Mutual funds may be just the thing for you. But they're an expensive way to invest, so if you have even the slightest inclination to "do it yourself" -- and make a lot more money -- you'd better read this.

I just want what's coming to me!
With the possible exception of local property taxes, no mechanism known to man picks your pocket more efficiently than the U.S. mutual fund industry. And yes, that includes the dreaded IRS.

How so? Well, Uncle Sam takes a piece of every penny you earn, and that's a sorry state. But your mutual fund manager does worse. He's not content with his cut of what your money earns each year (we'll assume for now that he actually makes you money). No, your fund manager wants more -- much more.

When I tell you how much more, you may not believe it. So I'll warm you up with a quick example.

Wahoo! My fund manager's a genius!
The year is 1990. The economy is stagnant, Saddam Hussein is rattling his saber, and President Bush assures us that "this will not stand." You just dumped 10 grand into the greatest mutual fund in the history of the world.

That's because your fund manager doesn't buy the gloom and doom, and he doesn't buy diversification. He buys technology. Your fund manager rolls the dice on just three stocks: Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), Dell (NASDAQ:DELL), and Oracle (NASDAQ:ORCL).

You hit paydirt! Now it's New Year's Day 2000, and just look at what's become of your $10,000 stake before expenses ...

  1. Microsoft: $313,395
  2. Dell: $2,833,333
  3. Oracle: $155,611

Your total assets under management could be $3.3 million! But mutual funds have a price -- and maybe a lot more than you think.

Your $10,000 isn't worth $3.3 million!
Assuming your fund manager hits you up for a 2% fee (not cheap, but hardly unheard of), you would owe roughly $55,000. That seems fair enough. After all, the fellow just made you $3 million.

The math-inclined are probably saying: "Wait, $55,000 isn't 2% of $3.3 million." That's because there's a catch: You pay your fund manager every year.

By New Year's Day 2000, you'd actually have paid your fund manager nearly $130,000 in fees, and those annual fees would have cost you more than $600,000 in gains. That's a high price.

It gets worse. Imagine if you'd invested $20,000 instead of $10,000. You'd be paying twice as much! And what do you get for all that extra money -- for paying twice as much? Not a darn thing, as far as I can tell.

Oh, yes, it gets worse still
Now, what if it turns out you're paying for nothing? I mean, let's face it, you're not going to buy into a miracle fund like the one I just described. Your fund manager won't be a genius. More likely, he'll be an Ivy League MBA looking to keep his job and follow the herd -- or worse.

Don't believe me? Look no further than the list of widely held institutional stocks. I guarantee you'll find at least two of the three we just discussed, plus General Electric (NYSE:GE), Intel (NASDAQ:INTC), and ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM). Now, run down the top holdings in your mutual funds. See anything familiar?

Worse, even if your fund manager did stumble on Electronic Arts (NASDAQ:ERTS) or some other stealth 1,000% gainer, what are the chances he would actually hold on for the entire ride? More likely, that fund manager of yours would have bought and sold it many times over. You guessed it: In addition to the outrageous annual fee, you'd have paid taxes and transaction costs!

There may be a better solution
Just this morning, I was looking over Mark Hulbert's latest audit of the results for some of the nation's top investment newsletters. According to Hulbert Interactive, the stocks David and Tom Gardner have recommended in Motley Fool Stock Advisor have returned 24.2% annualized (three times better than the S&P 500) since the newsletter's 2002 inception.

For the sake of argument, let's say you earned precisely that return for the next 20 years. If you managed to sock away $500 a year, you'd wind up with $193,186. For that, you'd pay the broker commissions (say, $10 a trade) plus the cost of your annual subscription.

That might sound like a lot until you compare it with what you'd pay to own the same stocks in a mutual fund. In fact, all those expenses added up over 20 years would pale in relation to the nearly $3,000 you'd pay your fund manager ... in the past year alone! All told, you'd pay more than $15,000 and forfeit $50,000 in gains.

So, you see why the IRS wants in
After all, in any given year, the IRS can tax you only on what you earn. Your mutual fund managers takes a cut of everything you have ... year after year after year. In other words, even if you don't make a cent in year 21 of our previous example, be prepared to hand over another $3,000.

For all that, it's just possible you have no interest whatsoever in buying, much less researching, your own investments -- even with the help of a newsletter service such as Stock Advisor. If so, mutual funds may be the only game in town. It definitely beats staying out of the market, but you can agree it's a broken model.

Here's something to at least consider
If you balk at buying some guy you don't even know a house in the Hamptons, try Stock Advisorfree for 30 days instead. David and Tom can't guarantee you 24.2% every year -- or that they will always thump the S&P 500 by so much. But that's their explicit goal, and something 75% of mutual fund managers don't do.

Best of all, as your portfolio grows, your costs won't. It won't set you back two grand a year to join the $100,000 club ... or $120,000 a year to be the $6 million man (or woman). And that should be your goal, after all -- and it sure isn't one you should approach with mixed feelings.

To steal a phrase from that sour-faced know-it-all on the TDAmeritrade commercials, "You can do this." For a little help, give Stock Advisor a try. It's free, and there's no obligation. Click here.

Fool writer Paul Elliott doesn't own any of the stocks mentioned. Dell and Electronic Arts are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. Dell, Intel, and Microsoft are Motley Fool Inside Value picks. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.