Index Funds vs Mutual Funds: What are the Differences? | The Motley Fool (2023)

Building a diversified portfolio of individual stocks and other assets can be a daunting task for any investor. A simple shortcut is to buy an index fund or mutual fund, which will invest your capital across a variety of securities.

Index Funds vs Mutual Funds: What are the Differences? | The Motley Fool (1)

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While both index funds and mutual funds can provide you with the foundation of portfolio diversification, there are some important differences for investors to be aware of. Read on to see whether index funds vs. mutual funds are right for you.

Mutual funds

A mutual fund is a fund that pools money from lots of investors and buys a portfolio of securities designed to meet a goal. That goal is usually to outperform a benchmark index by selecting stocks, bonds, and other securities the fund manager believes will produce outsized returns.

When the manager actively selects which stocks to buy (and which ones not to), it’s called an actively managed mutual fund. That stands in contrast to passively managed funds or index funds.

(Video) Index funds vs mutual funds vs ETFs

Buying a mutual fund is a bit different from buying a stock. A stock is listed on an exchange, and investors can buy or sell shares at any time. Any broker will have access to the major exchanges, and you’ll be able to place a trade for a stock through your broker of choice.

Mutual funds are bought and sold through the mutual fund company itself. Brokers may have partnerships with some mutual fund companies or offer their own mutual funds, which allows their investors to buy shares of a mutual fund within their brokerage accounts. Sometimes, though, you’ll have to go directly to a mutual fund company to buy shares. If you want to change your brokerage account, it may mean your mutual funds won’t transfer to your new broker.

A mutual fund company collects inflows and outflows of investors' money throughout the day. Shares are marked to market at the end of the day based on net asset value -- the total value of all its holdings -- and investors who put in an order to buy or sell earlier in the day will get that price when shares trade hands after the markets close.

One feature of mutual funds is that you can always buy fractional shares. While fractional shares of other securities are becoming common, it’s actually a feature supported by individual brokers and not the securities themselves. You’ll always be able to acquire fractional shares of a mutual fund, which makes it convenient for someone looking to ensure all their money is invested or invest small amounts.

Index funds

An index fund, much like a mutual fund, will pool investors’ capital and buy a portfolio of securities. What distinguishes an index fund, however, is that an index fund is a passively managed fund that merely aims to track a benchmark index’s returns, whereas an actively managed fund aims to outperform. An index fund manager buys the exact same securities as tracked by the index with the exact same weightings.

An index fund can be structured as a mutual fund, in which case you’ll buy and sell shares in the same way you would for any mutual fund.

Index funds may also be structured as exchange-traded funds, or ETFs. There are some subtle differences between ETFs and index funds that are structured as mutual funds. An exchange-traded fund, as the name implies, is traded on a stock exchange in the same way as a stock. Investors can buy and sell shares of an ETF throughout the day, and shares will likely be available to purchase through any broker you choose.

(Video) Buy Index Funds, Not Mutual Funds: An Overview

The drawbacks of an ETF include that you may have to pay a commission to your broker to buy shares. Also, you may not be able to buy fractional shares. That said, many brokers have gotten rid of commissions on simple purchases like ETFs. More brokerage services are also supporting fractional investing.

Index funds vs. mutual funds

There are several differences between a passively managed index fund and an actively managed mutual fund. Here are the most important ones for investors to know before they decide which is best for them.


An index fund’s sole purpose is to provide investors with exposure to a certain asset class. That could be large-cap U.S. stocks through a simple . Or perhaps you have a more specific goal like tracking the index of a certain sector such as financial stocks. Index funds could also be part of a factor investing strategy where you seek exposure to something like small-cap value stocks. Importantly, the goal isn’t to outperform the benchmark index its holdings are based on.

An actively managed fund will give you exposure to certain asset classes, but they’ll also try to pick the best securities in those asset classes. For example, a large-cap U.S. stock mutual fund may look to outperform the S&P 500 by buying certain companies and overweighting in some sectors that the fund manager believes will outperform.

Unfortunately, most fund managers fail to outperform their benchmark index in any given year. In 2021, 79% of fund managers underperformed the . Picking the funds and managers that will outperform is practically impossible for investors since none has a consistent record of outperforming year after year.


Both mutual funds and index funds make money by charging expense ratios. Expense ratios are charged based on assets under management. For example, if you invested $10,000 with a mutual fund that charged a 1% expense ratio, you’d pay about $100 that year to invest your money. Of course, the nominal amount is always changing based on the fluctuating value of your portfolio, but expense ratios are generally very steady.

