An index fund is a type of mutual fund or exchange-traded fund (ETF) that holds the same assets that are part of a market index, such as the S&P 500. Because of that, the price of the index fund moves the same as the market index.
3 steps to invest in index funds
Investing in ETF index funds is as simple as buying any other stock on the stock market. Here’s how it works:
An index fund tracks a market index, such as the S&P 500 or Nasdaq. These funds are made out of multiple stocks or other assets. That’s why the index fund performs similarly to the market index it tracks.
There are thousands of indexes to choose from, including those that track large companies, small companies, foreign companies, commodities like gold and silver and more. The most popular ones are:
S&P 500. This index tracks the 500 largest companies listed on US exchanges. Some of the most popular companies in this index include Amazon, American Express, Berkshire Hathaway, Google and FedEx.
Russel 2000. This index tracks the smallest 2,000 companies in the Russell 3000 Index. This includes companies like 3D Systems Corp, AMC Entertainment, Evofem Biosciences and Novavax.
Nasdaq Composite. This stock market index includes almost every stock listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange. It mostly includes companies in the information technology sector, such as Apple, eBay, Intel and Google.
2. Pick a fund for the index
Depending on which index you want to invest in, there could be multiple ETFs tracking it. For example, more than 15 ETFs track the S&P 500. The performance of all these ETFs is virtually the same; the difference is which company owns the index — whether it’s Vanguard, MSCI, iShares, Invesco or others.
Additional aspects to consider before you choose a fund are:
Expense ratio. This is the ETF’s annual fee. Luckily, it’s relatively low — typically less than 1% for popular funds — and rarely goes above 2% annually.
Leverage. Some ETFs are 2x or 3x leveraged. This means the fund will move two to three times as much as the index would move in either direction. Leveraged funds come with a lot of risk attached, so they’re not for beginner investors or for those with a low risk tolerance.
Long or short. Long ETFs rise if the index rises and fall if the index falls. Short ETFs move inversely — your investment rises if the index drops and vice versa.
3. Buy the index fund
Here’s how to buy an index fund from a brokerage account:
Sign up and log in to your account.
Search the fund’s ticker symbol or look for the fund manually.
Enter the number of shares you want to buy and at what price.
Review your order and submit.
Compare broker platforms to find the right one for your needs. Those who want to frequently trade ETFs, should consider a brokerage with $0 commissions on ETFs, like Robinhood or Interactive Brokers’ IBKR Lite account.
Compare brokers to invest in index funds
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Benefits of investing in index funds
Diversification. By holding an index ETF, you have exposure to multiple companies or assets.
Cost. An index fund could hold hundreds of companies. By owning shares of the fund, you indirectly invest in all these companies. If you want to invest in the same companies individually, you would have to make hundreds of transactions and potentially pay transaction fees.
Easy to trade. You can buy or sell ETF funds whenever you want during market hours and as easily as you would trade any individual stock.
Risks of investing in index funds
Losses. Like any investment, you take the bad with the good. When an index drops, so does your investment.
Tracking error. This could cause the ETF price and the market index to slightly differ. Add in the ETF’s annual fee and you could be looking at a worse performance than the market index it was supposed to match. Luckily, this rarely happens with popular index funds.
Are index funds good for beginners?
Yes. ETFs are one of the most beginner-friendly assets you can get. The fund buys shares from all the companies the market index tracks, and all you have to do is buy the fund’s shares.
If the fund holds dividend stocks, you’ll get dividend payments each quarter. If a company is delisted or listed in the index, the fund will adapt its portfolio accordingly.
Popular index funds
The three popular index funds you can invest in are:
Vanguard S&P 500 ETF (VOO). This fund tracks the S&P 500. It holds $789 billion of assets under management and costs 0.03% annually, or $0.3 for every $1,000 invested.
Vanguard High Dividend Yield ETF (VYM). VYM tracks the FTSE® High Dividend Yield Index. It holds $64 billion in assets and costs 0.06% annually, or $0.6 for every $1,000 invested.
Vanguard Total World Stock ETF (VT). This ETF tracks the FTSE Global All Cap Index. It holds $34 billion of assets and costs 0.08% annually or $0.8 for every $1,000 invested.
Kliment Dukovski is a personal finance writer at Finder, specializing in investments and cryptocurrency. He's written more than 700 articles to help readers compare the best trading platforms, understand complex investment terms and find the best credit cards for their needs. His expert commentary has been featured in such digital publications as Fox Business, MSN Money and MediaFeed. He’s also well-versed in money transfers, home loans and more — breaking down these topics into simple concepts anyone can understand. In another life, Kliment ghostwrote guides and articles on foreign exchange, stock market trading and cryptocurrencies.
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