by Andrew Fiebert
We’re big fans of Vanguard, but admittedly, investing in Vanguard funds is a bit more complicated than using a Robo Advisor. In this article, we break down what we think of Vanguard’s eight best funds while balancing both performance and cost.
Before we jump in, it’s important to mention why we are focusing so heavily on fees here. Due to their exponential nature, fees of just 1% can cause you to lose up to 25% of your earnings. That’s pretty horrendous and often what turns investors on to Vanguard in the first place.
I also highly suggest you check the fees on your accounts via the free Personal Capital fee analyzer. It runs simulations and pinpoints all of the overly fee-hungry funds across your accounts – retirement or otherwise.
If you’re looking for a deeper dive into our logic as well as some colorful commentary than check out the podcast episode we did on this:
First, let’s quickly discuss what an Index Fund (ETF) and a Mutual Fund are. Who better to ask then Vanguard themselves?
An ETF is a collection (or “basket”) of tens, hundreds, or sometimes thousands of stocks or bonds in a single fund. If you’ve ever owned a mutual fund—particularly an index fund—then owning an ETF will feel familiar because it has the same built-in diversification and low costs.
A Mutual Fund is very similar to an ETF with one crucial difference:
You can set up automatic investments and withdrawals into and out of mutual funds based on your preferences.
Source: Vanguard on ETF vs. Mutual Fund
In other words, if you want to automate your investing, then you use a Mutual Fund. If you want cheaper fees over time and don’t mind making contributions every month, then you should choose an ETF. I use ETFs because I don’t mind making investments manually, and fees are the worst.
We often get asked how much you need to invest in Vanguard. If you’re investing in an ETF, then all you need is $1. If you’re investing in a Vanguard Mutual Fund, then the minimum initial investment is between $1,000 and $3,000.
Total Stock Market (ETF) – VTI
This ETF is Vanguard’s flagship fund and in our opinion, their best. It’s a blend of Large, Mid, and Small cap companies in the US. It’s the lowest fee we’ve ever seen on a fund. That’s because the fund tracks a few smaller indexes allowing it to be largely automated.
Often when people mention that they invested in Vanguard, they are referring to this fund. Since 92%+ of fund managers can’t even beat this, I’d be very skeptical if anyone suggested they can perform better after-fees than this fund. Even Warren Buffet agrees. Of course, it would be shrewd to invest in more than just VTI. It’s impressive, but it’s not all things.
This fund is a lifecycle fund, so it starts with most of the money invested in stocks and slowly tapers into bonds over time. The point is you take on risk now while you’re young and slowly reduce risk as you reach retirement age, so big market swings don’t wipe out your retirement money.
While this fund isn’t their best regarding the fee, it covers a much-needed gap in most people’s portfolio. As you know, we’re big fans of buy and hold, and this fund fits in there perfectly.
The number in the fund name, like “2050”, corresponds to your “typical” retirement date – usually, that’s when you’re 59 1/2. We often find ourselves picking funds with dates well past typical retirement age, so we get something a bit more growth-focused early on.
500 Index Fund (Admiral Class) – VFIAX
This fund was the industry’s first for individual investors. Invest in 500 of the biggest, baddest companies based in the US. By definition, this fund contains the best Large Cap companies, and since it focuses on the biggest companies in the US, it’s the closest to tracking the US economy.
REIT Index Fund (Admiral Shares) – VGSLX
Why own a property and rent it when your money gets stuck in the home, and there is so much work to be done? Instead, invest in a REIT and take rental profit and liquidity. This index fund is not just a REIT but a fund of many REITs, so you’re heavily diversified in the rental game.
Note: You won’t find much yield here, which is a bit of a drag considering real estate is a solid income play. As a replacement for the income portion of your portfolio, we recommend Fundrise.
Compared to VGSLX, Fundrise sticks to mid-size deals overlooked by large funds and as a result, provides a markedly higher return. You can also opt to concentrate on income or appreciation focused funds.
Growth Index Fund (Admiral Shares) – VIGAX
With the Growth Index, Vanguard picks high-growth companies that will knock it out of the park for you. It’s a bit riskier, but the returns are solid.
Even though the focus is on high growth companies, the fund follows a buy and hold approach where once they locate a stable company, they stay invested in them for a while.
The air is crisp in Admiral.
Total Bond Market (ETF) – BND
Any well-balanced portfolio has bonds in it. They’re much less sexy than stocks but are also much less risky. When you’re young, 10% of your portfolio should be in something similar to BND, and as you get older, you’ll increase that percentage significantly. All the bonds that are in this fund are investment grade, and you should aim to hold this fund in the medium to long term based on its contents.
In preparation for market corrections or as we see them, investment opportunities, we tend to hold more bonds. Since long-term bond funds, rose ~20% in price in 2008, we see this as a win-win.
Since bonds tend to do better when the stock market is doing poorly, we want our Opportunity Funds to be full of them.
We recommend keeping your Opportunity Fund in a cash account with best in class interest rates:
Strategic Equity Fund (Investor Shares) – VSEQX
Like the Growth Index fund but smaller companies, potentially higher growth and largely selected by a computer. The fee is the highest here because proportionately the most amount of work goes into running this fund. 0.29% isn’t a big fee by a long shot, but I do think it’s important to note.
Also, again, this one’s the riskiest of the bunch. Of your Vanguard investments, we wouldn’t recommend making this one more than 10% of the total amount you invest.
Total International Stock Index Fund (Investor Shares) – VGTSX
Similar in approach to our #1 choice, VTI, only this fund focuses only on companies outside the US. The fund covers both developed and emerging markets.
It’s pretty volatile, so we keep it as a small portion of our portfolio to help offset our heavy US exposure.
Vanguard Fund Tracking and Monitoring
Manage your cash and optimize your investments in one place. With Personal Capital, you can analyze your 401k to diversify your holdings better and reduce fees. I had no idea I was paying over 1% of my assets in fees every year but their help I was able to get it down below 0.3%.
Once you have all of your accounts linked, you can also leverage their Retirement Planner to plot out exactly what your retirement would look like. Using a Monte Carlo simulation, they determine how likely it is that you’ll reach the level of income in retirement that you’re hoping for.
Vanguard Select Funds
Vanguard created a shortlist of their funds called the Vanguard Select Funds. One interesting thing about the list is how they determine what funds get on it:
So, basically, they’re hand-picked using voodoo. I will say that a lot of their most expensive funds (where they can make the most money) are on that list like the Windsor II who’s fee is 0.34%.
It’s worth mentioning that most of the funds on our list are on their list with the exception that we excluded the high-cost funds. There are a billion studies that show there is no correlation between a high cost and a high return. That’s why we focus on “shooting for the average” on the show, easily the best bang for your buck given the risk.
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