High fees on your investments are seriously bad news for your bottom line. According to the Securities and Exchange Commission (aka the SEC), higher fees can cost you tens of thousands of dollars over a 20-year timeline.
There are the fees themselves — that’s money leak number one. Number two is lost compound interest. In other words, the amount you pay in fees reduces the amount you’ve got invested, so you’re missing out on the chance to earn a return on those lost dollars.
Knowing how much your investments cost gives you the info you need to make that number as small as possible (or at least make sure the benefits you’re paying for in investment fees justify their cost). So … how do you figure it out? And how high is too high?
There is a little bit of Sherlocking required to find your current fees — most (if not all) of the information you need should be available to you online, but it might be a bit scattered. That's why we wrote this article: to help you wade through it. So get that login info handy, and let’s dive in.
Types of investment fees and where to find them
What’s an advisory fee?
If your investments are managed by an advisor (including a digital advisor like Ellevest), you likely pay an advisory fee. These fees compensate your advisor for constructing and managing an investment portfolio — ideally, one that’s personalized to your specific needs and objectives — plus ongoing research and monitoring of your investments.
Advisory fees are typically based on a percentage of your total invested assets — also called “assets under management” or “AUM” — and that percentage is often expressed in terms of “basis points” (one basis point is equal one-hundredth of one percentage point, aka 0.01%). Many digital advisors charge as little as 0.25% of AUM (aka 25 basis points), but you’ll often pay more like 1% if you use a human financial advisor.
How do I find my advisory fee?
You can usually find an advisor’s fee on their website. If not, run a Google search for “[your advisor’s name] + Form ADV Part 2.” They are required to list their fees on their Form ADV (also called their “brochure”), which will be on public file with the SEC.
At Ellevest, our advisory fee is 0.25% of assets for Ellevest Digital, 0.50% of assets for Ellevest Premium (which also includes access to one-on-one guidance from our CFP® Professionals and Executive Coaches*), and an asset-based fee for private wealth management (which, like Digital and Premium, also includes our impact investing options — you can learn more here). We don’t charge an advisory fee for your Emergency Fund goal, btw.
What’s an expense ratio?
Common investments like mutual funds and ETFs come with fund management fees. These are better known as expense ratios, and they’re different from (and, yes, in addition to) advisory fees.
What’s the difference? Advisory fees go to an investment advisor (like Ellevest) for managing your overall investment portfolio (or portfolios). That might include selecting the funds, rebalancing to keep you diversified, telling you whether you’re on track to hit your goals (not everybody does this, but we do at Ellevest), stuff like that. On the other hand, an expense ratio gets assessed for each individual fund, and the fee goes to the company that manages that individual fund (like Vanguard).
An expense ratio can vary depending on which company is charging it. Often, the bigger the company, the lower the fees, because they have overhead efficiencies. It can also vary due to a company’s strategy; for instance, setting up a fund to replicate the S&P 500 Index is a lot easier than having it track emerging market bonds, and so that first expense ratio will be lower.
Your expense ratio can also vary depending on whether the fund is actively or passively managed, aka whether a human is actively buying and selling the assets within it, or it’s set up to passively track the market. (And “passive” is usually a good thing — both because the expense ratios are usually lower, and because in many categories, funds that are “actively” managed don’t beat a passive index fund).
A fund’s expense ratio is expressed as an annual percentage of the assets you have invested in that fund. It reduces what you would have earned as returns on that investment. For example, if the expense ratio is 0.25% and the fund earned a 10% return, your net return would be about 9.75%. That means that they’re not listed as fees in your transaction history, so this is where you really have to put on the deerstalker hat, light the pipe, break out the violin, and prepare the 7% solution, Sherlock.
So, how do I find the expense ratios for all of the funds in my investment portfolios?
You can find many funds’ expense ratios on Morningstar’s website by typing the fund’s name into the search bar. The fund’s “Quote” tab (which should automatically be showing when you land on the fund’s page) will show “Expenses.”
If you can’t find one of your funds that way, you’ll need to log in to your investment account and find the fund’s detail page. The exact online location of this page will vary by firm, but the expense ratio is sure to be there.
And yes, unfortunately, you’ll need to do this for all the funds in your account.
