Index Funds vs. Mutual Funds: Which Investment is Better?

6 min read
Adam Koprucki
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Understanding the differences between index funds and mutual funds is critical to making informed investing decisions.

Index Funds vs. Mutual Funds

Understanding the differences between index funds and mutual funds is critical to making informed investing decisions.

These funds follow different investment strategies – passive for index funds and usually active for mutual funds – affecting potential returns and risk levels. Costs also differ, with index funds generally having lower fees due to passive management. Thus, knowing these distinctions can help align your investments with your financial goals, risk tolerance, and cost preferences.

Quick Comparison:

Index FundsMutual Funds
Management StylePassive – aims to replicate the performance of a specific market indexDependent on the fund manager’s decisions can be higher
FeesDependent on the fund manager’s decisions can be higherHigher due to active management and transaction costs
Minimum InvestmentGenerally lower, often the price of one shareCan be higher, often with minimum initial investment requirements
ReturnsAims to match the market, therefore, follows the performance of the indexPotentially higher returns, but can also underperform the market
Tax ImplicationsLower due to fewer taxable eventsPotentially higher due to more frequent capital gains distributions
RiskMatches the risk level of the index it tracksDependent on the fund manager’s decisions, can be higher
Time CommitmentLess – “set it and forget it” approachMore – needs close following due to active management
DiversificationOffers diversification across all assets in the indexDependent on the specific fund, but can offer diversification

What are Index Funds?

Index funds are an investment fund – usually referring to an exchange-traded fund (ETF) like VOO or SPY. Index funds aim to replicate the performance of a specific market index like the S&P 500, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, or other global and sector-specific indexes.

There are several pros and cons of index funds, but the goal of an index fund is not to outperform the market but to match the returns of the chosen index with minimal tracking error. This is why index funds are considered a type of passive investment; they essentially mirror the market index they track.

Investing in an index fund means you’re spreading out your investment across all the assets in that index, providing a level of diversification. Due to their passive nature, index funds usually have lower expense ratios than actively managed funds, making them a cost-effective choice for many investors.

However, like all investment options, index funds come with their own risks, including market risk. The fund’s value will rise and fall with the index it tracks, meaning if the index falls in value, so too will the index fund.

What are Mutual Funds?

Mutual funds are a pooled investment vehicle consisting of a portfolio of stocks, bonds, or other securities. Mutual funds are managed by professional fund managers who allocate the fund’s assets to provide above-average returns for its investors.

Each investor in the mutual fund owns shares representing a portion of the fund’s holdings. The performance of a mutual fund is directly related to the performance of the securities it purchases. 

Mutual funds offer small or individual investors access to diversified, professionally managed portfolios of equities, bonds, and other securities, which would be pretty difficult to create with a small amount of capital.

Mutual funds do not actively trade throughout the day like stocks and ETFs. They are bought and sold once a day, at their Net Asset Value (NAV), which is simply the fund’s total assets – total liabilities.

Head-to-Head Comparison

While mutual funds and index funds may seem similar at first glance, there are several key differences between these investment options.

Active vs. Passive Management

The primary difference between index funds and mutual funds is how they are managed.

Index funds are typically passively managed, while mutual funds are usually actively managed

Passive management aims to mirror the performance of a specific market index rather than trying to beat it. Index funds, for example, are passively managed and seek to replicate the holdings and performance of their benchmark index.

Meanwhile, active management involves a fund manager or a team making specific investment decisions for the fund, with the goal of outperforming a specific benchmark index. This includes researching and selecting the securities to buy, hold, or sell, and adjusting the portfolio based on market conditions.

Due to this hands-on approach, actively managed funds usually have higher expense ratios, which can eat into returns. They may also generate more capital gains distributions, which can have tax implications. However, the potential for above-average returns may be appealing to some investors.

Because they aren’t actively trading securities and require less day-to-day management, index funds generally have lower expense ratios. This can be an advantage for investors who are mindful of costs. But it’s important to remember that index funds will not outperform the market — they aim to match it. If the market goes down, the index fund will go down as well.


When it comes to fees, one of the key differences between index funds and mutual funds lies in their management style, which significantly influences their cost structures.

Mutual funds are typically actively managed, meaning a fund manager or a team actively makes decisions about which securities to buy and sell in an attempt to outperform the market. This active management requires more effort, research, and transaction costs, all of which lead to higher expenses. These costs are passed onto investors in the form of higher expense ratios.

The average expense ratio for an equity mutual fund was 0.44% in 2022, according to the Investment Company Institute, a trade association for the U.S. Investment industry.

Index funds, on the other hand, are passively managed. They aim to mirror the performance of a specific market index and therefore require less buying and selling of securities. This passive management results in lower transaction costs and lower fund management expenses. Consequently, the expense ratios of index funds are typically significantly lower than those of actively managed mutual funds.

In 2022, the average index fund fee for exchange-traded funds was just 0.16%.

And while lower fees can be appealing, they’re just one factor to consider when choosing an investment. The goal is not to pay the lowest fees possible but to find the best value – that is, to find funds that offer the best combination of returns, risk, and costs that align with your investment goals and risk tolerance.

Minimum Investment

Minimum investment requirements differ between index funds and mutual funds and can also vary considerably among different fund companies.

Many mutual funds have minimum initial investment requirements. This is the minimum amount you need to invest to open a new mutual fund account. It can range from as low as $1,000 to as high as $10,000 or more. Some mutual funds may waive or lower their minimum investment requirement if you agree to automatic, regular investments.

