Most investors are familiar with mutual funds and index funds. But what are ETFs (also known as exchange-traded funds)? What’s the difference?

In a mutual fund, investors pool their investment dollars, and fund managers decide how to invest that money. Investors are typically involved with certain aspects of the fund: strategy, what sorts of stocks or bonds it will invest in, size of firms it will invest in, etc.

Fund managers take this strategy into account and make buying and selling decisions based on their investor’s goals and all available information regarding market conditions. Shares in a mutual fund, unlike typical stocks and bonds, can only be purchased at the end of a trading day.

An exchange-traded fund is different, though, in that its shares can be traded at any time throughout the trading day. Another key characteristic is that most exchange-traded funds are index funds.

Index funds are those that are passively managed. They aim to track the performance of a stock, bond, currency, or commodity index.

Index funds generally provide investors with lower cost ratios, because of drastically lower costs with regards to management, accounting, marketing and distribution. Exchange-traded funds typically provide these same benefits to investors.

Related: WARNING: Converting an Index Fund to an ETF May Increase Your Wealth

In addition to the benefits, ETFs provide by virtue of their nature as index funds, the ability to trade ETFs throughout the trading day provides investors with freedoms typically only enjoyed by traders of individual stocks. Traders are able to purchase ETFs on margin, short sell them, and trade using stop orders and limit orders.

Discount Broker ETF Resources

Here’s an example: using ETFs, a trader who expects the entire market to drop in price can short sell the entire S&P 500 index. Similarly, a trader who wishes to invest in the S&P, but believes its current price to be too high, can place a limit order for when the price drops. This way, they don’t have to bother continuously monitoring the market, at the risk of missing their ideal price.

ETFs also make day trades against indexes possible. Prior to the development of ETFs, an investor could only purchase or sell shares in index funds at the end of a trading day.

Notes About ETFs

The risks of owning an ETF as a long-term investment are pretty similar to those of owning a typical index fund.

ETFs share the diversification provided by index funds. However, you are still exposed to the general level of risk inherent to whatever market your ETF trades in. The risks of using ETFs in a short-term strategy are similar to short-term strategies in similar markets.

Because most ETFs are index funds, they tend to come with low costs. However, trading an ETF will require spending whatever fee your broker charges for a trade.

In other words, if your online discount broker charges $4.95 per trade, it will cost you that much to purchase a quantity of stock in an ETF. If your broker uses a flat fee, this amount matters less and less as the amount of your investment climbs.

For example, let’s say that your broker charges $5 per buy-and-sell order. If you invested $1,000, your investment would have to appreciate by 1% just to recoup the cost of the purchase and sale. If you were to invest $10,000, your investment would have to appreciate by only .1% to recoup those same costs.

Resource: The Four Hidden Fees of Mutual Funds (This Could Save You 33%!)

Because ETFs are publicly traded, they’re easy for anyone with a traditional or discount broker to own.

Investing in ETFs

If you’re interested in trading a particular index, compare the expense ratios of various ETFs that track the same index. After you know which you want to purchase, placing a sale is as easy as double-checking the trading symbol and placing an order with your broker.

Of course, you should never let this convenience shortchange your decision-making process. Consider ETFs as critically as you would any other part of your long- or short-term investment strategy.

Exchange-traded funds have the ability to give your portfolio a little extra security and added convenience. Treat them as you would any other investment, and they can be a wonderful part of your portfolio, no matter your current allocation.

If you’re looking for a simple investment platform with no commission or management fees, you should consider M1 Finance. Invest in ETFs and stocks of your choice or pick from one of their pre-made diversified portfolios.