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Mutual Funds

Fund Investing Made Easy

A menu of ideas for newbies.

It's hard enough for experienced investors to navigate thousands of mutual funds. But if you're new to the investing game, picking from among the myriad choices can be mind-numbing. So here are a few words of advice: Ignore almost all of them. A few low-cost, broad-based funds are all you need to start your portfolio off on the right track. In that spirit, consider these four categories, all ideal for novice investors.

In for a song

You can get started with less than you pay in rent each month -- $500 or less, in the case of these four funds. Hodges fund (symbol HDPMX) is run by a father-and-son team that invests in companies of all sizes with improving earnings. It returned 24% annualized over the past five years to July 2. Excelsior Value & Restructuring (UMBIX) specializes in bargain-priced stocks and companies in the midst of change. It gained 17% annualized over the past five years. The separate teams that run Homestead Value (HOVLX) and Homestead International Value (HISIX) look for undervalued stocks in the U.S. and overseas, respectively. The former returned 13% annualized over the past five years; the latter returned 17%.

Instant diversification

Want something on the sedate side? Then diversify by investing in a balanced fund, which usually puts about two-thirds of its assets in stocks and the rest in bonds and cash. Pax World Balanced (PAXWX) gives you the benefits of diversification plus a low initial minimum requirement of $250. The fund employs social screens to eliminate firms that invest in alcohol, tobacco, gambling and weapons. Pax World, which recently had almost 70% of assets in stocks, earned 10% annualized over the past five years. If you don't care about social screening, consider Oakmark Equity and Income (OAKBX), which recently had 60% of assets in undervalued stocks and most of the rest in Treasury bonds. It returned 11% annualized over the past five years.

Autopilot solution

Target-retirement funds are a hugely popular one-stop solution. Pick the fund whose target year matches the date for meeting your goal, whether it's, say, retirement or paying your child's first college-tuition bill. As you near the target year, the fund, which invests in other funds in the same family, gradually reduces its risk level by cutting back on stock-fund holdings and moving the assets into bond and money-market funds. Many target funds cost too much and are too conservative with their allocations. We think the T. Rowe Price Retirement funds are the best in this category. Their expenses are modest, and they tend to be more stock-heavy than similar funds offered by competitors. Minimum investment is $2,500.

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As simple as can be

Most funds aspire to beat the stock market. But there's a lot to be said for just matching it. After all, you're not doing badly if you earn the market's long-term return of 10% or so per year. That's the beauty of index funds, which simply seek to mimic a market benchmark. Because the funds are not actively managed, their fees are among the lowest you'll find. Both Fidelity and Vanguard offer low-cost funds that seek to track Standard & Poor's 500-stock index. But if you have little capital, you'll appreciate Schwab SP 500 Index (SWPIX). Its annual expense ratio of 0.36% is high for this kind of fund, but it lets you in for just $100. Schwab also offers low-minimum index funds that track, among other groups, small-company stocks and foreign stocks.