It's not easy being a Couch Potato.

As we've just seen from a reader in a recent column who wanted to establish a Couch Potato portfolio at Fidelity, there was no index fund for the fixed income side of the portfolio.

All of which made me wonder.   How difficult is it to be an index investor at some firms? More important, if the index option is available, does it make sense?

The easy way to be a Couch Potato is at Vanguard. Buy their Total Stock Index fund (ticker: VTSMX), minimum investment $3,000, expense ratio 0.20) and their Total Bond Market Index fund (ticker: VBMFX, minimum investment $3,000, expense ratio 0.22) and you've got a Couch Potato Portfolio. Buy their Balanced Index fund (ticker: VBINX, minimum investment $3,000, expense ratio 0.22) and they even do the work of regular rebalancing to a 60/40 mix of equities and fixed income for you.

However you cut it, managing your money costs about 0.22 percent a year--- and you can reduce the cost further if you've got the swag for their Admiral funds which require $250,000 minimum purchase.

That's about as cheap and easy as it gets, which is why I mention these funds so often.   It's also why you and I should use this choice to benchmark offers from other firms. Here's what I found.

T. Rowe Price offers three index funds, all of them for equities. Like Fidelity, you can buy an S&P 500 Index (ticker: PREIX, minimum purchase $2,500, expense ratio 0.35 percent) or a Total Market Index fund (ticker: PMOIX, minimum purchase $2,500, expense ratio 0.40 percent). We could quibble about the higher expense but it would be just that, a quibble. The real problem is that they don't offer a bond index fund.

American Century has 2 index funds but only one is for retail customers. It's their Equity Index fund, which seeks to duplicate the performance of the S&P 500 Index (ticker: ACIVX, minimum purchase $10,000, expense ratio 0.49 percent). But like Fidelity and T. Rowe Price, they don't offer a bond index fund.

Strong Funds has the same issue. They offer a Dow 30 Value fund and the Strong Index 500 fund (ticker: SINEX, minimum purchase $2,500, expense ratio 0.45 percent). But no fixed income index fund.

Charles Schwab has 16 index funds, including 2 fixed income equity funds. Before you get all excited about the number 16, some are just larger purchase minimum versions of the same fund. You can build your Couch Potato portfolio with Schwab's S&P 500 Index fund (ticker: SWPIX, minimum purchase $2,500, expense ratio 0.35 percent), their Schwab 1000 fund (ticker: SNFX, minimum purchase $2,500, expense ratio 0.46 percent.), or their Schwab Total Market Index fund (ticker: SWTIX, minimum purchase $2,500, expense ratio 0.40 percent) for equities and their Total Bond Market (ticker: SWLBX, minimum purchase $2,500, expense ratio 0.35 percent.

So you can Couch Potato at Schwab for 0.35 percent.

Basically, only Vanguard and Schwab are in this game.

At the major wire houses you can get index funds but you can't get them unencumbered by high expenses, which defeats the purpose. Merrill Lynch offers 8 index funds, of which 2 are fixed income. Morgan Stanley offers 16 index funds, none of which are fixed income. UBS (formerly Paine Webber) offers 3 different share types of S&P 500 Index fund and no fixed income index fund.

You can understand the "can't get there from here" of the wirehouses by considering the Morgan Stanley offerings. Their S&P 500 Index B shares (ticker: SPIBX, minimum purchase $1,000, expense ratio 1.50 percent) has annual expenses close to the average managed equity fund (1.53 percent). Basically, they've loaded all their distribution expenses onto an index fund.

Good for them. Quite silly for you.

Fortunately, there is an end run for those with relatively large accounts who want to establish a core of indexed investments. It's the burgeoning universe of exchange-traded funds--- ETFs. You can build a Couch Potato Portfolio with them by buying either the Barclays Global iShares 500 Index (ticker: IW, expense ratio 0.09 percent) or their iShares Russell 3000 Index (ticker:IWV, expense ratio 0.20 percent). To get the fixed income index, buy iShares Lehman 7-10 Treasury Index, an approximation of the intermediate term Treasury market (ticker: IEF, expense ratio 0.15 percent). If you want to take less interest rate risk, buy iShares Lehman 1-3 Treasury Index (ticker: SHY, expense ratio 0.15 percent).

Average expenses for an ETF Couch Potato porfolio could be as low as 0.13 percent plus purchase commission. Start with a $50,000 portfolio and you can pay $54 in commissions and have Vanguard level total expenses for the first year, lower after that. Measure the ETFs against index mutual funds that cost 0.4 percent and you can pay $135 in commissions and have competing mutual fund firm total expenses in the first year, way lower after.

Think of it as the Universal Couch Potato Portfolio. It's cheap. And you can build it anywhere investments are sold on commission.