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Investing

Ultimate Guide to Maximizing Your 401(k)

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone and is not intended to be a source of investment advice. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

You’re probably familiar with the basics of a 401(k). You know that it’s a retirement account, offered by your employer. You know that you can contribute a percentage of your salary, and that you get tax breaks on those contributions. And you may know that your employer might offer matching contributions.

But beyond the basics, you may have some confusion about exactly how your 401(k) works and what you should be doing to maximize its benefits. This guide will tell you everything you need to know so that you maximize your 401(k) contributions.

The 4 types of 401(k) contributions

When it comes to maximizing your 401(k), nothing you do is more important than maximizing your contributions. While most investment advice focuses on how to build the elusive perfect portfolio, the truth is that your savings rate is much more important than the investments you choose.

While it is important to build a balanced portfolio, make sure you don’t neglect the easy stuff like maxing out a 401(k). This is especially true when you’re just starting out.

There are four different ways to contribute to your 401(k), and understanding how each one works will allow you to combine them in the most efficient way possible for your needs. By adding more money, you’ll be inching closer to a financially secure retirement.

1. Employee contributions

Employee contributions are the only type of 401(k) contribution that you have full control over, and they are likely to be the biggest source of your 401(k) funds. That’s because these are the contributions that you make to your 401(k). Employee contributions are typically a percentage of your salary, automatically deducted directly from your paycheck each pay period.

The key here is that it’s up to you to decide what percentage to have deducted—up to a certain amount. In other words, employee contributions are your chance to get the most bang for your buck.

Let’s say that you earn $3,000 every two weeks. If you decide to contribute 5% of your salary to your 401(k). In this case, $150 will be automatically taken out of each paycheck and deposited directly into your 401(k). Automation is the advantage: Everyh week, a percentage of your pay is out of sight and stashed safely away for your golden years.

Maximum personal contributions

The IRS sets limits on how much you can contribute to your 401(k) in a given year. For 2019, employee contributions are capped at $19,000, or $25,000 if you’re age 50 or older. These limits will increase to $19,500 and $26,000, respectively, in 2020. In subsequent sections we’ll talk about how much you should be contributing in order to maximize these contributions.

Traditional 401(k) vs. Roth 401(k) contributions

There are two different types you need to choose from—a traditional 401(k) or a Roth 401(k)—each with a different set of tax benefits:

  • Traditional 401(k): Traditional 401(k) contributions are tax-deductible in the year that you make the contribution and grow tax-free while inside the 401(k). They are taxed as ordinary income when you withdraw the money in retirement.
  • Roth 401(k): Roth 401(k) contributions are not tax-deductible in the year you make a contribution, but they grow tax-free while inside the account—and you won’t pay taxes when you withdraw the money in retirement.

Both the Roth 401(k) and the traditional 401(k) have the same contribution and catch-up contribution limits, as well as a 10% early withdrawal penalty. The main difference between the two types of plans comes down to taxes, as reflected above.

If you have both options available, how do you choose the right one? It typically comes down to age. If you’re younger and just starting out in your career, the Roth 401(k) makes more sense, as you’re likely in the lowest tax bracket you’ll ever be in and thus you’ll pay lower taxes on contributions. If you’re more advanced in your career, it might make sense to go with a traditional 401(k), because 100% of your contributions are invested, giving them maximum chance to grow.

2. Employer matching contributions

Many employers match your contributions up to a certain point, meaning that they contribute additional money to your 401(k) each time you make a contribution.

Employer matching contributions are only somewhat in your control. You can’t control whether your employer offers a match or the type of match they offer, but you can control how effectively you take advantage of the match they do offer.

Taking full advantage of your employer match is one of the most important parts of maximizing your 401(k). Skip ahead to this section to learn more on how to maximize your employer match.

3. Employer non-matching contributions

Non-matching contributions are contributions that your employer makes to your 401(k) regardless of how much you contribute. Some companies offer this type of contribution in addition to, or in lieu of, regular matching contributions.

For example, your employer might contribute 5% of your salary to your 401(k) no matter if or how much you contribute. Or, your employer might make a variable contribution based on the company’s annual profits.

It’s important to note that these contributions are not within your control. Your employer either makes them or not, no matter what you do.

However, these contributions can certainly affect how much you need to save for retirement, since more money from your employer may mean that you don’t personally have to save as much. Or, these contributions could be viewed as additional free savings that help you reach financial independence even sooner.

4. Non-Roth after-tax contributions

This last type of contribution is rare. Many plans don’t even allow this type of contribution, and even when they do, these contributions are rarely utilized. To find out if your 401(k) plan does allow these contributions—many do not allow them—you can refer to your 401(k)’s summary plan description.

And even if these contributions are allowed, it typically only makes sense to take advantage of them if you’re already maxing out all of the other retirement accounts available to you.

But if you are maxing out those other accounts, you want to save more and your 401(k) allows these contributions, they can be a powerful way to get even more out of your 401(k).

How non-Roth after-tax 401(k) contributions work

Non-Roth after-tax 401(k) contributions are sort of a hybrid between Roth and traditional contributions. They are not tax-deductible, like Roth contributions, which means they are taxed first and then the remaining money is what is contributed to your account. The money grows tax-free while inside the 401(k), but the earnings are taxed as ordinary income when they are withdrawn. The contributions themselves are not taxed again.

