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Learn How Futures Trading Works

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.

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Futures are a kind of contract that guarantees the delivery of a certain amount of a product or commodity at a certain time in the future at a certain price. These products include tangible goods, such as corn, gold, oil and pork bellies, as well as intangible products, such as currency and stock indexes.

Here’s how futures trading works and what you need to know before diving in.

What is futures trading?

Futures trading is an agreement between a buyer and seller to exchange a good in the future for a preset amount of money. The buyer agrees to pay the cash at the future date, and the seller promises to deliver the product at that time. This point is important — with a futures contract, the buyer is agreeing to take delivery of the commodity, and sometimes taking delivery of that product (such as oil, cattle or sugar) requires a lot of physical infrastructure.

Futures trading usually is the province of highly sophisticated participants, often those who use the commodity or product being traded. But it also includes traders who simply speculate on the price movement of the futures.

Key players

The key players in the futures markets include:

  • Commodity producers and users: These players are buying or selling futures to hedge their bets on a commodity’s price. They use or produce the commodity and want to guarantee a sale at a set price of part or all of the commodity. In this way, they reduce their risk and lock in a price in an often-volatile market. They either deliver the quantity of the commodity or take delivery of it.
  • Speculators: These players are purely bettors, placing their chips on how they think a commodity is going to move. They’ll never take delivery of a physical commodity and will close their position before the delivery date.
  • Other hedgers: These players may own an investment that is exposed to a commodity, so they buy or sell futures to hedge or protect their other investment.

These three groups consist of companies in the given commodities industry, individual and professional traders, and institutional investors, such as pension funds, hedge funds and others.

Top futures exchanges

These traders are exchanging standardized contracts that are swapped on a futures exchange. In the U.S., many of the top futures exchanges are run by CME Group, including the following:

  • Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME): offers contracts on many agricultural products as well as those on financial products
  • Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT): noted for its exposure to agricultural commodities
  • New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX): specializes in energy futures
  • Commodity Exchange (COMEX): noted for its metals futures

Commodities trading is regulated by the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). The CFTC oversees not only commodities futures (such as for corn and soybeans) but also futures for financial products (such as for currency and stock indexes).

Futures contracts explained

Because they’re standardized, futures contracts specify everything a trader should know about the contract.

They’ll specify the following things:

  • The amount in each contract and the unit (bushel, barrel, ounce, etc.)
  • The currency unit the price is quoted in
  • The delivery date
  • How the trade will be settled — either physical delivery or cash settlement

Futures contracts were created to minimize the risk of price fluctuations in a commodity, so companies that need and produce the commodity can access the market and lock in a future price today. Let’s run through an example to get a sense of how a futures contract plays out.

Imagine a cereal manufacturer needs to ensure a supply of corn at a reasonable price over the winter, avoiding a potential shortage and a subsequent price spike. This producer buys 200 contracts to take delivery of 1 million bushels of corn in December of the following year, 15 months out.

On the other side of the contract is a corn producer — an agricultural giant that wants to be sure it gets a fair price for 2 million bushels of its corn next December to avoid an oversupply and unexpectedly lower prices due to a good harvest. It sells contracts on 1 million bushels to the cereal maker and the remaining contracts to various other buyers.

In this example, both parties can benefit by trading some risk, with each locking in future prices at a price that looks good today. Of course, a speculator may jump into the market, expecting the price of corn to rise, and buy corn futures too, maybe buying some from this corn producer. This speculator may sell them later to the cereal maker if it wants to secure more corn.

Regardless of who buys and sells the futures contracts, both buyer and seller must put up a portion of the contract’s value called margin, typically 3% to 12%. This margin is held by the futures clearinghouse as a security on the contract. As the value of the contract fluctuates over time, the parties to the contract may have to add money to the margin to maintain the contract.

After each trading day, the clearinghouse settles the daily accounts between the buyer and seller. If the contract increased in value, it transfers the increase in cash from the seller’s margin account to the buyer’s, and vice versa if the stock fell. If either the buyer or seller falls below the minimum margin level required by the clearinghouse, they’ll have to deposit more money.

