Quick quiz: How many people own an index fund that mirrors the S&P 500?

Good question
While we don't know the exact number, it's probably a lot. Consider: Two funds -- one a mutual fund, one an exchange-traded fund -- hold more than $175 billion in assets between them. Vanguard's famous 500 Index Fund (VFINX) sports total assets of $124 billion; its younger cousin, the SPDRs (SPY) ETF, holds $72 billion. By way of a useless comparison, New Zealand's GDP, the world's 53rd largest, is $103 billion.

But this is good. After all, 75% of actively managed mutual funds fail to beat the passive index each year, and the S&P's 10%-or-so historical annual return (with dividends) is pretty easy money. Even better, VFINX and SPY are two excellent low-cost options. So if you have money invested in one of these vehicles, good for you.

Thanks for the compliment, but so what?
Now take a holistic look at your portfolio. Do you also own shares of Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC), JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM), and IBM (NYSE:IBM)? If so, you may have unwittingly doubled down on these three market behemoths. That's because these three stocks are among the largest holdings in the Vanguard 500 Index Fund; they account for 3.2% of the fund's net assets. Or what if you hold shares of Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), which makes up another 0.9% (amounting to a market value of $1,077,122,844) of VFINX? Such concentrations essentially mean you've doubled down on a company -- so you'd better be confident in its growth potential.

The point is, if you invest in individual large caps and steer another hefty portion of your savings into the S&P 500, you may be heavily concentrated in one asset class: U.S. large caps. Now ask yourself: Is this the asset-allocation game plan you want?

Livin' large
Don't misunderstand: It's smart to hold dividend-paying large caps. They're steady. They make for smart anchors to your overall portfolio -- particularly if you can buy shares at good prices. (Indeed, we both own 3M.) But here's what large-cap stocks aren't: the best-performing stocks on the market.

No, that honor goes to small caps. In our Motley Fool Hidden Gems small-cap investing service, we define small caps as companies capitalized at less than $2 billion. There are only five small caps in the S&P 500, including Nicor (NYSE:GAS). There are only another 18 capitalized at less than $3 billion, such as OfficeMax (NYSE:OMX) and Compuware (NASDAQ:CPWR). These stocks compose 0.2% of Vanguard 500's holdings. That's right: 0.2%.

Add some spice
Even within the most conservative asset-allocation plan, there's room for more than just 0.2% of small-cap exposure -- be it 10%, 20%, or even 50%. (It depends on your investment timeline and risk tolerance.) That's because while small caps can be volatile, the returns will help you beat the market over the long term and maximize your savings, particularly if you can pick promising small caps.

That last goal is the mission of Hidden Gems. Boiled down, our methodology is simple: Bill Mann and Fool co-founder Tom Gardner start with the more than 3,000 small caps on the major exchanges, and they find the best ones by blending qualitative and quantitative research. The results? Since inception, the service is beating the S&P 500 by 35 percentage points on average. That kind of kick is worth adding to your index fund. Click here to learn more about a free trial.

This article was originally published on Aug. 24, 2006. It has been updated.

Tim Hanson and Brian Richards construct their portfolios like they would a Nintendo Ice Hockey team. Tim owns shares of 3M. Brian owns shares of 3M and VFINX. 3M is an Inside Value recommendation. JPMorgan is an Income Investor pick. Fool's disclosure policy floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee.

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.