The 25 Best Low-Fee Mutual Funds You Can Buy
The key to building wealth long-term is buying high-quality, low-cost mutual funds run by seasoned stock pickers. Here are our favorites: The Kiplinger 25.
The Kiplinger 25 list of our favorite no-load mutual funds dates back to 2004, and our coverage of mutual funds goes all the way back to the 1950s. We believe in holding funds rather than trading them, so we focus on promising mutual funds with solid long-term records – and managers with tenures to match.
The past year-plus has been a wild ride, both for markets overall and for the Kip 25 funds, and we've made a number of changes, including a very recent addition to our "specialized" funds. The period was marked by the end of the bear market and the beginning of a rocky, tech-driven recovery, punctuated by a shift toward small companies and economically sensitive sectors such as energy and financials after the election and the release of COVID-19 vaccines.
All told, however, we’re happy with our funds. Our diversified U.S. stock funds, on average, beat the S&P 500 index; our foreign stock funds trounced the MSCI EAFE index of stocks in foreign developed countries; and our bond funds, overall, delivered bigger gains than the Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond index.
Here are our picks for the best 25 low-fee mutual funds: what makes them tick, and what kind of returns they've delivered.
Data is as of Sept. 28, unless otherwise noted. Three-, five- and 10-year returns are annualized. Yields on equity funds represent the trailing 12-month yield. Yields on balanced and bond funds are SEC yields, which reflect the interest earned after deducting fund expenses for the most recent 30-day period.
Dodge & Cox Stock
- Symbol: DODGX
- 1-year return: 51.9%
- 3-year return: 13.4%
- 5-year return: 15.4%
- 10-year return: 16.1%
- Yield: 1.3%
- Expense ratio: 0.52%
The focus: Reasonably priced shares in large and midsize companies.
The process: Eight managers select stocks to buy and hold for at least three to five years (but typically longer). They favor firms with steady cash flow and earnings growth.
The track record: The fund’s 10-year annualized return of 16.1% beat 99% of all large value-oriented funds. After lagging their growth-focused counterparts for a decade, value-priced stocks are waking up.
The last word: This fund is a sturdy option for investors looking to balance FAANG-heavy portfolios. Wells Fargo (WFC), Charles Schwab (SCHW) and Capital One Financial (COF) are among the top holdings.
Mairs & Power Growth
- Symbol: MPGFX
- 1-year return: 34.8%
- 3-year return: 16.0%
- 5-year return: 15.1%
- 10-year return: 16.1%
- Yield: 0.7%
- Expense ratio: 0.64%
The focus: Growing companies of all sizes trading at a reasonable price.
The process: The Saint Paul, Minn.-based managers like to know their companies well, so they invest a majority of the fund’s assets in firms based in the Upper Midwest. The portfolio has a hefty helping of healthcare stocks that's larger than similar funds, on average.
The track record: MPGFX's value tilt is part of the reason its 10-year annualized return, 16.1%, lagged the S&P 500's 16.5% total return over that time. But it's also part of why it has closed the performance gap of late. Also, the fund has beaten roughly two-thirds of its peers (funds that invest in firms with growth and value characteristics) over the same 10-year period. Last year, graphics chip maker Nvidia (NVDA) and Bio-Techne (TECH), which makes biotech research tools, were big gainers.
The last word: Mairs & Power Growth is quirky, but it offers diversification from tech-heavy growth funds.
Fidelity Blue Chip Growth
- Symbol: FBGRX
- 1-year return: 36.2%
- 3-year return: 28.2%
- 5-year return: 27.8%
- 10-year return: 21.9%
- Yield: 0.0%
- Expense ratio: 0.79%
The focus: Fast-growing large firms.
The process: Sonu Kalra’s portfolio can be sorted into three buckets: firms with robust long-term growth (e-commerce companies, for example), companies in a cyclically driven growth phase (financials, say) and a smaller group he calls “self-help stories,” which are businesses with a new manager or product (think of a retailer, for instance, with a growth driver that’s underappreciated).
