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Ultimate Guide to Understanding Mutual Funds

By Samuel Becker · January 23, 2024 · 10 minute read

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Ultimate Guide to Understanding Mutual Funds

Mutual funds are a type of investment vehicle that rope together numerous types of securities in one basket. They’re similar to exchange-traded funds, or ETFs, in that way, but there are some key differences. They can provide investors with an easy and turnkey way to build a diversified portfolio, often with a manager watching over the fund.

The ABCs of Mutual Funds

Mutual funds are funds, or a basket of different securities, that are packaged together and sold, in shares or fractional shares, to investors.

Mutual funds were designed for people to get started investing with small amounts of money. You can think of them as suitcases filled with different types of securities, such as stocks and bonds. Buying even one share of the fund immediately invests you in all the individual securities the fund holds.

The primary benefit of mutual funds is instant portfolio diversification. Say you invest in a mutual fund that holds stocks of every company in the S&P 500. If one company in the S&P 500 goes bankrupt, your fund might lose some value, but you most likely won’t lose everything. But if your whole investment was in that one company’s stock, you’d lose all or most of your money.

How Mutual Funds Work

A mutual fund itself is actually a company that pools investors’ resources and invests it on their behalf. They create a fund of many different investment types, and manage it on behalf of the group of investors.

Mutual funds can be managed actively or passively. Passively managed funds attempt to track an index, such as the Russell 2000 (an index of 2,000 small-cap U.S. companies). In other words, if one company leaves the index and another one joins, the fund sells and buys those company’s stocks accordingly. The risk and return of these funds is very similar to the index.

Actively managed mutual funds attempt to beat the performance of an index. The idea is that with careful investment selection, they will get higher returns than the index.

Different Types of Mutual Funds

There are numerous types of mutual funds that investors can choose to invest in.

Breaking Down Various Mutual Fund Types

Mutual funds can invest in stocks, bonds, real estate, commodities, and more. There are tens of thousands of mutual funds that cover every investing strategy you can imagine. Those can include asset class funds, sector funds, or target date funds, among many others.

Asset Class Funds

Asset classes are groups of similar assets that share similar risks, such as stocks, bonds, cash, or real estate. Some funds specialize in a particular type of investment or asset class — for example, large cap growth stocks or high yield bonds. These mutual funds assume that you or your adviser will choose the strategic mix of funds that’s right for you.

Sector or Industry Funds

Some funds will attempt to represent all or most of the stocks in a particular sector or industry. What’s the difference? Sectors are broader than industries — for example, oil is an industry, but energy is a sector that also includes coal, gas, wind, and solar companies. The stocks in each industry or sector share similar characteristics and risks.

Target Date Funds

A target date fund will provide you with a mix of asset classes (for example, 20% bonds and 80% stocks). They assume you will terminate the fund some year in the future, usually when you retire, and they shift to less risky investments as the target year approaches.

Target-date funds are intended to be a generic, low-cost solution to retirement saving and. They can be a good choice for a 401(k) investment if you don’t have the time or expertise to pick funds.


💡 Quick Tip: When you’re actively investing in stocks, it’s important to ask what types of fees you might have to pay. For example, brokers may charge a flat fee for trading stocks, or require some commission for every trade. Taking the time to manage investment costs can be beneficial over the long term.

The Financial Mechanics of Mutual Funds

As mentioned, mutual funds pool money from a group of investors and invest it for them in various securities. That seems simple enough — but figuring out how to price shares is a bit more involved.

The Pricing Puzzle: Net Asset Value Explained

Mutual funds are companies, and investors purchase shares of the company. Share prices of mutual funds are also called net asset value, or NAV, and NAV corresponds to the net value of all the fund’s assets, with liabilities subtracted. Then, the number is divided by the number of shares outstanding.

In effect, investors can calculate share prices using the NAV formula if they wish.

Fee Structures: Costs Associated with Mutual Fund Investing

There are also costs associated with mutual funds. All mutual funds have some expenses, but they can vary a lot from one fund to another. It’s important to understand them, because fund expenses can have a big impact on your returns over time.

Another problem with actively managed funds is that they typically cost you more because funds are paying people who make investment decisions, and they are making more trades, which have transaction costs. As such, you may want to look out for operating expenses or transaction fees.

You won’t get a bill, but your returns on the fund will be reduced by the fund’s expenses. Some brokerage firms also charge commission for buying mutual funds.

The Pros and Cons of Investing in Mutual Funds

Like all investments, mutual funds have their pros and cons that investors should consider.

Benefits of Diversification and Professional Management

The two biggest pros or advantages of mutual funds are likely the built-in diversification that they offer investors, and professional management. The diversification element allows many investors to take a “set it and forget it” approach to their portfolio management, and many may find confidence knowing that professional fund managers are steering the ship.

Considering the Risks: No Guarantees and Potential for High Costs

Cons include the fact that there’s no guarantee in terms of returns (there never are when investing!), and the costs associated with mutual funds. As noted, mutual funds may incur additional costs compared to other investment types, depending on the individual fund. That may turn some investors off.

