Mutual funds may be fine for you ... but they're still expensive. If you have the slightest inclination to "do it yourself" -- and make 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 I know picks your pocket more efficiently than the U.S. mutual fund industry. And yes, that includes the IRS.

How so? Well, Uncle Sam takes a piece of every penny you earn, and that's bad. But your mutual fund manager isn't content with a cut of what your money earns each year (we'll assume he or she actually makes you money). No, your fund manager wants more -- much more.

When I tell you how much more, you may be angry. So I'll warm you up with a quick example.

Woohoo! My manager's a genius!
The year is 1990. The economy is stagnant, Saddam Hussein is rattling his saber, and President Bush assures us "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  doesn't buy diversification. Your manager buys technology, rolling 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:

  • Microsoft: $313,395
  • Dell: $2,833,333
  • Oracle: $155,611

You're sitting on $3.3 million, right? Wrong. Mutual funds have a price, and that price may be higher than you imagine.

Your $10,000 isn't worth $3.3 million!
You see, assuming your fund manager hits you up for a 2% fee (not cheap, but hardly unheard of), you would owe about $55,000. That seems fair enough. After all, he or she just made you $3.3 million. But there's a catch.

That $55,000 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 about $130,000 in fees, and the lost profits on those fees have cost you a lot more -- another $600,000 or so. And that's over 10 short years!

That's about $730,000 -- 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.

It gets worse
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 isn't a genius. More likely, the manager's an Ivy League MBA wanting to keep that 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 10-bagger, what are the chances they would hold on for the entire ride? More likely, they'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 fees!

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 20% 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 $1,000 a year, you'd wind up with $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 (roughly $8,000) would pale in relation to the nearly $80,000 you'd forfeit in fee and lost gains.

You can 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 take 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, you may have no interest whatsoever in buying 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.

Something to consider
If you balk at buying a house in the Hamptons for somebody you don't even know, try Stock Advisor free for 30 days instead. David and Tom can't guarantee you 20% every year -- or that they will always thump the S&P 500 by so much. But that's their sworn mission, and something 75% of mutual fund managers do not 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 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 for 30 days, and there's no obligation. To learn more, click here now.

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

Fool contributor Paul Elliott doesn't own any of the stocks mentioned. Electronic Arts is a Stock Advisor recommendation. Dell, Intel, and Microsoft are Inside Value picks. You can see all of David and Tom's Stock Advisor picks instantly with your free trial. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy that prefers Assateague to the Hamptons.