VTSAX vs VTI: The Best Index Fund? (And Top Alternatives)

Is there a perfect index fund, VTSAX vs VTI? Compare Vanguard’s titans and 5 alternative mutual funds & ETFs to make the best decision for your portfolio.

In this post, I’m going to review two of the most popular investment index funds: VTSAX vs VTI. We’re also going to look at their competition and alternatives.

I dove deep into each total market fund to uncover the differences (and identify the pros and cons).

With each index fund I evaluated:

  • Type (Mutual Fund vs Exchange Traded Fund)
  • Minimum investment
  • Expense ratio
  • Dividend yield
  • Historical growth
  • Alternatives (from Schwab, Fidelity, etc.)
  • What to pick for your portfolio

Stick through this analysis to the end. That way you can make the best decision for your future as you strive for financial independence.

Low-cost Index Funds

Before I get to the review and comparison between VTSAX vs VTI, I want to quickly give you a little background with my experience investing and why I like index funds.

I’ve always been a bit of a collector at heart.

As a kid, I had Pogs, baseball cards, and Military Micro Machines.

As an adult, I started collecting companies. Of course, I couldn’t afford to buy an actual company—just like I couldn’t buy a real M1 Abrams tank. But, I could own the tiny Micro Machine version—a share of stock in a company.

I spent hours researching the future potential of companies I would invest in.

I did the same as a kid, reading through Beckett Baseball Card Monthly to find a rookie pitcher card’s value and future potential.

After a few failures in hand-picking individual stocks, imagine my surprise to find I could buy the total US stock market!

A single fund would own a tiny slice of every American company and all I had to do was buy a share of the fund. But, which of these total stock market funds is best?

Let’s get on to the comparison of Vanguard’s VTSAX vs VTI. And what about alternative offerings from other investment companies?

Vanguard and John Bogle’s index fund

Vanguard pioneered low-cost index funds in the 70s as headed by John Bogle. They created passive mutual funds with much lower expenses and fees than active mutual funds from competing banks.

These passive funds simply reflected existing indexes of stocks (such as the S&P500), rather than having investment experts actively research and create mutual funds and manually manage the holdings in an attempt to beat the well-known indexes like the DOW or S&P500.

Investors have since figured out that actively managed funds tend to lose to the underlying index they’re trying to compete with. This is partly because of their higher fees in paying staff to actively manage the funds.

It’s also because most investors simply can’t beat the market over the long term.

Index funds have seen massive inflows over recent years. More people have come to accept that merely keeping up with the average return of the index (near 10% annually from 1926 to 2018, not accounting for inflation/taxes) is enough.

Two of the most popular index funds for the total US stock market are:

  • VTSAX: a Vanguard mutual fund
  • VTI: a Vanguard Exchange-Traded Fund (ETF)

Both index funds include a portion of all US public companies (as of writing, 3,529 of them). So, what’s the difference in VTSAX vs VTI?

VTSAX vs VTI Comparison

Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund Admiral Shares

  • Ticker: VTSAX
  • Mutual fund
  • Minimum Investment: $3,000
  • Expense Ratio: 0.04%
  • Dividend Yield: 1.73% (July 2020)

Vanguard Total Stock Market
ETF

  • Ticker: VTI
  • Exchange-Traded Fund (ETF)
  • Minimum Investment: $0
  • Expense Ratio: 0.03%
  • Dividend Yield: 1.73% (July 2020)

There are really two key differences: VTSAX is a mutual fund with a minimum investment of $3,000 and VTI is an ETF with no investment minimum.

VTSAX vs VTI: Mutual fund vs ETF

While there are many technical differences between an ETF and mutual fund, for our purposes, just understand that ETFs tend to be more easily and quickly tradable.

ETFs trade like stocks. You can hop on and make a purchase at a fixed price during the trading day just like you can with any other stock share. The primary difference between an ETF vs stock is that an ETF is a group of securities.

Mutual fund prices are calculated at the end of the trading day and anyone who issued an order that day receives that price.

If you want to be exacting with your price execution and want the intraday flexibility of stock trading, VTI may be more appropriate for you than VTSAX.

Trading mutual funds like VTSAX sometimes have significant transaction fees.
Trading mutual funds like VTSAX sometimes have significant transaction fees.

Mutual funds traded outside their originating bank often have additional, sometimes significant, transaction fees. My IRA in E-Trade will let me purchase VTSAX without any additional fees with a caveat: if I hold less than 90 days, there’s a $49.99 fee.

Keep an eye out for transaction fees if you’re buying mutual funds in other brokerage accounts.

