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529 Plans vs. Roth IRA: Which is best for college savings?

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

If you have children, you want to give them the very best. Often, that includes an excellent college education. However, helping your child pay for school has gotten much more expensive in recent years. In fact, the cost of attending a public, four-year college has gone up 25% in just ten years, according to data from The College Board.
If you want to contribute to your child’s education, it’s best to start saving when they’re young. Thankfully, there are several savings vehicles you can use to save for college, including 529 plans and Roth IRAs. Below, find out how these savings vehicles work and how to decide which one is best for you.

529 vs Roth IRA: How they compare

529 plans are offered either by your state or by an individual school. They are accounts created specifically for saving for education expenses. A 529 plan is an investment account, so you contribute money and choose investments; over time, the account grows with annual returns.

Roth IRAs are mainly for retirement savings. You contribute with post-tax dollars, so when it comes time to withdraw your money, you don’t have to pay taxes again. However, some people opt to use Roth IRAs for education savings, too.

But which is best for you? 529 plans and Roth IRAs differ in several key ways.

1. Tax benefits and penalties

According to Lloyd Sacks, a Certified Financial Planner and managing director of the private client group at Sacks & Associates, contributing to a 529 plan has some benefits when it comes to your taxes.

“Some states allow a deduction for contributions made to in-state 529 plans,” he said.

That deduction can help reduce your taxable income, potentially leading to a smaller tax bill.

Roth IRAs don’t offer the same benefit. However, withdrawals from Roth IRAs contributions are free from income taxes.

2. Withdrawal rules for education

If you withdraw earnings from a Roth IRA before your retirement, you typically are subject to early withdrawal penalties. However, there is an exception in some circumstances.

“If [the money is] used for qualified higher education expenses, the 10% early withdrawal penalty on earnings is waived, but you are still responsible for taxes on the earnings in this case,” Sacks said.

529 plan withdrawals can only be used for education expenses, or you will be subject to penalties and taxes. You’ll pay the full income tax on the withdrawal, plus a 10% penalty fee.

3. Investment options

With a Roth IRA, you have several different investment options. You can invest in individual securities, such as stocks, bonds, certificates of deposit, exchange-traded funds, or mutual funds.

529 plans have fewer options. Depending on which state you open your 529 in, you may only have access to a small range of investment options, such as index funds. You aren’t limited to opening a 529 in your home state so it pays to shop around for the best investments options and lowest fees.

4. Contribution limits

Roth IRAs and 529 plans have very different contribution limits. If you want to save aggressively, a 529 plan allows you to sock away more money than a Roth IRA.

“For 2019, the annual contribution limit to a Roth IRA is set at $6,000 with a $1,000 catch-up contribution for those over age 50,” said Sacks. “Total 529 plan contribution limits are set by each individual state. For 2019, a single taxpayer can contribute up to $15,000 in a single year to the plan [with a 529 plan].”

5. Financial aid

What savings vehicle you choose can impact the financial aid package your child is eligible to receive. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) looks at your savings differently depending on the type of account you use.

“Retirement accounts, like a Roth IRA, are not considered assets on the FAFSA, and will not impact a student’s ability to receive financial aid for college,” said Sacks.

Because Roth IRA accounts are exempt from the FAFSA, your Roth IRA balance won’t affect what financial aid your child is eligible to receive. A 529 plan balance, on the other hand, can affect your FAFSA.

“A 529 plan will impact a student’s ability to receive financial assistance towards college expenses,” said Sacks.

However, that doesn’t mean that one is better than the other. With a 529 plan, there are tax advantages to making contributions, which can be an effective tradeoff against FAFSA implications.

6. Plan B: What if you don’t use it for college?

When it comes to planning for college, it can be hard to predict where your child will be at the age of 18. If your child decides not to go to college, that can affect your finances.

With a 529 plan, you’re subject to a 10% penalty if you don’t use the money for qualified education expenses for the selected beneficiary, which can eat up a big chunk of your savings. If your child does decide not to go to school, you can switch the beneficiary to another child, another relative, or yourself. You can also use the funds to pay for trade school or even K-12 education.

A Roth IRA doesn’t carry the same penalties. If your child decides against going to school, you can keep the money in your savings for your retirement, penalty-free.

You should consider a Roth IRA for college savings if:

  • Your retirement savings are low. If you don’t have substantial savings for retirement yet, a Roth IRA can do double duty; you can save for retirement while simultaneously saving for college. If your child doesn’t go to college, you can use the funds you saved for your retirement.
  • If you’re not sure your child will go to college. Because the Roth IRA offers greater flexibility, it’s a better option if you’re not certain your child will go on to a university.

