Schwab vs. Vanguard vs. Fidelity

What are the Best Target Date Funds?

Some target date funds, if low-cost, can be great for holding an entire retirement account’s portfolio.  The reason for this is the underlying assets should be invested in low-cost index funds to provide diversification while also risk management through the glide path feature.

Make sure the fees in these target date funds do not eat away at your returns, however.  If the fees far exceed 0.75% while alternatives available through your employer offer far lower fees for similar investments, it may make sense to take this management into your own hands.

Doing so, however, requires manually adjusting your allocation between stock and bond mutual funds/holdings across time.  This also runs into complications with behavioral finance concerns.

→ Vanguard Target Date Funds

Choosing the best target date fund depends on the number of years to retirement but you will want to choose funds with lower costs.

Vanguard, for example, offers all-in-one funds called Vanguard Target Retirement Funds and average 0.12% as an expense ratio (as of 10/1/2021).  The industry average expense ratio for comparable target-date funds runs 0.60% per their research.

Vanguard offers a number of target date index funds, but the ones of most interest to this site’s readers (young adults) are likely the Vanguard Target Retirement 2050, 2055, and 2060 Funds (VFIFX, VFFVX and VTTSX, respectively).

These funds all offer 0.15% expense ratios when this was written.

Vanguard keeps its expense ratios low by having passive index ETFs make up the assets held in the target date funds.  The active component only comes when making the transition from stocks to fixed-income ETF holdings.

Otherwise, the ETFs held in the funds track various broader market indices.

managing a portfolio of investments

→ Fidelity Target Date Funds

Other companies offer options as well.  Fidelity offers Fidelity Freedom Funds, which run higher in terms of expense ratios.

From a brief review at the time of this writing, I saw Fidelity’s Freedom Funds run between 0.46%-0.75%.  Despite the higher cost, these investments can still offer better suitable choices for those not interested in manually maintaining their portfolio.

Fidelity also offers its Fidelity Freedom Index Funds which come at a fraction of the cost.

These all maintain expense ratios of 0.08%-0.12% (as of 10/1/2021), much lower than the actively-managed Freedom Funds.  These entirely-passive funds afford the lower expenses by having less intervention from active managers when making asset allocation decisions.

→ T. Rowe Price Target Date Funds

Another option is T. Rowe Price, which provides Retirement Funds at similar price points to Fidelity’s Freedom Funds.  The company shows expense ratios ranging from 0.45%-0.64% (as of 10/1/2021).

My previous employer partnered with T. Rowe Price for our 401(k) plan and would default new employees into these target date funds when retirement benefits began accruing.  Many employees likely remained in these funds with their retirement contributions.

→ Schwab Target Date Funds

Based on these three companies, Vanguard appears to offer the lowest average expense ratio for target date funds. However, Charles Schwab also offers target date index funds at more competitive expense ratios.

In fact, the company offers all target date index funds at a net 0.08% expense ratio, below all the above options.

Much like Vanguard and Fidelity’s low-cost target date index funds, Schwab invests only in Schwab exchange traded funds (ETFs) and automatically transitions the underlying assets to reflect a more conservative portfolio as you near retirement.

Some popular target date index funds from Schwab are SWYHX (2045), SWYMX (2050), SWYJX (2055), and SWYNX (2060).

Schwab achieves these low net expense ratios by primarily investing in low-cost, passive ETF investments from Schwab and uses little active management beyond gliding into more conservative allocations as the retirement date nears.

Schwab vs. T. Rowe Price vs. Fidelity vs. Vanguard Target Date Funds

→ Expense Ratios

Undoubtedly, over the long term, expenses matter a great deal.  As a result, annual expense ratios affect your long term performance and should be something you consider when selecting the type of mutual fund you want to store and grow your wealth.

Some companies who offer target date funds have expenses which merely represent the roll up of a weighted average of the underling mutual funds’ expense ratios.

In the case of Fidelity, T. Rowe and Vanguard, these companies merely pass these expenses through without layered active management fees.

To give you a flavor for how these companies’ expense ratios compare, have a look at the following tables (FIRST: NON-INDEX Target Date Funds, SECOND: INDEX Target Date Funds):

→ Equity Percentage at Age 65 (Retirement)

Further adding diversity in these companies’ target date funds lineups is the percentage of underlying assets held in equities at retirement age (65).

Given your investment objectives, you might wish to hold more or less equity in your portfolio at retirement, adding further complexity to your investment decision.

Looking at these four companies, the following table shows the respective equity percentage held in the target date fund families at retirement age:

→ Asset Classes Represented

Another important consideration for choosing between these target date funds is the underlying asset classes represented in each of the fund families.  Have a look at the following table to see the asset classes held in each target date fund family.

Are Target Date Funds Tax Efficient?

When investing in mutual funds and target date funds, you purchase a security comprised of underlying assets (mutual funds or ETFs).  When these underlying funds realize capital gains and/or dividends, these pass through annually to the shareholder, who pays the applicable tax.

For net capital gains (capital gains less capital losses), they come grouped into two buckets: long-term (securities held longer than one year) or short-term (held <1 year).  The IRS taxes both at the appropriate rates for the shareholder, and depending, could result in paying no tax.

For dividends, fund managers accumulate and distribute these to shareholders throughout the year.  Dividends receive ordinary income tax treatment unless they meet the requirements for qualified dividends.

These distributions represent one form of taxation on target date funds.  Investors can also transact by buying and selling the funds themselves, triggering another taxable event.