Here’s a quick example to illustrate how the taxation works:

  1. You make $10,000 of non-Roth after-tax contributions to your 401(k). You are not allowed to deduct these contributions for tax purposes.
  2. Over the years, that $10,000 grows to $15,000 due to investment performance.
  3. When you withdraw this money, the $10,000 that is due to contributions is not taxed. However, the $5,000 that is due to investment returns — your earnings — is taxed as ordinary income.

The value of non-Roth after-tax 401(k) contributions

This hybrid taxation means that on their own non-Roth after-tax contributions are typically not as effective as either pure traditional or Roth contributions.
However, they can be uniquely valuable in two big ways:

  • You can make non-Roth after-tax contributions in addition to the $19,000 annual limit for 2019 on regular employee contributions, giving you the opportunity to save even more money. They are only subject to the $56,000 annual limit in 2019 ($62,000 if eligible for catch-up contributions) that combines all employee and employer contributions made to a 401(k).
  • These contributions can be rolled over into a Roth IRA when you leave your company or even while you’re still working there. And once the money is in a Roth IRA, the entire balance, including the earnings, grows completely tax-free. This contribution rollover process has been coined the Mega Backdoor Roth IRA, and it can be an effective way for high-income earners to stash a significant amount of tax-free money for retirement.

How to maximize your 401(k) employer match

Now that you have an understanding of the types of contributions available to you, it’s time to start maximizing them. The first step is making sure you’re taking full advantage of your employer match.

Simply put, your 401(k) employer match is almost always the best investment return available to you. Because with every dollar you contribute up to the full match, you typically get an immediate 25%-100% return. It’s free money — and you want free money.

How a 401(k) employer match works

While every matching program is different, a typical plan offers a partial match or a dollar-for-dollar match. The names clue you into how they work. A partial match means your employer agrees to match a certain percentage of your contributions, up to a specified point. For example, your company could match 50% of your contributions up to 6% of your salary. That means if you contribute 4% of your salary, your employer will contribute 2%.

A dollar-for-dollar match means that your employer has agreed to match 100% of your contributions, up to a specified point. So if you contribute 5% of your income to your 401(k), your employer also contributes 5%. Just like the partial match, anything above the match limit is not matched.

How does this work in the real world? Well, let’s say that you make $3,000 per paycheck and that you contribute 10% of your salary to your 401(k). That means that $300 of your own money is deposited into your 401(k) as an employee contribution each paycheck, and your employer matching contribution breaks down as follows:

  1. The first 3% of your contribution, or $90 per paycheck, is matched at 100%, meaning that your employer contributes an additional $90 on top of your contribution.
  2. The next 2% of your contribution, or $60 per paycheck, is matched at 50%, meaning that your employer contributes an additional $30 on top of your contribution.
  3. The next 5% of your contribution is not matched.

All told, in this example, your employer contributes an extra 4% of your salary to your 401(k) as long as you contribute at least 5% of your salary. That’s an immediate 80% return on investment.
That’s why it’s so important to take full advantage of your 401(k). There’s really no other investment that provides such an easy, immediate and high return.

How to find your 401(k) employer matching program

On a personal level, taking full advantage of your employer match is simply a matter of contributing at least the maximum percentage of your salary that your employer is willing to match. In the example above, that would be 5%, but the actual amount will vary from plan to plan.

So your job is to find out exactly how your employer matching program works, and the good news is that it shouldn’t be too hard. These are the two main pieces of information you’re looking for:

  1. The maximum contribution percentage your employer will match. This is the amount of money you’d need to contribute in order to get the full match. For example, your employer might match your contribution up to 5% of your salary, as in the example above, or it could be 3%, 12% or any other percentage. Whatever this maximum percentage is, you’ll want to do what you can to contribute at least that amount so that you get the full match.
  2. The matching percentage. Your employer might match 100% of your contribution, or they may only match 50%, or 25%, or some combination of all of the above. This has a big effect on the amount of money you actually receive. For example, two companies might both match up to 5% of your salary, but one might match 100% of that contribution, and one might only match 25% of it. Both are good deals, but one is four times as valuable.

With those two pieces of information in hand, you’ll know how much you need to contribute to get the full match and how much extra money you’ll be getting each time you make that contribution.

As for where to find this information, the best and most definitive source is your 401(k)’s summary plan description, which is a long document that details all of the ins and outs of your plan. This is a great resource for all sorts of information about your 401(k), but you can specifically look for the word “match” to find the details on your employer matching program.

And if you have any trouble either finding the information or understanding it, you can reach out to your human resources representative for help. You should be able to find their contact information in the summary plan description.

Two big pitfalls to avoid with your 401(k) employer match

Your employer match is almost always a good offer, but there are two pitfalls to watch out for: vesting and front-loading contributions. Both of these could either diminish the value of your employer match or cause you to miss out on getting the full match.

Pitfall #1: Vesting

Employer contributions to your plan, including matching contributions, may be subject to something called a vesting schedule.

A vesting schedule means that those employer contributions are not 100% yours right away. Instead, they become yours over time as you accumulate years of service with the company. If you leave before your employer contributions are fully vested, you will only get to take some of that money with you.

