Simple Guide to Buying Mutual Funds

Steps to Buying Mutual Funds From the Very Beginning

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Perhaps the greatest benefits of buying mutual funds are that they are simple enough for beginning investors to buy and manage but they are also powerful and productive enough for even the most seasoned of investors. This guide will walk you through the purchase of your first fund to building a complete portfolio of mutual funds.

Choosing the Place to Buy Mutual Funds

Although you can buy mutual funds through a discount broker, such as Charles Schwab or Scottrade, the best way to buy mutual funds is through a mutual fund company. But you don't want to start with just any mutual fund company; you'll want to do a bit of research to find a reputable firm that has a broad selection of low-cost, high-quality mutual funds.

Start your research with one of the best no-load mutual fund companies, such as Vanguard, Fidelity, and T. Rowe Price. No-load mutual funds don't have sales charges, called loads, which can be as high as 5.75% of the purchase. Therefore, when buying no-load funds, you're buying shares without paying loads. Also, these mutual fund companies offer many different mutual funds with low expenses, which are measured by an expense ratio. For example, many of Vanguard's funds have expenses below 0.30%, which is $30 for every $10,000 invested, whereas average expenses for most mutual funds are above 1% or three times that of Vanguard's. When you can keep expenses low, and buy quality funds at the same time, your long-term returns are likely to be superior.

Saving for Your Initial Mutual Fund Purchase

Most mutual funds have what's called a minimum initial purchase, which is the amount you'll need to have saved prior to buying shares of your first fund. Most mutual fund companies have minimum initial purchase amounts of at least $1,000. For example, most of Vanguard's mutual funds have a minimum initial purchase requirement of $3,000. Fidelity funds are typically at $2,500. However, once you make your first purchase, subsequent purchases of the same fund are usually as low as $100.

So in preparation for making the first purchase of a mutual fund, you'll need to save enough to cover the minimum.

Opening an Account to Buy Mutual Funds

If you don't already have an investment account at a brokerage firm or mutual fund company, you'll need to open one before you're ready to make your first purchase. Opening an account doesn't require money; all you need to do is choose the company where you'll invest and follow their procedures.

Opening an investment account is incredibly easy at most mutual fund companies. The easiest way to open an account is online. Information required will include things you already know, such as your name, address, date of birth, and social security number.

You'll also need to know which type of account is best for your investing needs. Here are the basic account types and how they work:

  • Individual Brokerage Account: This is a regular brokerage account established for an individual (one person). Contributions are not tax-deductible, and investors pay taxes on capital gains and dividends. For more on this, see this article on taxation of mutual funds.
  • Joint Brokerage Account: This works the same as an individual brokerage account, except there are two account holders, such as spouses.
  • Individual Retirement Account: Also called an IRA, qualifying individuals can make contributions that are not taxable. Growth is tax-deferred, which means that account holders don't pay taxes until withdrawals are made.
  • Roth IRA: This is an individual retirement account that is funded with after-tax dollars, which means contributions are not tax-deductible, as with the traditional IRA. However, growth is tax-deferred and qualified distributions (withdrawals) are tax-free. For more on the Roth and the traditional IRA, see this article on how IRAs work.

Best Funds for Beginning Investors

Whether you are just getting started investing or wanting to build a portfolio from the bottom up in the best way possible, there are a handful of outstanding mutual funds to get the job done.

Choosing the best mutual funds for is much more than buying the best performers of the past year. Instead, investors are wise to know their investment objectives and future plans and prepare for a long-term strategy. For example, if you're saving for retirement, it's likely your time horizon is more than ten years. It means you can take more risk, which essentially means you will likely have more of your investment assets allocated to stock funds than bond funds.

Since most investors are buying mutual funds for the long-term, and most are moderate investors that want to take some risk to get higher returns (but not a high level of risk) we'll focus on building a portfolio for this investment objective (long-term, medium risk).

Here are some of the best funds to start a long-term portfolio:

  • S&P 500 Index Funds: Index funds can be a great place to begin building a portfolio of mutual funds because most of them have extremely low expense ratios and can give you exposure to dozens or hundreds of stocks representing various industries in just one fund. As their name suggests, index funds simply hold the same securities that are found in an index. S&P 500 Index funds invest in approximately 500 of the largest U.S. companies. Index funds are passively managed, which means their primary objective is to mirror the holdings and performance of an index and therefore costs to operate these funds are extremely low. Therefore, you can meet the initial goal of getting a low-cost, diversified mutual fund when you buy index funds. For more on index funds, check out our Index Investing FAQ page. Again, mutual fund companies like Vanguard, Fidelity and T. Rowe Price are good places to find the best index funds. You can also look at Charles Schwab.
  • Balanced Funds: Also called hybrid funds or asset allocation funds, these are mutual funds that invest in a balanced asset allocation of stocks, bonds, and cash. The allocation usually remains fixed and invests according to a stated investment objective or style. For example, Fidelity Balanced Fund (FBALX) has an approximate asset allocation of 65% stocks and 35% bonds. It considered a medium risk or what industry experts might call a moderate portfolio. Vanguard also has an outstanding index balanced fund, Vanguard Balanced Index (VBINX), which is suitable for investors looking for moderate risk. Balanced funds can be ideal for beginning investors because they are well-diversified and can, therefore, be used as stand-alone investments or as core holdings to begin a larger portfolio.
  • Target Date Mutual Funds: These funds invest in a mix of stocks, bonds, and cash that is appropriate for a person investing until a certain year, which is usually retirement. As the target year approaches, the fund manager will gradually decrease market risk by shifting fund assets out of stocks and into bonds and cash, which is what an individual investor would do themselves manually. Therefore, target-date mutual funds are a type of "set it and forget it" investment that doesn't require ongoing management. For example, if you are saving for retirement and think you may retire around the year 2035, a good choice for you might be Vanguard Target Retirement 2035 (VTTHX).

Once you choose your first mutual fund, you'll have the foundation started. You can then build upon that foundation by purchasing more shares of this fund and eventually add more funds for greater diversity.

Disclaimer: The information on this site is provided for discussion purposes only, and should not be misconstrued as investment advice. Under no circumstances does this information represent a recommendation to buy or sell securities.