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Mutual Funds

Low Costs Mean Higher Returns

Every nickel you save on fees goes straight into your pocket, and index funds offer some of the best deals around.

The old adage that you get what you pay for doesn't apply to investing. Indeed, some of the lowest-priced investments produce the most sparkling returns -- largely because every nickel you save on fees goes straight into your pocket.

Among mutual funds, for example, index funds offer some of the best deals around. A fund manager's skill isn't a key factor in running an index fund, which hews to its underlying benchmark, so expenses are essentially the only factor to consider. Fidelity Spartan Total Market Index fund (symbol FSTMX; 800-544-8888), which covers the entire U.S. stock market, levies expenses of just 0.1% annually. So do Fidelity Spartan U.S. Equity Index (FUSEX), which tracks the mainly large-company Standard & Poor's 500-stock index; Fidelity Spartan International Index (FSIIX); and other Fidelity stock index funds. A $10,000 investment would cost just $10 a year in expenses.

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Invest a minimum of $100,000 and you'll pay even less, because Fidelity shaves the expense ratio of most of its stock index funds to 0.07% annually. Right now Fidelity's stock-index funds cost a bit less than Vanguard's. But with expenses generally between 0.18% and 0.2% annually, Vanguard's bond funds either match or undercut Fidelity's.

Principally because they're so cheap, exchange-traded funds -- index funds that trade on the stock exchanges -- are surging in popularity. Vanguard (800-635-1511) offers 23 Viper ETFs, with costs ranging from 0.07% annually for Total Stock Market (VTI) to a still-tiny 0.3% for Emerging Markets Stock (VWO). Barclays Global Investors (www.ishares.com; 800-474-2737) offers a similar lineup of iShares ETFs at comparable prices. In addition to broad-based ETFs, Vanguard and Barclays both offer ETFs that invest in individual industries, such as energy and technology.

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One downside to ETFs is that you pay brokerage commissions whenever you buy and sell them. If you make regular investments, traditional index funds may end up costing less.

There are plenty of first-class actively managed funds that also charge low fees. For instance, large-company standout Selected American Shares (SLADX; 800-243-1575) costs only 0.65% annually when you buy direct from Selected. Dodge & Cox International (DODFX; 800-621-3979), another top performer, charges 0.7% -- much less than most foreign funds. And midsize company fund Vanguard Selected Value (VASVX; 800-635-1511) costs just 0.51%.

ONLINE BROKERS | Four cheap ways to trade stocks

Online brokers have long provided a convenient way to keep all your investments in one place. Now they're offering great prices, too. In fact, they've lowered their commissions so much that it's hard not to stumble across a good deal. Those listed below are among the best. -- Steven T. Goldberg

Wells Fargo
866-460-8465
Part of the online-brokerage arm of Wells Fargo, WellsTrade offers 50 free stock and mutual fund trades annually to customers with accounts of at least $250,000. To qualify, you must first set up a Portfolio Management Account with Wells Fargo. A PMA is the bank's top-of-the-line checking account, which you can open with as little as $100.
Scottrade
800-619-7283
Scottrade charges just $7 per trade, and you need only $500 to open an account. Like most online brokers, Scottrade also offers hundreds of no-load mutual funds with no transaction fees. It charges a reasonable $17 to trade funds outside its no-transaction-fee program.
E*trade
800-387-2331
On accounts of $50,000 or more, E*Trade charges $9.99 to trade stocks and $19.99 to trade funds that don't qualify for free transactions. (On accounts under $50,000, the charge is $12.99 for stocks.)
Ameritrade
800-454-9272
Part of the online-brokerage arm of Wells Fargo, WellsTrade offers 50 free stock and mutual fund trades annually to customers with accounts of at least $250,000. To qualify, you must first set up a Portfolio Management Account with Wells Fargo. A PMA is the bank's top-of-the-line checking account, which you can open with as little as $100.