The track record: The fund’s 10-year 21.9% annualized return easily beat the S&P 500 and 96% of peers (large-company growth funds).
The last word: Except for the brief bear market in early 2020, Kalra has had a bull market behind him since he took over in 2009. But he beat the S&P 500 as manager of Fidelity OTC (FOCPX) between 2005 and mid-2009 – a period that included a bigger downturn.
Primecap Odyssey Growth
- Symbol: POGRX
- 1-year return: 35.3%
- 3-year return: 10.7%
- 5-year return: 16.4%
- 10-year return: 17.0%
- Yield: 0.3%
- Expense ratio: 0.65%
The focus: Fast-growing firms.
The process: Five managers divide the fund’s assets and run each share independently. Each manager looks for firms with long-term growth potential that the market has underestimated.
The track record: The fund’s five-year return lags the S&P 500, but its 10- and 15-year records handily beat the index.
The last word: Patient shareholders are being rewarded. The fund’s one-year reward is more than 3 percentage points better than the S&P 500 thanks to recent climbs by top holdings Morgan Stanley (MS) and Abiomed (ABMD).
T. Rowe Price Dividend Growth
- Symbol: PRDGX
- 1-year return: 28.3%
- 3-year return: 15.7%
- 5-year return: 15.5%
- 10-year return: 15.7%
- Yield: 0.9%
- Expense ratio: 0.63%
The focus: Dividend stocks.
The process: Manager Tom Huber focuses on high-quality companies that throw off cash and have the capacity or willingness to raise payouts.
The track record: In its 21 years under Huber, the fund has returned roughly 500%, versus 340% for the S&P 500.
The last word: Stocks that lean defensive, such as McDonald’s (MCD) and discount retailer Ross Stores (ROST), suffered during the economic shutdown and still haven't bounced back as rapidly as the broader stock market. That partly explains why the fund’s one-year return lagged the index.
- Symbol: VEIPX
- 1-year return: 32.2%
- 3-year return: 10.9%
- 5-year return: 11.9%
- 10-year return: 13.7%
- Yield: 2.2%
- Expense ratio: 0.28%
The focus: Dividend-paying companies.
The process: Wellington Management’s Michael Reckmeyer runs two-thirds of the fund’s assets, focusing on healthy firms with competitive advantages that can sustain and increase dividend payouts. Last year, Reckmeyer added to the portfolio medical equipment firm Becton Dickinson (BDX) and financial powerhouse Morgan Stanley, among others, at bargain prices. Vanguard’s in-house quantitative stock-picking group manages the rest of the assets.
The track record: Equity-Income beat 77% of large value funds with its 10-year annualized return of 13.7%. The fund’s yield of 2.2% bests the S&P 500’s 1.3% yield.
The last word: “It has been an interesting year, but overall we’ve managed through the dislocation well,” says Reckmeyer. We agree.
DF Dent Midcap Growth
- Symbol: DFDMX
- 1-year return: 26.2%
- 3-year return: 19.3%
- 5-year return: 20.5%
- 10-year return: 18.4%
- Yield: 0.0%
- Expense ratio: 0.98%
The focus: Growing midsize-company stocks.
The process: The fund’s managers favor “best in class” companies, defined as firms with a leading market share in their industry, strong growth potential, a history of good profitability, and executives who practice good governance and display personal humility and indomitable will. SBA Communications (SBAC) and Vulcan Materials (VMC) are among the top holdings.
The track record: The fund’s five-year annualized return of 20.5% beat its peers (midsize growth funds) and the Russell Mid Cap Growth Index. Meanwhile, its 10-year annual average return of 18.4% is better than 89% of peers. Performance, red-hot in 2019 and 2020, has cooled lately, in part because the managers have taken some profits in the fund’s tech stocks. Also, firms with less-than-stellar balance sheets and inconsistent profits have flourished recently, and the fund favors high-quality firms.
The last word: Midcap Growth has been a Kip 25 top performer.
