Niggling fund charges called 12b-1 fees are really loads in disguise. They are taken out of funds’ asset values each year to pay the person who sold the fund (or to compensate discount brokers that offer the fund without transaction charges). But the fees are usually only 0.25 to 0.75 percentage point per year, so many investors pay little attention. Reforms promised by the Securities and Exchange Commission have yet to materialize.
We use funds with 12b-1 fees of up to 0.25% in our Kiplinger 25 list of top mutual funds because those fees buy shelf space in no-transaction-fee fund supermarkets.
Long-term investors in particular may be better off paying transaction fees and investing in funds that don’t charge 12b-1 fees. And if you invest in a fund directly, it’s well worth the effort to avoid 12b-1 fees; you can find the information in the expense section of the prospectus.
Redemption fees. A true no-load fund won’t charge you when you buy or sell shares, right? Wrong. Nearly 30% of all no-load U.S. stock funds charge a redemption fee -- between 0.1% and 2% -- if you sell shares too soon after buying them. Funds’ exit-fee periods vary between one day and one year, but the average is 65 days. You’ll find redemption fees listed in the prospectus.
Annual fees. Some brokerages and fund companies charge $20 or more per year for an IRA if you don’t meet the minimum balance requirement—Vanguard, for one, charges a $20 annual fee if your IRA is less than $10,000. Look for companies with no annual maintenance or minimum-balance fees, including E-Trade, Fidelity, Charles Schwab and TD Ameritrade.
Inactivity fees. If you’re a buy-and-hold investor, you’re better off with a broker that doesn’t charge these fees, which range from about $10 to $35. E-Trade, Fidelity, Schwab, TD Ameritrade and Vanguard don’t nick buy-and-holders.