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How to Choose an ETF for Your Portfolio


Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) have gained immense popularity among investors for their simplicity, diversification and low fees. Like individual stocks, ETFs are traded on stock exchanges. But unlike individual investments, ETFs provide investors with exposure to diversified portfolios without the need to buy assets individually. However, with a vast array of ETFs available, selecting the right one for your portfolio can be daunting. It’s important to understand how ETFs work, how to narrow your search and how to ultimately purchase these funds. A financial advisor can also help you determine which ETFs are right for your portfolio.

How ETFs Work

ETFs are designed to track the performance of a specific index, commodity, bond or group of assets. This means when you invest in an ETF, you’re essentially buying a share of a fund that aims to replicate the returns of its underlying assets. 

An ETF is split into shares that are bought and sold on exchanges. In essence, the process is quite similar to trading individual stocks. When ETFs are redeemed, the assets are sold and the proceeds are divided among the shareholders.

Being the unique hybrids they are, ETFs differentiate themselves from other investment options like mutual funds or individual stocks. For example, unlike mutual funds which can only be traded at the end of the trading day, ETFs can be traded throughout the day as their prices fluctuate with the market. This provides investors with more flexibility and liquidity. Additionally, they typically have lower expense ratios than mutual funds, making them more affordable investment options.

Types of ETFs

Sector ETFs focus on one particular segment of the economy, including the technology industry.

Different types of ETFs cater to different investment needs and strategies. For instance, sector ETFs focus on specific industries like technology, healthcare or energy. This might be an appealing option if you believe in the growth potential of a particular sector and desire concentrated exposure.

Commodity ETFs, like SPDR Gold Shares (GLD), track the price of a commodity like gold, oil, or corn. They can be an effective tool for inflation hedging and portfolio diversification during economic downturns.

Meanwhile, style ETFs target a specific investment style – growth (companies projected to grow rapidly) or value (companies considered underpriced by the market). Choosing between these largely depends on your investment philosophy. Investing in the iShares Russell 1000 Growth ETF (IWF), for example, might align with an aggressive growth strategy.

How to Narrow Your Selection of ETFs

The right ETF is one that marries its characteristics with your financial aspirations. To filter through the seemingly endless choices, consider aspects such as the ETF’s investment strategy, tracking error, expense ratio, and liquidity.

Pause for a moment and ask yourself these questions: What are my financial goals? How much risk can I tolerate? How much exposure do I want to a particular sector or asset?

Things to Consider in Your ETF Selection

Selecting the right ETF for your investment portfolio requires careful consideration. Here are key factors to keep in mind:


Analyze the ETF’s performance over various timeframes and compare it with its benchmark index and similar ETFs. However, always remember that past performance does not guarantee future results. Stay objective and don’t let past successes cloud your judgment.

ETF Structure

There are two structural types: physically-backed ETFs (owning assets they track) and synthetically-backed ETFs (using derivatives to replicate the index’s performance). Each carries its own set of risks and benefits. 

Trading Activity

Observe the ETF’s daily average trading volume. Generally, a higher volume means increased liquidity, which can lead to lower transaction costs.  High trading activity also ensures that you can buy or sell shares without difficulty, even during volatile market conditions.

Market Position

Look at current market trends and economic conditions. Depending on these factors, some ETFs may be better positioned for growth. Established and widely recognized ETFs often come with advantages like lower expense ratios, but newer ETFs may offer unique exposure to niche markets.

Investment Choices

Identify the types of assets included in the ETF as they can significantly affect its risk and return. For example, an ETF that incorporates risky assets may bring high potential returns but also carries considerable risk.

Level of Assets

The size of an ETF’s assets under management (AUM) can indicate its stability and popularity. Larger AUM may be a sign of investor trust, but it’s essential to balance this factor with other considerations. Smaller, niche ETFs can offer unique opportunities but may carry slightly higher risks.

Underlying Index

The ETF’s performance will be closely tied to the performance of its underlying index. Pay attention to the index methodology, constituents, and how often it rebalances. Make sure the index aligns with your investment strategy.

How to Buy an ETF

A woman looks over ETFs to potentially investing while lying on her couch.

Here’s a step-by-step look at the process of buying an ETF:

  • Research: Begin by understanding what ETFs are and the types available. Research their performance, expense ratios, and underlying assets to choose the right one for your goals.
  • Choose a brokerage: To buy ETFs, you’ll need to open a brokerage account if you don’t have one already. Compare different brokerages based on fees, available ETFs and user-friendliness. SmartAsset’s list of the best brokerage accounts can help you select an account. 
  • Open an account: Sign up for an account with your chosen brokerage. You’ll need to provide personal information and financial details.
  • Fund your account: Deposit funds into your brokerage account. Ensure you have enough to cover the cost of the ETF shares you want to buy.
  • Place an order: Search for the specific ETF you want and place an order. You can place a market order and buy the ETF at the current market price or use what’s called a limit order, whereby you name the price at which you want to buy.
  • Keep an eye on your investment: Monitor your ETF’s performance and make adjustments as needed to align with your investment objectives.

Bottom Line

Choosing suitable ETFs requires meticulous research, an understanding of markets and keen reflection on your financial goals. While it may seem overwhelming initially, if you possess the right knowledge, ETFs can potentially be the catalysts in your journey toward financial success. However, remember: every investment avenue has its pros and cons, and ETFs are no exception. Continue to educate yourself about personal finance, engage in strategic planning, and above all, invest thoughtfully and responsibly.

Investing Tips

  • Taxes can play an important role in the potential success of an investment portfolio and planning ahead for taxes is vital. SmartAsset’s capital gains calculator can help you estimate how much you could owe in taxes based on how long you’ve owned an asset.
  • A financial advisor can help you select and manage your investments. Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.

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