Vanguard has always led the way in making its funds shareholder-friendly, including offering some of the cheapest actively managed, index, and exchange-traded funds around. Now Vanguard has made it even simpler for cash-strapped investors to buy into several of its formerly high-minimum mutual funds.

Lowing the bar
Vanguard recently announced that it would standardize the investment minimum for its Investor class shares at $3,000. That means that 15 of the shop's mutual funds that sported $10,000 and even $25,000 minimums are now available for the lower $3,000 price point. Vanguard also lowered the minimum for its series of 12 Target Retirement funds from $3,000 to $1,000. This is clearly good news for mutual fund investors -- but which of these newly cheap funds is the best bet for your dollars?

Well, if you're in the market for a target retirement fund, Vanguard's lineup is one of the best in the business. Expenses range from 0.16% to 0.19%, compared to the 1.17% average for all target date funds, according to Lipper data.

Furthermore, all of Vanguard's target-date funds rank in the top 25% of their respective peer groups over the most recent three-year period (with the exception of the newly created Vanguard Target Retirement 2055 Fund (VFFVX) which doesn't have a three-year record yet). And all six of the funds with a five-year history rank in the top 20% of their peer groups over that time frame. So if you want some assistance in the asset allocation decision-making process, and you want a set-it-and-forget-it type of fund that automatically adjusts its equity exposure over time, selecting the Vanguard target date fund closest to your retirement date is a pretty reasonable option.

The best of the best
But for investors who want to create their own asset allocation, there are several decent choices among the list of funds with newly lowered minimums. One of my favorites here is Vanguard Wellington (VWELX). This balanced fund invests in a mix of dividend-paying large-cap stocks and high-quality corporate bonds. Blue-chip names such as AT&T (NYSE: T), Chevron (NYSE: CVX), and Pfizer (NYSE: PFE) all of which currently sport a dividend yield in excess of 3%, account for some of the fund's largest equity positions, since management thinks they are among the best stocks to provide equity income. On the fixed income side, management has been leaning into REIT and utility bonds, while still maintaining its A-rated average credit quality.

Another solid option is Vanguard Windsor II (VWNFX), a large-cap value fund managed by six subadvisors, including Barrow, Hanley, Mewhinney, and Strauss, which handles roughly 60% of the portfolio. While manager Jim Barrow looks for high-yielding, out-of-favor stocks such as Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC), JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM), and recent portfolio addition XL Group (NYSE: XL), the other subadvisors follow their own individual investment approaches. The resulting portfolio is a solid value-oriented offering that currently ranks in the top quartile of its peer group over the past 15 years. And with a low 0.35% expense ratio, Vanguard Windsor II is one of the cheapest actively managed value funds around, making it a fine choice for nearly any investor.

Yellow light ahead
Fund watchers also noted that the closed Vanguard PRIMECAP (VPMCX) and Vanguard PRIMECAP Core (VPCCX) funds also had their minimums reduced to $3,000 from $25,000 and $10,000, respectively. This has led some to speculate that either one or both funds may reopen to new investors in the near future.

I'm not sure how likely this is, given that the funds would likely be flooded with new money, since they both boast first-rate performance track records. I wouldn't hold your breath for either fund to open to new business, but if by chance they do, I would recommend investors get in while they can. The PRIMECAP team is one of the best investing teams around, and it's a sure thing that the funds would close again before long.

However, there is one fund on the newly reduced minimum list with which I recommend investors exercise caution with right now: Vanguard Precious Metals & Mining (VGPMX). While investors' interest in this sector has been overwhelming in light of the hot performance of precious metals such as gold and silver, you should be careful about buying in at current prices.

Higher prices mean higher risk, and while precious metals, and the stock prices of the companies that mine them, may still go much higher, investors getting in now need to keep a long-term focus as the risk of a correction or pullback mounts. Returns won't always look this good on an absolute basis, and volatility at the fund has been quite high, as is the norm for this sector. The fund itself is actually rather well-run, but investors really need to temper expectations for the near-term.

Ultimately, I'm very glad to see Vanguard reduce the minimums on this group of funds, making them more widely available to investors with limited assets. If you're looking to stuff some of your cash into a new investment, be sure to check out Vanguard's freshly reduced fund lineup for some excellent, and inexpensive, options.