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How To Build The Cheapest ETF Portfolio

By
Carolyn Hill
November 20, 2012
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Creating an ETF portfolio at any major online brokerage firm proves that knowing what to invest in isn’t that difficult after all.

One of the biggest complaints that I hear from people about investing is that they don’t know what to invest in.

Friends and family, ranging from students to lawyers to successful technology executives, have used this lack of knowledge to justify sticking with high-fee managed mutual fund accounts or, worse, keeping all of their money in cash.

Given the amount of time I spend researching ETFs and ETF portfolios, that just seems crazy to me, which led me to create an easy guide to building the cheapest, most basic ETF portfolio you can on three different major online brokerages: Fidelity, TD Ameritrade and E-Trade.

I’ll start with Fidelity, which currently offers 31 iShares ETFs commission-free. The nice thing about Fidelity is that it doesn’t penalize you on short-term trades. If you’re planning on holding your portfolio long term, that shouldn’t matter, but I like knowing that if I need to sell off a position quickly, I can do so without paying for it.

The most basic ETF portfolio has exposure to U.S. equities, global equities and fixed income. At Fidelity, the broadest, cheapest options I’ve chosen are the iShares Russell 3000 Index Fund (IWV | A-100), the iShares MSCI EAFE Index Fund (EFA | A-91), the iShares MSCI Emerging Markets Index Fund (EEM | B-97 ) and the iShares Core Total U.S. Bond Market (AGG | A-97).

Fidelity Funds Summary

I’ve presented three sample portfolios based on those four ETFs, based on your desired risk level.

Fidelity Model Portfolios

Overall, those are very reasonably priced portfolios that certainly beat the fees charged by most (if not all) managed mutual fund accounts. You can rebalance your chosen portfolio back to target weights as frequently as you’d like thanks to commission-free trades, though the most realistic rebalancing schedule is probably annually.

You can design a cheaper—and broader—basic portfolio at TD Ameritrade, but you’ll have to contend with a $19.99 fee if you sell a position within 30 days of buying it. I’ll stick to my basic portfolio of four equity and fixed-income ETFs for comparison purposes, but I really like that TD Ameritrade offers commission-free trades on commodities ETFs like the PowerShares DB Commodity Index Tracking Fund (DBC | B-96) and the iPath Dow Jones-UBS Commodity Index Total Return ETN (DJP | B), along with a few asset allocation funds for those who would rather let iShares make their allocation decisions for them.

At TD Ameritrade, I chose the Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF (VTI | A-100), the Vanguard MSCI EAFE ETF (VEA | A-91), the Vanguard MSCI Emerging Markets ETF (VWO | C-89) and AGG again:

 

ETF DAILY DATA

The bond funds 'HYG,' 'TLT' and 'JNK' added money on Wednesday, March 25, as total U.S.-listed ETF assets dipped just below $2.1 trillion.

A number of iShares funds, including the bond funds 'TLT' and 'HYG' paced the firm's issuer-leading inflows on Wednesday, March 25. Total U.S.-listed ETF assets meanwhile dipped to just below $2.1 trillion.

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