While it can be confusing, the answers to the following three questions will help you navigate the mutual fund waters—from how they work to how to add them to your investment portfolio. What Is a Mutual Fund? For all intents and purposes, mutual funds serve as an alternative for investors who can’t afford an individually managed account. Mutual funds are formed when investors with smaller amounts of capital, pool their money together and then hire a portfolio manager to run the consolidated pool’s portfolio—subsequently buying different stocks, bonds, or other securities in a manner consistent with the fund’s prospectus. Each investor then receives their respective piece of the pie while sharing the expenses, which show up in something called the mutual fund expense ratio.
Investment Costs Are Low for Mutual Funds. Investors tend to overlook many aspects of building and managing a portfolio, and the most negative impact of those overlooked items often comes from expenses. Depending upon the brokerage firm or investment company, investors may be charged commissions for each purchase or sale of single securities, such as stocks. This can add up to hundreds of dollars per year, per account, depending upon the frequency and size of trades.
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Mutual funds can be structured in several different ways, including open-ended mutual funds vs. closed mutual funds being one particularly important distinction. To learn more about the way mutual funds are organized, you’ll want to read How a Mutual Fund Is Structured. You may also want to delve into Making Money from Mutual Funds, which explains how investors actually profit (or experience losses) from owning a stake in a mutual fund.
Joint Brokerage Account: This works the same as an individual brokerage account, except there are two account holders, such as spouses.Individual Retirement Account: Also called an IRA, qualifying individuals can make contributions that are not taxable. Growth is tax-deferred, which means that account holders don’t pay taxes until withdrawals are made. Roth IRA: This is an individual retirement account that is funded with after-tax dollars, which means contributions are not tax-deductible, as with the traditional IRA. However, growth is tax-deferred and qualified distributions (withdrawals) are tax-free. For more on the Roth and the traditional IRA, see this article on how IRAs work.
Investors Can Buy Many Different Types of Mutual Funds. Investment objectives are unique to every investor, which means that there are many different reasons to buy mutual funds. Fortunately, there are several categories of funds that can suit any investment need. Some of the most common investment objectives include retirement and education, each of which may require different funds to suit the needs of the investor. Target retirement funds are good examples of low-cost, diversified funds tailored to meet a variety of time horizons. This category of funds will invest in other mutual funds that combine to be suitable for a certain age range of investor. Target retirement funds are categorized by decade. For example, a 25-year old investor may expect to retire in 35 to 45 years. Therefore a fund like Vanguard Target Retirement 2050 (VFIFX) can work well in a 401(k) or IRA for this investor.