Since actively managed funds require a portfolio manager and a team of researchers to feed information about investment decisions, they charge higher expense ratios than index funds. Expense ratios for actively managed mutual funds can be 10 times higher than comparable index funds. Many broad-based index funds have expense ratios of 0.10% or less.

(Video) Buy Index Funds, Not Mutual Funds: Managment

If you purchase a mutual fund through a broker, you may also have to pay a sales load. That’s a fee paid by the investor to compensate the broker. The fee could be paid up front (front-end load) or when the shares are redeemed (back-end load).


Another cost to consider is that actively managed funds generally trade more frequently than passive index funds. That can trigger more taxable events for shareholders and create additional costs. What’s more, shareholders have little control over those decisions despite being left with the tax bill.

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(Video) Which Index Fund to Invest in for the Long Term

Which is right for you?

For most investors just starting out, an index fund will be their best choice. It’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to pick the fund manager who will outperform the index or sector you’re looking to invest in. Unless you have a good reason to pay the higher fees and expenses associated with actively managed mutual funds, investing in an index fund will likely accomplish exactly what you need as an investor.

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Index Funds vs Mutual Funds: What are the Differences? | The Motley Fool? ›

The biggest difference between index funds and mutual funds is that index funds invest in a specific list of securities (such as stocks of S&P 500-listed companies only), while active mutual funds invest in a changing list of securities, chosen by an investment manager.

What are the key differences between index funds and mutual funds? ›

Mutual funds are actively managed, index funds are passively managed. Mutual funds have active management, meaning they have a team of financial experts looking for the right stocks to include in their fund. Index funds, on the other hand, have passive management—they don't need a whole team of experts to pick stocks.

Does Motley Fool have an index fund? ›

The Fund invests at least 80% its total assets in the securities of the Index, that is designed to track the performance of the 100 largest, most liquid US companies recommended by The Motley Fool's.

What is the difference between Motley Fool ETF and index fund? ›

ETFs trade on an exchange just like stocks, and you buy or sell them through a broker. Index funds are bought directly with the fund manager. Because ETFs are bought and sold on an exchange, you will pay a commission to your broker each time you make a trade. (That said, some brokers offer commission-free trading.)

What is the main advantage of a mutual fund or an index fund? ›

Mutual funds are one of the most popular investment choices in the U.S. Advantages for investors include advanced portfolio management, dividend reinvestment, risk reduction, convenience, and fair pricing. Disadvantages include high fees, tax inefficiency, poor trade execution, and the potential for management abuses.

Is it better to invest in index or mutual funds? ›

Index funds tend to be low-cost, passive options that are well-suited for hands-off, long-term investors. Actively-managed mutual funds can be riskier and more expensive, but they have the potential for higher returns over time.

Is the S&P 500 a mutual fund? ›

Most Liquid S&P 500 Index Fund: SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SPY) SPY is an ETF, not a mutual fund, and it's not even the lowest-cost S&P 500 ETF. It is, however, the most liquid S&P 500 fund. Liquidity indicates how easy it will be to trade an ETF, with higher liquidity generally meaning lower trading costs.

Do rich people invest in index funds? ›

3. Stocks and Stock Funds. Some millionaires are all about simplicity. They invest in index funds and dividend-paying stocks.

Is the S&P 500 an index fund? ›

The S&P 500 is an index, so it can't be traded directly. Those who want to invest in the companies that comprise the S&P must invest in a mutual fund or exchange-traded fund (ETF) that tracks the index, such as the Vanguard 500 ETF (VOO).

How many index funds should I own? ›

Experts agree that for most personal investors, a portfolio comprising 5 to 10 ETFs is perfect in terms of diversification. But the number of ETFs is not what you should be looking at. Rather, you should consider the number of different sources of risk you are getting with those ETFs.

What is safer ETF or index fund? ›

Neither an ETF nor an index fund is safer than the other, as it depends on what the fund owns. Stocks will always be risker than bonds, but will usually yield higher returns on investment.

Which is the best index fund to invest in? ›

Index Mutual Funds
  • UTI Nifty Next 50 Index Fund Direct-Growth.
  • Axis Nifty Next 50 Index Fund Direct-Growth.
  • Motilal Oswal S&P BSE Low Volatility Index Fund Direct-Growth.
  • Nippon India Nifty SmallCap 250 Index Fund Direct-Growth.

