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Investment fees are frequently overlooked by investors, studies show, but over the long haul those expense ratios and commissions on trades can take a big bite out of your portfolio.

Fortunately, many of these costs have been lowered in recent years—in some cases, all the way to zero. That makes it possible for savvy savers to invest for free, or very close to it.

In one of the latest fee-cutting moves, J.P. Morgan Chase has launched a brokerage service called You Invest, which provides its customers with free and discounted trades on stocks, bonds, exchange-trade funds (ETFs), and mutual funds with no required minimum investment.

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Chase's You Invest follows a similar, but more limited free-trade offering by Vanguard, which in August rolled out a commission-free trading platform that gives investors access to 1,800 ETFs. Fidelity and Schwab also offer commission-free ETFs.

Regular Chase customers, and even non-Chase customers, can enroll in the program and receive 100 free trades for one year. After that, they will pay $2.95 per trade, which is cheaper than the fees for equity trades at many rivals, such as Schwab ($4.95) or eTrade ($6.95).

For Chase’s Sapphire banking and private client customers (those with balances of $75,000 and higher), there is no limit on free trades. Early next year Chase will also be rolling out a robo-adviser service, which uses computer algorithms to manage investment portfolios.

Trading commissions are not the only investment fees under pricing pressure—so are fund management fees, also called expense ratios. More and more investors are opting for low-cost index funds and ETFs, which has triggered fierce competition among fund companies to slash those costs. This month, in fact, Fidelity launched two ETFs with no fees—Fidelity Zero Total Market Index (FZROX) and Fidelity Zero International Index (FZILX).

Investors can clearly benefit from the price war. “If you want to put together [a] broadly diversified stock and bond portfolio, the cost is essentially zero,” says investment adviser Rick Ferri, author of “The Power of Passive Investing.”

But many investors are not aware that they are incurring high costs. As a recent survey by NerdWallet found, Americans holding both banking and investment accounts on average estimate they will pay $2,244 in fees over the course of their lives. In fact, NerdWallet's analysis shows, many are likely to pay more than $369,000 in lifetime fees for these services.

Avoiding excessive fees is one reason why Consumers Reports is launching a program called "What the Fee?!" The goal is to highlight hidden and surprise fees—and help consumers fight back. (You can find out more about our efforts at

If you haven’t reviewed the costs of your investment portfolio recently, it’s time to take a look. But be sure to consider other issues besides cost—a free investment may not be the right one for your financial goals. Here are three guidelines to keep in mind:

Weigh Your Total Investing Costs

Start by taking a close look at how much you are paying for your investments. This may include fund management expenses (the expense ratio), perhaps a fund sales fee (called a load), commissions on trades, as well as administrative fees on your investment account. If you have an adviser, you may also pay a fee for the advice, typically 1 percent of the investments being managed.

This information should be available online or in the investing prospectuses and other disclosures—or ask the customer service rep. “Most people have no idea what they are paying,” says Arielle O’Shea, investing and retirement specialist at NerdWallet.

Once you get some numbers, you will be able to see how big an impact the costs have on your portfolio. You can use online tools, such as the SEC's mutual fund cost calculator or NerdWallet’s 401(k) fee calculator.

You may be startled at the result. As a landmark 2006 Government Accountability Office study found, even a one percentage point difference in fees can have a big impact on your savings. Say you have $20,000 in a 401(k) that earns an average annual 7 percent return. Assuming you pay 0.5 percent in fees, your balance would grow to about $70,500 over 20 years. By contrast, if the fee was 1.5 percent, you would end up with just $58,400, or 17 percent less. 

What to do: Before you jump to a lower-cost investment option, be sure to consider the impact of taxes on account withdrawals, as well as any transfer fees you may be charged. If you will end up with large bill, it may be better to leave your money where it is and contribute new savings to the lower-fee options instead.

Focus on Your Financial Goals

Don’t be overly swayed by the word free. Giving away services is a standard marketing tactic to attract customers in order to sell additional products and services. "The strategy is to push you into higher-cost investments," says Ferri. 

You may also find that the free services that brought you in aren’t all that useful. If you aren’t a regular trader of individual stocks or ETFs, for example, you may not save much money with a free-trade program. Or worse, you may be tempted to trade more often than you should. Studies show that frequent trading tends to reduce wealth rather than increase it. 

What to do: Give careful thought to who you are as an investor and what you really need. A buy-and-hold fund investor is probably best off sticking with a low-cost provider like Vanguard, says Ferri. And if you want one-on-one help with your investments, consider hiring a fee-only financial planner, perhaps on an hourly or flat-fee basis. (You can get tips on finding a planner here.) 

Monitor Your Accounts Closely

If you’ve found a great low-fee deal, don’t assume it will stay that way. Investing services and fees are constantly changing, and surprise charges can occur. The survey by NerdWallet found that nearly 20 percent of Americans were charged an unexpected fee on their investment accounts over the past 12 months.

What to do: If you are hit by a surprise fee, be sure to question the charges—and be ready to take your money elsewhere if the situation isn’t resolved. “There are more investing options today than ever before,” says O’Shea. And given the way investing fees can add up, shopping around for lower costs can make a big difference to your finances.