What the Heck is an ETF?

I know, I know...the financial industry loves acronyms! ETF stands for Exchange-Traded Fund. Like mutual funds, ETFs allow investors to buy many companies in a single share. I like this better than individual stocks, remember?

The biggest difference between the two is how often they can trade. Nerdy, I know. Mutual funds are priced once each day, after the market closes. In comparison, ETFs act like stocks and trade throughout the day. They often have lower fees than mutual funds. We love lower fees - it means we get to keep more of our hard-earned money.

In our last post, we explored the Vanguard 500 Index Fund (ticker symbol: VFINX). That mutual fund currently has an expense ratio of .14%. For every $100 you invest, you’re charged 14 cents. Let’s compare that to the Vanguard S&P 500 ETF (ticker symbol: VOO); it has an expense ratio of only .04%, so you’ll be charged only 4 cents for every $100 you invest. That’s an extra dime in your account for each Benjamin invested - pretty good.

So, why would anyone ever buy VFINX when VOO is similar, with a lower expense ratio? First, many employer-sponsored retirement plans don’t allow ETF or stock investments, and only permit investing in mutual funds. Additionally, many regular investors don’t understand ETFs and are ignorant of their differences from mutual funds.

Here’s what to watch out for when picking ETFs:

What's the expense ratio? Keep a close eye on what the expense ratio is, and compare it to other similar ETFs. Recall, the expense ratio is how much the company that manages the ETF charges you. An average expense ratio is around .44% for ETFs (lower than .6% average for mutual funds). These recurring fees make a meaningful difference in your wealth over the long term. Vanguard’s average expense ratio is consistently lowest in the industry, letting you keep more of your hard-earned money.

Are there other fees? Since ETFs are traded like stocks, you’ll want to understand commissions you’ll pay to buy or sell, and investigate any other fees associated with the investment, like account service fees. Vanguard account holders can trade ETFs commission-free.

What's the 10-year return? Just like a mutual fund, compare how the ETF performed over the last decade, compared to the S&P 500? If it didn’t come near the S&P 500, it may not be worthy of your hard-earned money.

So that’s an ETF, in a nutshell. Fidelity also has a useful article on mutual funds compared to ETFs if you’d like to learn more. In the next post, we’re going to explore exactly how to get started, now that we have all this information about investing. I’d like to know: What are your favorite ETFs? Are they new to your portfolio or are you a long-term fan?