For example, a common vesting schedule gives you an additional 20% ownership over your employer’s contributions for each year you stay with the company. If you leave before one year, you will not get to keep any of those employer contributions. If you leave after one year, you will get to keep 20% of the employer contributions and the earnings they’ve accumulated. After two years, you will get to keep 40%, and so on, until you’ve earned the right to keep 100% of your employer’s contributions after five years with the company.

Three things to know about vesting:

  1. Employee contributions are never subject to a vesting schedule. Every dollar you contribute and every dollar that money earns is always 100% yours, no matter how long you stay with your company. Only employer contributions are subject to vesting schedules.
  2. Not all companies have a vesting schedule. In some cases, you might be immediately 100% vested in all employer contributions.
  3. There is a single vesting clock for all employer contributions. In the example above, all employer contributions will be 100% vested once you’ve been with the company for five years, even those that were made just weeks earlier. You are not subject to a new vesting period with each individual employer contribution.

Should vesting affect how you invest?

A vesting schedule can decrease the value of your employer match. A 100% match is great, but a 100% match that takes five years to get the full benefit of is not quite as great.

Still, in most cases it makes sense to take full advantage of your employer match, even if it’s subject to a vesting schedule. And the reasoning is simply that the worst-case scenario is that you leave your job before any of those employer contributions vest, in which case your 401(k) would have acted just like any other retirement account available to you, none of which offer any opportunity to get a matching contribution.

However, there are situations in which a vesting schedule might make it better to prioritize other retirement accounts before your 401(k). In some cases, your employer contributions might be 0% vested until you’ve been with the company for three years, at which point they will become 100% vested. If you anticipate leaving your current employer within the next couple of years, and if your 401(k) is burdened with high costs, you may be better off prioritizing an IRA or other retirement account first.

You may also want to consider your vesting schedule before quitting or changing jobs. It certainly shouldn’t be the primary factor you consider, but if you’re close to having a significant portion of your 401(k) vest, it may be worth waiting just a little bit longer to make your move.

You can find all the details on your 401(k) vesting schedule in your summary plan description. And again, you can reach out to your human resources representative if you have any questions.

Pitfall #2: Front-loading contributions

In most cases, it makes sense to put as much money into your savings and investments as soon as possible. The sooner it’s contributed, the more time it has to compound its returns and earn you even more money.

But the rules are different if you’re trying to max out your employer match. The reason is that most employers apply their maximum match on a per-paycheck basis. That is, if your employer only matches up to 5% of your salary, what they’re really saying is that they will only match up to 5% of each paycheck.

For a simple example, let’s say that you’re paid $18,000 twice per month. So over the course of an entire year, you make $432,000. In theory, you could max out your annual allowed 401(k) contribution with your very first paycheck of the year. Simply contribute 100% of your salary for that one paycheck, and you’re done.

The problem is that you would only get the match on that one single paycheck. If your employer matches up to 5% of your salary, then they would match 5% of that $18,000 paycheck, or $900. The next 23 paychecks of the year wouldn’t get any match because you weren’t contributing anything. And since you were eligible to get a 5%, $900 matching contribution with each paycheck, that means you’d be missing out on $20,700.

Spreading out contributions to take full advantage of your employer match

Now, most people aren’t earning $18,000 per paycheck, so the stakes aren’t quite that high. But the principle remains the same.

Still, to get the full benefit of your employer match, you need to set up your contributions so that you’re contributing at least the full matching percentage every single paycheck. You may be able to front-load your contributions to a certain extent, but you want to make sure that you stay far enough below the annual $18,000 limit to get the full match with every paycheck.

Now, some companies will actually make an extra contribution at the end of the year to make up the difference if you contributed enough to get the full match but accidentally missed out on a few paychecks. You can find out if your company offers that benefit in your 401(k)’s summary plan description.

But in most cases, you’ll need to spread your contributions out over the entire year in order to get the full benefit of your employer match.

When to contribute more than is needed for your employer match

Maxing out your employer match is a great start, but there’s almost always room to contribute more.

Using the example from above, the person with the $3,000 per-paycheck salary would max out his or her employer match with a 5% contribution. That’s $150 per paycheck. Assuming 26 paychecks per year, that individual would personally contribute $3,900 to his or her 401(k) over the course of a year with that 5% contribution.

And given that the maximum annual contribution for 2019 is $19,000 for 2019 ($25,000 if you’re 50+), the person in the above example would still be eligible to contribute an additional $14,100 per year. In fact, this individual would have to set their contribution to just over 23% in order to make that full $18,000 annual contribution.

3 big questions to answer to decide whether to save more

To figure out if you should be contributing more to your retirement savings, there are three big questions you’ll need to answer

  1. Do you need to contribute more in order to reach your personal goals?
  2. Can you afford to contribute more right now?
  3. If the answer is yes to both #1 and #2, should you be making additional contributions to your 401(k) beyond the employer match, or should you be prioritizing other retirement accounts?

Questions #1 and #2 are beyond the scope of this guide, but you can get a sense of your required retirement savings here and here.

Question #3 is what we’ll address here. If you’ve already maxed out your employer match and you want to save more money for retirement, should you prioritize your 401(k) or other retirement accounts?

We’ll dive into that in the next section.

What other retirement accounts are available to you?

Your 401(k) is almost never the only retirement account available to you. Here are the other major options you might have to invest outside of your 401(k).

