The Best Vanguard Funds for 401(k) Retirement Savers

Vanguard funds account for roughly a third of the 100 most popular 401(k) retirement products. We rank Vanguard's best actively managed funds, including its target-date solutions.

Vanguard logo
(Image credit: Kiplinger)

Chances are, even if you don't have your 401(k) parked at Vanguard, you have a fund or two from the Malvern, Pennsylvania-based fund company in your employer-sponsored retirement savings plan. That's because, according to financial data firm BrightScope, Vanguard funds are home to more 401(k) dollars than any other fund company in the country.

Among the 100 most widely held funds in 401(k) plans, roughly a third are Vanguard funds. So in this, our annual review of the biggest retirement savings plan, we take a closer look at some of Vanguard's most popular funds in 401(k) accounts, and rate them Buy, Hold or Sell.

Several are index funds, which we do not rate. It's not that we don't like them. We do. But decisions to buy an index fund generally hinge on whether you seek exposure to a certain part of the market. And for the most part, index funds fulfill their purpose – they track the indexes they mirror, less expenses.

But actively managed funds are different.

Some are better than others. Managers change, which can affect a fund's returns. Underperforming funds might be lagging for a good reason; say, its investment style is simply out of favor. That's why we analyze only the actively managed funds from Vanguard in this story. We also review the firm's two target-date series, Institutional Target Retirement and Target Retirement, which are among Vanguard's most popular 401(k) funds and are due to merge (more on that below). Both series hold mostly index funds, but active decisions are made on asset allocation.

This story – as well as our reviews of other big fund firms in the 401(k) world, including American Funds, Fidelity and T. Rowe Price, as well as all Buy-worthy funds across all mutual fund families – is meant to help savers make good choices among the funds available in their 401(k) plan.

Let's look at some of the best Vanguard funds for your 401(k) plan … and weed out a few lesser options, too. For simplicity's sake, and to make comparisons more even, where possible we cite data and returns for Vanguard's Investor share class, which is most accessible to retail investors. Returns are through April 30.


Returns and data are as of April 30. In each review, we refer to the symbol, returns and expense ratio of the share class that is available to most investors. The reason for this is that the share classes of specific funds offered in 401(k) plans can vary, depending in part on the size of the plan.

Nellie S. Huang
Senior Associate Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

Nellie joined Kiplinger in August 2011 after a seven-year stint in Hong Kong. There, she worked for the Wall Street Journal Asia, where as lifestyle editor, she launched and edited Scene Asia, an online guide to food, wine, entertainment and the arts in Asia. Prior to that, she was an editor at Weekend Journal, the Friday lifestyle section of the Wall Street Journal Asia. Kiplinger isn't Nellie's first foray into personal finance: She has also worked at SmartMoney (rising from fact-checker to senior writer), and she was a senior editor at Money.