How Do I Invest in Mutual Funds?

Investing in Mutual Funds Couldn't Be Easier or More Affordable

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Thanks to computers and the Internet, investing in mutual funds has never been easier. That said, there are many important considerations an investor should take into account before adding shares of a mutual fund to their portfolio. Mutual funds come in a multitude of varieties, including those that focus on different asset classes, those that seek to mimic an index (also known as index funds), and those that focus on dividend stocks. The list covers everything from geographic mandates to those that specialize in investing in securities that fall within a certain market capitalization.

While it can be confusing, the answers to the following three questions will help you navigate the mutual fund waters—from how they work to how to add them to your investment portfolio.

What Is a Mutual Fund?

For all intents and purposes, mutual funds serve as an alternative for investors who can't afford an individually managed account. Mutual funds are formed when investors with smaller amounts of ​capital, pool their money together and then hire a portfolio manager to run the consolidated pool's portfolio—subsequently buying different stocks, bonds, or other securities in a manner consistent with the fund's prospectus. Each investor then receives their respective piece of the pie while sharing the expenses, which show up in something called the mutual fund expense ratio.

 Mutual funds can be structured in several different ways, including open-ended mutual funds vs. closed mutual funds being one particularly important distinction. To learn more about the way mutual funds are organized, you'll want to read How a Mutual Fund Is Structured. You may also want to delve into Making Money from Mutual Funds, which explains how investors actually profit (or experience losses) from owning a stake in a mutual fund.

How Do I Select a Mutual Fund?

This is where you'll want to laser focus your attention and become an amateur sleuth while doing your research. The number of mutual funds available to investors right now rivals the number of stocks on the North American exchanges. Each one of these funds is unique but can be categorized based on the type of underlying securities held within it. At the broadest level, a fund falls into one of three categories: equity (which is stocks), fixed income (which are bonds), and money markets (similar to cash).

Equity and fixed-income funds have subcategories which allow an investor to cast a narrow net with their investment dollars. For example, an equity fund investor might invest in a technology fund that only invests in eco-friendly technology companies. Likewise, a bond fund investor who is seeking current income might invest in a government securities fund that only invests in government securities. A so-called balanced fund is a mutual fund that owns both stocks and bonds.

As with all financial investments, the risk level is an important consideration when evaluating mutual funds. As an investor, you should make every effort to understand how much risk you are willing to take and then seek a fund that falls within your risk tolerance. Naturally, you are investing with some objective in mind, so narrow down your list of candidates by concentrating on funds that meet your investment needs while staying within your risk parameters.

In addition, check to see what the minimum amount is to invest in a fund. Funds have different minimum thresholds depending on whether it is a retirement account or nonretirement account.

How Do I Buy a Mutual Fund?

Mutual funds are primarily bought in dollar amounts unlike stocks, which are bought in shares. Mutual funds can be purchased directly from a mutual fund company, a bank, or a brokerage firm. Before you can start investing, you'll need to have an account with one of these institutions prior to placing an order. A mutual fund will be either a “load” or “no-load” fund, which is financial lingo for either paying a commission or not paying a commission. If you are using an investment professional to assist you, you will likely need to pay a load.

That said, a “no-load” fund is not free. All mutual funds have internal expenses. Part of your investment dollars will help pay the fund company, the fund manager, and other fees associated with running a mutual fund. These fees will often be made transparent to you and are taken out of the assets of the mutual fund. You should always take the time to consider all the various fees and charges when investing in mutual funds.

The process of buying a mutual fund can be done over the phone, online, or in person if you are dealing with a financial representative. To place an order, you would indicate how much money you want to invest and what mutual fund you want to purchase. Whichever mutual fund you select, the price you pay for the shares will be determined by the closing share price at the end of that day.