You should consider a 529 plan for college savings if:

  • You need to save aggressively. If there are only a few years left until college, or you think your child will opt for a more expensive private school, contributing to a 529 plan with higher contribution limits makes more sense than a Roth IRA.
  • You aren’t eligible for a Roth IRA. If you’re ineligible for a Roth because your income is too high, a 529 plan makes sense.
  • Your state offers a tax deduction. Some states offer tax benefits if you contribute to a 529 plan, making them a smarter option.

Saving for college

Saving for college can be overwhelming, especially when it comes to deciding on the best savings plan for you. If you’re torn between a Roth IRA and a 529 plan, the Roth IRA offers greater flexibility.

“Unless the clients fall into the high net-worth category or are fairly affluent, I usually recommend saving and investing in a Roth IRA if they are eligible to contribute to one,” said Sacks. “By utilizing the Roth IRA, a client is able to save for college expenses while also funding their own personal retirement in the event they fall short of their savings goals through other means; the funds within a Roth IRA can be used for either purpose.”

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.

Kat Tretina
Kat Tretina |

Kat Tretina is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Kat here

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Investing

The Best Robo-Advisors of 2019

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. 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 May 2019

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

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 2.57% 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 2.57% APY.

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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.

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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 2.25% 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.

Joshua Rowe-Heupler
Joshua Rowe-Heupler |

Joshua Rowe-Heupler is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Joshua here

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Investing

Betterment vs Vanguard: Which Robo-Advisor Is Best for You?

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

Investing money with a robo-advisor is one of the easiest ways to grow your wealth in the stock market. Robo-advisors use software algorithms to manage your investment portfolio with minimal input needed from you, and charge ultra low fees. Betterment is one of the most well-known robo-advisors, while Vanguard is among the largest investment firms in the world.

Both Vanguard Personal Advisor Services and Betterment combine access to live investment advisors with automated portfolio management. Betterment is ideally suited for beginning investors with smaller portfolios. Vanguard can work well for a DIY investor who wants guidance from live investment advisors and access to a wider variety of investments, and can meet the high minimum balance required. Read on for a closer look at how Betterment and Vanguard compare.

Betterment vs. Vanguard: Feature comparison

In many ways, Betterment and Vanguard have similar offerings, but there is a big, unavoidable difference between the two: minimum balance requirements. Betterment has no minimum balance requirement, so you can start using their services even if you have very little money earmarked for investing. Vanguard Personal Advisor Services requires a minimum balance of $50,000, which makes their robo-advisor best for investors who’ve already built up a significant nest egg.

BettermentVanguard
Management fee
  • 0.25% (up to $100,000)
  • 0.40% (over $100,000)
  • 0.30%
Average ETF expense ratio0.11%0.11%
Account minimum$0$50,000
Human advisorsHuman assisted for clients with at least $100,000 investedHuman assisted
Fractional sharesYesNo, although you can get them through dividend reinvestment programs
Tax loss harvesting
College savings optionsNoNo
Investment account types
  • Individual and joint taxable
  • IRA (and Roth)
  • Rollover IRA
  • SEP IRA
  • Trust
  • Individual and joint taxable
  • IRA (and Roth)
  • Rollover IRA
  • SEP IRA and SIMPLE IRAs
  • Trust
Savings account optionSmart Saver, 2.14% APY (not FDIC-insured)No
Ease of use
 
 

Betterment vs. Vanguard: Management fees

Betterment and Vanguard Personal Advisor Services have similar management fees, with several tiers based on the size of your investment account balance. Vanguard has three tiers:

  • 0.30% for accounts with assets below $5 million
  • 0.20% for accounts with assets from $5 million to below $10 million
  • 0.10% for accounts with assets from $10 million to below $25 million

Once you surpass the $25 million tier, Vanguard offers more personal options and better pricing.

Betterment has two tiers:

  • 0.25% for accounts under $100,000
  • 0.40% for $100,000 or more

With Betterment, having a higher account balance comes with access to human-assisted management, as well as more customized portfolio options. However, it’s a bit unusual to charge more when the portfolio balance is bigger. If you were to build up a $100,000 balance with Betterment, it might be worth moving to Vanguard Personal Advisor Services because you’ll end up with a lower management fee.

Finally, separate from the management fee is the expense ratio you’ll pay on the funds held in your account. The expense ratio is basically the fee you pay for owning the fund. It covers the cost of running the fund, including administration, legal, accounting and other services. It’s a percentage of the amount you have in the fund.

Both Vanguard and Betterment have an average fund expense ratio of 0.11%. So, if you have $10,000 in a fund, you can expect to pay about $11 a year on top of the management fees. Both management fees and expense ratios are taken out of your fund directly, so you won’t get a bill.

