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Tracy Quick, a Toronto real estate agent and active investor, says that as she approaches retirement she is starting to re-evaluate the way she’s been investing.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

Before jumping on a call to be interviewed for this article, Tracy Quick, a 57-year-old real estate agent in Toronto, admits she had to Google the acronym "ETF" first.

"I thought it meant 'emergency task force,'" she admits, laughing. "I wasn't even close."

She can be forgiven for the gaffe. Although Ms. Quick may not have known what exchange-traded funds (ETFs) were before a week ago, it's not as if her own retirement portfolio is suffering much. After all, she routinely and dutifully maxes out contributions to her registered retirement savings plan (RRSP) and tax-free savings account (TFSA) each year. She has also become a bit of an expert on real estate investment trusts over time. Even her bankers have been impressed with her returns. Meanwhile, her nest egg continues to grow.

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Yet although she doesn't invest in ETFs now, that little bit of online research is starting to give her ideas, she says. Yes, she likes it that ETFs give her easy, diversified access to the markets. She also likes the fact that they're usually cheap, by doing away with fees such as front loads, back loads and trailers. Mutual funds? Not so much. Although mutual funds are easy to buy and sell, a typical fund's annual management expense ratio (MER) can be more than 2 per cent, plus trading expenses.

"Now as I am looking to retirement, I'm going, 'Okay, when I retire, is there going to be enough money left at the end of the day that I'm going to be able to live the life that I lead comfortably?'" she asks. "You start to re-evaluate the way you have been doing your investing."

Ms. Quick is far from the only baby boomer, those aged 52-70, playing catch-up when it comes to investing in ETFs. According to a recent survey from BlackRock Inc., which polled investors in the United States, only 27 per cent of boomers invested in ETFs compared with 42 per cent of millennials aged 21 to 35.

But forget thinking that seniors are simply too anxious about newfangled online investment technology to try investing in anything outside their mutual funds. Thirty-seven per cent of so-called "silvers," investors aged 71-plus, have at least one ETF in their portfolio.

So what gives, boomers?

BlackRock suggests that because baby boomers came of investing age when stock picking ruled, perhaps they're still happily trading.

That's certainly the case for Gerry O'Farrell, 59, who owns a baking shop in Guelph, Ont., and who would rank himself a solid "seven" on a hypoethetical investor confidence scale between one and 10. Although he's well versed in the benefits of ETFs, he's still not that interested in adding them to his own portfolio.

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"I've been managing my own RRSP for decades," says Mr. O'Farrell, who invests in direct equities, including mostly Canadian companies. "And so when ETFs came along, I've considered moving, but I haven't. I'm kind of comfortable in the way that I've always been doing things."

Chris Ambridge, president and chief investment officer at Provisus Wealth Management in Toronto, isn't surprised it has taken boomers a little longer to get into ETFs.

"Although ETFs are the latest and greatest right now, 10 or 15 years ago they didn't really exist in Canada," he says. "So they're thinking, 'if I'm getting performance elsewhere, and the relationship I have with my money manager or advisor is still working for me, if it ain't broken, don't fix it.'"

Fear over moving to something brand new at a bad time might also be to blame, says Michael Allen, a portfolio manager with Wealthsimple, a robo-advisor in Toronto that invests in ETFs only.

"It's a little bit scary for baby boomers who are leading up to retirement, or are in retirement, to have to make an investment change," he explains.

Then add the fact that there are far more sector and industry-specific ETFs out there today – not just the plain old vanilla variety that tracks indices such as the S&P 500 or the TSX – and it's not surprising that time-starved, sandwich-generation boomers are sticking with what they know.

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"It's not like you can just go to your bank and say, 'Hey I want one,'" says Ms. Quick. "I think that's where mutual funds have really made it stupidly simple for everybody," she says. Meanwhile, buying an ETF often means going through a brokerage, setting up an account and transferring money. "It just adds another layer of, 'Oh, I have to do that on top of everything else.'"

Or maybe boomers aren't as likely to invest in ETFs simply because they're not the ones who are being marketed to. Mr. Allen admits that Wealthsimple, which has been on the scene for four years now, was "targeting millennials coming out of the gate." Yet times may be changing.

"We're finding that millennials are actually referring their parents to Wealthsimple now," he says.

Joanne McAuley, 67, a retired home designer in Guelph, Ont., and long-time investor, didn't need a push from her own kids when she switched some of her money to ETFs a few years ago. She took the plunge after taking a good, long look at what she was spending on mutual fund fees.

"I had a financial advisor who was earning more on my RRSP than I was through the fees she was charging, so I learned a painful lesson," says Ms. McAuley now. "ETFs are all about saving money, and people like saving money."

Even if Guelph's Mr. O'Farrell never adds an ETF to his own portfolio, that isn't to say he won't reap some of their rewards. The low-cost investment option is giving the whole financial industry a shake, which he's happy about.

"One of the things that I really like about ETFs is that they've put the mutual fund companies on notice. It's harder for them to charge four times the fees for an investment vehicle when their returns are very similar," he explains.

Paying an investment advisor, however, might actually be money well spent, particularly if a DIY investor has a difficult time sticking to a plan long term. Mr. Ambridge says he worries that too many ETF investors may fall behind on reaching their goals because there's no one there holding their hand through market downturns and index spirals, even though numerous studies show that long-term portfolios can generally withstand those storms and bounce back over time.

The trick is finding someone willing to give that advice – and perspective.

"The sanity of a third-party voice sometimes helps," Mr. Ambridge says

By the numbers

Who is investing in ETFs? Nearly one in three investors in the United States now uses ETFs, up from one in four in 2016.

Millennials (age 21-35)

In 2016: 33 per cent

In 2017: 42 per cent

Gen Xers (age 36-52)

In 2016: 26 per cent

In 2017: 29 per cent

Silvers (age 71+)

In 2016: 22 per cent

In 2017: 37 per cent

Boomers (age 52-70)

In 2016: 24 per cent

In 2017: 27 per cent

ETFs, mutual funds or both?

Sixty-five per cent of investors say they think that owning ETFs and mutual funds together in a portfolio is the best approach.

Keep the good times going

Eighty-eight per cent of investors who already own ETFs plan to keep them or even allocate new investments to them in the next 12 months.

Source: 2018 BlackRock ETF Pulse Survey, which polled more than 1,000 respondents in the United States online.

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