How to Invest in Mutual Funds

Updated: April 20, 2020, 11:36 a.m.

Investing in a mutual fund, a collection of investment assets packaged as a single security, can be a great way to get exposure to the stock market, bonds, and other types of asset classes. Here are some things you should understand as you get started:

  • The difference between active and passive funds
  • Expense ratios and other costs
  • The difference between stock- and bond-based mutual funds
  • Minimum investment requirements
  • How to open a brokerage account
  • What you should do after you buy a mutual fund

With this list in mind, here's an overview of what to know before you buy your first mutual fund investment.

How to pick mutual funds

When shopping for mutual funds, all investors should consider the following:

Active vs. passive funds

First, you should understand the difference between an active mutual fund and a passive one. An active mutual fund employs managers who select investments for the fund, while a passive mutual fund simply tracks a benchmark stock index, such as the S&P 500. The goal of an active mutual fund is to beat the performance of a particular index, while the goal of a passive mutual fund is to match it.

In practice, however, the majority of active mutual funds don't beat their benchmark indices. There are some excellent active mutual funds, but it's essential to take a close look at a fund's track record before investing.

Expense ratio and other costs

Second, you should know how much the mutual fund costs. The main type of fee you should know is the expense ratio, which is the percentage of the fund's assets that go toward annual fees. For example, a 1% expense ratio means that you're paying $100 in annual investment fees on a $10,000 account. Passive mutual funds (also known as index funds) tend to have expense ratios in the 0.03%-0.25% range, while active mutual funds tend to have higher expense ratios -- usually 0.5% or higher -- because they have the added expense of paying investment managers.

Some funds charge a sales commission, known as a sales load or simply a load. A front-end load is a commission paid when you buy the fund, while a back-end load is a commission paid when you sell. That said, there are many great no-load mutual funds in the market, so you should generally avoid any mutual fund with a sales load.

Stocks vs. bonds

You can find mutual funds that invest in many asset classes, but most invest in either stocks (equities) or bonds (fixed income). Investors should generally have some of each in their portfolio, with older and less risk-tolerant investors focusing more on bonds, and younger investors maintaining a more stock-heavy allocation.

One good rule of thumb is to take your age and subtract it from 110 to get a ballpark idea of your appropriate stock allocation. For example, if you're 40, this tells you that you should have roughly 70% of your invested assets in stocks (or stock-based mutual funds) with the other 30% in bonds or fixed-income investments.

Other Investment Options

How much to invest in mutual funds

You should weigh a couple of factors when considering how much to invest. First, most mutual funds have minimum investment requirements. As an example, one of the most widely held active mutual funds, the Dodge & Cox Stock Fund (NASDAQMUTFUND:DODGX), has a $2,500 minimum initial investment for standard accounts and a $1,000 minimum if you’re investing through an IRA. Subsequent investments must also be at least $100. Be sure to check fund minimums before investing.

The other consideration is how much of your portfolio should be in mutual funds, and this depends entirely on your financial needs. If you want to keep your investments on autopilot, there's absolutely nothing wrong with having a portfolio made entirely of mutual funds. On the other hand, if you have the time, knowledge, and desire to invest in some individual stocks, mutual funds can help form a nice "core" for your portfolio.

How to buy mutual funds

When it comes to actually buying mutual funds, you have two main choices. First, you can open an online brokerage account and place your mutual fund orders through there. You'll need the ticker symbol (a five-letter abbreviation) for your desired mutual funds.

The brokerage route is a great choice if you want to own mutual funds from several different firms or if you want to maintain a portfolio of mutual funds and stocks all in one place. It's also a good option if you aren't sure what mutual funds you want, as many of the top online brokers have excellent mutual fund screening and research tools.

Alternatively, you can open an account and buy mutual funds directly through the companies that offer them. For example, if you want to invest in a mutual fund offered by T. Rowe Price (NASDAQ:TROW), you can do so directly through the company.

Find the Right Brokerage

Ready to get started investing in mutual funds? Find the best brokerage for your needs.

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How to own mutual funds

Finally, it's worth discussing what you should do after you invest in mutual funds.

First of all, you may want to consider setting up dollar-cost averaging, which essentially means making regular investments in your funds at specific intervals -- like, for instance, $100 per month. With this practice, you'll automatically buy more shares when prices are low and fewer when prices are high. As mentioned earlier, mutual funds generally have smaller requirements when it comes to making subsequent investments, so it's a smart idea to add to your mutual fund investments regularly.

Second, it's important to occasionally assess your portfolio and rebalance if needed. Through the natural course of market movements, you might find that your asset allocation shifts. For example, if you're targeting an allocation of 60% stocks and 40% bonds with your mutual funds, strong stock market performance could push this to 70%/30%. In order to keep your portfolio's risk level appropriate to your situation, it's important to conduct this checkup every year or so.

The bottom line is that mutual funds can be a great means of investing for the long term without having to worry about selecting individual stocks and bonds. By understanding the basic concepts discussed here, you'll be equipped to construct a rock-solid mutual fund portfolio of your own.

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