Finally, when the delivery date arrives, that’s when the buyer and seller settle up the contract. The buyer will pay the agreed amount, and the seller will deliver the fixed quantity of goods. It’s important to reiterate that a buyer may be agreeing to take physical delivery of goods for commodities in the future or to settle accounts in cash with financial products.

Types of futures markets

There are two broad kinds of futures markets: commodities futures and financial futures. Here are some major products that are exchanged in each.

  • Commodities futures: These commodities consist of the following categories:
    • Metals (including gold, silver, platinum)
    • Agriculture (including corn, soybeans, coffee, cotton, sugar, wheat)
    • Energy (including oil, gasoline, jet fuel, natural gas)
    • Livestock (including hogs, pork bellies, cattle)
  • Financial futures: These products consist of the following categories:
    • Foreign exchanges (including contracts that de-risk currency fluctuations)
    • Indexes (including contracts covering the S&P 500)
    • Interest rates (including swaps of interest payments)
    • U.S. Treasury futures (including contracts on U.S. debt)

There are many other kinds of commodities and financials traded on the exchanges.

How to trade futures

It can be relatively easy to get started trading futures, though it pays to quickly educate yourself before wading in too deep. Many discount brokers offer futures trading — including the larger full-service brokers — but more specialized futures brokers also are available.

In addition to the usual personal information, the broker will ask you questions about your income and assets to gauge how much risk you will be allowed to assume.

While a broker may have a low account minimum to open an account or none at all, that doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to trade immediately if you deposit the minimum. Each futures contract has its own minimum initial margin, depending on the broker. Often that minimum is a few thousand dollars, so you’ll need at least that amount to get in the game. And then if the contract moves too much against you, you’ll have to deposit more cash to maintain it.

For example, if you’re in the market for an E-mini futures contract on the S&P 500, you’ll need at least $6,600 at one broker to open a contract. Once you have an open position, the broker gives you a bit of wiggle room to hold the contract. As long as your account has at least $6,000 in value (the contract plus any cash), you’re in good standing. When it dips below that amount, the broker will call on you to immediately deposit cash to make up the deficit or sell the contract.

If you’re unable to obtain the ability to trade futures directly, it’s possible to buy exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that give you exposure to commodities futures. These ETFs often are categorized by commodity type (gold, oil, etc.), and some even offer leveraged exposure to the price of the commodity. Plus, you can make a bet on either the upward or downward move of the commodity. There are at least 100 commodity ETFs trading in the market. A sugar ETF? Yes, there is.

What are the risks of futures trading?

There are two major risks in trading futures, especially commodities futures: price volatility and leverage. Traders like the leverage and price volatility of commodities because they have a chance to profit very quickly, but there is a risk of losing a lot of money just as quickly. Savvy traders avoid exposing themselves to too much risk in any one position.

Here’s what you should know about each one.

Price volatility

Commodity prices can fluctuate a great deal, often in response to unexpected factors, such as catastrophic weather or natural disasters (hurricanes, earthquakes) or more mundane events (an extra long winter or a rainy summer). And commodities may fluctuate for no reason at all or merely because some speculators run the price up or down.

Leverage

Using a margin account, commodities exchanges allow traders to put up only a portion of the contract’s value in order to own it, giving the trader leverage. In other words, this practice allows traders to own more contracts than they have the money for currently. So this leverage allows a small amount of money to control a much larger amount of money.

As long as the trade moves in the trader’s direction (increasing in value), the trader won’t have to deposit more money into the margin account. However, if the contract decreases in value enough, the trader must put more money into the account or otherwise sell the contracts. It’s possible that a volatile price swing (see point No. 1) could lose more than the trader initially invested. If you can’t meet the margin call on a timely basis, the brokerage will sell enough to do it for you.

Is futures trading right for you?

Trading is tough, and it’s even tougher in commodities markets than in (slightly) more predictable arenas, such as the stock and bond markets. The price of commodities can fluctuate violently sometimes, and the leveraged nature of futures contracts can force a futures trader to put up substantial cash just when it’s in short supply.

