Too often investors choosing an investment program are so concerned with maximizing their returns they forget to ask the most important question:

What will it cost me?

Without this question, investors run a high risk of reducing investment returns. This negligence is not entirely an investor's fault -- it often results from years of tireless efforts of the money management industry to prevent you from thinking to ask.

Why is this the $64,000 question? Consider the following example.

A little means a lot
A recent New York Times article described two investors, one at Fund A and one at Fund B. They each have $20,000 in the same investments. After leaving these investments untouched for 30 years earning 7% a year, the worth of Fund A grows to $132,000. But the investor in Fund B ends up with investments worth $99,600. What accounts for the disparity in returns?

The difference went to expenses. At Fund A, annual expenses came to 0.5% of assets. In Fund B, investors paid 1.5%. This 1% difference cost investor B more than $32,000.

Imagine the significance when millions are invested.

The order of importance
Before investors consider returns, they must consider the expenses. If you want to invest in mutual funds, consider management and past performance factors, which as we all know is in the past, after you ask about your expenses.

A track record gains importance and meaning the more mature it is. But if you are paying 3% in annual expenses, you need to understand what that cost structure means to you and your net results.

Similarly, if investing solo is the route for you, pay attention to brokerage fees and commissions. Thankfully, today the availability of online brokers has given both big and small investors, opportunities to invest at minimal cost.

True, if you are buying shares in $100,000 blocks, paying a good broker $200 represents a cost of only 0.2%, and it's well worth it if you can acquire the shares without having the price go up.

Follow the leaders
One of the best investment vehicles is available to investors without the asset management fees typical of funds.

Over the past 40 years, Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK-A) (NYSE:BRK-B), has returned more than 20% a year and is run by one of the most successful money managers in the world, Warren Buffett. The company holds a portfolio of securities handpicked by Buffett, and GEICO President and CEO Lou Simpson. It doesn't charge you a management fee.

When you invest money in shares of Berkshire, you will get Buffett's investment management skills for free. He doesn't charge you 2% of the value of your shares each year for managing Berkshire's float. And when he sells investment at a gain, you aren't hit with a 20% performance fee. When Buffett recently sold Berkshire's investment in PetroChina (NYSE:PTR) for a nearly $3 billion gain, there were no asset management or other fees.

Similar to Berkshire is Sears Holdings (NASDAQ:SHLD), led by one of this era's most prominent investment leaders, Eddie Lampert. With Sears's recent retail disappointments, investors can get in at what looks like an excellent entry price.

To appreciate this opportunity, don't consider Sears as a retailer, but as an investment vehicle run by an excellent capital allocator. After all, Berkshire was once a textile company. With Lampert's recent offer to take over Restoration Hardware, he might want to give Sears another store-within-a-store look, similar to Land's End. On the other hand, his stakes in Citigroup (NYSE:C) and AutoNation (NYSE:AN) might signal the beginning of something else.

Putting Berkshire and Sears aside, there are other excellent investment operations that charge reasonable fees for the talent and brains you'd get. Two that come to mind are the Fairholme Funds (FAIRX), run by longtime Buffett fan Bruce Berkowitz, and the Longleaf Funds, headed by value investor Mason Hawkins.

Invest in the stock market same as the supermarket
Foolish investing seeks lower costs and helps improve the returns you can expect to earn. The next time you invest, make sure to ask yourself: What will it cost me?

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Fool contributor Sham Gad is managing partner of the Gad Partners Fund, a value-centric investment partnership operating in ways similar to the 1950s Buffett Partnerships. He has no stakes in the companies mentioned. He can be reached at sham@gadcapital.com or by visiting www.gadcapital.com. Berkshire Hathaway is a recommendation of both Stock Advisor and Inside Value. The Motley Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. The Fool has a disclosure policy.