VTSAX vs VTI investment performance

I’ve attempted to make the argument that there’s very little practical difference in VTI vs VTSAX.

But, what happens when we actually look at the numbers?

Perhaps most importantly, what would $10,000 in each VTI and VTSAX have been worth if you invested ten years prior to the publish date of this article?

$10,000 Invested Ten Years Ago

VTSAX

  • VTSAX per share 8/30/2010: $26.08
  • $10,000 invested $26.08/share = 383.43 shares
  • VTSAX per share 8/30/2020: $86.47
  • 383.43 shares worth $33,155.19
  • Dividends over the decade: $3,807.46
  • Total value: $36,962.65

VTI

  • VTI per share 8/30/2010: $53.59
  • $10,000 invested $53.59/share = 186.60 shares
  • VTI per share 8/30/2020: $177.68
  • 186.60 shares worth $33,155.09
  • Dividends, capital gains over the decade: $3,812.05
  • Total value: $36,967.14

Note: In my calculations, I included a fractional share of VTI.

In general, brokerages will only permit you to trade whole integers of ETFs (just like any other stock). However, you can wind up with fractional shares due to Dividend Reinvestment Plans (DRIPs).

Both VTSAX and VTI have grown by about 370% over the last decade. The difference is negligible and can be attributed to rounding plus the minor expense ratio difference (0.01% = $1 on $10,000 by the way).

Tax implications, transaction fees, and the ease of access to either fund should play a greater role than any performance difference between VTSAX and VTI.

VTSAX vs VTI FAQ

Before reviewing comparable options to VTSAX from other banks, let’s run through a few VTSAX vs VTI frequently asked questions as a little review.

Are VTI and VTSAX the same?

They’re similar. VTI is an ETF traded like a stock and VTSAX is a mutual fund. They are both index funds. Their holdings are the same roughly 3,500 US companies represented on the public stock market. Their investment performance is nearly the same except for some minor tax differences and negligible expense ratio difference.

Why is VTI more tax efficient than VTSAX?

VTI is not more tax-efficient than VTSAX. Typically ETFs would be more tax efficient. However, Vanguard’s patented heartbeat trading system allows them to treat the ETF as a share class of an identical mutual fund, VTSAX in this case. This permits the mutual fund to gain the tax advantages of the ETF.

Can I convert VTSAX to VTI?

There’s not a very good reason to do this, but you technically can. If you have an account with Vanguard, you can contact them to initiate an exchange. If you do not, you can still “convert” manually: sell the VTSAX and purchase VTI. However, you may experience transaction costs and tax implications. Proceed with caution.

Does VTI or VTSAX pay a dividend?

Yes, both pay dividends. VTI pays a quarterly dividend. VTSAX pays a quarterly dividend as well.

Alternatives to Vanguard’s Index Funds

Vanguard isn’t the only investment company that offers funds that track the entire US stock market, or at least close to it. Vanguard’s dominance of low-fee index funds that started years ago has spurred competition to create very similar low-fee, broad market funds.

VTSAX Alternatives

If you already have an account with one of the large investment houses, it’s probably best to purchase their VTSAX clone fund rather than pay fees to own Vanguard’s or open an account at Vanguard. Most investment houses don’t charge a fee to purchase their in-house mutual funds. There are good VTSAX alternatives available.

Fidelity and Schwab, two very large investment companies, offer broad market mutual funds that nearly mirror VTSAX.

Schwab (SWSTX) vs Fidelity (FSKAX)

Schwab Total Stock Market Index Fund
  • Ticker: SWSTX
  • Mutual fund
  • Minimum Investment: $0
  • Expense Ratio: 0.03%
  • Dividend Yield: 1.64% (July 2020)
Fidelity Total Market Index Fund
  • Ticker: FSKAX
  • Mutual fund
  • Minimum Investment: $0
  • Expense Ratio: 0.015%
  • Dividend Yield: 1.75% (July 2020)

Both SWSTX and FSKAX index funds compare favorably with VTSAX, however there are some minor differences.

Fidelity FSKAX

Fidelity’s FSKAX is a mutual fund by Fidelity Investments that nearly mirrors VTSAX. The biggest difference is that it has an expense ratio of 0.015%, less than half of VTSAX’s. FSKAX has no minimum investment whereas VTSAX’s minimum is $3,000.

FSKAX’s dividends pay semi-annually while VTSAX pays quarterly.

VTSAX will be slightly more tax-efficient than FSKAX as it occasionally distributes capital gains. This is more relevant if you’re holding either fund in a taxable account rather than a 401(k) or IRA. Still, the difference is minor.