IRA

An IRA is a retirement account that you set up on your own, outside of work. You can contribute up to $6,000 per year for 2019 and 2020 ($7,00 if you’re 50+). Just like with the 401(k), there are two different types of contributions you can make:

  1. Traditional IRA contribution: You get a tax deduction on your contributions, your money grows tax-free inside the account and your withdrawals are taxed as ordinary income in retirement.
  2. Roth IRA contribution: You do not get a tax deduction on your contributions, but your money grows tax-free and can be withdrawn tax-free in retirement.

The big benefit of IRAs is that you have full control over the investment company you use, and therefore the investments you choose and the fees you pay. While some plans force you to choose between a small number of high-cost investments, IRAs give you a lot more freedom to choose better investments.

One catch for the Roth IRA is that there are income limits that may prevent you from being allowed to contribute or to deduct your contributions for tax purposes. If you earn more than those limits, a Roth IRA may not be an option for you.

Health savings account

Health savings accounts, or HSAs, were designed to be used for medical expenses, but they can also function as a high-powered retirement account.

In fact, health savings accounts are the only investment accounts that offer a triple tax break:

  1. Your contributions are deductible.
  2. Your money grows tax-free inside the account.
  3. You can withdraw the money tax-free for qualified medical expenses.

On top of that, many HSAs allow you to invest the money, your balance rolls over year to year and, as long as you keep good records, you can actually reimburse yourself down the line for medical expenses that occurred years ago.

Put all that together with the fact that you will almost certainly have medical expenses in retirement, and HSAs are one of the most powerful retirement tools available to you.

The catch is that you have to be participating in a qualifying high-deductible health plan, which generally means a minimum annual deductible of $1,350 for individual coverage and $2,700 for family coverage.

If you’re eligible, though, you can contribute up to $3,500 if you are the only individual covered by such a plan, or up to $7,000 if you have family coverage.

Backdoor Roth IRA

If you’re not eligible to contribute to an IRA directly, you might want to consider something called a backdoor Roth IRA.

The backdoor Roth IRA takes advantage of two rules that, when combined, can allow you to contribute to a Roth IRA even if you make too much for a regular contribution:

  1. You are always allowed to make non-deductible traditional IRA contributions, up to the annual $6,000 limit, no matter how much you make.
  2. You are also allowed to convert money from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA at any time, no matter how much you make.

When you put those together, high-earners could make non-deductible contributions to a traditional IRA, and shortly after convert that money to a Roth IRA. From that point forward, the money will grow completely tax-free.

Though there are some potential pitfalls to backdoor Roth IRAs, it can be a good option to have in your back pocket if you are otherwise ineligible to make IRA contributions.

Taxable investment account

While dedicated retirement accounts offer the biggest tax breaks, there are plenty of tax-efficient ways to invest within a regular taxable investment account as well.

These accounts can be especially helpful for nearer term goals, since your money isn’t locked away until retirement age, or for money that you’d like to invest after maxing out your dedicated retirement accounts.

How to decide between additional 401(K) contributions and other retirement accounts

With those options in hand, how do you decide whether to make additional contributions, beyond the amount needed to max out the employer match, or to contribute that money to other accounts?

There are a few big factors to consider:

  • Eligibility: If you’re not eligible to contribute to an IRA or HSA, a 401(k) might be your best option by default.
  • Costs: Cost is the single best predictor of future investment returns, with lower cost investments leading to higher returns. You’ll want to prioritize accounts that allow you to minimize the fees you pay.
  • Investment options: You should prioritize accounts that allow you to implement your preferred asset allocation, again with good, low-cost funds.
  • Convenience: All else being equal, having fewer accounts spread across fewer companies will make your life easier.

With those factors in mind, here’s a reasonable guide for making the decision:

  1. Max out your employer match before contributing to other accounts.
  2. If your 401(k) offers low fees and investments that fit your desired portfolio, you can keep things simple by prioritizing additional contributions there first. This allows you to work with one account, at least for a little while, instead of several.
  3. If your 401(k) is high-cost, or if you’ve already maxed out your 401(k), a health savings account may be the next best place to look. If you can pay for your medical expenses with other money, allowing this account to stay invested and grow for the long term, that triple tax break is hard to beat.
  4. An IRA is likely your next best option. You can review this guide for a full breakdown of the traditional versus Roth IRA debate.
  5. If you’re not eligible for a direct IRA contribution, you should consider a backdoor Roth IRA.
  6. If you maxed out your other retirement accounts because your 401(k) is high-cost, now is probably the time to go back. While there are some circumstances in which incredibly high fees might make a taxable investment account a better deal, in most cases the tax breaks offered by a 401(k) will outweigh any difference in cost.
  7. Once those retirement accounts are maxed out, you can invest additional money in a regular taxable investment account.

The bottom line: Maximize your 401(k)

A 401(k) is a powerful tool if you know how to use it. The tax breaks make it easier to save more and earn more than in a regular investment account, and the potential for an employer match is unlike any opportunity offered by any other retirement account.

The key is in understanding your plan’s specific opportunities and how to take maximum advantage of them. If you can do that, you may find yourself a lot closer to financial independence than you thought.

Chris O’Shea contributed to this report.

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Investing

The 7 Best Robo-advisors of 2020

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone and is not intended to be a source of investment advice. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

If you’re new to the world of investing in stocks and bonds, knowing where to begin can be an intimidating prospect. Robo-advisors could be the best choice to start your investing journey. They make putting money in the market simple and intuitive utilizing smartphone apps and sophisticated computer algorithms.

