ETFs vs. Mutual Funds: What’s the Difference?

When it comes to saving for the future, there’s no substitute for the magic of compound interest. By stashing your cash in the stock market, you’re putting it to work for you. It takes little effort aside from biding your time and waiting.

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Of course, knowing how to invest your money, or “allocate your assets,” to use fancy-pants financial planner-speak, is a whole other can of worms. Even if you’ve heard that the key to a healthy investment portfolio is to diversify, it can be difficult to figure out where you’re supposed to start.

Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and mutual funds are both great low-effort ways to purchase a diverse chunk of stocks without having to go out and buy them individually. In both cases, your money will be invested in a wide range of different assets, lowering your total risk while increasing your chances of overall growth.

Rather than putting all your proverbial eggs into one company’s basket of shares, you’ll have assets spread out across a large number of stock options. You won’t have to spend dozens of hours doing the requisite research and manual transactions you’d otherwise have to get that kind of broad market exposure.

How can you tell which is right for your personal investment goals? Read on to learn more.

What’s the difference between ETFs and mutual funds?

Mutual funds and ETFs have a whole lot in common. They’re both pools of money that are invested into an array of stocks, bonds, and potentially other securities and assets. These investment allocations are made and managed by third-party individuals or corporations. That takes the burden of doing all that stock-buying off your shoulders.

But ETFs and mutual funds do also have key differences that might influence your decision when picking which type of investment is right for your portfolio.

For one thing, mutual funds (except for index funds) are actively managed funds. That means a qualified financial professional is actively watching how the mutual fund’s assets are performing and making adjustments to allocations as necessary. That kind of supervision can help investors feel more secure about the risk they’re taking. Of course, it is always still possible to lose money in the market.

On the other hand, ETFs can be traded on a day-to-day basis, just like individual stocks. Although they’re less likely to be under active management, you can make the decision to buy or sell them yourself whenever you’d like. This gives some investors a welcome sense of control.

ETFs vs Mutual Funds: Pros and Cons

Although they’re very similar, understanding the drawbacks and benefits of each can help you decide which type of investment will work best for your goals. Here’s a brief overview.

ETFs

  • may allow lower start-up investments. In most cases, you can buy a single share of an ETF, which may start at quite a low price depending on their market value that day. Mutual funds, on the other hand, generally have a higher required buy-in threshold.
  • may be available at lower fees. Although some mutual funds carry low expense ratios, they’re still usually higher than those of ETFs according to the Investment Company Institute. (In 2016, actively managed mutual fund carried an average expense ratio of 0.82%, compared to just 0.23% for ETFs.) Mutual funds may also come with additional fees included in that ratio, which may cover costs like marketing and distribution.
  • provide greater transparency and flexibility in trading. ETFs can be traded like stocks on a daily basis, and their holdings are generally disclosed daily. Mutual funds, however, can only be bought and sold at the end of the trading day. Also, rather than market value, they’re priced by Net Asset Value, or NAV, which is an estimated value based on the total number of assets minus the total number of liabilities.
  • may treat you better at tax time than mutual funds do. You’ll be responsible for taxes on capital gains and dividend income earned through either type of investment. However, these taxable events tend to occur less frequently with ETFs than they do with mutual funds. That means your total tax liability may be significantly lower.

Mutual Funds

  • allow you to trade without paying commissions. If you’re planning on trading your assets on a regular basis, you may benefit from choosing mutual funds over ETFs, since they can be bought and sold without paying additional commissions fees. However, some brokerages offer certain ETFs commission-free, though they may have higher expense ratios than other ETFs on the market.
  • are more likely to be actively managed by a financial professional. Only certain ETFs are actively managed so if you’re looking to outsource your market research to a professional, this might influence your decision. However, even financial professionals make mistakes and inaccurate predictions, and it’s still possible to lose the money you put into a mutual fund.
  • allow automatic investments and withdrawals. If you’re into the idea of automating your investment account, you can set up automatic transactions when you invest in mutual funds through a brokerage like Vanguard.

Are ETFs or mutual funds better for your personal portfolio?

As with any financial decision, the person who’s best qualified to decide if ETFs or mutual funds will better serve your financial goals is you. Only you know your own familiarity with market trends and your personal risk tolerance.

Both will provide you broad market exposure at relatively little effort and expense. You may be drawn to one more than the other based on a number of personal factors. You should consider your available investment capital and how much personal control you want over your portfolio.

For example, if you’re looking to start investing as quickly as possible without a whole lot of extra cash to spare, you might purchase a low-cost ETF. You can even purchase a single share (for now).

On the other hand, if you’ve got a significant chunk of savings you want to put to work for you, buying into actively managed mutual fund might make better financial sense. It may leave you feeling assured that your investments are in good hands, being regularly re-allocated based on up-to-the-moment market performance.

For more information on ETFs, mutual funds, and the basics of investing, check out the following posts here on Crediful:

Good luck with your investments, and as always, we’ll be here to help as much as we can every step of the way!

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.