Important note: You definitely want to look for low expense ratios, but the absolute lowest expense ratio doesn’t automatically make a fund the best pick for your portfolio. We prioritize low-cost funds in Ellevest portfolios*, but mostly we consider a fund’s total costs before deciding whether it’s right for you. (Again, it’s that whole fiduciary thing, aka that legally-obligated-to-put-your-best-interests-first thing.)
Retirement plan fees
A retirement account — things like a 401(k), 403(b), Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), or a 457 plan — may have a separate fee (yep, on top of all other fees) that’s charged by the account administrator. This is a fee for maintaining and administering your account, but for employer-sponsored retirement accounts.
This might be charged as a flat fee or a percentage of assets under management. Either way, you’ll find it in the transaction history on your statement, which should come at least quarterly. (Heads up: It might just say “Fee.” OK, thanks for that useful description ….)
If you can’t find a line item that looks like a fee, your employer probably covers it — that’s relatively common. Your HR people or plan administrator should be able to tell you for sure.
This one applies to IRAs or taxable investment accounts managed by a custodian (the financial institution that actually holds on to your investments for safekeeping) — like Schwab or TD Ameritrade. They charge a flat fee every time you place a trade, regardless of the trade’s amount or whether you’re buying or selling. You’ll find these in your account’s transaction history.
Pro tip: When choosing your investments, look for “NTF funds” — short for no transaction fee.*
Commissions / Loads
Investments in some IRAs, taxable investment accounts, and (in rare cases) employer retirement plans may also come with a commission, also called a load — and yep, this is potentially on top of the other fees. These commissions compensate the broker or salesperson who sold you the fund.
Loads are usually a percentage, often 3–6% (!) of the amount you’re depositing in the fund, but they could legally be up to 8.5% (!!). They’ll be listed in the fund’s prospectus, which the person selling you the fund is required to give you by law — and don’t let them get away with hiding it in a pile of paperwork.
There are several different types of loads, like “front-end loads,” “back-end loads,” and “level loads.” This gets complicated quickly, so here’s what you need to know: All of them are probably going to cost you big time, and all of them are avoidable.
(Btw, back to that whole fiduciary thing: Ellevest doesn’t do commissions and rebates. When we recommend investments for you, it’s because they’re in your best interest.)
OK, I found them. Now what?
Now comes a bit of calculation. We wish this were more straightforward, but … it’s not. So here are the individual pieces of info you’ll need:
Remember all those expense ratios for your individual funds? The first step is to calculate their weighted average (which gives the investments that take up more of your portfolio a greater, more proportional amount of importance):
This one should already be a percentage. Cool.
Retirement plan fee
If this is a percentage, you’re good. If it’s a flat fee, you’ll need to turn it into a percentage:
These are typically per transaction (so the less you trade, the fewer transaction fees you pay):
Then add them all together.
Once you have all those percentages, add them together. This is the total annual cost of your investment account. (Except for loads, which are complex to calculate and don’t mean anything good for you. Again — we recommend avoiding those.)
How high is too high?
Here are some general best practices that will work for most people:
Keep the weighted average of your expense ratios at 0.25% or less if you're using mutual funds and ETFs.
If you use an investment advisor, you shouldn't pay more than a 1% advisory fee.
Keep transaction fees for ETFs less than $7 per trade, and for mutual funds, choose NTF funds with low expense ratios.
You should avoid funds with loads.
So, armed with your newfound knowledge of how much you’re paying for your investments, you can now confidently shop around. Our advice? Look for a fiduciary whose investment philosophy prioritizes low-cost funds. (Note: If you have a 401(k) or 403(b) with your current employer, you can’t exactly “shop around.” You’re pretty much stuck with them. Still, if you have the ability to select your own investments within your account, make strategic choices to try to minimize fees.)
Now, go forth and pay less money!
An Ellevest Premium account requires a minimum balance of $50,000. This includes 401(k) rollovers and IRA transfers.
Ellevest’s annual fee does not include the underlying fees charged by the funds in an Ellevest Digital or Premium investment portfolio, which can range from 0.05% to 0.10% per year for Ellevest core portfolios and 0.13% to 0.19% for Ellevest Impact Portfolios. This range includes blended expense ratios for clients’ overall portfolios, not individual fund expense ratios. Ellevest charges no fees for clients’ emergency funds.