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What's the difference between a stock and an ETF?

Andrew Goldman

Andrew Goldman has been writing for over 20 years and investing for the past 10 years. He currently writes about personal finance and investing for Wealthsimple. Andrew's past work has been published in The New York Times Magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek, New York Magazine and Wired. Television appearances include NBC's Today show as well as Fox News. Andrew holds a Bachelor of Arts (English) from the University of Texas. He and his wife Robin live in Westport, Connecticut with their two boys and a Bedlington terrier. In his spare time, he hosts “The Originals" podcast.

The difference between a stock and an ETF is like the difference between a can of soup and a whole grocery store. When you buy a stock you’re investing in a single company — Apple for instance. When that company does well, the stock price goes up and so does the value of your investment. When it goes down? Yipes! When you buy an ETF (which stands for Exchange-Traded Fund) you’re buying a whole collection of different stocks (or bonds, etc.). But more than that, an ETF is like investing in the market as a whole, rather than trying to pick individual “winners” and “losers.”

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There are a few advantages to ETFs, which are the cornerstone of the successful strategy known as passive investing. One is that you can buy and sell them like a stock. Another is that they're safer than buying individual stocks. One company's fortunes may go down, but it's less likely that the value of lots of companies will be quite as volatile. It's even safer when you invest in a portfolio of several different types of ETFs, so that if one part of the market goes down, you'll still be invested in other parts. ETFs also have much smaller fees than actively traded investments like mutual funds.

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Last Updated October 11, 2017

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