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Index Funds vs. ETFs for Newbie Investors

When you’re new to investing, figuring out which assets are the best fit for your portfolio can be tricky. For rookie investors, many recommend starting off investing in an index fund or an exchange-traded fund (ETF), as it provides diversification without requiring in-depth knowledge of the market. However, it’s important to understand the distinction between these two investment products since many investors frequently use the two terms interchangeably.

It’s easy to see why. Most all ETFs are themselves types of index funds, and many index funds are also ETFs. The two terms aren’t identical, however, and understanding how they can differ can help you to invest with a clearer purpose in mind.

How Index Funds Work

An index fund is a collection of securities that aims to track a specific market index or the market as a whole. For example, an index fund that tracks the S&P 500 would include stock holdings from all of the companies included in that index. Index funds can be mutual funds or ETFs. The quality that makes an index fund is in it’s purpose.

What’s great about index funds is that they allow you to get a broad exposure to the market as a whole. Because you’re investing in an entire index versus individual stocks, index funds don’t need to be actively managed by a fund manager. That’s a boon for investors since it typically translates to a lower expense ratio. That means you won’t have as many fees eating into your returns.

The lack of active management means that there’s less turnover. In other words, investors typically don’t buy and sell index funds as frequently as individual stocks. When dividends are paid out, they’re typically reinvested. Dividends are considered income, so you’ll pay taxes for them. But you won’t have to worry about paying capital gains tax until you sell your index funds.

Comparing Index Funds to ETFs

Index Funds vs. ETFs for Newbie Investors

Comparing index funds to ETFs is a difficult exercise because most ETFs can also classify as index funds. So, what we really mean to compare is index-tracking ETFs with index-tracking mutual funds.

Unlike index mutual funds, ETFs are traded on an exchange throughout the trading day, just like stocks. ETFs are highly liquid, (meaning that you can trade them easily) and their prices go up and down over the course of a single day. Mutual funds only trade once per day after the market has closed. They also carry many of the same benefits, like fewer taxable distributions and lower expense ratios.

On the other hand, investing in ETFs involves paying a commission fee to a broker every time you make a trade. If you’re using a discount broker, these fees may be $5 to $15 per trade, and they can add up quickly if you’re trading frequently.

Like index mutual funds, ETFs are typically passively managed, as they are attempting to match some sort of index benchmark rather than outperform it. This isn’t always the case — some ETFs are actively selected and managed — but it is for the most popular funds.

Which Is Better for Beginning Investors?

If you’re a new investor, the question of whether you should buy ETFs or index mutual funds ultimately comes down to how much money you have to invest and your trading preferences. The minimum cost to start investing in index mutual funds is typically higher than for an ETF.

If you’re looking to buy and sell shares multiple times per day, then you’ll want to opt for ETFs. However, don’t forget that commission fees can add up and effectively erase any gains that you make.

Regardless of which you choose, both products help you achieve a diverse portfolio without as much work as individual stock selection.

The Bottom Line

Index Funds vs. ETFs for Newbie Investors

Index funds and exchange-traded funds have a lot in common, but if you’re a new investor, it’s a good idea to do your research in order to understand the differences between the two. While index funds may be better for individuals who prefer a hands-off approach, some of them come with higher entry costs and fees. Investing in an ETF offers lower expense ratios and the potential for more active trading. However, that potential also comes with commission fees.

Tips for Investing Responsibly

  • If your investments pay off, you may owe the capital gains tax. Figure out how much you’ll pay when you sell your stocks with our capital gains tax calculator.
  • SmartAsset’s financial advisor matching tool makes it easier to find an advisor who meets your needs. First you’ll answer a series of questions about your situation and your goals. Then the program will narrow down your options to three registered investment advisors who suit your needs.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/DragonImages, ©iStock.com/ Vladimir Cetinski, ©iStock.com/joste_dj

Rebecca Lake Rebecca Lake has been writing about the nuts and bolts of personal finance for nearly a decade. She is an expert in investing, retirement and home buying topics. Her work has been featured on The Huffington Post, Business Insider, CBS News, U.S. News & World Report and Investopedia. As a homeschooling mom of two, she's always looking for ways to make the most of every dollar.
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