Robo-advisors invest your money in diversified portfolios of stocks and bonds that are customized to your needs. Since computers do the work, they are able to charge much lower fees than traditional wealth advisors.

They begin the process with a questionnaire to assess your financial goals and your risk tolerance. Based on your answers, robo-advisors purchase low-cost exchange-traded funds (ETFs) for you and adjust the portfolio — or rebalance, as they say on Wall Street — on a regular basis, with no further intervention required from you.

To match your risk tolerance, robo-advisors offer more aggressive portfolios containing a greater percentage of stock ETFs, or more conservative ones containing a greater percentage of bond ETFs. The robo-advisor will also consider your age in developing your portfolio.

How we chose the best robo-advisors

We regularly review the latest robo-advisor offerings — we’ve evaluated 19 different ones in this round — and have selected our top choices. All of the robo-advisors on this list may well be worth considering, with those at the top scoring the best in our methodology.

To determine our list of the best robo-advisors, we focused on management fees and account minimums, and also considered ease of use and customer support.

The top 7 robo-advisors of 2020

Robo-advisorAnnual Management FeeAverage Expense Ratio (moderate risk portfolio)Account Minimum to Start
Wealthfront0.25%0.09%$500
Charles Schwab Intelligent Portfolios0.00%0.14%$5,000
Betterment0.25% (up to $100,000), 0.40% (over $100,000)0.11%$0
SoFi Automated Investing0.00%0.08%$1
SigFig0.00% (up to $10,000), 0.25% (over $10,000)0.15%$2,000
WiseBanyan0.00%0.12%$1
Acorns$12/yr0.03%-0.15%$5
Fees
N/A
Account Minimum
$100 one-time deposit or $20 monthly deposit
Promotion
N/A
Fees
N/A
Account Minimum
$0
Promotion

Three months free for new customers who are referred by an existing Betterment account holder

Fees
N/A
Account Minimum
$100
Promotion

N/A

Wealthfront — Low fees, high APR for cash account

Wealthfront
Wealthfront’s stand-out features are its low annual cost and free financial planning tools. The 0.25% management fee and 0.09% average ETF expense ratio adds up to one of the lowest annual costs on this list. In addition, Wealthfront includes a cash management account with an attractive 1.27% APY.

Wealthfront continues to steal share in wealth management as customers fed up with high fees leave traditional brokerages and wealth advisors. Human interaction is intentionally minimal at Wealthfront: This could be a benefit to those who want to be left alone, or a drawback for those who would prefer personal attention or who have complicated tax situations.

Wealthfront’s key attributes:

  • Fees: Management fee of 0.25%, plus 0.09% avg ETF expense ratio
  • Minimum starting deposit: $500
  • Investing strategy: Wealthfront invests your money in one of 20 different automated portfolios. Each portfolio is a different mix of 11 low-cost ETFs, which are rated with risk scores from 0.5 (least risk) to 10.0 (most risk).
  • Average annual return over the past five years: 5.40% per year, based on Wealthfront’s mid-level 5.0 risk score.
  • Other notable features: Tax-loss harvesting (see below for a full explanation of tax-loss harvesting) comes standard, also includes an FDIC-insured cash management account yielding 1.27% APY.

LEARN MORE

Charles Schwab Intelligent Portfolios — Brand-name brokerage

Charles Schwab
Intelligent Portfolios can be a smart choice, but do not be misled by the 0% management fees — investing with this robo-advisor still comes at a cost. Intelligent Portfolios requires users to hold 6% to 30% of deposited funds in cash at a 0.70% APY, which will eat into overall returns in years where the market returns above 0.7%. This is on top of an average 0.14% expense ratio for a moderate portfolio. The $5,000 minimum deposit to open an account may also be too high a bar for investors just starting out.

That said, Intelligent Portfolios has an exceptionally detailed description of their ETF selection methodology, and a major brokerage like Schwab can be a good launchpad for folks who anticipate getting deeper into investing. Intelligent Portfolios users get access to Charles Schwab’s 300 U.S. branch locations where you can talk to advisors and handle administrative tasks in person.

Key attributes of Intelligent Portfolios:

  • Fees: Zero management fee, but customers must hold 6% to 30% of their portfolio in cash at 0.7% APR, plus 0.14% avg ETF expense ratio.
  • Minimum starting deposit: $5,000
  • Investing strategy: Schwab invests your money in a custom portfolio with two main components: ETFs representing up to 20 different asset classes, including stocks and bonds; and cash, in the form of a FDIC-insured cash sweep program earning 0.7% APY. Cash must be between 6% and 30% of the portfolio.
  • Average annual return from 3/31/2015 to 12/31/2018: 3.1% per year for medium-risk portfolio
  • Other notable features: Tax loss harvesting available for accounts over $50K, includes access to in-person assistance at over 300 U.S. branch locations.

Learn More

Betterment — Low fees for balances under $100K

Betterment
Betterment offers a full suite of robo-advisor features at low cost with no minimum deposit. The annual management fee for accounts under $100,000 is 0.25%, plus an average 0.11% expense ratio. Unfortunately, accounts over $100,000 will see the annual management fee jump to 0.40%. One advantage Betterment gives to accounts above the $100,000 threshold is that they can actively manage some assets. If active management is your goal, though, you can avoid Betterment’s 0.40% fee by opening a free brokerage account — so if you are managing more than $100,000, you may want to consider a different robo-advisor.

