Index Funds VS. ETFs

by Mike Holman

As a low cost investor I like researching different low cost options and trying to decide which is best for my situation. One question that comes up frequently from investors with small portfolios is whether they should buy low cost index fund such as the TD e-series or by ETFs which have lower mers than the index funds but you have to pay a minimum of $4.95 per trade. Other blogs have covered this topic and based their answer mainly on the portfolio size. If your portfolio is significantly less than $25k then start an account at TD and around $25k mark, transfer it to a discount broker like Questrade and buy ETFs. This is definitely the cheapest strategy but it involves setting up two accounts and doing one transfer.

One problem with that method is that I suspect a lot of investors will set up the account at TD but they won’t switch to a discount brokerage at the right time or at all which means in the long run they will end up paying more fees compared to if they had just started buying ETFs even when the account was fairly small.

To avoid this problem I would suggest that another strategy to consider is to pay the higher costs of a discount brokerage right from the beginning because it won’t be long before you will be saving money and can recoup the extra expenses from earlier on. What I did was to set up a model which will tell me if an investor has a small portfolio then how much money per month do they need contribute to make this strategy worthwhile. There is a link to my spreadsheet at the bottom of the post.

Another part of this idea is to start with Questrade because it’s the cheapest discount brokerage available but alter your trading habits – if you contribute monthly then only buy one ETF per month. Another great idea is to only buy an ETF every second or third month, especially in the beginning.

What we are really looking at is the idea of doing either TD or Questrade and seeing how long it takes for the break even point to occur. If the point is fairly soon (ie less than 5 years) then it might be an idea to just go with the ETFs if you don’t think you will make the switch from TD to Questrade down the road.

This chart indicates the final numbers. The second row has the portfolio size, the second column has the monthly contributions and the other numbers are the number of years until the break even point. Keep in mind that the break even point is when all the losses in the early years are made up for.

For example if you have a starting portfolio of $10k and you contribute $250 per month then after eight years the total costs of ETFs (for all eight years) is the same as the cost of index funds.

 

 

Portfolio size

 

 

 

 

$0.00

$10,000

$20,000

Contribution

$100

30

13

4

 

$250

13

8

3

 

$500

8

5

2

 

$750

6

3

1

 

$1000

4

3

1

 

As you can see, the monthly contribution is a big factor in this decision – if you are contributing larger amounts then even if you start with nothing, the Questrade option is better. Another factor of course is the starting portfolio size – if you already have $20k then it’s probably better to start at Questrade . The reverse of course is true – if you are contributing $100 per month then you are probably better off with TD unless you have close to $25k.

This is definitely a personal decision but I would think that unless you are super keen to save every cost possible then consider doing Questrade from the beginning if the break even point is less than about 5-7 years.
Keep in mind as well that a lot of the initial trading costs can be saved by contributing to the Questrade account monthly but only buy ETFs infrequently.

I’m also using a very simplified portfolio that is equally weighted among the securities. If you want more securities that are not equally balanced then that may add to the trading costs with the Questrade option. Even there if you want a small emerging market exposure you can just make one purchase a year for example in that class. You might not have your desired asset allocation at all times, but if you portfolio is very small then that probably doesn’t matter that much.

This analysis assumes that you value low costs above convenience – one big advantage of an index fund is that you can set it up to take the money from your account and make the index fund purchases automatically. This can’t be done with ETFs so you have to login every month and make a purchase.

Conclusion

If you are a big contributor with a small portfolio and are keen (but not superkeen) to save costs then it might make sense to start at a discount brokerage instead of at TD and then switching.

I suspect for a lot of investors however it might make sense to just go with TD and only switch over when they have a significantly large amount say over $50k. Another plan might be to accumulate $50k or $100k at TD and then transfer to Questrade if they will pay for the transfer costs. Meanwhile you keep accumulating at TD.  The choice between index funds vs ETFs is not an easy one.

This is the spreadsheet I used.

More information

Should I Buy ETFs Or Index Funds?

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