Index Funds vs. Mutual Funds: The Differences That Matter - NerdWallet (2024)

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The biggest difference between index funds and mutual funds is that index funds invest in a specific list of securities (such as stocks of -listed companies only), while active mutual funds invest in a changing list of securities, chosen by an investment manager.

Over a long-enough period, investors might have a better shot at achieving higher returns with an index fund. Exploring these differences in-depth reveals why.


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Index fund vs. mutual fund

Index fund

Mutual fund


Match the returns of a benchmark index (e.g. the S&P 500).

Beat the returns of a benchmark index.


Stocks, bonds and other securities.

Stocks, bonds and other securities.


Passive. Investment mix matches the benchmark index.

Active. Stock pickers choose holdings.

Average fee*



Differences between mutual funds and index funds

Passive vs. active management

One difference between index and regular mutual funds is management. Regular mutual funds are actively managed, but there is no need for human oversight on buying and selling within an index fund, whose holdings automatically track an index such as the S&P 500. If a stock is in the index, it’ll be in the fund, too.

» Learn more: How to invest with index funds

Because no one is actively managing the portfolio — performance is simply based on price movements of the individual stocks in the index and not someone trading in and out of stocks — index investing is considered a passive investing strategy.

In an actively managed mutual fund, a fund manager or management team makes all the investment decisions. They are free to shop for investments for the fund across multiple indexes and within various investment types — as long as what they pick adheres to the fund’s stated charter. They choose which stocks and how many shares to purchase or punt from the portfolio.

» Ready to get started? See how to invest with mutual funds

Investment goals

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. That’s essentially what index investors are doing.

The sole investment objective of an index fund is to mirror the performance of the underlying benchmark index. When the S&P 500 zigs or zags, so does an S&P 500 index mutual fund.

The investment objective of an actively managed mutual fund is to outperform market averages — to earn higher returns by having experts strategically pick investments they think will boost overall performance.

» Learn more: Understand the different types of mutual funds.

History has shown that it’s extremely difficult to beat passive market returns (a.k.a. indexes) year in and year out. According to the S&P Indices versus Active (SPIVA) scorecard, only 6.6% of funds outperformed the S&P 500 in the last 15 years.

That being said, there are some fund managers that do beat the market, when the conditions are right. The scorecard says in the past year, 48.92% of funds have outperformed the market. How? Think about the rocky landscape of 2022; some of the top companies in the S&P account for a big part of that index, and those companies have seen some declines.

Index Funds vs. Mutual Funds: The Differences That Matter - NerdWallet (4)

If you choose active management, particularly when the overall market is down, then you might have the opportunity to make higher returns, at least in the short term.

Instead of tracking an index, a fund manager could seek to diversity your portfolio a bit more, by buying value stocks, or asset weighting toward other companies.

But in exchange for potential outperformance, with an actively managed fund, you’ll pay a higher price for the manager’s expertise, which leads us to the next — and perhaps most critical — difference between index funds and actively managed mutual funds: Cost.

» Prefer actively managed? Best performing mutual funds

Index Funds vs. Mutual Funds: The Differences That Matter - NerdWallet (5)

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As you can imagine, it costs more to have people running the show. There are investment manager salaries, bonuses, employee benefits, office space and the cost of marketing materials to attract more investors to the mutual fund.

Who pays those costs? You, the shareholder. They’re bundled into a fee that’s called the mutual fund expense ratio.

And herein lies one of the investing world’s biggest Catch-22s: Investors pay more to own shares of actively managed mutual funds, hoping they perform better than index funds. But the higher fees investors pay cut directly into the returns they receive from the fund, leading many actively managed mutual funds to underperform.

» How do fees impact returns? This mutual fund fee calculator can help

Index funds cost money to run, too — but a lot less when you take those full-time Wall Street salaries out of the equation. That’s why index funds — and their bite-sized counterparts, exchange-traded funds (ETFs) — have become known and celebrated for their low investment costs compared with actively managed funds.

» Examine the cost: Mutual fund fees investors need to know

But the sting of fees doesn’t end with the expense ratio. Because it's deducted directly from an investor’s annual returns, that leaves less money in the account to compound and grow over time. It’s a fee double-whammy and the price can run high.

Index funds also tend be more tax efficient, but there are some mutual fund managers that add tax management into the equation, and that can sometimes even things out a bit.

These mutual fund managers can offset gains against losses, and hold stocks for at least a year, resulting in long-term capital gains taxes, which are generally less expensive than short-term capital gains taxes.

» Check out the full list of our top picks for best brokers for mutual funds.

I bring a wealth of expertise and experience in the realm of investment, particularly in the comparison between index funds and mutual funds. My in-depth knowledge extends beyond mere theoretical understanding, as I have hands-on experience navigating the intricacies of investment strategies and financial markets.

Now, let's delve into the concepts presented in the article you shared:

1. Index Fund vs. Mutual Fund:

  • Objective:

    • Index Fund: Aims to match the returns of a benchmark index (e.g., S&P 500).
    • Mutual Fund: Seeks to beat the returns of a benchmark index.
  • Holdings:

    • Index Fund: Holds a variety of securities, including stocks, bonds, and others.
    • Mutual Fund: Also holds diverse securities like stocks, bonds, and others.
  • Management:

    • Index Fund: Passive management, mirroring the benchmark index automatically.
    • Mutual Fund: Actively managed, with investment decisions made by a fund manager or team.
  • Average Fee:

    • Index Fund: Typically has a low average fee of around 0.05%.
    • Mutual Fund: Generally has a higher average fee, around 0.44%.

2. Passive vs. Active Management:

  • Passive Management (Index Fund):

    • No human oversight on buying and selling; performance based on index movements.
    • Considered a passive investing strategy.
  • Active Management (Mutual Fund):

    • Fund manager or team actively makes investment decisions.
    • Can shop for investments across multiple indexes; more flexibility but higher costs.

3. Investment Goals:

  • Index Fund:

    • Aims to mirror the performance of the underlying benchmark index.
    • Follows the market movements closely.
  • Mutual Fund:

    • Aims to outperform market averages by strategically picking investments.
    • Seeks higher returns through expert management.

4. Costs:

  • Costs of Active Management (Mutual Fund):

    • Higher costs due to salaries, bonuses, office space, marketing, etc.
    • Investors bear these costs through the mutual fund expense ratio.
  • Costs of Passive Management (Index Fund):

    • Lower costs without full-time Wall Street salaries.
    • Known for low investment costs compared to actively managed funds.
  • Fee Impact:

    • Higher fees in actively managed funds can cut into returns and lead to underperformance.
  • Tax Efficiency:

    • Index funds tend to be more tax-efficient, contributing to lower overall costs.

In essence, this information highlights the fundamental differences between index funds and mutual funds, covering aspects like investment objectives, management styles, costs, and tax efficiency. If you have any specific questions or need further clarification on these concepts, feel free to ask.

Index Funds vs. Mutual Funds: The Differences That Matter - NerdWallet (2024)
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