Time-starved and penny-pinching, I've long been a big fan of one-stop-shopping discount stores.
Every year I eagerly renew my membership at Sam's Club, the warehouse chain owned by Wal-Mart. My husband and I can spend hours at Sam's, loading up on bulk paper for our home printer and super-sized packs of rice cakes for our son or rummaging for the latest discounted Disney video.
At Sam's I don't mind the concrete floors or the no-frills decor if it means I can save some bucks. I don't mind that I have little, if any, contact with a salesclerk except at the checkout. I'm perfectly able to get what I need for myself. It's the American way to shop now.
And it's fast becoming the way many people are buying mutual funds.
With no financial planner, insurance agent or broker to steer you this way or that, you can click on to a number of Internet sites or visit a discount brokerage office and invest your hard-earned money for yourself.
Financial planners or investment advisers are useful and even necessary for many people. In fact, the Investment Company Institute found in a survey last year that 77 percent of the money in mutual funds was invested on the advice of broker dealers, insurance agents or financial planners or through a 401(k) retirement plan.
Frankly, with more than 7,400 mutual funds to choose from, many people need the help in figuring out what fund is right for them. But for too long, we consumers have lacked the skills, the information or both to choose investments for ourselves. Now we don't.
Mutual-fund supermarkets are in concept much like a Sam's Club, but instead of picking up giant jars of salad dressing, you can sell or buy thousands of mutual funds. These one-stop supermarkets are bringing to the mass market a low-cost way to invest in mutual funds, plus access to a ton of easy-to-digest research.
"Supermarkets make it very simple," said John Markese, president of the American Association of Individual Investors.
A typical fund supermarket can make fund purchases easy by packaging them into one account with one monthly statement. In many cases, you have access to hundreds of no-load funds--meaning funds that carry no sales fee--without having to wade through a mountain of paperwork and prospectuses.
The companies often charge no transaction fees. Investors don't have to pay because the funds do. Instead of consumers paying a fee, the investment companies charge the fund companies for virtual shelf space in their supermarket.
"All else being equal, you should go the no-load, no-transaction-fee route," said Julie Kever, vice president for fund marketing at Charles Schwab & Co., whose OneSource fund supermarket is the industry's leader.
Still, some financial planners argue that this investment avenue isn't for neophytes. Inexperienced investors could get themselves in trouble by picking a fund that isn't right for them. Worse, without proper advice, they may be tempted to trade in and out of funds more often then they should.
"I think that's the bias of a group of people that thinks everybody needs a financial adviser," Markese said. "I don't think mutual-fund supermarkets are creating an environment where individual investors can walk in and do things that they shouldn't."
When you're going to buy an expensive stereo, you should read up on the subject, compare models and brands, and go to the least-expensive outlet to make the purchase. Mutual funds need be no different.
Mostly, what fund supermarkets can do is give you the ability to do your own investment shopping, which ultimately empowers you to take control over your own money.
Michelle Singletary's column appears in this section every Sunday. While she welcomes comments and column ideas, she cannot offer specific personal financial advice or answer detailed questions about individual situations. Her e-mail address is singletarym@ washpost.com. Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.
CAPTION: SHOPPING FOR A FUND (This graphic was not available)