Not all ETF costs are created equal

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Not all ETF costs are created equal

Vanguard Perspective


March 11, 2024

Two decades ago, expense ratios among ETFs in a given category frequently differed by 10 to 20 basis points (bps).1 Today, these differences are often as low as 1 to 2 bps. As the range of expense ratios has narrowed, other ETF cost factors have become increasingly important.

In Understanding the total cost of ETF ownership, we explore each of these costs and assess their relative importance depending on an investor’s time frame, portfolio construction goals, trade size, and other factors.

The drivers of an ETF’s total cost

Many investors are familiar with the two factors that make up the bulk of an ETF’s total cost—the expense ratio and bid/ask spread.

The expense ratio is an explicit, ongoing cost that reflects an ETF’s annualized operating expenses and is factored into its net asset value (NAV). The bid/ask spread—the difference between the highest price a buyer is willing to pay and the lowest price a seller is willing to accept—is another explicit cost that’s realized when buying or selling an ETF. 

What ETF investors don’t always consider are the implicit costs they may incur. These are the costs associated with premium/discount volatility, tracking error, and market impact costs.


A divided horizontal bar illustrates five categories of ETF costs, with the bar sections varying in size to signify the relative importance of each cost. The first section, ETF expense ratio, makes up about half the total cost of an ETF. The second section, ETF spread, makes up about one-fifth of the total cost. Each of the three other costs—premium/discount volatility, tracking error, and execution costs—makes up about one-tenth of an ETF’s total cost.


Weighing ETF cost factors

Which ETF cost factor matters more often depends on the answers to two questions: “What’s my holding period?” and “How large is my trade?”

As a proven driver of long-term performance, low expense ratios become more important as the ETF holding period lengthens. Conversely, bid/ask spreads and premium/discount volatility are generally more important for shorter holding periods. Tracking error tends to be equally important across all time horizons and trade sizes, while market impact costs typically come into play only for larger trades.

It’s unlikely that any one ETF will be the lowest cost across all five cost factors when comparing similar products. Ultimately, the relative importance of each cost factor depends on the investor’s goals and the nuances of the trade.

For help navigating these costs, download our guide, Understanding the total cost of ETF ownership, or reach out to Vanguard’s ETF Capital Markets Desk.


Understanding the total cost of ETF ownership

Brochure detailing the various costs of owning ETFs that highlights Vanguard’s commitment to low costs.


1 A basis point is one-hundredth of a percentage point.


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For more information about Vanguard funds and ETFs, visit to obtain a prospectus or, if available, a summary prospectus. Investment objectives, risks, charges, expenses, and other important information about a fund are contained in the prospectus; read and consider it carefully before investing.


Vanguard ETF Shares are not redeemable with the issuing Fund other than in very large aggregations worth millions of dollars. Instead, investors must buy and sell Vanguard ETF Shares in the secondary market and hold those shares in a brokerage account. In doing so, the investor may incur brokerage commissions and may pay more than net asset value when buying and receive less than net asset value when selling.

All investing is subject to risk, which may result in loss of principal. Be aware that fluctuations in the financial markets and other factors may cause declines in the value of your account. There is no guarantee that any particular asset allocation or mix of funds will meet your investment objectives or provide you with a given level of income. Diversification does not ensure a profit or protect against a loss.

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