Is QQQ an index fund? ›

Invesco QQQ is an exchange-traded fund based on the Nasdaq-100 Index®. The Fund will, under most circumstances, consist of all of stocks in the Index.

What is the main disadvantage of investing in index funds? ›

The benefits of index investing include low cost, requires little financial knowledge, convenience, and provides diversification. Disadvantages include the lack of downside protection, no choice in index composition, and it cannot beat the market (by definition).

Why you should only invest in index funds? ›

Over the long term, index funds have generally outperformed other types of mutual funds. Other benefits of index funds include low fees, tax advantages (they generate less taxable income), and low risk (since they're highly diversified).

What are 3 advantages to index fund investing? ›

Benefits of investing in index funds
  • Low fees. Since an index fund mimics its underlying benchmark, there is no need for an efficient team of research analysts to help fund managers pick the right stocks. ...
  • No bias investing. ...
  • Broad market exposure. ...
  • Tax Benefits of Investing in Index Funds. ...
  • Easier to manage.

What funds does Dave Ramsey invest in? ›

Dave divides his mutual fund investments equally between four types of funds: Growth and income, growth, aggressive growth, and international.

Are index funds good for retirement? ›

Most experts agree that index funds are very good investments for long-term investors. They are low-cost options for obtaining a well-diversified portfolio that passively tracks an index.

Do index funds outperform mutual funds? ›

Index funds seek market-average returns, while active mutual funds try to outperform the market. Active mutual funds typically have higher fees than index funds. Index fund performance is relatively predictable; active mutual fund performance tends to be less so.

When should you not invest in mutual funds? ›

However, mutual funds are considered a bad investment when investors consider certain negative factors to be important, such as high expense ratios charged by the fund, various hidden front-end, and back-end load charges, lack of control over investment decisions, and diluted returns.

What does Dave Ramsey say about ETFs? ›

Ramsey suggested that if you do want to engage in passive investing, you're better off doing it with an index mutual fund than with an ETF that tracks a market or financial index. His reasoning: Mutual funds are meant to be invested in over the long term, while ETFs trade daily.

What is the best performing mutual fund over the last 10 years? ›

Best Mutual Fund for 10 Years Which Have Provided Great Returns
  • Reliance Large Cap.
  • ICICI Prudential Bluechip Equity Fund.
  • ICICI Prudential Bluechip Equity Fund.
  • Tata Equity P/E Fund.
  • HDFC Small Cap Fund.
  • Aditya Birla Sun Life Tax Relief 96.
  • ICICI Prudential Equity & Debt Fund.
  • Mirae Asset India Equity Fund.
Jan 17, 2023

Does Warren Buffett have index funds? ›

Buffett's only index funds

Berkshire's portfolio includes around 50 individual stocks. It also includes a couple of very similar index funds -- the SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust (NYSEMKT: SPY) and the Vanguard 500 Index Fund ETF (NYSEMKT: VOO). The SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust, or SPY for short, is run by State Street.

Does Buffett own index funds? ›

B 0.72%) shareholders, he wrote that his will recommends that most of the cash that goes to his family be put in a low-cost S&P 500 index fund. But does Buffett own any index funds himself? The answer is yes.

What does Warren Buffett say about investing in index funds? ›

Buffett puts his money where his mouth is

Hence his will stipulates that the money left to his wife, Astrid Menks, is invested in index funds: “My advice to the trustee could not be more simple: Put 10% of the cash in short-term government bonds and 90% in a very low-cost S&P 500 index fund. (I suggest Vanguard's.)

Is it OK to only invest S&P 500 index fund? ›

That said, you shouldn't necessarily invest exclusively in the S&P 500. There are other indices, sectors, and groups of stocks you can invest in through mutual funds and ETFs, and there are some excellent individual stocks you can invest in.

Do index funds pay dividends? ›

Yes. Index funds pay dividends as the regulations require them to do so, in most cases. As a result, index funds will pay out any interest or dividends earned by the individual investments in the fund's portfolio.

What is the average return of the S&P 500 last 3 years? ›

Basic Info. S&P 500 3 Year Return is at 43.16%, compared to 58.99% last month and 40.26% last year.

How long should you stay in an index fund? ›

Ideally, you should stay invested in equity index funds for the long run, i.e., at least 7 years. That is because investing in any equity instrument for the short-term is fraught with risks. And as we saw, the chances of getting positive returns improve when you give time to your investments.

