Simplicity: Mutual Funds Are Easy to Understand, Anything can be made into something more complex than it needs to be and mutual funds are no exception to this truth. However, mutual funds require no experience or knowledge of economics, financial statements, or financial markets to be a successful investor. For beginners, here is a simple definition of mutual fund: A mutual fund is an investment security type that enables investors to pool their money together into one professionally managed investment. Mutual funds can invest in stocks, bonds, cash and/or other assets. These underlying security types, called holdings combine to form one mutual fund, also called a portfolio.
Mutual funds give investors the ability to diversify across a wide variety of investments that they otherwise may not carry in their portfolio as individual securities. Since mutual funds invest in a diverse range of securities and investment options, one mutual fund share actually represents proportionate ownership in each and every investment in the mutual fund’s portfolio. Of most interest to investors is that each share also proportionately represents the profits of those investments as mutual funds are required to pass along profits to their investors by way of mutual fund distributions, which come in several forms.
S&P 500 Index Funds: Index funds can be a great place to begin building a portfolio of mutual funds because most of them have extremely low expense ratios and can give you exposure to dozens or hundreds of stocks representing various industries in just one fund. As their name suggests, index funds simply hold the same securities that are found in an index. S&P 500 Index funds invest in approximately 500 of the largest U.S. companies. Index funds are passively managed, which means their primary objective is to mirror the holdings and performance of an index and therefore costs to operate these funds are extremely low. Therefore, you can meet the initial goal of getting a low-cost, diversified mutual fund when you buy index funds. For more on index funds, check out our Index Investing FAQ page. Again, mutual fund companies like Vanguard, Fidelity and T. Rowe Price are good places to find the best index funds. You can also look at Charles Schwab.
Balanced Funds: Also called hybrid funds or asset allocation funds, these are mutual funds that invest in a balanced asset allocation of stocks, bonds, and cash. The allocation usually remains fixed and invests according to a stated investment objective or style. For example, Fidelity Balanced Fund (FBALX) has an approximate asset allocation of 65% stocks and 35% bonds. It considered a medium risk or what industry experts might call a moderate portfolio. Vanguard also has an outstanding index balanced fund, Vanguard Balanced Index (VBINX), which is suitable for investors looking for moderate risk. Balanced funds can be ideal for beginning investors because they are well-diversified and can, therefore, be used as stand-alone investments or as core holdings to begin a larger portfolio.
Target Date Mutual Funds: These funds invest in a mix of stocks, bonds, and cash that is appropriate for a person investing until a certain year, which is usually retirement. As the target year approaches, the fund manager will gradually decrease market risk by shifting fund assets out of stocks and into bonds and cash, which is what an individual investor would do themselves manually. Therefore, target-date mutual funds are a type of ”set it and forget it” investment that doesn’t require ongoing management. For example, if you are saving for retirement and think you may retire around the year 2035, a good choice for you might be Vanguard Target Retirement 2035 (VTTHX). Once you choose your first mutual fund, you’ll have the foundation started. You can then build upon that foundation by purchasing more shares of this fund and eventually add more funds for greater diversity.