If you have a Fidelity investing account, there’s no great reason to make any extra effort to obtain VTSAX instead of FSKAX.

Schwab SWSTX

Schwab’s SWSTX is a mutual fund by Charles Schwab with a very similar holdings profile and goal to VTSAX but no minimum investment. SWSTX’s expense ratio is 0.03%, slightly less than VTSAX.

TicTocLife’s donor-advised fund is partly invested in SWSTX.

SWSTX’s dividends pay annually while VTSAX pays quarterly.

If you have a Schwab investing account, there’s no great reason to make any extra effort to obtain VTSAX instead of SWSTX.

Vanguard Admiral Shares (VTSAX) vs Investor Shares (VTSMX)

Vanguard used to offer VTSMX when the minimum investment was $10K in VTSAX. With the lowering of the minimum to just $3K for VTSAX, Vanguard converted VTSMX holders to VTSAX for free.

VTSMX closed to new investors in 2018.

That means you’ll need at least $3K to invest in VTSAX or go with an alternative fund with no minimum investment.

Honorable mention: Fidelity’s FZROX

Fidelity created a new market for mutual funds: those with zero expense ratios. It’s good to think of these funds as loss leaders for big investment banks.

They get you in the door with these funds in hopes of having you as a lifelong customer for their products.

Fidelity’s largest zero-fee mutual fund is FZROX which launched in 2018. It covers about 1,900 US companies and will have very similar performance to VTSAX as it attempts to emulate the broad US market.

Hypothetically, the zero expense ratio could mean higher returns for investors over the years. We’ll need a longer timeline to get an idea of how historical performance looks. There’s some risk in the lower diversity offered by narrower coverage of the index (which is likely narrower to reduce Fidelity’s costs).

Which index mutual fund is best for you?

Overall, the differences between the three mutual funds we discussed (VTSAX, SWSTX, and FSKAX) are incredibly minor in terms of performance. What matters most is which index fund you have the easiest access to with no transaction fees.

If you’re trading in a non-tax advantaged account, you’ll see a minor performance improvement with VTSAX over other options due to Vanguard’s sneaky way to avoid taxes.

VTI Alternatives

There is a large variety of alternatives to Vanguard’s total US stock market mutual fund. There’s a little less choice for ETFs.

What are alternative options for their index fund ETF, VTI?

Schwab’s SCHB and iShares’ ITOT are similar ETFs tracking the broad US stock market.

Both ITOT and SCHB have very low expense ratios like VTI. The downside of ITOT or SCHB instead of VTI is that neither tracks quite as many stocks in their underlying index. VTI has better coverage of the total US stock market.

Ultimately, the effect on your returns for choosing SCHB or ITOT instead of VTI will be minimal.

If you have a Fidelity account and can trade ITOT with no fees as compared to VTI, it might make sense to purchase ITOT.

Similarly, if you’re with Schwab, SCHB could be a better choice than VTI.

And of course, if you’re at Vanguard or have a third party brokerage that charges fees for any of these ETFs, VTI is likely the best option.

The Perfect Index Fund?

These days I limit myself to collecting the odd reminder from childhood. My first car was a Nissan 300ZX and good old Hot Wheels recently released a version based on the Twin Turbo that sits in our garage; I couldn't resist the little toy when I saw it at our grocery store.
These days I limit myself to collecting the odd reminder from childhood. My first car was a Nissan 300ZX and good old Hot Wheels recently released a version based on the Twin Turbo that sits in our garage; I couldn’t resist the little toy when I saw it at our grocery store.

I don’t find myself collecting too many things these days, except for the occasional piece of nostalgia from childhood here or there. However, I do find myself happily collecting larger and larger chunks of companies around the world.

Looking at our portfolio of mostly index funds, we own a slice of every public company in the US and thousands of others around the world.

As those companies find success, we share in the profits.

Index funds, whether that’s VTSAX vs VTI vs one of the alternatives, make it incredibly easy and inexpensive to own a chunk of the entire US economic world.

Once you understand the simplicity and value of owning index funds, you just need to develop the behavior to routinely invest in them.

Surprisingly, many don’t manage to match an index fund’s performance even when they own them because of their buying (and selling) choices.

That’s the investor’s behavior gap: we need to be disciplined investors to earn the underlying performance of our investments.


We’re rebalancing our investments to a simplified three-fund portfolio of US stocks, international stocks, and bonds.

What’s your trick to owning a piece of Earth’s economy at a low cost with great tax efficiency?

Let us know in the comments!

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By Chris

Chris began his financial independence pursuit in 2007 as he learned basic personal finance from Get Rich Slowly as an aspiring web designer and novice investor. After several missteps, he learned the secrets of financial independence and began his pursuit of freedom.

