Mutual Funds vs. Index Funds: All You Should Know

Mutual funds vs. Index funds
Image Source: TheEconomicTimes

It’s possible to get mixed up between the terms “mutual fund” and “index fund. The concepts of mutual funds and index funds refer to different aspects of a fund. While “mutual fund” refers to the pattern or structure of the fund, index fund refers to the investment approach. However,  tons of index funds are structured as mutual funds, but not all of them are. And on the other hand, most mutual funds are index funds. In general, an “index fund” is a fund whose investments closely track a market index, while a “mutual fund” is a wide category of investment funds that employ a variety of investment strategies. To make an informed investment decision, you must first consider the similarities and differences between mutual funds vs. index funds. 

Let’s get cracking…

What Is a Mutual Fund?

The word “mutual” in the phrase “mutual fund” refers to the fund’s structure rather than the investment policy pursued by the fund’s shareholders. This type of fund pools the funds of investors who want to buy and sell securities together. Investing in a mutual fund does not entail trading shares of particular companies owned by the fund; rather, it entails trading shares of the mutual fund firm. Mutual fund investors buy and sell their shares at a fixed price at the end of each trading session; their value does not fluctuate during that period.

What Is an Index Fund?

The word “index fund” refers to a fund’s investment strategy. It’s a fund that seeks to replicate the success of a specific stock index, such as the S&P 500 or Russell 2,000. A more actively managed fund, on the other hand, is one in which investments are chosen by a fund manager in an effort to outperform the market. An index fund aims to balance the market rather than beat it.

This type of fund may be structured as a mutual fund or an exchange-traded fund, as mentioned above (ETF). Unlike a mutual fund, an ETF’s value changes over a trading session on a public exchange. ETF investors, on the other hand, do business with other investors, buying and selling shares of the ETF itself, while mutual fund investors do business with the mutual fund firm, buying and selling a stake in the company.

Mutual Funds vs. Index Funds (Differences)

Aside from the distinction mentioned above, in analyzing mutual funds vs. index funds, there are three major differences. These distinctions include how decisions regarding a fund’s holdings are taken, the fund’s priorities, and the cost of investing in each fund. Here’s how each differentiator works and how it could relate to you.

Passive vs. Active

Several mutual funds, but not all, are actively operated. This necessitates regular or even hourly trading decisions by the fund manager.

An index fund, whether it’s a mutual fund or an exchange-traded fund (ETF), takes a more passive approach. Since an index fund tracks the performance of an index, no fund manager actively monitors it. The aim of index funds is to buy and keep securities that correspond to the indexes they follow. As a result, there’s no need to buy and sell stocks on a daily basis. Basically, this is one of the most significant differences, analyzing mutual funds vs. index funds.    

Furthermore, since there is no active fund manager overseeing an index fund, the fund’s success is solely dependent on the price action of the fund’s stock. The output of an actively managed mutual fund, on the other hand, is determined by the investment decisions made by the fund managers. The securities that best meet the investment purpose and character of the fund are chosen at the discretion of the fund manager.

However, the question of whether actively or passively managed funds are better is constantly debated. Within five years, 78.52 percent of large-cap funds underperformed the S&P 500, according to the SP Indices. This demonstrates that, despite the market’s high volatility in recent years, active funds do not always produce higher-performing funds.


Another distinction is the investment target offered by each form of fund. The aim of index funds is to simply replicate the performance of an index, while the goal of mutual funds is to outperform the market. Actively controlled funds, on the other hand, strategically pick assets that will produce a higher return than the market.

Mutual funds can appeal to investors seeking higher-than-average returns. Actively managing a mutual fund, on the other hand, may cost more because it requires more effort. This brings us to our next major distinction.


Operating an actively managed fund is typically more expensive than operating an index fund. This is due to the fact that actively managed funds have higher operating costs, such as fund manager compensation, bonuses, office space, marketing, and other administrative costs. Oftentimes, these expenses are covered by a premium known as the mutual fund expense ratio; which is paid by the shareholders.

It’s important to remember that the higher the investment fees, the lower your returns will be. You will be disappointed if you buy shares of an actively managed fund expecting above-average returns, particularly if the fund underperforms.

Index funds, on the other hand, have fees, but the lower cost of operating such a security normally means lower fees. Remember that the lower the management fees, the higher the return to the shareholder.

Mutual Funds vs Index Funds (Similarities)

Mutual Funds and Index Funds are, at their most basic level, a pool of money raised by individual investors and invested in stocks, shares, and other income-producing assets.

Individual investors can buy shares in Mutual Funds and Index Funds in the same way as they can buy individual stocks. When you buy an Amazon stock, you’re buying a small piece of Amazon’s ownership; when you buy a share of a fund, you’re buying a small piece of the fund company’s ownership.

The number of shares issued and the overall net value of the assets retained within the fund decide the share’s value.

Diversification is provided by both mutual funds and index funds.
This is particularly true for those of us who cannot afford to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Assume you have $100 and want to start investing in a diversified portfolio that includes 70% stocks and 30% bonds. Invested $100 in individual stocks and bonds, how far will you get?
Well, the answer is nowhere. 

When you know that one share of Amazon costs $1,570 (at the time of writing), you can see how difficult it is for a small investor to spread their capital around. If you had $100 a month to spend, it would take 16 months to save up enough money to purchase a single share in a single company.

Mutual funds and index funds come into play in this situation. The same $100 could buy you several shares in a mutual fund. Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and all of the other blue-chip firms could be included in the fund’s portfolio holdings (including the non-sexy stocks that could be more profitable).

You may also invest in Mutual Funds and Index Funds that provide bonds to diversify across asset classes. 

