Mutual funds may be the thing for you, but they're an expensive way to invest. 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 IRS.

Think about it. Uncle Sam takes a piece of every penny you earn, but your mutual fund manager is worse. He isn't 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 I assures us, "This will not stand." And 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. So, he rolls the dice on just four tech stocks.

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

  1. Hewlett-Packard (NASDAQ:HPQ): $25,625
  2. Nortel Networks (NYSE:NT): $45,736
  3. Adobe Systems (NASDAQ:ADBE): $37,254
  4. Motorola (NYSE:MOT): $26,215

Happy New Year! You could be sitting on $135,000! But mutual funds have a price -- maybe a lot more than you think.

Surprise! Your $10,000 isn't worth $135,000
Assuming your fund manager hits you up for a 2% fee (not cheap, but hardly unheard of), you would owe him roughly $2,250. That seems fair enough. After all, the fellow just made you $135,000. But there's a catch.

That $2,250 is for the last year alone. You've been paying out every year. In fact, by New Year's Day 2000, you'd have paid that rascal nearly $10,000 in fees, and the lost profits on those fees would have cost you $25,000. And that's just over 10 short years!

That's a high price, but 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'll spare you the trouble: You'll find Bank of America (NYSE:BAC) and Altria (NYSE:MO) right near the top, alongside other of the usual suspects. Now, run down the top holdings in your mutual funds. See anything familiar?

Worse, even if your fund manager did stumble on a category-killer like Medtronic (NYSE:MDT) or any other 10-bagger for that matter, what are the chances she would actually hold on for the entire ride? More likely she would have bought and sold it many times over. You guessed it: In addition to the outrageous annual fee, you'd have gotten murdered on 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 to their Motley Fool Stock Advisor members have returned 22.8% 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 just $1,000 a year, you'd wind up with approximately $320,000. 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 (about $8,000) would pale in relation to the more than $20,000 you'd pay your fund manager (who charges the average 1.5% expense ratio) -- and you'd forfeit $70,000 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 manager 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 few thousand.

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 Advisor free for 30 days instead. David and Tom can't guarantee you 22.8% 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). That should be your goal, after all -- and it certainly 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.

This article was originally published on June 13, 2006. It has been updated.

Fool writer Paul Elliott owns shares of Bank of America, which is a Motley Fool Income Investor pick. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.