ETFs vs. mutual funds: Understand the difference

E*TRADE from Morgan Stanley

Learn the difference between ETFs and mutual funds.

Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and mutual funds are both popular investments with some similar characteristics, but also some important differences.

Before we break them down, let's talk about what these funds are:

  • ETFs and mutual funds are both collections, or “baskets,” of individual stocks, bonds, or other investments—in some cases hundreds of them—all pooled together. When you buy a share of the fund, you own a small piece of this big basket of assets.

How they are similar

Both ETFs and mutual funds…

  • Are typically less risky than buying individual stocks and bonds. Because ETFs and mutual funds can hold so many different individual investments, there's less chance of an overall portfolio loss if one investment goes bad. In other words, both ETFs and mutual funds typically give you some diversification.
  • Have professional managers who pick the investments, so you don't have to. Both types of funds are administered by professional portfolio managers who choose and monitor the stocks, bonds, and/or other investments that are in the fund.
  • Give you a very broad range of investment choices. Among the thousands of ETFs and mutual funds on the market, you can find funds that buy different types of investments (stocks, bonds, and others), or invest in different geographic locations, industries, types and sizes of companies, and much more.

How they're different

  ETFs Mutual Funds
How it trades ETFs are like stocks. You can buy and sell shares directly on major stock exchanges, throughout the day. Mutual funds trade once a day, after the market closes. You can place a buy or sell order at any time, but the order executes at the end of the day. The final price you pay for the shares is also determined after the market closes.1
How much are you required to invest? You can buy as little as one share of an ETF, meaning it's often less expensive to get into an ETF than into a mutual fund. Mutual funds usually require a minimum investment dollar amount. You pay the minimum—or more, if you choose—and receive the number of shares that dollar amount purchases, based on that day's share price.
Investment style and goals for returns Many ETFs tend to be passively managed index funds, meaning they aim to mirror the performance of a market index, before expenses. Note that not all ETFs fall into this category, as many are actively managed. Similar to ETFs, some mutual funds are index funds. But many others are actively managed, meaning professional fund managers draw on their expertise to try to outperform the average returns of a market or index.
Expenses you pay ETFs charge their investors management and other fees (known as the expense ratio).This fee is included in the value of the fund and disclosed in the prospectus.

Mutual funds also have expense ratios. It is important to be aware of fees becasue they lower your returns.

In general, actively managed funds tend to have higher expense ratios than index funds.

Other things to know Like stocks, you can use limit and stop orders to trade ETFs, as well as trade them on margin, use them in certain options trades, and sell short. It's easier to use mutual funds for automatic investing (where you invest a pre-determined amount at regular intervals, say $100 every month.)

Explore how to invest with ETFs and mutual funds

Prebuilt Portfolios

Simplify your investing with Prebuilt ETF Portfolios or Prebuilt Mutual Fund Portfolios

ETF and mutual fund screeners

Use our ETF screener or mutual fund screener to quickly focus in on the kind of funds you're looking for

Thematic Investing

Find ETFs that align with your values or with social, economic, and technology trends in our
Thematic Investing

Core Portfolios

With Core Portfolios, we'll build, manage, and rebalance a diversified ETF portfolio for you.

What to read next...

Understanding the similarities and differences between stocks and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) is the first step in deciding how they may fit your investment goals. But first, let’s be clear about what stocks and ETFs are.

There's a diverse list of many different ETFs to choose from so here's a broad overview to get started. Read this article to learn more.

Choosing a mutual fund can feel overwhelming. After all, there are thousands of funds you could buy. So where to begin? Read on to learn more.

Looking to expand your financial knowledge?