The Benefits and Drawbacks of an Index Fund vs Mutual Fund

Both index and mutual funds have a number of advantages and disadvantages. Some that may have come up earlier in this post. However, we will start with index funds. Here are a few of the most crucial.

Advantages of an Index Fund

  • Low Cost — Index funds are less expensive to own since they are based on an index rather than being actively managed. Instead of hiring a costly research team to locate the best investments, the fund business simply duplicates the index. As a result, index funds often have a low expense ratio.
  • Active Managers May Outperform Passive Managers – Although not all index funds are created equal, one of the finest, the S&P 500 Index, consistently outperforms the great majority of investors in a given year and over time.
  • Lower Taxes — Because index funds and mutual funds have lower turnover, they may result in lower tax liability for investors. For index ETFs, this is mostly a non-issue.
  • Diversification — Because index funds comprises of a number of assets, they can help you diversify your portfolio; plusreduce your risk as an investor.

The Disadvantages of an Index Fund

  • May Track a Bad Index — Again, not all index funds are equal, and an index fund may track a bad index, resulting in investors receiving those bad returns as well.
  • Delivers an Average Return — An index fund distributes the assets’ weighted average returns. It is unable to avoid the losers because it must invest in all of the index’s stocks. So, while it may have exceptional years, it is unlikely to have a barnburner.

Advantages of a Mutual Fund

Can be Low Cost — Index mutual funds may be less expensive to own than an index ETF, while many mutual funds are actively managed and hence likely to be more expensive.

  • Diversification — A mutual fund, whether it’s sector-focused or broadly invested, can provide you with the benefits of diversification, such as lower volatility and risk.
  • Actively Managed Mutual Funds May Outperform the Market – sometimes dramatically so – but data suggests that active investors rarely outperform the market over time. If the mutual fund is an index fund, however, it will closely track the performance of the index.

The Disadvantages of a Mutual Fund

  • Possible to Have “Loads” of Sales — A sales load is a fancy term for a commission, and the worst funds may charge as much as 3% of your investment as a sales load, reducing your returns before you’ve invested a penny. By properly selecting a fund, you can easily eliminate these fees.
  • May Have a Higher Cost Ratio Than an ETF — A mutual fund that is actively managed would almost certainly have a higher expense ratio than an ETF because of all the analysts required to filter through the market.
  • Active Management — which is more common in mutual funds, has the tendency to underperform the market average.
  • Capital Gains Distributions — Mutual funds may be required to pay out certain capital gains for tax purposes at the end of the year. Even if you didn’t sell a stake of your mutual fund, you could be liable for taxes. (This is one of the benefits of ETFs over mutual funds.)

Should You Invest Actively or Passively in These Funds?

Active management, whether practiced by professionals or by private investors, usually results in underperformance. Most investors find passive investing appealing since it demands less time, attention, and analysis while yet generating larger returns.

If you invest in a mutual fund that is actively managed, you should let the manager do his or her job. You’re second-guessing expert investors who you’ve basically hired to invest your money if you’re trading in and out of the fund. That doesn’t make much sense, and if the fund goes into a taxable account, it can result in capital gains taxes as well as costs for early mutual fund redemption.

Trading an index fund actively doesn’t make much sense, either. Because an index fund is by definition a passively managed investment, you’re purchasing the index in order to benefit from its long-term performance. Even if it’s a low-cost ETF, trading in and out of the fund can significantly reduce your returns. Imagine selling in March 2020 when the market was collapsing, just to witness it soar the following year.

Passive investing, once again, outperform active investing the vast majority of the time, and even more so over time.

Which Is Better Index or Mutual Funds?

Active mutual funds attempt to outperform the market, whilst index funds seek market-average returns. Fees for active mutual funds are often greater than for index funds. The performance of index funds is reasonably predictable over time, whereas the performance of active mutual funds is less so.

Are Index Funds Really Better Than Mutual Funds?

At their finest, index funds provide investors with a low-cost way to track major stock and bond market indices. Index funds outperform the majority of actively managed mutual funds in many circumstances. Investing in index products may appear to be a no-brainer, a slam-dunk.

Do Mutual Funds Beat Index Funds?

While actively managed mutual funds aim to outperform a specific benchmark index, ETFs and index mutual funds aim to monitor and match the performance of a specific market index. However, the distinctions between an ETF (exchange-traded fund) and an index fund are not as little as they appear.

What Is the Difference Between Index ETF and Mutual Fund?

A mutual fund allows you to buy and sell based just on dollars, rather than market value or shares. Additionally, you can enter whatever financial amount you like, including exact cents or attractive round numbers like $3,000 With an ETF, you can only trade whole shares and must buy and sell according to market pricing.

  • SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust (SPY) …
  • iShares Core S&P 500 ETF (IVV) …
  • Schwab S&P 500 Index Fund (SWPPX) …
  • Shelton NASDAQ-100 Index Direct (NASDX) …
  • Invesco QQQ Trust ETF (QQQ) …
  • Vanguard Russell 2000 ETF (VTWO) …
  • Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF (VTI) …
  • SPDR Dow Jones Industrial Average ETF Trust (DIA)

Final Thoughts

Some mutual funds, though not all, are index funds. The aim of an index fund is to match the performance of a specific market index. Mutual funds and index funds are good choices for those who don’t want to do their own investments.

However, before investing in either form of fund, ensure that you understand how it operates, what its investment goal is, and what fees it charges. Keep in mind that the fees charged by an index fund or mutual fund will reduce your returns. If you’re not sure which investment is best for you, talk to a financial planner who will help you choose the most appropriate fund for your needs.

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