Realize, though, that expense ratios vary by fund, and that 0.11% is only an average of what you can expect on a medium-risk portfolio. Your actual expense ratios will be different, and your portfolio’s average could be higher or lower.

Betterment vs. Vanguard: Special features

Many of the special features offered by Betterment and Vanguard are similar. For example, both companies use a process of smart asset allocation to apportion investments where they are likely to do the most good. If you have a tax-advantaged individual retirement account (IRA) and a taxable investing account, both companies look for an allocation that places assets where they are likely to provide the most benefit, such as putting a municipal bond fund in your IRA.

Both Betterment and Vanguard offer human-assisted help with your portfolio. With Vanguard, you get access to human advisors as soon as you open an account — keep in mind, the minimum balance is $50,000. With Betterment, you only get access to a live human advisor once you have a balance of $100,000.

Another difference is that, even though Vanguard has a wider variety of funds available, it doesn’t offer a specific socially responsible portfolio. So, if you’re interested in a socially responsible portfolio, Betterment might be the better choice.

Both companies offer tax loss harvesting, which helps you minimize losses and maximize gains from tax situations that arise from buying and selling stocks. Betterment uses an algorithm to look for tax loss harvesting opportunities each day. Vanguard performs tax loss harvesting only when it’s called for in your financial plan, or when you make a change to your portfolio.

Rebalancing is used to bring your portfolio back in line with your desired asset allocation. Again, Betterment is more active in its approach, using an algorithm daily to determine whether your asset allocation has strayed out of line, and automatically adjusting. Vanguard rebalances quarterly, or might rebalance less often, depending on what your individualized plan calls for.

Betterment‘s advantages

  • Set up different goals: Rather than just having one account, you can track your progress for different goals. It’s possible to designate different asset allocation mixes, depending on what you want to accomplish and when you need access to the money.
  • Portfolio projection tools: In addition to different goals, you can project possible performance for each goal. This allows you to try different ideas and tweak your regular contributions, based on what you need to do.
  • Optimize your taxes: With the help of Betterment, you can maximize your portfolio’s tax efficiency. Betterment will make sure that the right assets are in tax-advantaged and taxable accounts. Additionally, Betterment will look for chances to harvest your tax losses.
  • Smart Saver: Betterment offers Smart Saver, an account separate from your investment balance that places funds in low-risk bonds to get a return that beats most traditional savings accounts. On top of that, Smart Saver will analyze your bank account to see if you could be putting your money to better use.
  • Sync other investment accounts: If you have other investment accounts and bank accounts outside Betterment, you can sync those up and see them in your account dashboard. Betterment will include those items in its projections and even offer suggestions on management so you’re getting the most out of your money — no matter where it is.
  • Option to get human help: You can also pay to speak with a financial professional to get help planning your portfolio and your financial path. If you have the Premium plan, with more than $100,000, you do have more access to professionals and a greater degree of customization.

Vanguard‘s advantages

  • Human-assisted advising: No matter your portfolio level, Vanguard offers access to advisors. You can make an appointment via phone or online to speak with someone about your planning needs.
  • Investment choices: Because Vanguard puts together its own funds, you have access to a wide variety of options. Plus, you can invest in Vanguard‘s Admiral class funds, without having to meet the minimum, which starts at $3,000 for most index funds. This provides you with a range of low-cost fund options.
  • Low fees: One of the hallmarks of Vanguard is its low fees. The management fee starts at 0.30% when you open an account with a minimum of $50,000. This is in line with many other robo-advisors. While you’ll initially pay less with Betterment, the reality is that once you reach $100,000 in your portfolio, Betterment becomes more expensive.
  • Holistic planning: Vanguard only manages the assets you have in your Personal Advisor Services portfolio on your behalf. However, if you have other accounts, including investment, savings, retirement and trusts elsewhere, Vanguard will take a look at those and incorporate them into planning and how they manage your portfolio.

Betterment vs. Vanguard: Which is best for you?

Both Vanguard and Betterment are strong choices for investors looking for a low-cost robo-advisor with access to human professionals. However, which service you choose depends largely on where you’re at right now, and what type of experience you’re looking for.

Betterment is more automated than Vanguard, so if you’re looking for a place to stick your money and not think about it, Betterment can be the right choice. However, if you want a more personal touch, Vanguard can be the better choice — especially if you can meet the steep $50,000 minimum.

Vanguard also offers more for the DIY investor, providing access to a wider variety of funds, and the ability to personalize a long-term plan, including designating when you want to rebalance. While there are more customization options with Betterment when your portfolio reaches $100,000, Betterment is really better for the hands-off investor.

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Miranda Marquit
Miranda Marquit |

Miranda Marquit is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Miranda here