What is the 4 rule for index funds? ›

How the 4% Rule Works. The 4% rule is easy to follow. In the first year of retirement, you can withdraw up to 4% of your portfolio's value. If you have $1 million saved for retirement, for example, you could spend $40,000 in the first year of retirement following the 4% rule.

What is the 80 20 rule for index funds? ›

80% of your portfolio's losses may be traced to 20% of your investments. 80% of your trading profits in the US market might be coming from 20% of positions (aka amount of assets owned). 80% of the US stock market capitalisation comes from around 20% of the S&P 500 Index.

What is the safest index fund? ›

1. Vanguard S&P 500 ETF (VOO -1.12%) Legendary investor Warren Buffett has said that the best investment the average American can make is a low-cost S&P 500 index fund like the Vanguard S&P 500 ETF.

Is it okay to just invest in index funds? ›

If you're new to investing, you can absolutely start off by buying index funds alone as you learn more about how to choose the right stocks. But as your knowledge grows, you may want to branch out and add different companies to your portfolio that you feel align well with your personal risk tolerance and goals.

Are index funds a good investment right now? ›

Index funds are still the right choice for many investors, despite the potential harm to the universe of investors as a whole, because they still offer very real benefits to individual investors, Zame says.

What is the highest yielding index fund? ›

Top 100 Highest Dividend Yield ETFs
SymbolNameDividend Yield
FLRUFranklin FTSE Russia ETF24696.43%
SOGUAXS Short De-SPAC Daily ETF74.73%
PYPTAXS 1.5X PYPL Bull Daily ETF58.57%
KBAKraneShares Bosera MSCI China A 50 Connect Index ETF50.70%
91 more rows

Which index fund pays the most? ›

8 top dividend index funds to buy
FundDividend YieldExpense Ratio
ProShares S&P 500 Aristocrats ETF (NYSEMKT:NOBL)1.94%0.35%
Schwab U.S. Dividend Equity ETF (NYSEMKT:SCHD)3.39%0.06%
Vanguard High Dividend Yield ETF (NYSEMKT:VYM)3.00%0.06%
Vanguard Dividend Appreciation Index ETF (NYSEMKT:VIG)1.96%0.06%
5 more rows

What is QQQ stand for? ›

Triple quadrupole mass spectrometer (QqQ), a mass spectrometer comprising three consecutive quadrupoles. QQQ, an exchange-traded fund (ETF) based on the Nasdaq-100 Index founded by Invesco PowerShares. A Morse code signal for unknown attacker, used in conjunction with SOS.

What is the QQQ fund called? ›

Invesco QQQTM is an exchange-traded fund based on the Nasdaq-100 Index® . The Fund will, under most circumstances, consist of all of stocks in the Index. The Index includes 100 of the largest domestic and international nonfinancial companies listed on the Nasdaq Stock Market based on market capitalization.

Why is Nasdaq called QQQ? ›

Investing in the NASDAQ-100

It is nicknamed “triple Qs” or “cubes”. It was formerly called NASDAQ-100 Trust Series 1. On December 1, 2004, it was moved from the American Stock Exchange, where it had the symbol QQQ, to the NASDAQ, and given the new ticker symbol QQQQ, sometimes called the "quad Qs" by traders.

What's the average return on index funds? ›

While the index is not immune to overall market downturns, long-term investors have historically earned a nearly 10% average annual return.

What's the safest form of investment? ›

What are the safest types of investments? U.S. Treasury securities, money market mutual funds and high-yield savings accounts are considered by most experts to be the safest types of investments available.

Can you lose more than you invest in index funds? ›

As is the case with any investment, you can lose money in an index fund. Still, index funds allow investors to track the market in a low-cost, consistent way, according to most analysts and advisors.

What if everyone invested in index funds? ›

For example, if everyone buys index funds, the values of the stock prices of the underlying companies won't reflect the fair value of the companies in the stock market. Instead the prices of stocks will simply reflect the the inflow of funds to indexes.

Are index funds taxed? ›

Index mutual funds & ETFs

Index funds—whether mutual funds or ETFs (exchange-traded funds)—are naturally tax-efficient for a couple of reasons: Because index funds simply replicate the holdings of an index, they don't trade in and out of securities as often as an active fund would.

Are index funds safe during recession? ›

3. Funds that track specific sectors. Investing in funds, such as exchange-traded funds and low-cost index funds, is often less risky than investing in individual stocks — something that might be especially attractive during a recession.

What is the drawback of indexing? ›

Additional storage. The first and perhaps most obvious drawback of adding indexes is that they take up additional storage space. The exact amount of space depends on the size of the table and the number of columns in the index, but it's usually a small percentage of the total size of the table.

