Why You Should Care About Expense Ratios

Think small

While I understand the basics of what expense ratios are – fees, so the lower the better – I have a hard time explaining what they are and their impact on your money. I’m not a financial professional, so this may be over simplifying. And please, someone, correct me if I’m way off.

I’m going to pretend I’m explaining this to someone who doesn’t want to understand investments, but perhaps should (mom!).

The first official definition I see is from Morningstar:

The expense ratio is the annual fee that all funds or ETFs charge their shareholders. It expresses the percentage of assets deducted each fiscal year for fund expenses, including 12b-1 fees, management fees, administrative fees, operating costs, and all other asset-based costs incurred by the fund.

What?! Am I supposed to know what 12b-1 fees are? The first line says it best: it’s the annual fee charged to shareholder. That’s you, the account holder.

But I don’t see it on my statement. How am I paying this fee? 

Nothing is free. Your investments are managed by people and companies that are in business to make money. Mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) bundle their fees into this “expense ratio.” You’re not going to see this as a line item on a statement of your account transactions, but they have an impact on your investment returns.

What are these expense ratio fees for? 

There are different costs with managing different funds and these costs are paid for (at least partly) through the expense ratio fees. These may include paying the fund manager, custodial services, record keeping, legal, marketing, auditing, accounting, etc. Basically, paying the machine that keeps the firm running.

Do I have to pay this? 

Yes, but you have some control in how much you choose to pay.

How much are we talking and how will it impact me? 

Expense ratio fees can range from 0.01% to 2.5%. To any retail shopper, this sounds like small potatoes, but over time, these rates can have a big impact. I searched for a calculator for this example, but found the results varied, so take this just as an example. I used the SEC’s Tool for Comparing Mutual Funds. 

Say you invest $10,000. Assume an average annual gain of a 10% over 20 years:

  • With 0.91% expense ratio = $11,241 in costs; Balance = $56,034
  • With 0.04% expense ratio = $536 in costs; Balance = $66,739

That’s over a $10,000 difference! This is a really simplified example with no additional contributions and without consideration for a host of other factors. But you can control this $10k difference and it only takes a few minutes.

So, what can I do?

Let’s look at your retirement account and see where it’s invested. With Vanguard, I can easily see the expense ratio by fund. Since my IRA is a mash up of multiple 401k roll-overs, my account was invested across over 10 different funds. I have gradually sold them, in order of highest expense ratio, purchasing low cost index funds instead (VTSAX). I’m down to these six (look at that Fidelity at 0.01%!):

I don’t sell them all at once because there’s a $50 fee for making more than one of these transactions within 60 days. And since I’m no good at math, I’m not going to calculate the impact of these waiting periods, I’m just avoiding the $50 hit.

To trade the high expense ratio funds for lower expense ratio funds, I follow the steps from my Vanguard account: 1) buy and sell and 2)  Trade an ETF or stock. I trade “all” of the high expense account. Once that transaction goes through, it will be held in my money market fund until I add it to my VTSAX fund.

I tried to keep this simple, but it’s not a very simple subject for the non-fiscally minded. And I know I don’t know anything – I’m just scratching the surface here.

2017 Recap: Where we started and where we are today

 

We started on this journey in May 2017 and I think that in our first eight months, we accomplished a lot. It wasn’t too much of a stretch for us: we know we need to save, but learning from the FI community, we realized that being more aggressive about both decreasing  debt and saving more will enable us to stop working our traditional office jobs in about 10 years (at age 54) … we hope. College for two kids is such a wild card. And I don’t even want to think about healthcare.

Our first eight months on the path to FIRE looked like this:

  1. Transferred both our Wells Fargo IRAs, rolled over prior employer 401k and an old pension into Vanguard IRAs, focusing on consolidating into VTSAX
  2. 401ks – we didn’t quite max these out in 2017; they will be maxed out in 2018 and super happy to see there’s an increase of $500 more per year in 2018 on the 401k max
  3. Continued to contribute $100/month into each of two 529s
  4. Maxed out pre-tax HSA and Dependent Care FSA
  5. Sold high expense ratio funds to purchase VTSAX (still working on this because there’s a charge of $50 when selling more than one non-Vanguard fund within 60 days)
  6. Successful job arbitrage saving city wage tax, commuting costs and time, plus a bonus and salary increase
  7. Tracked spending with Every Dollar; this was really helpful to understand where and when our money was going and helped us get started. I feel like we’ve got our finger on the pulse of this now and I’m not tracking every dollar.
  8. I’m addicted to the Personal Capital app. I love seeing our money grow and debt shrink and it also provides a spending analysis that has replaced Every Dollar for me, but it’s not as robust in that department. I was hesitant to provide all my account info and logins to a third party, but their superman encryption convinced me it was safe.
  9. Changed one of two cell phones to a low-cost, pay-as-you-go plan with Total Wireless, saving $45/month!
  10. Switched insurance providers for primary house, two rental houses and two cars: saving over $600/year.
  11. Increased rent in both rental homes; this wasn’t by design as much as strongly recommended by our property management company due to market trends in one and tenant turnover in another.

Whew! I’m proud of this. I wish we started 10 years ago, but there’s no looking back, just moving forward. We still have a long way to go: we have goals and we can see how we’ll get there. Here’s to 2018!

 

My Favorite FIRE Resources

I am surprised the ChooseFI guys didn’t win a PLUTUS award. They’re my choice for FIRE info and have introduced me to so many resources. My favorite to date is JL Collins’ Simple Path to Wealth. I got the (free) audio book, shared it with DH and proceed to actually spend money on a hard copy. That’s how much I value the information.
I’m sure I’ll find another great resource on this list … hoping I can find one as an audio book to listen to on my commute and long runs.

like pages in a book
Growing

Being five months into this journey, I’ve only scratched the surface on the resources available and the amount of information can be a little overwhelming at times. But, I like to keep to the JL Collins mindset: Keep it Simple.

So, in keeping it simple, this week’s FI activities were all about continuing to consolidate our monies:

  • Showing DH how to sell non-VTSAX so he can buy VTSAX, via Vanguard
  • Sold two of my Vanguard funds that we’re over the 1% expense ratio; no, I’m not 100% VTSAX yet because on some funds, there’s a $50 charge for transactions within 60 days … I’m math adverse and cheap, so I’m avoid that $50 because it’s easier then calculating the impact of a higher percent expense ratio (read: I AM LAZY)
  • Transferred my 401k from prior employer and firm to Vanguard

Huge thanks to Brad & Jonathan from ChooseFI for inspiring the FIRE in this family. You’ve won our award for being the best FI-influencer. Today’s episode scared me (we own and owe on three houses), but that’s a story for another time.