He reached financial independence in 2018 with $1.2M and two businesses. He began the process of transitioning to early retirement in 2020.

Learn more: Meet Chris.

6 replies on “VTSAX vs VTI: The Best Index Fund? (And Top Alternatives)”

Hey Eileen!

Thanks for the good question. I actually did look into FZROX specifically when creating the first draft of this post. The idea of a zero expense ratio is pretty appealing!

One key difference between FZROX vs VTSAX is that FZROX doesn’t own the entire US stock market like VTSAX does, though it attempts to emulate the same results. VTSAX contains somewhere around 3,500 stocks while FZROX represents closer to 2,500. Presumably, that thousand company difference is partly how Fidelity has managed to reduce the expense ratio of the index fund.

Ultimately, FZROX and VTSAX should perform almost identically–I wouldn’t fret too much if buying one vs the other means having to open a different brokerage account or pay transaction fees. Stick with what’s easy and least expensive to execute.

The only thing that sticks out a little to me between FZROX and VTSAX is the dividend payment schedule. While FZROX internally reinvests dividends throughout the year, owners only receive the payment once per year. VTSAX pays out quarterly. If you’re planning to retire early and intend to live off dividends, that schedule might matter to you.

Thanks for the question and coming by Eileen!

I had been wondering about the tax implications of VTI vs. VTSAX and whether or not it mattered which I was in. I’m VTSAX throughout my Roth (until I start messing around with a small percentage of individual stocks in there) and brokerage account and see no reason to worry about changing. Great breakdown!

Chris,
What about VIGAX..

“VIGAX is one of Vanguard’s strongest performers, with a 10-year trailing return of 16.77%. Like other Vanguard index funds, VIGAX is a low-cost option; the expense ratio is just 0.05%. It also has a low holdings turnover ratio of 11%, which could work well for a buy-and-hold strategy.”

I picked that fund over all others due to low expense ratio, historical returns and emphasis on growth. YTD return of 10.28% as of November 23rd during a global pandemic, civil unrest, and everything else 2020 has brought us. I did the research and selected VIGAX but no one seems to mention it very much.. Thoughts?

Hey Bill!

Thanks for your kind email—and of course a good question here in your comment!

So far as VIGAX vs VTSAX (or similar US total market funds—VTI, etc), I think what’s most important is that you understand the differences and are comfortable with them.

In other words, if you’re happy with the way the fund is built, understand the fund’s goals, grasp the related costs of operating the fund, and still want to pour your earnings into—I think you’re good to go.

A lot of investing is just mindset. It’s *really* hard to just do nothing to your investments and let them ride for many years and often, decades. Statistically speaking, one of the worst things amateur retail investors can do is to get jumpy, feel uncomfortable with their investments, and move them around a bunch or go to cash. Time in the market as they say.

So… the details of VIGAX:

– What index does it actually track? CRSP US Large Cap Growth Index (it’s good to understand this since Vanguard doesn’t “do” anything, they just mirror this index created by someone else).
– Type: large cap, growth
– It’s a low cost index fund, 0.05% expense ratio
– Total assets: about $126B
– Number of companies represented: 257

Top 10 holdings:
Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Alphabet, Facebook, Visa, NVIDIA, Tesla, Home Depot, Mastercard
47% of total assets.

That’s some of the high level stats I’d be familiar with if I was considering investing.

Compared to our benchmarket VTSAX:

– Both invest in large US companies
– VIGAX focuses more on growth companies (e.g. Tesla instead of P&G)
– Expense ratios are nearly the same
– VIGAX is a good bit smaller ($126B vs $921B), but still a very large fund
– VTSAX is significantly more diversified (3590 companies represented instead of 257)
– VIGAX is pretty tilted to its top 10 holdings (47% vs 23.7%)

Both created in 2000, they’re pretty old funds for Vanguard.

Nothing really jumps out at me as a red flag about VIGAX, assuming you diversify into other funds. If it was the only fund for your investments, I’d be concerned. It’s been doing really well this year, and throughout the market runup in recent years.

I don’t think it’d handle a prolonged recession well, sort of by definition since it’s filled with growth companies and not well diversified.

For example, if you look at 2000-2010 where there were multiple recessions, you’ll see that VIGAX ended down about 15% while VTSAX ended down about 4%. Yet from 2010-2020, VIGAX outperforms handidly.

It depends a bit about what your goals are and what your time horizon is in terms of needing the money. There’s more risk with VIGAX, but more upside potential during a bull market.

Hope that’s helpful! Thanks for the interesting question.

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