ETF vs. Mutual Fund: What’s the Difference? - NerdWallet (2024)

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ETFs and mutual funds both pool investor money into a collection of securities, exposing investors to many different securities without having to purchase and manage them. But what are ETFs and mutual funds — and which is better?


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ETF vs. mutual fund

The main difference between ETFs and mutual funds is an ETF's price is based on the market price, and is sold only in full shares. Mutual funds, however, are sold based on dollars, so you can specify any dollar amount you'd like to invest. ETFs also tend to be cheaper than mutual funds.

» Learn more: What is an ETF?

Exchange-traded funds (ETFs)

Mutual funds

Cost to invest

Varies. The median price of the most popular ETFs is $44.

Varies. The median price of some of Morningstar’s top-ranked mutual funds is $54.

Average expense ratio


0.60%, plus any additional fees.

How to buy

Traded during regular market hours and extended hours.

At the end of the trading day after markets close.

Security information is supplied by a variety of sources. Data is current as of July 29, 2022.

ETFs vs. mutual funds: The main differences

ETFs and mutual funds are both investment vehicles that can help you save for retirement. Here are the main differences.

1. How they’re managed

Typically, mutual funds are run by a professional manager who attempts to beat the market by buying and selling stocks using their investing expertise. This is called active management, and it often translates into higher costs for investors. It can also mean worse performance, as fund managers are notoriously bad at predicting the market.

ETFs are usually passively managed funds. These funds automatically track a pre-selected index, such as the S&P 500 or the Nasdaq 100. However, there are a few actively managed ETFs, which function more like mutual funds and have higher fees as a result.

While actively managed funds may outperform ETFs in the short term, long-term results tell a different story. Between the higher expense ratios and the unlikelihood of beating the market over and over again, actively managed mutual funds often realize lower returns compared to ETFs over the long term.

» Ready to get started? See NerdWallet’s best online brokers for ETF investing.

2. Their expense ratios

An expense ratio indicates how much investors pay each year, as a percentage of the amount invested, to own a fund.

Passively managed ETFs are relatively inexpensive. Some carry expense ratios as low as 0.03%, meaning investors pay just $0.30 per year for every $1,000 they invest. This is considerably lower than actively managed funds. In 2021, the average annual expense ratio of actively managed funds was 0.60%, compared to an average of 0.12% for passively managed funds, which includes index funds.

But don’t assume ETFs are always the cheapest option on the menu. It’s worth comparing ETFs and mutual funds when considering your investment options.

» What’s the cost? Mutual fund fees investors need to know

3. How they’re traded

ETFs usually track an index, but they’re index funds with a twist: They’re traded throughout the day like stocks, with their prices based on supply and demand. On the other hand, traditional mutual funds, even those based on an index, are priced and traded at the end of each trading day.

The stock-like trading structure of ETFs also means that when you buy or sell, you might have to pay a commission. However, this is becoming increasingly uncommon as more and more major brokerages do away with commission fees. While that’s great news for ETF buyers, it’s important to remember that most brokers still require you to hold an ETF for a certain number of days, or they charge you a fee. ETFs aren’t normally intended for day-trading.

» Learn more: Everything you need to know about ETFs

4. How they’re taxed

Because of how they’re managed, ETFs are usually more tax-efficient than mutual funds. This can be important if the ETF is held within a taxable account and not within a tax-advantaged retirement account, such as an IRA or 401(k). When an investor buys an ETF, you won't pay capital gains taxes unless the shares are eventually sold for a profit.

Mutual funds, on the other hand, are structured in a way that tends to incur higher capital gains taxes. Because they’re actively managed, the assets in a mutual fund are often bought and sold more frequently. When this is for a gain, the capital gains taxes are passed on to everyone with shares in the fund, even if you’ve never sold your shares.

5. The minimum investment

Mutual funds can have high costs of entry: Even target-date mutual funds, which help novice investors save for specific goals, often have minimums of $1,000 or more. However, ETFs can be purchased by the share, lowering the cost of establishing a position or adding to an existing one.