Individuals often don’t have enough information to compete with well-informed institutional and professional traders. These pros know their specific markets thoroughly and have information flow that may never be reported in traditional news outlets. If a big institution decides to move, it can shift the whole market, and small individual players are forced along with it.

Traders in any market — but perhaps especially in the futures markets — need to have strong risk management. They should understand when to close a position, especially a losing position, so they don’t risk a catastrophic loss. Psychologically, that’s one of the toughest things to do, but it’s the most important because it limits the damage to your bankroll from any one trade.

Bottom line

Futures trading can be tough for a new trader, and it requires a higher level of sophistication and trading acumen than stock investing. But it’s popular because the leveraged nature of futures contracts makes possible a rapid gain on a small change in the commodity’s price. Of course, it’s just as easy to lose money on a small downtick in price too.

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

Review of Vanguard Personal Advisor Services

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.

Vanguard Personal Advisor Services is the investment advisory service offered through Vanguard Advisers, a wholly owned subsidiary of Vanguard, Inc., one of the world’s largest investment management firms. Vanguard Personal Advisor Services focuses on serving individual investors, including high net worth individuals. Clients work with human advisors, but also have access to Vanguard’s digital advice platform.

All information included in this profile is accurate as of April 2, 2020. For more information, please consult Vanguard Personal Advisor Services website.

Assets under management: $83.7 billion
Minimum investment: $50,000
Fee structure: A percentage of AUM; one-time financial planning fee for some workplace retirement plan participants
Headquarters: 100 Vanguard Boulevard
Malvern, PA 19355
vanguard.com
800-416-8420

Overview of Vanguard Personal Advisor Services

Vanguard Personal Advisor Services is the investment advisory arm of Vanguard Advisers, a wholly owned subsidiary of Vanguard. The advisory part of the business launched in 2015, decades after Vanguard was founded in 1975 by the late John “Jack” Bogle.

Bogle introduced the first-ever index fund to retail investors and encouraged them to buy and hold a diverse basket of low-cost investments. Though Bogle passed away last year, the firm aims to continue his legacy.

Vanguard Personal Advisor Services is focused on providing ongoing advisory account services for individual investors as well as point-in-time financial planning for retirement plan participants. Vanguard Personal Advisor Services oversees $83.7 billion of Vanguard Advisers’ total $221 billion in assets under management (AUM).

Which types of clients does Vanguard Personal Advisor Services serve?

Vanguard Personal Advisor Services primarily serves individuals, including high net worth investors and those who get services through their workplace retirement plans. For reference, the SEC defines high net worth individuals as those with at least $750,000 under management or a net worth above $1.5 million.

The individual investors either come for financial planning via their workplace 401(k) plans, or they are retail investors with an IRA or other account with Vanguard. In the latter case, there’s a minimum investment requirement of $50,000. The firm does not provide financial planning services to clients who do not have accounts with Vanguard.

Services offered by Vanguard Personal Advisor Services

Vanguard Personal Advisor Services offers financial planning and point-in-time advice to participants in Vanguard workplace retirement plans. Those participants are not eligible for managed account services for assets in those plans.

Clients who have an IRA or other retail account worth at least $50,000 with Vanguard can use Vanguard Personal Advisor Services to get a customized financial plan and enroll in the firm’s “ongoing advised services.” That gives an advisor the authority to make trades on the client’s behalf in accordance with their agreed-upon plan. It also allows participants to call advisors about advice on financial issues that arise as they hit life’s milestones, such as buying a new house or having grandchildren.

Here is a full list of services offered by Vanguard Personal Advisor Services:

  • Investment advisory services/portfolio management
    • Asset allocation strategies
  • Financial planning
    • Retirement planning
    • Estate planning
    • Charitable giving
    • Succession planning
    • Tax planning and management

How Vanguard Personal Advisor Services invests your money

All participants in Vanguard Personal Advisor Services get a financial plan, including the creation of a portfolio with a diverse asset allocation that reflects your personal financial situation, goals and risk tolerance. To do that, the advisors rely on an algorithm, which recommends an investing track and glide path, or asset allocation strategy, that meets your needs. The investment tracks range from very conservative to very aggressive, and the glide paths adjust over time, depending on your goals.

