The Differences Between Index Funds and Mutual Funds

By Colin Dodds · February 23, 2024 · 6 minute read

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The Differences Between Index Funds and Mutual Funds

Mutual funds and index funds are similar in many ways, but there are some key differences that investors need to understand to effectively implement them into an investment strategy. Those differences might include investing style, associated fees and taxes, and how they work.

The choice between an index fund and an actively managed mutual fund can be a hard one, especially for investors who are unsure of the distinction. The differences between index funds and other mutual funds are actually few — but may be important, depending on the investor.

What’s the Difference between Index Funds and Mutual Funds?

Index funds and mutual funds are similar in many ways, but they do differ in some others, such as how they work, associated costs, and investment style.

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How They Work

Index funds are a type of mutual fund, interestingly enough. Index funds are distinguished by their investing approach: Index funds invest in an index, and only change the securities they hold when the index changes, or to realign their holdings to better match the index they invest in.

Rather than rely on a portfolio manager’s instincts and experience, an index fund tracks a particular index. There are benchmark indexes across all of the different asset classes, including stocks, bonds, currencies, and commodities. As an example, the S&P 500® Index tracks the stocks of 500 of the leading companies in the United States.

An index fund aims to mirror the performance of a given benchmark index by investing in the same companies with similar weights. With these funds, it’s not about beating the market, it’s about tracking it, and as such, index funds typically follow a passive investment strategy, known as a buy-and-hold strategy.

A mutual fund is an investment that holds a collection — or portfolio — of securities, such as stocks and bonds. The “mutual” part of the name has to do with the structure of the fund, in that all of its investors mutually combine their funds in this one shared portfolio.

Mutual funds are also called ’40 Act funds, as they were created in 1940 by an act of Congress that was designed to correct some of the investment abuses that led to the Stock Market Crash of 1929. It created a regulatory framework for offering and maintaining mutual funds, including requirements for filings, service charges, financial disclosures, and the fiduciary duties of investment companies.

To get people to invest, the portfolio managers of a given mutual fund offer a unique investment perspective or strategy. That could mean investing in tech stocks, or only investing in the fund manager’s five best ideas, or investing in a few thousand stocks at once, or only in gold-mining stocks, and so on.

Fees and Taxes

There may be different associated costs with index funds and mutual funds as well.

Mutual-fund managers generally charge investors a management fee, which comes from the assets of the fund. Those fees vary widely, but an active manager will generally charge more, as they have to pay the salaries of analysts, researchers, and the stock pickers themselves. Passive managers of index funds, on the other hand, simply have to pay to license the use of an index.

An actively-managed mutual fund may charge an expense ratio (which includes the management fee) of 0.5% to 0.75%, and sometimes as high as 1.5%. But for index funds, that expense ratio is typically much lower — often around 0.2%, and as low as 0.02% for some funds.

Investing Style

The two also differ on a basic level in that index funds are a passive investing vehicle and mutual funds are typically actively managed. That means that investors who want to take a hands-off approach may find index funds a more suitable choice, whereas investors who want a guiding hand in their portfolio may be more attracted to mutual funds.

Mutual Funds vs. Index Funds: Key Differences

Mutual Funds

Index Funds

Overseen by a fund manager Track a market index
May have higher associated costs Typically has lower associated costs
Active investing Passive investing

Index vs Mutual Fund: Which is Best for You?

There’s no telling whether an index or mutual fund is better for you — it’ll depend on specific factors relevant to your specific situation and goals.

When deciding how to invest, everyone has their own unique approach. If an investor believes in the expertise and human touch of a fund manager or team of professionals, then an actively managed fund like a mutual fund may be the right fit. While no one beats the market every year, some funds can potentially outperform the broader market for long stretches.

But for those individuals who want to invest in the markets and not think about it, then the broad exposure — and lower fees — offered by index funds may make more sense. Investing in index funds tends to work best when you hold your money in the funds for a longer period of time, or use a dollar-cost-average strategy, where you invest consistently over time to take advantage of both high and low points.

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The Takeaway

Index funds and mutual funds are similar investment vehicles, but there are some key differences which include how they’re managed, costs associated with them, and how they function at a granular level.

The choice between index funds and other mutual funds is one with decades of debate behind it. For individuals who prefer the expertise of a hands-on professional or team buying and selling assets within the fund, a mutual fund may be preferred. For investors who’d rather their fund passively track an index — without worrying about “beating the market” — an index fund might be the way to go.

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Do index funds outperform mutual funds?

Actively-managed funds, such as mutual funds, tend to underperform the market as a whole over time. That’s to say that most of the time, a broad index fund may be more likely to outperform a mutual fund.

Do people prefer index funds over mutual funds, or mutual funds over index funds?

The types of funds that investors prefer to invest in depends completely on their own financial situation and investment goals. But some investors may prefer index funds over mutual funds due to their hands-off, passive approach and lower associated costs.

Are mutual funds riskier than index funds?

Mutual funds may be riskier than index funds, but it depends on the specific funds being compared — mutual funds do tend to be more expensive than index funds, and tend to underperform the market at large, too.

An investor should consider the investment objectives, risks, charges, and expenses of the Fund carefully before investing. This and other important information are contained in the Fund’s prospectus. For a current prospectus, please click the Prospectus link on the Fund’s respective page. The prospectus should be read carefully prior to investing.
Alternative investments, including funds that invest in alternative investments, are risky and may not be suitable for all investors. Alternative investments often employ leveraging and other speculative practices that increase an investor's risk of loss to include complete loss of investment, often charge high fees, and can be highly illiquid and volatile. Alternative investments may lack diversification, involve complex tax structures and have delays in reporting important tax information. Registered and unregistered alternative investments are not subject to the same regulatory requirements as mutual funds.
Please note that Interval Funds are illiquid instruments, hence the ability to trade on your timeline may be restricted. Investors should review the fee schedule for Interval Funds via the prospectus.

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Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.

Investment Risk: Diversification can help reduce some investment risk. It cannot guarantee profit, or fully protect in a down market.

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