What are Mutual Funds and How Do I Invest in Them?

What Are Mutual FundsWhat holds you back from investing? Is it stocks? Do they scare you to death? If they do, I really don’t blame you.

All the “ifs” in the beginning can be overwhelming!

Which ones do I pick?

Where will I find the right stock metrics and information to tell me?

Why do they keep bouncing around in price?  How long until I have a heart-attack?

Would you prefer a way to “stick your toe in the water” and not have to deal with such wild fluctuations? If so, then let me introduce you to the world of mutual funds. “What are mutual funds” you ask?

Well, for starters, they are where I started when I first invested – long before I ever bought my first shares of individual stock. But even today, after everything else I’ve learned, mutual funds still play a very important role in my investment strategy.

Here is your introduction into the world of mutual funds …


What are Mutual Funds?

Rather than give you the boring text-book answer, I’m going to illustrate how mutual funds work! To begin, let’s pretend we’re going to buy some stocks and we want to look closely at our risk.

Consider what happens if you buy one stock.

You could get lucky and it might go up. Or you could be really unlucky and watch it go all the way down to $0!! Ouch! I wouldn’t put my whole retirement account here! Too much risk!!!

So let’s instead buy five stocks.

This a little better. Maybe one or two of them will do good, and we’ll make a little money. On the down-side, perhaps one of two of them will do really poorly. But that’s okay because the good and bad have better chances of averaging out. But we still have the possibility that all five could go to $0! So we’re not exactly bullet-proof yet. Keep going ….

Now let’s buy five-hundred different stocks!

All right!! Even though the whole market may cycle up and down, our chances of going broke have been dramatically reduced!

But wait! I can’t afford five-hundred different stocks! At $7.95 per share, that’s $7.95 x 500 = $3,975 in stock commissions!! I don’t want to pay that!

Okay, so what if we get a few friends to help out? Let’s get you, me, and a few thousand other people to pool our money together in such a way that the commission costs are basically negligible.

In a nut-shell, this pooling of money to create a basket of investments is what mutual funds are!


Mutual Funds Can Be Virtually Any Combination of Investments:

Don’t take my overly simple example too literally. Mutual funds don’t necessarily have to be just stocks. A mutual fund can be virtually any number and any combination of investments:

• Stocks (value, growth, large, small, domestic, foreign, etc)

• Bonds (government, corporate, junk, municipal, etc)

• Cash (CD’s, money market, etc)

• Real estate

• Even other mutual funds!

• And a lot more ….

The exact number of things in our “basket” is different and often changing all the time. Most people who own mutual funds have little knowledge of the details of what is specifically inside them. More often, you the investor is more focused on the goals of the mutual funds.


The Goal of Mutual Funds:

Why are there so many combinations of mutual funds out there? Because each one has a specific goal for a specific type of investor:

• To make a lot of money (but take on more risk). For example, you could buy mutual funds that invest heavy in foreign stocks or real estate. Will it make you a lot of money? Maybe. Could you also lose a lot of money. Probably!

• To be ultra-safe (but possibly not return as much money). For example, you could buy mutual funds that invest in the safety of government bonds. Will you get rich? Probably not very quickly. But will you lose all your money? Not very likely!

• And everything in between ….

One of the biggest criticisms of mutual funds are that they move too slow. Most lack the sexy allure of making ten times your money in one year like some hot, unknown tech stock!

But at the same time, you rarely hear people complaining about how much money they’ve lost in a mutual fund. It’s pretty rare to lose 90% of your investment like you could at any given minute with some ill-chosen stock pick.

So even though they may not rock the boat the way individual stocks might, mutual funds still have to be selected with great care.


What to Look For in Mutual Funds:

There are always two main things to look for in mutual funds:

1. Performance: We all want to make more money, right? Isn’t this the reason we invest? So to do so, you need to find a fund that has a great record of performance (i.e. hasn’t lost a lot of money over the years). Please read my post How to Pick Good Mutual Funds for Your 401k or Retirement Plan and replace the word 401k with IRA, 403b, or even just your brokerage account. The principles will still be the same. Please note – past performance will never tell you how much you’re going to make in the future, but it can help you avoid losers!

2. Expenses: Going back to my example above with trying to buy 500 stocks, mutual funds have to cost something because there will always be some costs associated with acquiring the stocks, bonds, etc and then selling them. Some mutual funds will even have to pay a manager to make decisions about what investments it is going to have (called active funds). Others will simply follow a known bench-mark or index (a group of stocks that people already pay attention to) like the S&P 500 or Dow, and will not be actively managed (called passive funds). Overall, you want your fees to be as low as possible, and they can be reduced down to the following three categories …


What Do Mutual Funds Cost and Where Do I Find Them?

To keep things very simple, here is a brief summary of the different types of expenses that come with owning mutual funds and your strategy for keeping them as low as possible:

1. Taxes. We all know that we have to pay taxes on most things. Taxes on mutual funds are only avoidable if you are using a retirement account to buy them. For example, if you buy mutual funds through a 401k, 403b, traditional IRA or something similar, then you won’t pay any taxes until you retire. My advice – Even though you’ll pay taxes on them now, I suggest buying your mutual funds through a Roth IRA because of the advantages later on in life. Usually when you go to buy them, the broker will give you the option of buying them for an IRA or just as a regular-old taxed investment account.

2. Loads. The word “Load” means “fee”. If you ever hear the words “front load” or “back load”, run for the hills! Back when mutual funds first came out, it was pretty common to see these extra one-time fees associated with a mutual fund. But times are different and you can do better! Today, you want a “no-load fund” (meaning no fees) and there are plenty of good ones out there.

3. Expense ratio. An expense ratio is a fee you pay (expressed as a percentage) every year for the management of the fund. This one is unavoidable, but manageable. For the reason I presented above, you will always have to pay something for the convenience of owning this group of investments. But you don’t have to break the bank! My advice – seek great performing funds with the lowest ratios possible!

I hope this tutorial helps answer many of your questions about what are mutual funds and how they can be helpful in your overall investment strategy.  If you want to know anything further, please feel free to leave your questions in the comments section.


Photo Credit: Microsoft Clip Art.


  1. says

    Mutual Funds have now been around long enough to critique. Since their inception, historic returns for almost all of them have under performed the overall market. There are a few that consistently outperform the market but they are hard to find or are closed to new investors. To make matters worse, when you subtract the fees from the already lower returns, you almost end up with no gains whatsoever.
    I will keep this into consideration!
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