What are the three main index funds? ›

Page URL
Minimum InvestmentAvg. Annual Return Since Inception
Fidelity 500 Index Fund (FXAIX)$010.42%
Vanguard 500 Index Fund Admiral Shares (VFIAX)$3,0007.16%
Schwab S&P 500 Index Fund (SWPPX)$08.30%
May 12, 2023

What are 3 differences between index funds and mutual funds? ›

Mutual funds are actively managed, index funds are passively managed. Mutual funds have active management, meaning they have a team of financial experts looking for the right stocks to include in their fund. Index funds, on the other hand, have passive management—they don't need a whole team of experts to pick stocks.

How does a mutual fund differ from an index fund quizlet? ›

How is a mutual fund different than an index fund? Mutual funds are actively managed while index funds are passively managed. How is an index fund different than an exchange-traded fund? Exchange-traded funds trade directly on stock exchanges while index funds do not.

What is the difference between mutual fund and index fund investopedia? ›

An index fund is a type of mutual fund that tracks a particular market index: the S&P 500, Russell 2000 or MSCI EAFE (hence the name). Since there's no original strategy, not much active management is required, and so index funds have a lower cost structure than typical mutual funds.

What is the difference between index and index fund? ›

Index Basics

A stock index is a hypothetical portfolio of stocks - a list of names and numbers of shares - selected according to some established criteria. An index fund is a real mutual fund that buys stocks and holds them in a portfolio that approximates the index.

What are the difference between the four main types of mutual funds? ›

Each type has different features, risks, and rewards.
  • Money market funds have relatively low risks. ...
  • Bond funds have higher risks than money market funds because they typically aim to produce higher returns. ...
  • Stock funds invest in corporate stocks. ...
  • Target date funds hold a mix of stocks, bonds, and other investments.

What is the biggest difference between stocks and mutual funds? ›

The biggest difference between mutual funds and stocks is that stocks are an investment in a single company, whereas mutual funds have many investments — meaning potentially hundreds of stocks — in a single fund.

What advantages do mutual funds and index funds have over your typical single stock? ›

The primary reasons why an individual may choose to buy mutual funds instead of individual stocks are diversification, convenience, and lower costs.

What are index funds for dummies? ›

An “index fund” is a type of mutual fund or exchange-traded fund that seeks to track the returns of a market index. The S&P 500 Index, the Russell 2000 Index, and the Wilshire 5000 Total Market Index are just a few examples of market indexes that index funds may seek to track.

Why index funds are better? ›

Because actively managed funds often underperform the market, and index funds match it, passively managed index funds typically bring their investors better financial returns over the long term. Plus, they cost less, as management fees for actively managed investments tend to be higher.

What is mutual fund in simple words? ›

A mutual fund is a pool of money managed by a professional Fund Manager. It is a trust that collects money from a number of investors who share a common investment objective and invests the same in equities, bonds, money market instruments and/or other securities.

What are the pros and cons of an index fund? ›

Advantages and Disadvantages of Index Funds
Lower fees than actively managed fundsLittle downside protection (especially during bear markets)
Lower risk than actively managed fundsLower return potential
Hands-off; little research/knowledge necessaryNo control over fund composition
1 more row
Mar 7, 2023

How do you identify an index fund? ›

If you are looking at index investing, it's better to go with a broader index than select a few stocks in any segment. Therefore, avoid indices like Small Cap 50 and Mid Cap 50. If you compare the small-cap index with the mid-cap index, you will realise why the small-cap should be tactical.

Are index funds safe or mutual funds? ›

Index funds are generally considered safe because they don't rely too much on the performance of any individual stock, and they also don't rely on the competence of investment managers as actively managed mutual funds or hedge funds do.

Which type of fund is best? ›

Equity funds are the best mutual funds to invest in for the long term. Opt for a growth mutual fund option to easily reach your long-term goals, as the fund's returns will compound over time.

What is the most popular type of mutual fund? ›

Equity funds. Equity mutual funds buy stocks of a collection of publicly traded companies. Most mutual funds on the market (55%) are some type of equity fund, according to the Investment Company Institute.

What are the two main types of mutual funds? ›

Mutual funds fall into four main types: equity funds, bond funds, hybrid funds, and money market funds. Equity funds tend to be riskier, while bond funds are generally more risk averse. Knowing the different types can help investors find the one that best suits their financial goals.


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