Parnassus Mid Cap
- Symbol: PARMX
- 1-year return: 24.8%
- 3-year return: 12.4%
- 5-year return: 12.1%
- 10-year return: 14.1%
- Yield: 0.2%
- Expense ratio: 0.98%
The focus: Midsize firms that meet high environmental, social and governance standards.
The process: Matt Gershuny and comanager Lori Keith hunt for businesses with in-demand products or services that dominate their industries. Some firms have both defensive and offensive traits. Software and services tech company Trimble (TRMB), for instance, is diversified across numerous industries, from agriculture and natural resources to utilities and transportation.
The track record: Parnassus Mid Cap’s value tilt has hobbled the fund in recent years. But it has largely kept pace with the Russell Mid Cap index over the long haul.
The last word: The fund is a solid, core ESG fund.
T. Rowe Price Small-Cap Value
- Symbol: PRSVX
- 1-year return: 55.0%
- 3-year return: 11.5%
- 5-year return: 14.1%
- 10-year return: 14.3%
- Yield: 0.3%
- Expense ratio: 0.80%
The focus: Small-company bargains.
The process: Manager David Wagner favors profitable firms with a competitive edge over rivals – especially companies that are healthy enough to survive a one- to two-year downturn. In 2020, he scooped up dozens of stocks at low prices, including Planet Fitness (PLNT) and Papa John’s International (PZZA).
The track record: Since Wagner took over in mid-2014, the fund has swept past its peers.
The last word: Over the past 12 months, this high-quality fund has outperformed the Russell 2000 as value has recaptured investors' interest.
T. Rowe Price QM U.S. Small-Cap Growth
- Symbol: PRDSX
- 1-year return: 33.0%
- 3-year return: 12.9%
- 5-year return: 16.0%
- 10-year return: 16.5%
- Yield: 0.0%
- Expense ratio: 0.78%
The focus: Small, growing companies.
The process: A quantitative model developed by manager Sudhir Nanda finds high-quality firms generating steady cash flows and earnings.
The track record: Over the past three, five and 10 years, the fund beat the Russell 2000 small-company index.
The last word: Don’t sweat the fund’s recent lag. A high-quality bias helps in downturns, but when non-profitable, low-quality stocks shine, as in recent months, the fund can lag its peers.
Brown Capital Management International Small Company
- Symbol: BCSVX
- 1-year return: 32.9%
- 3-year return: 18.8%
- 5-year return: 19.4%
- 10-year return: --
- Yield: 0.0%
- Expense ratio: 1.33%
The focus: Small companies, mostly in developed foreign countries.
The process: Four managers work together to find what they call exceptional growth companies. Those firms boast solid revenue and earnings growth, a competitive, sustainable position in their industries, and executives with a vision of the future and an ability to deliver on it.
The track record: BCSVX's 21.3% annualized return over the past five years is roughly double the return of the MSCI ACWI Ex USA Small index. It easily beat its typical peer, too.
The last word: International Small Company held up better than its benchmark and peers during the pandemic selloff.
Fidelity International Growth
- Symbol: FIGFX
- 1-year return: 21.4%
- 3-year return: 14.9%
- 5-year return: 13.0%
- 10-year return: 11.6%
- Yield: 0.1%
- Expense ratio: 1.01%
The focus: Growing foreign firms with a competitive edge in their industry.
The process: Manager Jed Weiss favors companies with attractive valuations, good balance sheets and solid growth prospects. “I make multiyear investments,” he says. In 2020, he picked up wish-list stocks that had fallen in price, including Kone (KNYJY), a Nordic elevator company.
The track record: The fund’s 10-year annualized return of 11.6% beat the average gain in the MSCI EAFE Index by about three percentage points.
The last word: Weiss is focusing currently on businesses that gained share during the pandemic, such as animal health firm Dechra Pharmaceuticals, which is benefiting from a boom in pet adoptions.
