Mutual funds may be right for you -- but they're an expensive way to invest. If you have the slightest inclination to "do it yourself" -- and make a lot more money -- this might help.

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. Yes, that includes the IRS.

Think about it. Uncle Sam takes a piece of every penny you earn, and that's trifling. But your fund manager is worse. He's not content with his cut of what you earn 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 the First 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. So, he rolls the dice on just four tech stocks.

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

  1. Cisco (NASDAQ:CSCO): $1,673,750
  2. Applied Materials (NASDAQ:AMAT): $178,239
  3. Sun Microsystems (NASDAQ:SUNW): $158,689
  4. Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM): $298,021

You could be sitting on $2.3 million! But mutual funds have a price, and it maybe a lot higher than you think.

Your $10,000 isn't worth $2.3 million!
You see, assuming your fund manager hits you up for a 2% fee (not cheap, but hardly unheard of), you would owe him about $37,000. That seems fair enough. After all, the fellow just made you $2.3 million. But there's a catch.

That $37,000 is for the last year alone. You've been paying out every year along the way. In fact, by New Year's Day 2000, you'd have paid that rascal more like $70,000 in fees, and the lost profits on those fees would have cost you a lot more -- another $340,000 or so. And that's 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 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 Citigroup (NYSE:C) and 3M (NYSE:MMM) right near the top, alongside other 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 Amgen (NASDAQ:AMGN) or some other massive gainer, what are the chances he would actually hold on for the entire ride? More likely, he'd 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 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 $322,129. 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 $5,000 you'd pay your fund manager ... in the past year alone! All told, you'd pay more than $25,000 and forfeit $62,000 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 $5,000.

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 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 sure isn't one you should approach with mixed feelings.

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

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

Fool writer Paul Elliott doesn't own any of the stocks mentioned. 3M is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy .

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.