Meanwhile, index funds like VOO or VTI have a minimum investment of just 1 share.

Remember that it’s crucial to consider other factors beyond minimum investment when choosing between mutual funds and index funds, such as your investment goals, risk tolerance, and the fund’s expense ratio and historical performance.


The returns of index funds and mutual funds largely depend on their investment strategy, market conditions, and the skills of the fund managers in the case of mutual funds.

Mutual funds are usually actively managed, with fund managers selecting investments with the goal of outperforming a specific benchmark index.

If the managers are skillful and market conditions are favorable, these funds have the potential to deliver higher returns than the market average.

However, mutual funds can also underperform the market if the manager’s decisions do not pan out as expected.

According to a recent article from the NYTimes, not one of 2,132 actively managed funds outperformed the market over the past 5 years.

It’s also important to note that the higher fees associated with actively managed mutual funds can erode returns over time.

Index funds are passively managed and aim to mimic the performance of a specific market index. They do not seek to beat the market, but to match it. Therefore, the returns of an index fund should be very close to the returns of its benchmark index, minus a small amount to cover management fees.


Tax implications are another important aspect to consider when comparing index funds and mutual funds. Both types of funds are subject to taxes, but the frequency and magnitude of taxable events can differ significantly due to their management styles.

Mutual funds are typically actively managed, meaning a fund manager is regularly buying and selling securities within the fund to achieve its investment objectives. Each time a security is sold for a gain within the fund, a taxable event occurs. This can lead to more frequent capital gains distributions to shareholders, which are subject to capital gains tax. Shareholders must pay taxes on these distributions in the year they are received, even if they are automatically reinvested.

Index funds are passively managed to track a specific market index, which usually results in lower turnover of securities. This means fewer taxable events, typically leading to fewer capital gains distributions. As a result, index funds can be more tax-efficient than actively managed mutual funds.

In both cases, any dividends received and any capital gains realized when you sell your fund shares are also taxable. However, the tax treatment of these earnings can be affected by several factors, including how long you’ve held the shares and the type of account in which the shares are held, for example, a brokerage account vs. Roth IRA.

It’s recommended to consult with a tax advisor to understand the full tax implications of investing in mutual funds or index funds.

How to Pick The Right Option

When choosing between an index fund and a mutual fund, there are several factors one must take into consideration, such as investment goals, risk tolerance, costs, and time commitment.

Investment Goals

Your investment objectives will guide your choice.

If you aim to beat the market and are willing to take on additional risk, then actively managed mutual funds might suit you.

However, if your goal is to match the market’s performance with less risk and cost, then index funds could be a better option.

Risk Tolerance

Mutual funds can offer the potential for higher returns, but they also come with higher risk due to active management strategies. Conversely, index funds can provide more predictable performance closely following the market index, thus reducing specific fund manager risk.


Index funds tend to have lower expense ratios due to their passive management strategy.

On the other hand, mutual funds usually have higher fees due to the active role that fund managers play.

Over time, these costs can significantly impact your returns.

Tax Considerations

Mutual funds may generate more frequent capital gains due to active trading, leading to potentially higher taxes for investors. Index funds usually have fewer taxable events due to their passive management, making them more tax-efficient.

Minimum Investment

Some mutual funds require a minimum initial investment which can be a barrier to entry for some investors. Many index funds have lower minimum investments, making them more accessible to a wider range of investors.

Time Commitment

 If you’re interested in closely following your investments and are comfortable with potentially more volatility, an actively managed mutual fund could be suitable. If you prefer a “set it and forget it” approach, an index fund could be a better choice.

Always remember, it’s important to carefully review the prospectus of any fund you’re considering and perhaps consult with a financial advisor to ensure the choice fits your overall investment strategy and financial goals.

The Bottom Line

Understanding the distinctions between index funds and mutual funds is crucial for savvy investing. Index funds are passively managed and aim to mirror the performance of a specific market index, providing a cost-effective and diversified investment option.

On the other hand, mutual funds are actively managed by professionals seeking to outperform the market, offering the potential for higher returns at the cost of higher fees and risk. Costs, investment goals, risk tolerance, tax implications, minimum investment requirements, and time commitment are critical considerations when deciding between the two. It’s essential to align your choice with your overall financial goals and strategy.

Adam Koprucki

Expertise: Fixed-income investing, Macroeconomics, Personal Finance, Derivatives, Options, Index Funds

Professional Experience: J.P. Morgan, Deloitte Consulting, Societe Generale, The Vanguard Group

Education: Loyola University: Bachelor of Business Administration, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: Certificate in Capital Markets

Adam Koprucki is the founder of Real World Investor, an investing website dedicated to reviewing the newest and latest investing tools and providing unique market insights for beginner to intermediate investors.

Before starting Real World Investor, he spent over a decade working at some of the world's largest investment banks and investment managers, such as Citibank, J.P. Morgan, Societe Generale, Deloitte, and The Vanguard Group.

His experience includes working with complex financial products such as exotic interest rate derivatives, structured products, and structured credit.

A dedicated and enthusiastic investor, he is passionate about macroeconomics and options trading. His investing insights have been published on Investopedia, Yahoo Finance, Seeking Alpha, GoBankingRates, Nasdaq, and Bigger Pockets.

He is also a contributing author at