What Is an Expense Ratio?

By Austin Kilham · July 20, 2023 · 6 minute read

We’re here to help! First and foremost, SoFi Learn strives to be a beneficial resource to you as you navigate your financial journey. Read more We develop content that covers a variety of financial topics. Sometimes, that content may include information about products, features, or services that SoFi does not provide. We aim to break down complicated concepts, loop you in on the latest trends, and keep you up-to-date on the stuff you can use to help get your money right. Read less

What Is an Expense Ratio?

The expense ratio is the annual fee that mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) charge investors, to cover operating costs. The fee is deducted from your investment, reducing your returns each year — which is one reason why expense ratios have been shrinking.

Typically, investors may look for funds that offer lower expense ratios, as high expense ratios can take a substantial bite out of long-term returns, affecting investors’ financial plans.

Here’s a look at how expense ratios are calculated, what they encompass, and other factors worth considering when choosing a mutual fund or ETF to invest in.

How Expense Ratios Are Calculated

Though individual investors typically won’t find themselves in a situation where they need to calculate an expense ratio, it’s helpful to know how it’s done. To calculate expense ratios, funds use the following equation:

Expense Ratio = Total Fund Costs/Total Fund Assets Under Management

For example, if a fund holds $500 million in assets under management, and it costs $5 million to maintain the fund each year, the expense ratio would be:

$5 million/$500 million = 0.01

Expressed as a percentage, this translates into an expense ratio of 1%, meaning you would pay $10 for every $1,000 you have invested in this fund.

As you research funds you may come across two terms: gross expense ratio and net expense ratio. Both have to do with the waivers and reimbursements funds may use to attract new investors.

•   The gross expense ratio is the figure investors are charged without accounting for fee waivers or reimbursements.

•   The net expense ratio takes waivers and reimbursements into account, so it should be a lower amount.

Recommended: How Taxes, Fees, and Other Expenses Impact Your Investments

How Expense Ratios Are Charged

A fund’s expense ratio is expressed as a percentage of an individual’s investment in a fund. For example, if a fund has an expense ratio of 0.60%, an investor will pay $6.00 for every $1,000 they have invested in the fund.

The cost of an expense ratio is automatically deducted from an investor’s returns. In fact, when an investor looks at the daily net asset value of an ETF or a mutual fund, the expense ratio is already baked into the number that they see.


💡 Quick Tip: Before opening an investment account, know your investment objectives, time horizon, and risk tolerance. These fundamentals will help keep your strategy on track and with the aim of meeting your goals.

The Components of an Expense Ratio

The fees that make up the operating costs of a mutual fund or ETF can vary. Generally speaking, the investment fees included in an expense ratio will include the following:

Management Fees

The management fee is the amount paid to the person/s managing the money in the investment fund — they make decisions about which investments to buy and sell and when to execute trades. Management fees can vary depending on how much activity is required of these managers to maintain the fund.

Custodial Fees

Custodial fees cover the cost of safekeeping services, the process by which a fund or other service holds securities on an investor’s behalf, guarding the securities from being lost or stolen.

Marketing Fees

Also known as 12b-1 fees, marketing fees are used to pay for the advertising of the fund, some shareholder services, and even employee bonuses on occasion. FINRA caps these fees at 1% of your assets in the fund.

Other Investment Fees

Investors may be forced to pay other investment fees when they buy and sell mutual funds and ETFs, including commissions on trades to a broker. The cost of buying and selling securities inside the fund is not included as part of the expense ratio. Additional costs that are not considered operating expenses include loads, a fee mutual funds charge when investors purchase shares. Contingent deferred sales charges and redemption fees, which investors pay when they sell some mutual fund shares, are also paid separately from the expense ratio.

How to Research Expense Ratios

Luckily, you do not have to spend your time calculating expense ratios on your own. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) requires that funds publish their expense ratios in a public document known as a prospectus. The prospectus reports information important to mutual fund and ETF investors, including investment objectives and who the fund managers are.

Online brokers often allow you to look up expense ratios for individual investment funds, and they may even offer tools that allow you to compare ratios across funds.

Average Expense Ratios

Expense ratios vary by fund depending on what investment strategy it’s using. Passively managed funds that frequently track an index, such as the S&P 500 index, and require little intervention from managers, tend to have lower expense ratios. ETFs are usually passively managed, as are some mutual funds. Other mutual funds may be actively managed, requiring a heavier touch from managers, which can jack up the expense ratio.

