Comparing the Costs of Index Funds and ETFs

[Note: This post was updated in May 2014 when the ING Direct Streetwise Funds changed their name to the Tangerine Investment Funds.]

The growing popularity of index investing has a lot to do with the increasing number of ETFs available, and that’s largely a good thing. ETFs generally have lower management expense ratios (MERs) than index mutual funds in Canada, so they are usually the best choice for large portfolios, especially if you make infrequent lump-sum contributions.

But ETFs carry additional costs that are often ignored by beginning investors. Trading commissions are the most obvious: it typically costs $10 to buy or sell ETFs, while index mutual funds can be traded for free. (Some brokerages do offer a limited selection of commission-free ETFs, and a few independents offer trades for less than $10.)

Are index funds or ETFs right for you?

All of which is to say that as marvelous as ETFs are, they are often inferior to index mutual funds for investors with small accounts. My rough minimum for using ETFs is $50,000, but the actual cut-off varies a lot depending which specific ETFs or index funds you use, the commission charged by your brokerage, how many trades you make, and whether the brokerage charges an annual account fee.

To help you make this comparison yourself, I’ve built a spreadsheet you can download here. You can fill in the each of the yellow cells according to your individual circumstances and it will calculate the total annual cost of several different options. I have pre-programmed the spreadsheet with three versions Global Couch Potato as well as the Tangerine Balanced Portfolio, which has the same asset allocation. You can customize it any way you like, but be careful not to mess up the formulas.

If you’re an investor who focuses only on MERs, you’ll be surprised at some of the results. For example:

  • If you’re investing $50,000 in the Global Couch Potato and plan to make 12 ETFs trades annually at $9.95, the TD e-Series funds are a less expensive option.
  • If you plan to make quarterly ETF trades (16 per year) then even the RBC index funds are essentially the same cost for balances up to $30,000. This is why ETFs are often inappropriate if you’re building a balanced portfolio in a TFSA or RESP, since these accounts are unlikely to be larger than that.
  • For small accounts, many brokerages charge an administration fee. If you assume a $50 to $100 annual fee, then the Tangerine Investment Funds become appealing for accounts under $20,000 or so, despite their 1.07% MER. In many cases they are cheaper than the ETFs and the RBC index funds, and while it may be slightly more costly than the TD e-Series funds, it is far more convenient for new investors.

Download the spreadsheet and give it a try. Compare your own portfolio’s costs to the Global Couch Potato options, being sure to include all trading costs and account fees.

112 Responses to Comparing the Costs of Index Funds and ETFs

  1. Canadian Couch Potato December 4, 2014 at 9:00 am #

    @Ruane: Yes, most brokerages do not charge a fee for TFSAs, even if they are small. This is probably holdover from a few years ago when the contribution limits prevented anyone from having fore than $5,000 or $10,000 in the account.

  2. George December 15, 2014 at 7:11 pm #

    Hi, great website – I’m a huge fan! Quick question, my father’s workplace covers all expenses, apart from the MER if my father invests with Manulife. Currently, all of his money sits in: http://pdf.globefund.com/servlet/FundProfile?tf=Financial/FundProfile/html/en/pages/cpo_target_date&mode=html&fund_id=69875&branding=manps&product_id=330&universe=MLI_POOLED

    Is the MER actually 0.086%? Or am I missing something?

  3. Canadian Couch Potato December 15, 2014 at 8:44 pm #

    @George: Thanks for the comment. It’s possible to have funds with MERs that low if they are held in an employer-sponsored RRSP plan. The employer may pay Manulife for the administration of the plan as a benefit to the employees. I would suggest your father contact his HR department to verify this.

  4. George December 16, 2014 at 1:18 pm #

    Thank you for your prompt reply CCP! You really are a hero!

  5. aj January 25, 2015 at 4:21 am #

    Why do you recommend not to buy ETFs if you don’t have more than $50,000 in it?

    Questrade for example doesn’t charge to buy ETFs. I from what I understand on this blog, we should be buying, not selling ETFs.

    So if I make 12 trades (just purchases I assume?) then it’d cost $0?? I’m I missing something?

    thanks
    Aj

  6. Canadian Couch Potato January 25, 2015 at 8:50 am #

    @aj: If cost is the only factor you’re considering, then commission-free ETFs clearly have the advantage. But it’s not the only factor. This may help:
    http://canadiancouchpotato.com/2013/02/19/why-index-mutual-funds-still-have-a-place/

  7. Shannon February 16, 2015 at 3:28 am #

    I have a portfolio of approx. $135k in the four basic e-Series funds. At this point, I am thinking of diversifying into other asset classes, which I understand will need to be done via ETFs, since e-Series lacks small-cap offerings, for instance. However, since I already have the e-Series, my thought was to leave them alone for my core asset classes, and just buy ETFs with new money. What is your opinion of having a mixture of e-Series and ETFs?

  8. aj July 17, 2015 at 3:20 pm #

    hello,

    I notice that the couch potato ETFS in the spread sheet on this page are different on the ones in your other link.

    http://canadiancouchpotato.com/2012/07/30/comparing-the-costs-of-index-funds-and-etfs/

    Vanguard FTSE Canada All Cap VCN
    Vanguard US Total Market VUN
    iShares MSCI EAFE IMI XEF
    Vanguard Canadian Aggregate Bond VAB

    VS

    http://canadiancouchpotato.com/model-portfolios-2/ under ETFs. You only offer the Vanguard ETFS

    Vanguard Canadian Aggregate Bond Index ETF VAB
    Vanguard FTSE Canada All Cap Index ETF VCN
    Vanguard FTSE All-World ex Canada Index ETF VXC

    which is the recommended couch potato one?

  9. Canadian Couch Potato July 17, 2015 at 3:40 pm #

    @aj: There is no single recommended portfolio: either of these options is just fine. VXC did not exist in 2012, but it’s now a good choice for getting US, international and emerging markets in a single ETF.

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