Each portfolio includes a variety of Vanguard index funds with holdings in a specific asset class, such as international stocks or short-term bonds, but it does not recommend investments in individual stocks or bonds. In addition to diversification, the portfolios take taxes into account, aiming to keep the investments as tax-efficient as possible. In general, Vanguard encourages a long-term, buy-and-hold approach rather than switching strategies based on market performance.

Fees Vanguard Personal Advisor Services charges for its services

Employees who use Vanguard Financial Planning Services through their workplace retirement plan pay $1,000 for the service if they have less than $50,000 in assets with Vanguard, and $250 if they have $50,000 to $500,000 with Vanguard. The firm may waive that fee for clients who are over the age of 55 or who have more than $500,000 invested with Vanguard.

For clients of Vanguard Personal Advisor who don’t have a workplace retirement plan and are enrolled in the ongoing advised services, the firm charges a percentage of assets under management. Rates run from 0.30% for accounts of less than $5 million to 0.05% for accounts over $25 million.

Assets under managementAnnual rate
Under $5 million0.30%
$5 million to under $10 million0.20%
$10 million to under $25 million0.10%
$25 million and over0.05%

In addition to the above fees, you may also pay fund fees, annuity fees, account fees or retirement plan fees.

Vanguard Personal Advisor Services’s highlights

  • A dedication to low fees. Vanguard literally invented index investing, and the firm remains dedicated to keeping its fees low. Its fee schedule is substantially lower than the industry average total fee rate of 1.17%, according to RIA in a Box.
  • Excellent reputation. Vanguard Personal Advisor Services was named the “Brand of the Year” in 2019 for digital investing by Harris Poll EquiTrends. The title was awarded based on consumer devotion and respect.
  • Fee-only model. Advisors don’t receive commissions for selling products or making recommendations, so they do not have a financial incentive to do so, which can pose a potential conflict of interest.

Vanguard Personal Advisor Services’s downsides

  • High minimum balance for young investors. You need to have $50,000 invested with Vanguard (outside of your workplace retirement plan) to access its investment management services if your employer is not enrolled in the program. That could be a high bar for young investors or for those who haven’t been saving for long.
  • Less potential upside: Since Vanguard’s investment philosophy is built on a buy-and-hold strategy comprised of low-cost funds, you can expect your investments to perform in line with the markets, but advisors aren’t actively trading to try to “beat the market.”
  • Large digital component: While you’ll work with a human advisor to create your initial plan, future check-ins may take place via the platform’s digital interface. Clients with $500,000 or less in assets do not have an assigned financial advisor, though they can call to schedule an appointment at any time.

Vanguard Personal Advisor Services disciplinary disclosures

Vanguard Personal Advisor Services does not have any disciplinary disclosures. All registered investment advisors are required to disclose any legal, regulatory or criminal events in their Form ADV, documents they file with the SEC.

Vanguard Personal Advisor Services onboarding process

To learn more about working with Vanguard, you can call (800) 414-8740 or create an account online to set up an appointment to talk with an advisor. In your initial conversation, you’ll discuss your financial situation and goals, and share information about all your financial accounts. Your advisor(s) will spend a few weeks creating a plan, and then you can decide whether you want to implement that plan and allow them to manage the account on your behalf.

If your portfolio is worth less than $50,000, you’ll work with a team of advisors, while those with a portfolio worth more than $500,000 have a specific, dedicated financial advisor. Advisors will check on your portfolio on a quarterly basis, making adjustments as needed to your asset allocation. You can check in online or call your advisor or team at any time.

Is Vanguard Personal Advisor Services right for you?

The firm may be a good choice if you’re an investor with at least $50,000 looking for a low-cost, low-maintenance way to manage your money (or your employer has chosen Vanguard as its retirement plan provider). Vanguard Personal Advisors offers extremely low fees and boasts a clean disciplinary record.

For investors who have less than $50,000, or who are looking for a more active approach to asset management, another firm might be a better fit. As is always the case when choosing a financial product or service, it’s important to shop around, ask questions of financial advisors and make the choice that’s best for your unique situation.

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

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 0.26% 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 0.26% 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.

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.

Learn More

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.

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