Taxes and Cash Drag: The Other Side of Mutual Funds

Taxes are another potential con for mutual funds, as investors will need to pay capital gains taxes on mutual fund payouts throughout the year — and they won’t have much control over that, either. And cash drag (or performance drag), which refers to the difference between returns between two investments when one incorporates trading costs, can be another thing for investors to think about.

Mutual Fund Investments and You

How can you determine if mutual funds are right for your strategy or portfolio? It may require some consideration of your goals, time horizon, and risk tolerance.

Are Mutual Funds Right for Your Portfolio?

There’s no way to say definitively that a certain investment or investment type, like mutual funds, are “right” for any given investor. But in a general sense, mutual funds may be a good choice if you’re a new or young investor, and looking to add some out-of-the-box investments to your portfolio. Again, mutual funds are typically already diversified, to a degree, and are managed by professionals.

Can You Cash Out Anytime? Understanding Liquidity

Mutual funds are not as liquid as stocks or other investments, but they are fairly liquid. That’s to say that if you want to cash out or sell your mutual fund holdings, a prospective trade will only execute once per day — after the stock markets close at 4pm ET. Conversely, stocks can trade any time during market hours.

Mutual Funds Compared to ETFs

Mutual funds are, in many ways, similar to other types of investments, like ETFs.

Mutual Funds vs ETFs: A Comparative Analysis

Mutual funds have been around since the 18th century, but exchange-traded funds, or ETFs, are relatively new, having debuted in the early 1990s. Traditional (old-school) mutual funds are issued by the fund sponsor when you buy them and redeemed when you sell them.

They are priced once a day, after the market closes, at the value of all the underlying securities in the fund divided by the number of fund shares — again, their net asset value (NAV).

Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) trade on stock exchanges throughout the day. You buy them from and sell them to another investor — just like a stock.

Since the assets in the fund are constantly changing value throughout the day, and the fund price is set by market supply and demand, it might trade a little higher or lower than its NAV at different points in the day, but ETFs generally track their NAV very closely. Both traditional funds and ETFs can be actively or passively managed.

ETFs have two advantages — liquidity and cost. Even though you may pay a commission for buying or selling them—just like a stock, they generally have lower expenses that more than make up for it.

Since they can be bought or sold whenever the market is open, you don’t have to wait until the end of the day to buy or sell. This liquidity can be a big advantage on days when the market is way up or way down.

Understanding Fund Classes and What They Mean for Your Investment

There are some mutual funds that offer classes of shares, or different types of shares (similar to some stocks). The different classes of shares tend to correlate to the types of fees or expenses associated with them. Investors may find Class A, Class B, and Class C shares on the market for certain funds.

Class A shares tend to charge fees up front and have lower ongoing expenses, which may be attractive to long-term investors. Class B shares may have high exit fees and expense ratios. Class C shares tend to have mid-level expense ratios and small exit fees, and are often popular with the typical investor.

Getting Started with Mutual Funds

If you think mutual fund investing is a good option for your strategy, getting started can be relatively simple.

Steps to Your First Mutual Fund Investment

The first thing to do if you’re looking to invest in mutual funds is to sit down and do some homework. As discussed, there are myriad mutual funds out there, and they’re all different. You’ll want to pay close attention to what each fund offers, the costs associated with it, and the risks, too.

If you’ve found a mutual fund that you think is a good fit for your portfolio, you’ll want to choose a brokerage or platform that will allow you to buy shares of a given fund, or otherwise have an account that you can trade with, such as a retirement account.

From there, it’s more or less about placing an order and executing the trade. And, after that, managing and rebalancing your portfolio every so often.

Working With Financial Advisors: Finding Guidance in Mutual Fund Investing

As with all investments, if you feel that mutual fund investing has thrown you for a loop or is over your head, you can and maybe should reach out to a financial professional for guidance. Advisors of various types should be able to help you figure out which funds may be a good fit, describe their fees and risks, and help you make a wise selection that will help put you on track to reaching your financial goals.


💡 Quick Tip: How do you decide if a certain trading platform or app is right for you? Ideally, the investment platform you choose offers the features that you need for your investment goals or strategy, e.g., an easy-to-use interface, data analysis, educational tools.

The Takeaway

Mutual funds are companies that pool investors’ money, and then invest it in numerous types of securities on their behalf. Investors can purchase or invest in shares of mutual funds and add them to their portfolios. Mutual funds can be useful to new or beginner investors, as they offer built-in diversification, and active management.

They do have higher costs than other investments, though, which is something investors should consider. Further, there are thousands of mutual funds on the market, which may be overwhelming to some. If you’re interested in investing in mutual funds, it may be a good idea to speak with a financial professional for guidance.

Ready to invest in your goals? It’s easy to get started when you open an investment account with SoFi Invest. You can invest in stocks, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), mutual funds, alternative funds, and more. SoFi doesn’t charge commissions, but other fees apply (full fee disclosure here).

For a limited time, opening and funding an Active Invest account gives you the opportunity to get up to $1,000 in the stock of your choice.


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