Janus Henderson Global Equity Income
- Symbol: HFQTX
- 1-year return: 19.7%
- 3-year return: 4.8%
- 5-year return: 6.3%*
- 10-year return: 6.7%*
- Yield: 7.2%
- Expense ratio: 0.95%
The focus: Dividend-paying foreign stocks that are trading at a discount.
The process: Three managers look for firms with strong balance sheets, steady profits and ample cash flow. The fund has a healthy yield.
The track record: Value-style investing, particularly overseas, has been challenging. Relative to other large-company, foreign value stock funds, Global Equity Income has been roughly middle-of-the-pack over the past three years. But it has lagged over the past year.
The last word: Value investing continues to show signs of life, so we are willing to practice patience with this fund.
* Returns as of Aug. 31, 2021. (Morningstar did not have current data available.)
Baron Emerging Markets
- Symbol: BEXFX
- 1-year return: 18.9%
- 3-year return: 11.8%
- 5-year return: 9.1%
- 10-year return: 8.4%
- Yield: 0.0%
- Expense ratio: 1.35%
The focus: Emerging-markets companies of all sizes that have big growth potential.
The process: “Growthy” themes – such as cloud computing, financial technology, and China’s pivot to local economies and consumers (instead of focusing on global exports) – drive the fund’s stock picking.
The track record: The fund, now almost 11 years old, trounced the MSCI Emerging Markets Index by an average of three percentage points per year over the past decade and beat 87% of its peers.
The last word: Portfolio manager Michael Kass has underperformed this year, but he sees better times ahead. “Emerging markets have entered the early innings of a typical EM bull market,” he says.
Fidelity Select Health Care
- Symbol: FSPHX
- 1-year return: 19.1%
- 3-year return: 14.3%
- 5-year return: 16.2%
- 10-year return: 19.8%
- Yield: 0.4%
- Expense ratio: 0.69%
The focus: Companies that design, make or sell products or services used for healthcare or medicine.
The process: At the top of the portfolio, Ed Yoon holds hefty stakes in established firms he calls stable growers, such as UnitedHealth Group (UNH) and Humana (HUM). In the rest of the portfolio, he sprinkles in smaller bets on emerging growers – companies that may be reliant on, say, a particular drug approval or product.
The track record: Over the past 10 years, Select Health Care returned 19.8% annualized, which beat the 16.8% average gain of its health-fund peers.
The last word: Yoon is excited these days about gene and cell therapies, as well as medical equipment makers about to turn a profit.
T. Rowe Price Global Technology
- Symbol: PRGTX
- 1-year return: 40.7%
- 3-year return: 34.8%
- 5-year return: 28.8%
- 10-year return: 26.0%
- Yield: 0.0%
- Expense ratio: 0.86%
The focus: High-quality companies of any size, around the world.
The process: Manager Alan Tu isn’t afraid to go his own way. He doesn’t own Alphabet (GOOGL), Apple (AAPL) or Microsoft (MSFT), for example. The fund’s top holdings – Korea-based internet platform Sea Limited (SE), software firm Atlassian (TEAM) and Zoom Video Communications (ZM) – are smaller by market value.
“We’re not bearish on the mega-cap companies,” says Tu. But he sees promise in smaller ones. “We’re early in this digital transformation era. A lot of the trends driving growth are accelerating, creating opportunities.”
Software as a service, for example, is entering a new phase. Instead of going after big companies to sign long-term contracts – Atlassian is going straight to the consumer. Social media companies are evolving into e-commerce sites: Facebook users can buy certain wares directly on the platform. And the pandemic may have changed grocery shopping forever. That’s why Tu likes Grab, Southeast Asia’s version of Uber Technologies (UBER) and DoorDash (DASH); he also has a stake in private grocery delivery service Instacart.
The track record: Tu is relatively new; he stepped in as manager in March 2019. But he has been a Price analyst since 2013, mostly for Global Technology, and he has the heft of Price’s analyst bench behind him. Since he took over, the fund has beaten more than 80% of peers.
