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SMART INSIGHTS FROM PROFESSIONAL ADVISERS

Simple Steps to Save on Investment Fees

Some of the costs associated with saving and investing are patently obvious, but there are others that can be quite well hidden.

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It’s the new year, and holiday indulgences weigh heavily on us. Do you feel the urge to shed the excess? No, not pounds and inches. Instead, let’s shed the unnecessary investment costs that hurt your long-term financial success.

SEE ALSO: 25 Best Mutual Funds for Low Fees

Costs are one of the few things you can control about your investments. As Vanguard says, “The lower your costs, the greater your share of an investment’s return.” Furthermore, mutual-fund-research powerhouse Morningstar shows that “firms with low fees have a higher likelihood of above-average performance.”

What Costs Are There?

Is there just one cost to reduce? Silly you. Of course there’s not. There are many ways to take your money!

PUBLISHED COSTS

You should be able to find these costs listed explicitly.

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  • Expense ratio. The price you pay each year for the management of the fund. In 2015, the average expense ratio for mutual funds was 0.61% (you pay $61 for every $10,000 invested in the fund).
  • Loads. A sales commission you pay when you buy a fund (“front-end” load) or sell a fund (“back-end” load or “deferred sales charge”).
  • 12b-1 fees. Funds use this money, usually 0.25% to 1% of your assets, to pay for their marketing and distribution costs. (Note: 12b-1 fees are included in the expense ratio.)
  • Purchase and redemption fees. You can incur a fee if you purchase or sell funds too frequently or too soon after buying them.
  • Account maintenance or service fees. You might have to pay to open or maintain an account.
  • Professional fees. A flat fee or percentage of assets under management you pay to a professional to manage your investments. (If you don’t use a fee-only adviser, you’re still paying for management … it’s just indirectly through commissions and the like.)

    HIDDEN COSTS

    You think it’s hard to keep track of all the costs I just listed above? How about the ones that aren’t listed anywhere?

  • Transaction costs. The costs associated with buying and selling stocks and bonds within a mutual fund. Experts not only have a hard time measuring these costs, they even have a hard time defining them. Passive-investing advocate and Vanguard founder John Bogle conservatively estimates 0.50% annually for actively managed mutual funds.
  • Cash drag. If your mutual fund has 5% of its assets in cash, that means 5% of your money has no chance of growing significantly in value. Bogle’s research estimates this cost at 0.15%.
  • Tax inefficiency. What you invest in, how often you trade and which accounts you invest in affect how much in taxes you owe. The bottom line, according to Bogle’s estimates: a 0.45% annual cost.
  • Dumb behavior. Probably the biggest cost of all, this usually boils down to buying higher and selling low.

    How Do I Lower All of Those Costs?

    There is a single answer that would prudently lower most of those costs: index funds. More exactly, inexpensive mutual funds or exchange-traded funds that track major indexes (not, for example, a triple-leveraged inverse technology sector ETF). But sticking with index funds isn't the only way to limit fees. Consider these other tactics:

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  • Expense ratio. Buy low-cost funds. Funds don’t need to be index funds to be inexpensive; but they usually are. There’s no magic threshold above which funds are too expensive. Try to stay under 0.25%. In your company’s 401(k), costs might be higher. But it provides convenience and simplicity, so try to stay under 0.75%.
  • Loads. Don’t buy load funds. Ever.
  • 12b-1 fees. Don’t buy funds with these fees.
  • Account maintenance or service fees. Ask a representative if the fee can be waived, especially if you contribute regularly to the account. Look for a custodian that doesn’t charge the fees. If you consolidate your accounts in one place and save regularly, you’ll soon have a balance high enough to avoid these fees.
  • Transaction costs. Buy funds that have low “turnover,” that is, they don’t buy and sell very often. Every time a funds buys or sell, you pay a commission. Index funds usually win this race, though there are some more conservative actively managed funds that have low turnover, too. The popular Vanguard S&P 500 index fund’s annual turnover is 3%, meaning it sells just 3% of its holdings each year. Rydex Electronics, by contrast, with a 769% turnover, sells and replaces all of its holdings over seven times each year.
  • Cash drag. Buy index funds. These usually have little to no cash, so all of your money is invested in securities that have a chance of growing. Cash has a righteous place in your total financial portfolio, but not in your investment portfolio. Put it in your bank.
  • Tax inefficiency. Trade infrequently in your taxable account, use tax-efficient funds (like index funds) in your taxable account, and save into tax-advantaged accounts like IRAs and 401(k)s.

    What Index Funds Can’t Help You With

    There are a few, important fees that index funds won’t help you with:

  • Purchase and redemption fees. Don’t trade frequently. It turns out that frequent trading not only runs up costs for the company handling the mutual fund, but it also hurts your investment returns.
  • Professional fees. Evaluate what value you’re getting for your professional fees. It’s fair to pay a fee in return for a service, but make sure the service is valuable.
  • Dumb behavior. This is by far the hardest part of successful investing. Good investor behavior requires planning, discipline and accountability. If you want to learn more about how your own brain tries to sabotage you, take a look the books listed here.

    A diet to keep your trim physique requires daily attention and discipline. A diet to trim your investment costs, however, is one that you can do once a year and ignore the rest of the time ... and reap the benefits literally for the rest of your life.

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    See Also: Investors, Save Big on Mutual Fund Fees

    Meg Bartelt, CFP®, MSFP, is the president of Flow Financial Planning, LLC, a fee-only virtual firm that provides financial guidance to women in tech. She is a member of the XY Planning Network.

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    This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.