and work towards a successful financial future.

Jamie Cattanach
Meet the author

Jamie Cattanach is a freelance writer whose work has been featured at Fodor's, Yahoo, SELF, The Motley Fool, Roads & Kingdoms, and other outlets.