Betterment’s key attributes:

  • Fees: If total balance is less than $100,000, the annual management fee is 0.25% of assets; for balances over $100,000, management fee rises to 0.40% of assets. The average ETF expense ratio is 0.11% (for a 70% stock and 30% bond portfolio).
  • Minimum starting deposit: $0
  • Investing strategy: Betterment invests your money in an automated portfolio comprised of stock and bond ETFs in 12 different asset classes.
  • Average annual return over five years: 6.2% per year on a 50% equity portfolio (July 2013 to July 2018).
  • Other notable features: Tax-loss harvesting comes standard; active management features for clients with $100,000+ balance; several premium portfolios available.

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SoFi Automated Investing — Low costs, great perks

SoFi
SoFi Automated Investing’s 0.00% management fee and ultra-low 0.08% average expense ratio makes it one of the most competitively-priced robo-advisors in the market. Valuable perks come with opening a SoFi account, including free access to SoFi financial advisors, free career counseling and discounts on loans.

Automated Investing’s main downside is that their portfolios are less customizable than its peers’, with only five different risk levels to choose from, as opposed to at least 10 available from others. SoFi does not offer tax loss harvesting yet, though this may change in the near future.

SoFi Automated Investing’s key attributes:

  • Fees: Zero management fee, plus 0.08% avg expense ratio.
  • Minimum starting deposit: $1
  • Investing strategy: All SoFi Automated Investing portfolios are actively managed. This means that real humans at SoFi decide the makeup of the five model portfolios, which they believe will add value beyond what passive investing offers. SoFi invests your money in one of five portfolios of low-cost ETFs, covering 16 different asset classes. Each of the five portfolios has two versions: one is for taxable accounts and the other for tax-deferred or tax-free accounts, like IRAs and Roth IRAs. SoFi only rebalances portfolios monthly, versus some peers which check for this opportunity daily.
  • Average annual return over five years: 6.78% per year on the moderate risk portfolio (60% stocks / 40% bonds).
  • Other notable features: Commission-free stock trades in separate Active Investing accounts. SoFi’s combined checking/savings product, SoFi Money, offers 1.10% APY on deposits. Customers must open this account separately.

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SigFig — Free access to advisors

SigFig
Free access to financial advisors by phone and 0.00% management fees on the first $10,000 deposited are SigFig’s biggest strong points. On deposits over $10,000, management fees rise to 0.25%. Expense ratios are on the high side compared to the competition, at an average of 0.15%.

One of SigFig’s peculiarities is that they do not hold your assets. If you open a new account, SigFig will open an account at TD Ameritrade for you and then manage it. Current TD Ameritrade, Fidelity and Charles Schwab customers can also use SigFig’s robo-advisor services.

The $2,000 minimum deposit may put SigFig out of reach for some, but SigFig is worth a look for investors looking to keep robo-advisor costs low.

SigFig’s key attributes:

  • Fees: Zero annual management fee for the first $10,000; management fee rises to 0.25% of assets on balances over $10,000. Average ETF expense ratio of 0.15%, depending on allocation.
  • Minimum starting deposit: $2,000
  • Investing strategy: SigFig invests your money in an automated portfolio based on how you indicate you want to invest. Each portfolio is made of ETFs from Vanguard, iShares and Schwab, comprising stocks and bonds in nine different asset classes. The specific ETFs SigFig invests in will vary based on whether your account is held at TD Ameritrade, Fidelity, or Schwab.
  • Average annual return over five years: 5.45% per year for moderate portfolio (as of 4/24/2019)
    Other notable features: SigFig has a free portfolio tracker that allows investors to track their entire portfolio’s performance across multiple brokers.

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WiseBanyan — No-frills choice for beginners

WiseBanyan
A 0.00% management fee for core robo-advisor functionality makes WiseBanyan a good choice for beginning investors who can get by with a no-frills offering. Make sure to notice that they still charge a 0.12% average ETF expense ratio, so it is not completely free.

WiseBanyan charges premiums for features that come standard with other robo-advisors, including tax loss harvesting (0.24% of assets up to $20/month max), expanded investment options ($3/month) and auto-deposit ($2/month). If you care about these other features, do the math based on your own portfolio size to compare WiseBanyan to its peers.

WiseBanyan’s key attributes:

  • Fees: Zero management fee, plus average ETF expense ratio of 0.12%. Premium features carry additional fees and higher expense ratios.
  • Minimum starting deposit: $1
  • How WiseBanyan invests your money: For basic Core Portfolio users, portfolios comprise ETFs across nine asset classes, with an average expense ratio of 0.03% to 0.69%. If you upgrade to the Portfolio Plus Package, you gain access to 31 total asset classes with exposure to ETFs tracking oil and gas, precious metals and other industries, with an average expense ratio of 0.03% to 0.75%.
  • Average annual return over five years: Not provided
  • Other notable features: Premium offerings, including tax loss harvesting (0.24% /month up to $20/month max), Fast Money auto-deposit ($2/month) and Portfolio Plus ($3/month).

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Acorns — Unique savings functionality

Acorns
By rounding up the spare change from your transactions and placing it into an investment account, Acorns provides a clever way to get started with investing. The main drawback is that, until you have more than $4,800 deposited in an Acorns Core account, the $1/month fee will actually be proportionally higher than the 0.25% management fees that most competitors charge.