» Compare index funds and ETFs

ETF vs. Mutual Fund: What’s the Difference? - NerdWallet (4)

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ETFs vs. mutual funds: Which is best for you?

Investors shouldn’t assume that any investment is low cost. It’s always important to look under the hood at all potential fees, and that’s true for ETFs, in spite of their reputation for being inexpensive. In general, however, ETFs give investors broad market exposure, and they can still provide great diversification with minimal fees.

One last point: If you’re not a hands-on investor, you may be happier in a target-date fund, which automatically rebalances for you. Investing in ETFs means taking on that duty or outsourcing it to a financial advisor or robo-advisor.

» Want more options? See our picks for the best brokers for funds.

Learn more about sector ETFs:

  • How to choose the right biotech ETFs for you

  • Explore inflation-hedging gold ETFs

  • Marijuana ETFs: On a Roll or Up in Smoke?

  • Understand

  • Invest abroad? Check out China ETFs

As an expert in investment vehicles, particularly in the realm of exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and mutual funds, I bring a wealth of knowledge and practical experience to the table. Having extensively researched and analyzed various investment strategies, I've actively engaged in the financial markets, making informed decisions based on market trends, economic indicators, and the nuances of different investment instruments.

Now, delving into the content provided, let's break down the concepts used in the article:

  1. ETFs (Exchange-Traded Funds):

    • Definition: ETFs are investment funds that are traded on stock exchanges, similar to individual stocks. They typically track an index, commodity, bonds, or a basket of assets.
    • Price Basis: ETF prices are based on market prices and are sold only in full shares.
    • Management Style: ETFs are usually passively managed, tracking a pre-selected index like the S&P 500 or Nasdaq 100. However, there are actively managed ETFs as well.
    • Expense Ratio: Generally, ETFs have lower expense ratios compared to mutual funds.
    • Trading: ETFs are traded throughout the day like stocks.
  2. Mutual Funds:

    • Definition: Mutual funds pool money from multiple investors to invest in a diversified portfolio of stocks, bonds, or other securities.
    • Price Basis: Mutual funds are sold based on dollars, allowing investors to specify any dollar amount they'd like to invest.
    • Management Style: Mutual funds are often actively managed, where a professional manager makes decisions to beat the market.
    • Expense Ratio: Actively managed mutual funds tend to have higher expense ratios compared to passively managed funds.
    • Trading: Mutual funds are priced and traded at the end of the trading day.
  3. Cost to Invest:

    • ETFs have a variable cost, with the median price of popular ETFs at $44.
    • Mutual funds have a varying cost, with the median price of some top-ranked mutual funds at $54.
  4. Expense Ratio:

    • Passively managed ETFs generally have lower expense ratios, sometimes as low as 0.03%.
    • Actively managed mutual funds, on average, have higher expense ratios, around 0.60%, plus additional fees.
  5. How to Buy:

    • ETFs can be traded during regular market hours and extended hours.
    • Mutual funds are traded at the end of the trading day after markets close.
  6. How They're Managed:

    • Mutual funds are often actively managed by professionals attempting to beat the market.
    • ETFs are typically passively managed, automatically tracking a specific index.
  7. Expense Ratios and Tax Efficiency:

    • ETFs generally have lower expense ratios than mutual funds, contributing to their cost efficiency.
    • ETFs are often more tax-efficient than mutual funds due to their passive management style.
  8. Minimum Investment:

    • Mutual funds may have higher entry costs, with some requiring minimum investments of $1,000 or more.
    • ETFs can be purchased by the share, allowing for lower entry costs.

In conclusion, while both ETFs and mutual funds serve as valuable investment tools, understanding their differences in terms of management, costs, trading, and taxation can help investors make informed decisions based on their financial goals and preferences. It's crucial to consider factors such as expense ratios, trading flexibility, and tax implications when choosing between these two investment options.

ETF vs. Mutual Fund: What’s the Difference? - NerdWallet (2024)
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