Learn more about some of the different investment products you can choose for your portfolio
Understanding investment types

Investing in a stock, bond, ETF, or mutual fund

Learn more about some of the different investment products you can choose for your portfolio.
8 minute read
September 23, 2020
Understanding investment types
Investment type comparisons
Mutual funds

If building your portfolio is like building a house, your account is the house itself. The features you want to include—a fireplace, a garage, and an eat-in kitchen—are your target asset mix. The specific finishes you choose? They’re your investments.

If you’ve already determined your target asset mix and account type, you’re ready to choose your investments. Here’s a quick look at 4 common investment products.

Investment products

An investment product gives you access to a single asset class or a combination of asset classes. An individual stock or bond exposes you to a single asset class—stocks or bonds, respectively—while a single ETF or mutual fund can expose you to one or more asset classes.

Individual stock

A stock is traded on a major exchange like the New York Stock Exchange or Nasdaq. When you own a stock, you essentially own part of a specific company, and you get some of its assets and profits.

Individual bond

A bond is a loan. When you purchase a bond, you’re lending money to the bond issuer (e.g., a government, government agency, or corporation) in exchange for repayment plus interest by a specified date (maturity).

An index (i.e., a market benchmark) is a selection of stocks, bonds, or other securities that represents what’s going on in the overall market. For example, the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index represents 500 of the largest U.S. companies.


An ETF (exchange-traded fund) bundles together many stocks or bonds in a single investment and may track an index. When you own an ETF, you own a portion of its underlying portfolio. An ETF also trades on major exchanges.

Mutual fund

A mutual fund, like an ETF, bundles together many stocks, bonds, or other securities in a single investment and may track an index. But there’s a notable difference in how you buy and sell ETFs versus mutual funds. ETFs trade on major stock exchanges directly from one investor to another, while mutual fund companies, banks, and brokerage firms buy and sell mutual funds.

What to consider

1. Cost

Cost matters when you’re investing. The less money you spend, the more you keep. The cost of an investment depends primarily on its expense ratio and commission. 

Expense ratio

An expense ratio is the percentage of a fund’s total assets that goes toward the cost of running the fund each year. For example, if you invest $1,000 in an ETF or a mutual fund with a 0.10% expense ratio, you’ll pay $1 a year in fees. If you invest the same amount in a fund with an expense ratio of 0.60%, you’ll pay $6 a year.


A commission is a fee you pay to a broker each time you buy or sell 1 or more shares of an individual stock, bond, or ETF. For example, if you buy shares of 20 individual stocks, you’ll be subject to 20 commission charges. If each commission is $5, that’s $100 (regardless of the total amount you invest).

Similar to an expense ratio, when you pay less in commissions, you have more money available to compound.

Which products may have an expense ratio?

  • ETFs.
  • Mutual funds.

Which products may have a commission?

  • Individual stocks.
  • Individual bonds.
  • ETFs.

2. Investment style

An investment style describes a technique used to pursue a goal. Some investment products, including mutual funds and ETFs, can be active or passive. 


Actively managed funds seek to outperform the market and generate above-average returns. An active fund’s portfolio management team relies on research, market forecasting, and personal experience to decide which bonds and stocks they’re going to buy. Although actively managed funds attempt to beat the market, they may underperform the market. Mutual funds offer the biggest selection of actively managed funds, but some ETFs are actively managed too.


A passively managed fund—known as an index fund—holds all (or a sample) of the bonds or stocks in the index it tracks. The fund then mirrors the index and only buys or sells when the index makes a significant change. Most ETFs are passively managed, whereas mutual funds can be either passively or actively managed.

More information

Compare index vs. actively managed funds

Individual stock and bond funds aren’t considered active or passive because they aren’t professionally managed (which is why they don’t have an expense ratio).

3. Convenience

If you’re like most investors, the amount of time and effort you want to spend building a diversified portfolio may be the most important factor in choosing an investment product.

Answer the questions below and follow the lines to determine which product may be the best option to meet your needs.

You're investing now!

Once you’ve chosen an investment product, select a specific investment with an objective that matches your own. (You can view the objective of each Vanguard fund on the Overview tab of the fund page under Product summary.)

Whether you chose a single investment or several investments to hold in your portfolio, the total percentage of stocks, bonds, and cash you own should match your target asset allocation.

Most Viewed

Ready to invest? See how to open an account
Start with this step-by-step guide to opening a personal investment account, such as a general investing brokerage account or an IRA.
Backdoor Roth IRA What it is and how to set it up
If you are a high-income earner, a Backdoor Roth IRA may be a good retirement investment option for you. Learn what it is and how to set up this type of retirement plan.
Who owns Vanguard?
Who owns Vanguard? Learn why we're proud to be the only investor-owned investment management company and how we focus on putting investor needs first.
Are bonds a good investment right now?
Learn how high-quality bonds can play a valuable role in your portfolio in a high-yield environment.
Top 6 tips: Your year-end financial checklist
Discover our new international fund

*Vanguard average mutual fund and ETF expense ratio: 0.09%. Industry average mutual fund and ETF expense ratio: 0.49%. All averages are asset-weighted. Industry averages exclude Vanguard. Sources: Vanguard and Morningstar, Inc., as of December 31, 2022.


All investing is subject to risk, including the possible loss of the money you invest.

Diversification does not ensure a profit or protect against a loss.

Investments in bonds are subject to interest rate, credit, and inflation risk.

You must buy and sell Vanguard ETF Shares through Vanguard Brokerage Services (we offer them commission-free) or through another broker (which may charge commissions). See the Vanguard Brokerage Services commission and fee schedules for limits. Vanguard ETF Shares are not redeemable directly with the issuing fund other than in very large aggregations worth millions of dollars. ETFs are subject to market volatility. When buying or selling an ETF, you will pay or receive the current market price, which may be more or less than net asset value.

Vanguard's advice services are provided by Vanguard Advisers, Inc. ("VAI"), a registered investment advisor, or by Vanguard National Trust Company ("VNTC"), a federally chartered, limited-purpose trust company.

The services provided to clients will vary based upon the service selected, including management, fees, eligibility, and access to an advisor. Find VAI's Form CRS and each program's advisory brochure here for an overview.

VAI and VNTC are subsidiaries of The Vanguard Group, Inc., and affiliates of Vanguard Marketing Corporation. Neither VAI, VNTC, nor its affiliates guarantee profits or protection from losses.