Acorns does not offer tax loss harvesting, joint accounts, or access to financial advisors currently. Still, if you’re looking for an easy way to start investing, give Acorns a shot.

Key attributes of Acorns:

  • Fees: $1/month for Acorns Core, plus ETF expense ratios ranging from 0.03% to 0.15%
  • Minimum starting deposit: $5
  • How Acorns invests your money: Acorns invests your money in one of five automated portfolios— notably, this is a more limited number of portfolios than some other competitors. Each portfolio comprises ETFs across seven asset classes.
  • Average annual return over past five years: Not provided
  • Other notable features: Offers two add-on accounts for expanded functionality with Acorns Later retirement product ($2/month) and Acorns Spend checking account ($3/month).

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What is a robo-advisor?

A robo-advisor is a service that uses computer algorithms to invest customers’ money in portfolios customized to their needs. Since robo-advisors create these portfolios using automated algorithms, they can charge a fraction of what human advisors do and still offer advanced benefits like auto-rebalancing and tax-loss harvesting to boost overall returns. Most robo-advisors start with a questionnaire to assess your financial goals, risk tolerance and assets. Based on the answers, the robo-advisor allocates your investments accordingly.

How do I choose the right robo-advisor?

When considering which robo-advisor to choose, you should focus on management fees, minimum balances, ease of use and customer support. The lower the fees, the more money stays in your account. The top robo-advisors typically charge a flat management fee of 0.00% to 0.50% of your deposited balance. In addition, you pay an expense ratio to cover the fees charged by the companies offering the ETFs that comprise your investment portfolio. Note that some robo-advisors claim to offer zero management fees, but still charge an expense ratio.

Make sure you are comfortable leaving your deposits with a robo-advisor for the medium to long term — think five to eight years. There are a number of robo-advisors with $0 account minimums and most are under $5,000 today.

How do I open a robo-advisor account?

Most robo-advisors can have you up and running with an account in a few minutes. Typically you create a username, fill out a questionnaire to assess your financial goals and risk tolerance and connect your profile to a bank account. There may be some additional steps required for verification depending on the robo-advisor.

What other features should I consider?

Robo-advisors offer a host of additional features, including tax loss harvesting, cash management options, checking accounts and rewards programs. Cash management can provide a meaningful compliment for users who keep some of their portfolio in cash. Some robo-advisors offer an APY of more than 2.00% on cash management accounts. Tax loss harvesting can make a difference for users looking to lower tax exposure.

What is tax loss harvesting?

Tax loss harvesting is a tax strategy that some robo-advisors offer to help clients reduce their tax bill. Generally, this involves selling an asset that has lost value for a loss, using that loss to offset capital gains taxes or income taxes, then purchasing a similar but not “substantially identical” asset to maintain exposure to the asset class. The details behind each robo-advisor’s strategy can get complicated and should be looked at in detail to make sure you understand what you are getting into.

Capital losses from tax loss harvesting can be used to offset capital gains and can potentially offset up to $3,000 (or $1,500 if married and filing separately) of ordinary income.

What if my robo-advisor goes out of business?

While not a pleasant thought, it is possible that a robo-advisor could go out of business. Most robo-advisors insure clients’ assets through the Securities Investor Protection Corporation (SIPC). This is different from the bank account coverage provided by the FDIC; generally, SIPC coverage includes up to $500,000 in protection per separate account type, with up to $250,000 of cash assets protected.

Keep in mind that the SIPC will take necessary steps to return securities and account holdings to impacted clients, but will not protect against any rise or fall in value of those holdings. This means that if you make a bad investment in a stock, the SIPC ensures you still own that bad stock, but do not replace losses from a poor investment. Some brokers also insure assets beyond the $500,000 in SIPC coverage through “excess of SIPC” insurance.

See the full list of SIPC members at their site, along with a detailed explanation of how SIPC coverage works.

The bottom line

Robo-advisors can be an excellent option for users who are starting their investing journeys, rolling over a 401(k) or who want to minimize the time needed to manage their investments. By creating a customized portfolio based on your financial goals and automatically rebalancing your account, a robo-advisor can help to maximize your return while taking on the right amount of risk.

Because robo-advisors run off of automated algorithms, you should be comfortable with little or no human touch for your investments. The upshot to low human interaction is that fees are generally much lower than with a registered investment advisor, which may be worth the tradeoff as part of an overall financial plan.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

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Investing

What Are Equities and Should I Invest in Them?

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone and is not intended to be a source of investment advice. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

Equities are shares of ownership in a company. Equity is just another way to describe stock — you’ll hear people use the terms “equity markets” and “stock markets” interchangeably. Investing in equities can be one of the best ways to build your long-term savings. This article covers the basics of what are equities, how do they work and what else you should know about investing in this market.

Equities are how you invest in the stock market

The broad equities definition is the value of a property or a business to the owners after subtracting debts. When you buy a house and begin making mortgage payments, you build home equity, which is the value of your property that you own outright.

Publicly traded companies, like Nike and Tesla, sell shares of their equity to investors to raise money. When you buy a company’s equity — aka its stock — you become a partial owner of the company. This comes with several benefits, including dividends.

