The Pros and Cons of Target-Date Mutual Funds

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Senior couple reviews the balance in their target-date mutual fund

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Target-date retirement mutual funds can work well for some investors but only if they are used properly. These managed funds control the asset allocation to reach the fund's stated goal by the specified year.

Investors have the option of managing their retirement funds by buying various types of mutual funds, stocks, closed-end funds, and exchange traded funds (ETFs). However, they may be confused about which product is the best one for them to use to reach their retirement goals.

Target-date mutual funds were created to help remove this confusion by making these investment decisions and ultimately simplify your life. However, these funds may not be the best choice for all investors.

Key Takeaways

  • The asset allocation of a target-date fund becomes more conservative as you approach the date you select for retirement or another milestone.
  • Target-date funds are the default option of 401(k) plans that have an automatic enrollment feature, and many investors chose them voluntarily.
  • Advantages of target-date funds include low minimum investments, professionally managed portfolios, and low maintenance for investors.
  • Disadvantages include a one-size-fits-all approach, higher expense ratios, and a lack of diversification.

What Are Target-Date Funds?

Target-date funds are often thought of as "set it and forget it" funds. For example, if you plan to retire in 20 years, you might buy a target-date fund that matches your time frame—that is, a target of 20 years. As you approach your retirement date, the fund moves its allocation to more conservative mutual fund investments (holding bonds and cash) and away from riskier mutual fund investments (holding equities). As the theory goes, set the investment in the fund and forget it—let the fund do all the work.

The reallocation over a predetermined period to reflect investors' changing tolerance for risk is known as the target-date fund's glide path. The glide path sets the fund's allocation among various asset classes over time, adjusting the mix from more aggressive investments early in the life of the fund to more conservative investments as the fund matures and investors approach their targeted goal.

Target-Date Funds in Retirement Plans

A 2019 study conducted by Deloitte showed that 43% of defined contribution plans (e.g., 401k plans) offered target-date funds. The continued popularity of target-date funds has been attributed to the Pension Protection Act, signed by President Bush in 2006. As part of the Act, target-date funds became a default option of 401(k) plans that had an automatic enrollment feature.

In other words, some employees have automatically enrolled in their 401(k) plans and their contributions automatically are invested in a target-date fund, like it or not.

Advantages of Target-Date Funds

Target-date funds can be useful if you are either starved for time or do not want to deal with making ongoing investment decisions. Several advantages of target-date funds include:

  • Low minimum investments, allowing for instant diversification among various asset classes (equities, bonds, etc.)
  • Professionally managed portfolios, offering a hassle-free investment
  • Low maintenance, as the funds are designed as a one-size-fits-all solution


While there are advantages of target-date funds, investors should also be aware of the pitfalls. Issues to consider include:

  • One size fits all: Does it? A correct investment mix for one person is not necessarily correct for everyone.
  • Higher expense ratios: In some target-date funds, there is a fee for the underlying mutual funds and another layer of fees for managing the funds.
  • Lack of diversification: If the target-date fund invests only in funds from one particular fund family (Fidelity, Vanguard, etc.), this can lead to a similar investment style across the underlying mutual funds.

Next Steps for Choosing One

If you are captivated by the idea of simple and disciplined investing via target-date funds, the next step is to research the options. There are many target-date funds. In fact, several low-cost providers offer a multitude of target-date funds, including T. Rowe Price, Vanguard, and Fidelity.

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The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Deloitte. "2019 Defined Contribution Benchmarking Survey Report," Page 17.

  2. United States Congress. "H.R.4 - Pension Protection Act of 2006."

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