Commonly, target date funds are tax efficient in nature because they often require no transacting on your part to arrive at your asset allocation.  As a result, the target date investor faces fewer taxable events than an actively-managed portfolio.

However, because capital gains and dividends pass through to the investor regularly, if an investor holds these investments outside of a tax-advantaged account, this can trigger regular tax consequences.

In other words, if the investor transacts less often with target date funds (no worries about receiving a margin call from shorting stocks) than with active management, it can represent a more tax efficient investment.

Are Target Date Funds Actively Managed?

Target date funds provide a simplified way to save for retirement.  They offer exposure to a variety of asset classes, markets, and active and passive management (discussed below).

Regarding the active vs. passive management component, investors need to remain aware of the assets held in the target date funds.

Said differently, despite the simplicity of these investments, investors must should be conscious of the underlying asset allocation, fees, and portfolio risk of their target date investments.

In fact, some fund companies offer two type of target date investments: target date funds and target date index funds.

Target Date Funds vs Index Funds

Fund companies can offer two types of target date funds:

  1. traditional target date funds which hold a mix of passive and active underlying mutual funds meant to transition toward more conservative mutual funds as the investor ages
  2. target date index funds which primarily invest in passive ETF investments from the fund company.

The former provides active fund management opportunities while the latter is primarily passive in nature.

The active component results in higher expense ratios because this utilizes active managers who attempt to beat their relevant benchmark through stock picking or discretionary fixed-income selection.

Personally, I prefer the passive options for their cost and the removal of human emotion when it comes to decision-making.  Having made some of my worst investing mistakes thinking I could beat the market, I opt for avoiding the uncompensated risk.

Regardless of choice, both types of funds offer diversification, asset allocation optimization, and rebalancing to keep on track if markets change.

Target Date Funds Pros and Cons


→ Get a complete portfolio in a single fund.  By electing one target date fund, you have a straightforward approach to a sophisticated problem: how to invest successfully for retirement, whether in an individual retirement account (IRA), 401k, or other eligible retirement account.  No matter the account type, be sure to take advantage of retirement plan limits.

→ Less risk through broader diversification.  Each target date fund available through Vanguard, Fidelity, T. Rowe Price, Schwab or other companies invests in index funds which track the broader market.  Available options give you access to thousands of U.S. and international stocks and bonds, including exposure to the major market sectors and segments.

→ Professionally-managed asset mix.  Each target date fund has a manager who gradually shifts each fund’s asset allocation to a lower stock mix and more fixed income investments over time.  This happens to make the investment portfolio more conservative the closer you get to retirement.

→ Automatic rebalancing.  Because managers oversee these funds, they make sure to maintain the current target asset mix.  This frees you from the hassle of worrying about ongoing rebalancing on a quarterly, semi-annual or annual basis.  Essentially, the funds operate on a schedule laid out in the prospectus.

→ Low costs.  Depending on your target date fund company, your costs can fall on the lower side than managing the assets yourself.  For example, Vanguard offers expense ratios 83% below the industry average.  When you pay less for your target date funds, this keeps more money for you and shows you just how to save money toward your retirement goals.

Target Date Funds Alternative

As an alternative, you can use a service like M1 Finance, which uses index funds and other stocks to replicate this same portfolio transition over time depending on stated financial goal.

Personally, my wife and I have looked into using M1 Finance for our IRA funds and setting a glide path which will transition our assets from primarily stock-based to fixed income as we age.

If we choose to use target date retirement funds, we will aim to use the “through” target date fund methodology because my wife and I will want more exposure to equities in the long-term than fixed income.

In the later years, we will want more money to transition to fixed income as we retire completely and have need for income as opposed to capital appreciation.


→ Tax inefficient.  Depending on your investing strategy, target date funds can represent tax inefficient investments.  Capital gains and dividends pass through to the investor and can result in tax consequences if held outside of a tax-advantaged account.  For this reason, target date funds most commonly reside in tax-advantaged retirement plans.

→ Glide path variability. Depending on fund type, you might not hold the preferred allocation of stock, bonds, and cash.  Some funds transition quicker or slower than your desired asset allocation.  This can expose the investor to undue risk.  Before purchasing a target date fund, take a closer look at the allocation, glide path, and whether the fund employs a ‘to’ or ‘through’ retirement methodology.

→ Higher fees. Make no mistake about it, these higher-touch products come at a higher cost.  Quite often, target date funds can charge higher fees than mutual funds because they pass through not only the underlying mutual funds’ fees, but also their own management fees.  Some target date funds come with over 0.80% of annual fees based on the numbers shown above.  These fees can compound and make it harder to learn how to build wealth.


Personally, I am delighted to see many companies offer default investments into target date funds.  If an employee never logs into the account once after being hired, these investments are deemed more suitable than purely company stock or equity mutual funds.

This is because the employee may have different risk preferences depending on where they are on their journey toward retirement.  For example, defaulting a 22-year old employee into an total market fund like VTI or VTSAX is suitable, whereas a new 60-year old employee likely would not make the same decision.

When learning how to start investing money early in a career, these mistakes can be forgivable.  When retirement is just around the corner, this requires more suitable financial planning.

Target date funds remove this concern if employers default their employees into these funds.

It is important to be mindful of the risks posed by markets, independent of the investments held in your account.  The only truly risk-free investments are insured savings accounts, certificates of deposit or Treasury bonds and notes.

Being cognizant of the risks involved with investing is imperative.  Target date funds do a decent job of managing the risk better for employees as they age and near retirement.

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