Equities pay dividends

As an equity shareholder in a company, you are entitled to a share of its profits based on how much of the company’s stock you own. Companies from time to time will send their shareholders a cash payment called a dividend. The frequency of it depends on the company’s strategy.

Newer growing companies like Uber typically do not pay much in dividends because they reinvest their cash in operations to keep growing. On the other hand, established companies like Coca-Cola focus on paying more dividends to shareholders. So how do you start buying equities as an investor?

The equity market

Investors buy and sell equities from each other through the equity market. When you watch financial news and hear people talking about stock markets, this is what they mean. Some of the larger equity markets in the United States include the New York Stock Exchange and the Nasdaq.

If investors believe a company is doing well and will earn higher profits in the future, the price of its equities will go up. On the other hand, when a company runs into financial trouble, the price of its equities will fall. To access the equity markets, you sign up for a broker who will process your buy and sell trades. We list some of the best online brokers on our site you can use.

Common equity vs. preferred equity

A company can sell two types of equity to investors: common and preferred. With common equity, you earn money when the stock price goes up and when the company issues dividends. You also get the right to vote on certain company matters, like picking the board of directors.

Preferred equity has a few differences. First, preferred stock typically pays a fixed dividend rate, so you get money each year. On common stock, the company can choose when to pay dividends and it might not be every year.

Another difference is if the company ends up going bankrupt, they legally have to pay out preferred equity shareholders first — before they distribute whatever’s left of their remaining money to common shareholders. The downside of preferred equity is that it does not have voting rights. It’s also rarer. While you may be able to buy preferred stock for some companies, most shares on equity markets are common equity.

Why should you invest in equities?

Equities can be one of the most effective ways to build wealth and save for retirement. Over the past few decades, they have posted one of the highest average annual returns, better than other investments like bonds or gold.

By regularly saving money and investing in equities, your savings will benefit from compounding, which is simply where your money makes money. A dollar you put aside now could double, triple and possibly become more valuable in the future thanks to your investment gains.

On the other hand, if you just kept your savings in cash or a bank account with no interest, they won’t grow. This actually decreases your future buying power because of inflation, as prices go up over time. By growing your money with equities, you put yourself in a stronger position in the future while also generating income for today with dividends.

Finally, you can receive tax benefits by investing in equities using a retirement plan, like a 401(k) or a traditional IRA. You can deduct the amount you contribute to these accounts. You save on taxes today while putting aside money for the future. These accounts also delay taxes on your gains, so you don’t owe tax until you take money out.

What is an equity fund?

As a beginner investor, it can feel intimidating figuring out which equities to buy. One way to make things easier is by buying into an equity fund, which is a mutual fund that invests in stocks. Equity funds are mutual funds that combine the money from many small investors to build a large portfolio of different equities. The portfolio is then managed by a professional to meet the fund goals. Some common types of equity funds include:

  • Index fund: Index funds look to mimic the performance of an equity market, like the S&P 500. Rather than trying to guess the top performers, they buy shares of all the companies listed to keep costs low and track the average market return.
  • Active equity fund: In an active equity fund, the manager tries to find and buy the best equity shares in a market to hopefully earn a higher return. Fees can be higher on these funds though versus index funds.
  • Growth equity fund: These funds invest in companies focused on growth, meaning they aren’t paying as much in dividends with the long-term goal to grow their stock price by more.
  • Dividend equity fund: In comparison, dividend equity funds focus more on companies that generate income. Their share price may not grow as much long-term, but they generate more consistent dividend payments.
  • Sector-focused equity fund: Equity funds can also target companies in a specific part of the economy, like energy companies or health care companies.

How does shareholders’ equity work?

Shareholders’ equity shows how much value would be left for a company’s shareholders if it used all its assets (everything it owns) to pay off everything it owes (debts/liabilities). If the company had to shut down today, they would distribute this remaining money to their shareholders.

When a company has high shareholders’ equity, it means that it has more than enough assets to cover its debts. This could be a sign that the company is profitable, shown by a high level of retained earnings on the balance sheet. On the other hand, it could also mean that the company has raised a lot of money from investors. However, if a company has negative shareholders’ equity, it is running into financial trouble because it doesn’t have enough assets to pay off its debts.

How to calculate shareholder equity

Publicly traded companies release their financial statements so investors can check their performance before buying. They list their total shareholders’ equity on the balance sheet so you can look it up there.

You can also do the calculation yourself by adding up all the listed assets, then subtracting all the company liabilities on the balance sheet. If a company has $200 million in assets and $150 million in liabilities, its shareholder equity is $50 million.

You might get equity from your employer

Besides buying shares on the markets, you could also receive equity from your employer. Sometimes they just give shares directly through an equity grant. You could also receive equity stock options, where you are guaranteed to buy shares of a company’s equity at a set price.

If the market price goes higher than that, your options make money. For example, if your employer gives you the option to buy shares at $50, then if the market price goes to $80, you could cash in your option for a $30 per share profit.

When employers offer equity in a compensation package, they usually do so to reward loyal employees. You may need to work a minimum number of years to receive all your equity grants — for example, an employer may offer 1,000 shares, but you only get 20% for every year worked, so you’d need to stay on for five years to earn it all.

If you have any more questions about what are equities, which ones you should pick or your company’s compensation package, consider speaking with a financial advisor. They can help you plan your investments and figure out what role equities should play in reaching your long-term goals.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.