The last word: We still like American Century Small Cap Value (WMCVX), which PRGTX replaced, but we had to cast it out of the Kiplinger 25 because it closed to new investors in August.
- Symbol: VWELX
- 1-year return: 21.8%
- 3-year return: 12.3%
- 5-year return: 11.6%
- 10-year return: 11.5%
- Yield: 1.6%
- Expense ratio: 0.24%
The focus: A balanced portfolio of 65% stocks and 35% bonds. The fund yields 1.6%.
The process: Dan Pozen picks the stocks, investing in reasonably priced, resilient businesses that are run by trustworthy executives who allocate capital wisely. On the bond side, Loren Moran and Michael Stack hold high-quality corporate debt and Treasuries.
The track record: The fund’s 10-year record beats 88% of all balanced funds. It has done well of late, too, outperforming 75% of peers thanks to its exposure to cyclical and value sectors such as financials and energy.
The last word: If you’re new to the fund, you can buy shares through Vanguard; otherwise, it’s closed to new investors.
DoubleLine Total Return Bond
- Symbol: DLTNX
- 1-year return: 0.3%
- 3-year return: 3.7%
- 5-year return: 2.5%
- 10-year return: 3.4%
- Yield: 2.9%
- Expense ratio: 0.75%
The focus: Mortgage-backed bonds.
The process: Three managers build a low-volatility portfolio by balancing the risks of two different kinds of mortgage bonds. Government-guaranteed agency bonds are sensitive to interest-rate moves (when interest rates rise, bond prices fall, and vice versa) but have no default risk; non-agency bonds have some risk of default, but little interest-rate sensitivity. At last report, the fund held 42% of its assets in agency-backed mortgages, 36% in non-agency bonds, 19% in Treasuries and cash, and another 3% in asset-backed securities and collateralized loan obligations (CLOs).
The track record: The fund beat the Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond index over the past decade. It also has outperformed both the Agg and its peers in 2021.
The last word: Don’t count these masterful bond pickers out.
Fidelity Intermediate Municipal Income
- Symbol: FLTMX
- 1-year return: 3.4%
- 3-year return: 4.5%
- 5-year return: 2.8%
- 10-year return: 3.1%
- Yield: 0.5%
- Expense ratio: 0.34%
The focus: Bonds that are exempt from federal income tax, issued by states and counties to fund school and transportation projects, among others.
The process: High-quality, attractively priced muni bonds make the grade here. The managers bought “aggressively” last spring, summer and fall, says comanager Elizah McLaughlin, when prices were low. Managing risk is a priority.
The track record: Over the past decade, the fund delivered average returns with below-average volatility.
The last word: Low supply and high demand have boosted the muni market, but prices are rich. “We’re being selective now,” says McLaughlin. The fund yields 0.5%, which is a tax-equivalent yield of 0.7% for investors in the 24% marginal tax bracket.
Metropolitan West Total Return
- Symbol: MWTRX
- 1-year return: -0.2%
- 3-year return: 5.8%
- 5-year return: 3.2%
- 10-year return: 3.9%
- Yield: 0.8%
- Expense ratio: 0.67%
The focus: Investment-grade (rated triple-A to triple-B) medium-maturity bonds. The fund yields 0.8%.
The process: Four bargain-minded managers make the big-picture calls; a team of specialists do the security picking. The portfolio holds a mix of Treasuries, corporate bonds, and mortgage- and asset-backed securities.
The track record: The fund beats the Agg index, on average, over the long haul.
The last word: The managers are disciplined about buying low and selling high, which has served investors well.
Vanguard Emerging Markets Bond
- Symbol: VEMBX
- 1-year return: 5.6%
- 3-year return: 9.9%
- 5-year return: 7.8%
- 10-year return: --
- Yield: 3.2%
- Expense ratio: 0.60%
The focus: Emerging-markets bonds issued in U.S. dollars.