Expense ratios have been falling for decades, according to the most recent Morningstar Annual U.S. Fund Fee study, released in June 2022. “In 2021, the asset-weighted average expense ratio of U.S. open-end mutual funds and ETFs was 0.40%, compared with 0.87% in 2001,” the report states.” While that difference may seem slight, investors saved an estimated $6.9 billion in fund expenses in just one year.


💡 Quick Tip: How to manage potential risk factors in a self directed investment account? Doing your research and employing strategies like dollar-cost averaging and diversification may help mitigate financial risk when trading stocks.

What’s a Good Expense Ratio?

When considering expense ratios across mutual funds and ETFs, it’s helpful to use average expense ratios as a benchmark to get an idea of whether a specific expense ratio is “good.”

Investors may want to target funds with expense ratios that are below average. The lower the expense ratio, the less expensive it is to invest in the fund, meaning more profits would go to the investor vs. the fund.

That said, some investors may prefer to invest in actively managed funds, which typically charge higher fees than passive or index funds.

Looking Beyond Expense Ratios

When comparing mutual funds and ETFs, an investor might choose to consider other factors in addition to expense ratios.

It can be a good idea to consider how a particular fund will fit in their overall financial plan. For example, individuals looking to build a diversified portfolio may want to target a fund that tracks a broad index like the Nasdaq or S&P 500. Or, investors with portfolios heavily weighted in domestic stocks may be on the hunt for funds that include more international stocks.

And it’s also a good idea to know the key differences between mutual funds and ETFs. ETFs, for example, are generally designed to be more tax efficient than mutual funds, which can also have a big impact on an investor’s ultimate return. ETFs are generally lower in cost than mutual funds as well.

The Takeaway

Expense ratios seem small, but they can have a big impact on investor returns. For example, if an individual invested $1,000 in an ETF with a 6% annual return and a 0.20% expense ratio, and continued making a $1,000 investment each year for the next 30 years, they would earn $81,756.91, and spend $3,044.76 on the fund’s expenses.

But expense ratios are only one of many factors to consider when choosing a mutual fund or ETF. Fundamentally your investment choices have to fit into your larger financial plan. But cost should always be a concern.

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.


SoFi Invest®
INVESTMENTS ARE NOT FDIC INSURED • ARE NOT BANK GUARANTEED • MAY LOSE VALUE
SoFi Invest encompasses two distinct companies, with various products and services offered to investors as described below: Individual customer accounts may be subject to the terms applicable to one or more of these platforms.
1) Automated Investing and advisory services are provided by SoFi Wealth LLC, an SEC-registered investment adviser (“SoFi Wealth“). Brokerage services are provided to SoFi Wealth LLC by SoFi Securities LLC.
2) Active Investing and brokerage services are provided by SoFi Securities LLC, Member FINRA (www.finra.org)/SIPC(www.sipc.org). Clearing and custody of all securities are provided by APEX Clearing Corporation.
For additional disclosures related to the SoFi Invest platforms described above please visit SoFi.com/legal.
Neither the Investment Advisor Representatives of SoFi Wealth, nor the Registered Representatives of SoFi Securities are compensated for the sale of any product or service sold through any SoFi Invest platform.

Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs): Investors should carefully consider the information contained in the prospectus, which contains the Fund’s investment objectives, risks, charges, expenses, and other relevant information. You may obtain a prospectus from the Fund company’s website or by email customer service at [email protected]. Please read the prospectus carefully prior to investing.
Shares of ETFs must be bought and sold at market price, which can vary significantly from the Fund’s net asset value (NAV). Investment returns are subject to market volatility and shares may be worth more or less their original value when redeemed. The diversification of an ETF will not protect against loss. An ETF may not achieve its stated investment objective. Rebalancing and other activities within the fund may be subject to tax consequences.


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

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.

Claw Promotion: Customer must fund their Active Invest account with at least $25 within 30 days of opening the account. Probability of customer receiving $1,000 is 0.028%. See full terms and conditions.

SOIN0523131

All your finances.
All in one app.

SoFi QR code, Download now, scan this with your phone’s camera

All your finances.
All in one app.

App Store rating

SoFi iOS App, Download on the App Store
SoFi Android App, Get it on Google Play

TLS 1.2 Encrypted
Equal Housing Lender