The process: Vanguard’s fixed income group invests in government and corporate debt issued in emerging countries. The managers have some wiggle room – they can venture into bonds denominated in local currencies, for example – but “never so much that it changes the character of the fund,” says lead manager Dan Shaykevich. They also use derivatives, not to goose performance but to manage portfolio risk. That allows them to take advantage of opportunities “without taking on unintended risk,” Shaykevich says.
The track record: Since its March 2016 launch, the fund’s 9.5% annualized gain has beaten the 6.0% return in the JPM EMB index of emerging-markets bonds, the fund’s benchmark.
The last word: This high-yielding asset class is in vogue these days because of low yields in competing bonds and the improving growth outlook for foreign economies, among other reasons. The fund yields 3.2%.
Fidelity Strategic Income
- Symbol: FADMX
- 1-year return: 8.7%
- 3-year return: 6.3%
- 5-year return: 5.2%*
- 10-year return: 4.7%*
- Yield: 2.0%
- Expense ratio: 0.67%
The focus: To generate more income than the Agg index by investing in a blend of bonds. The fund yields 2.0%; the Agg yields 1.3%.
The process: The managers start with a benchmark made up of 45% high-yield bonds (debt rated triple-B to single-C), 25% U.S. government bonds and 30% foreign debt, but they can shift those positions up or down by 10 percentage points if they see opportunity.
The track record: Over the past five years, the fund’s 5.2% annualized return beat the Agg’s 3.1% average annual gain. Its junkier bonds helped the fund return 8.7% over the past 12 months, which was better than 82% of its peers: multi-sector bond funds.
The last word: A slug of high-yield debt makes this fund a bumpier ride compared with the high-quality Agg index.
* Returns as of March 31, 2021. (Morningstar did not have current data available.)
Vanguard High-Yield Corporate
- Symbol: VWEHX
- 1-year return: 8.5%
- 3-year return: 6.4%
- 5-year return: 5.8%
- 10-year return: 6.5%
- Yield: 2.7%
- Expense ratio: 0.23%
The focus: Corporate debt rated below investment grade.
The process: Manager Michael Hong is conservative about risk, so he favors bonds rated double-B, the best credit tier of the junk bond world. More recently, he is focused on debt issued by firms that will benefit from long-lasting pandemic trends (homebuilders with significant operations in the suburbs, for example).
The track record: Hong’s conservative stance worked well for most of 2020, but riskier bonds have done better in recent months. Even so, the fund’s 10-year record beats 62% of its peers, and with below-average risk.
The last word: VWHEX is a good option for investors who want a defensive high-yield bond fund. The fund yields 2.7%.
Vanguard Short-Term Investment Grade
- Symbol: VFSTX
- 1-year return: 1.1%
- 3-year return: 3.9%
- 5-year return: 2.6%
- 10-year return: 2.5%
- Yield: 0.8%
- Expense ratio: 0.20%
The focus: High-quality short-maturity bonds.
The process: Three managers with Vanguard’s fixed income group invest mostly in corporate debt.
The track record: Recent manager changes are a concern, and the current team took over in mid-2018. But a 3.9% three-year average annual return has beaten its typical peer (short-term bond funds).
The last word: The fund is best for investors managing near-term cash needs. The yield, 0.8%, is better than the best one-year CD rate available today.
TIAA-CREF Core Impact Bond
- Symbol: TSBRX
- 1-year return: 0.1%
- 3-year return: 5.2%
- 5-year return: 3.1%
- 10-year return: --
- Yield: 1.0%
- Expense ratio: 0.61%
The focus: Bonds that pass strict ESG criteria or that make a quantifiable environmental or social impact.
The process: Three managers build a diversified portfolio of Treasuries, agency mortgage-backed debt, corporate IOUs and a smattering of muni bonds. “We want investors to experience a core bond offering,” says lead manager Stephen Liberatore.
The track record: The fund’s five-year annualized return of 3.1% beat the Agg index. But its 1.0% yield falls short of the benchmark’s 1.3%.
The last word: TIAA-CREF Core Impact is a solid ESG bond fund and a good choice for investors who deem making an impact an important consideration.