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Guide to Choosing the Right IRA: Traditional or Roth?

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided or commissioned by any financial institution. Any opinions, analyses, reviews, statements or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

Guide to Choosing the Right IRA: Traditional or Roth?

The Roth IRA versus traditional IRA debate has raged on for years.

What many retirement savers may not know is that most of the debate about whether it’s better to contribute to a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA is flawed.

You’ve probably heard that young investors are better off contributing to a Roth IRA because they’ll likely be in a higher tax bracket when they’re older. You’ve probably also heard that if you’re in the same tax bracket now and in retirement, a traditional IRA and Roth IRA will produce the same result.

These arguments are part of the conventional wisdom upon which many people make their decisions, and yet each misses some important nuance and, in some cases, is downright incorrect.

The Biggest Difference Between Traditional and Roth IRAs

There are several differences between traditional and Roth IRAs, and we’ll get into many of them below.

The key difference is in the tax breaks they offer.

Contributions to a traditional IRA are not taxed up front. They are tax-deductible, meaning they decrease your taxable income for the year in which you make the contribution. The money grows tax-free inside the account. However, your withdrawals in retirement are treated as taxable income.

Contributions to a Roth IRA are taxed up front at your current income tax rate. The money grows tax-free while inside the account. And when you make withdrawals in retirement, those withdrawals are not taxed.

Whether it’s better to get the tax break when you make the contribution or when you withdraw it in retirement is the centerpiece of the traditional vs. Roth IRA debate, and it’s also where a lot of people use some faulty logic.

We’ll debunk the conventional wisdom in just a bit, but first we need to take a very quick detour to understand a couple of key tax concepts.

The Important Difference Between Marginal and Effective Tax Rates

Don’t worry. We’re not going too far into the tax weeds here. But there’s a key point that’s important to understand if you’re going to make a true comparison between traditional and Roth IRAs, and that’s the difference between your marginal tax rate and your effective tax rate.

When people talk about tax rates, they’re typically referring to your marginal tax rate. This is the tax rate you pay on your last dollar of income, and it’s the same as your current tax bracket. For example, if you’re in the 15% tax bracket, you have a 15% marginal tax rate, and you’ll owe 15 cents in taxes on the next dollar you earn.

Your effective tax rate, however, divides your total tax bill by your total income to calculate your average tax rate across every dollar you earned.

And these tax rates are different because of our progressive federal income tax, which taxes different dollars at different rates. For example, someone in the 15% tax bracket actually pays 0% on some of their income, 10% on some of their income, and 15% on the rest of their income. Which means that their total tax bill is actually less than 15% of their total income.

For a simple example, a 32-year-old couple making $65,000 per year with one child will likely fall in the 15% tax bracket. That’s their marginal tax rate.

But after factoring in our progressive tax code and various tax breaks like the standard deduction and personal exemptions, they will only actually pay a total of $4,114 in taxes, making their effective tax rate just 6.33% (calculated using TurboTax’s TaxCaster).

As you can see, the couple’s effective tax rate is much lower than their marginal tax rate. And that’s almost always the case, no matter what your situation.

Keep that in mind as we move forward.

Why the Conventional Traditional vs. Roth IRA Wisdom Is Wrong

Most of the discussion around traditional and Roth IRAs focuses on your marginal tax rate. The logic says that if your marginal tax rate is higher now than it will be in retirement, the traditional IRA is the way to go. If it will be higher in retirement, the Roth IRA is the way to go. If your marginal tax rate will be the same in retirement as it is now, you’ll get the same result whether you contribute to a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA.

By this conventional wisdom, the Roth IRA typically comes out ahead for younger investors who plan on increasing their income over time and therefore moving into a higher tax bracket or at least staying in the same tax bracket.

But that conventional wisdom is flawed.

When you’re torn between contributing to a traditional or Roth IRA, it’s almost always better to compare your marginal tax rate today to your effective rate in retirement, for two reasons:

  1. Your traditional IRA contributions will likely provide a tax break at or near your marginal tax rate. This is because federal tax brackets typically span tens of thousands of dollars, while your IRA contributions max out at $5,500 for an individual or $11,000 for a couple. So it’s unlikely that your traditional IRA contribution will move you into a lower tax bracket, and even if it does, it will likely be only a small part of your contribution.
  2. Your traditional IRA withdrawals, on the other hand, are very likely to span multiple tax brackets given that you will likely be withdrawing tens of thousands of dollars per year. Given that reality, your effective tax rate is a more accurate representation of the tax cost of those withdrawals in retirement.

And when you look at it this way, comparing your marginal tax rate today to your effective tax rate in the future, the traditional IRA starts to look a lot more attractive.

Let’s run the numbers with a case study.

A Case Study: Should Mark and Jane Contribute to a Traditional IRA or a Roth IRA?

Mark and Jane are 32, married, and have a 2-year-old child. They currently make $65,000 per year combined, putting them squarely in the 15% tax bracket.

They’re ready to save for retirement, and they’re trying to decide between a traditional IRA and a Roth IRA. They’ve figured out that they can afford to make either of the following annual contributions:

  • $11,000 to a traditional IRA, which is the annual maximum.
  • $9,350 to a Roth IRA, which is that same $11,000 contribution after the 15% tax cost is taken out. (Since Roth IRA contributions are nondeductible, factoring taxes into the contribution is the right way to properly compare equivalent after-tax contributions to each account.)

So the big question is this: Which account, the traditional IRA or Roth IRA, will give them more income in retirement?

Using conventional wisdom, they would probably contribute to the Roth IRA. After all, they’re young and in a relatively low tax bracket.

But Mark and Jane are curious people, so they decided to run the numbers themselves. Here are the assumptions they made in order to do that:

  • They will continue working until age 67 (full Social Security retirement age).
  • They will continue making $65,000 per year, adjusted for inflation.
  • They will receive $26,964 per year in Social Security income starting at age 67 (estimated here).
  • They will receive an inflation-adjusted investment return of 5% per year (7% return minus 2% inflation).
  • At retirement, they will withdraw 4% of their final IRA balance per year to supplement their Social Security income (based on the 4% safe withdrawal rate).
  • They will file taxes jointly every year, both now and in retirement.

You can see all the details laid out in a spreadsheet here, but here’s the bottom line:

  • The Roth IRA will provide Mark and Jane with $35,469 in annual tax-free income on top of their Social Security income.
  • The traditional IRA will provide $37,544 in annual after-tax income on top of their Social Security income. That’s after paying $4,184 in taxes on their $41,728 withdrawal, calculating using TurboTax’s TaxCaster.

In other words, the traditional IRA will provide an extra $2,075 in annual income for Mark and Jane in retirement.

That’s a nice vacation, a whole bunch of date nights, gifts for the grandkids, or simply extra money that might be needed to cover necessary expenses.

It’s worth noting that using the assumptions above, Mark and Jane are in the 15% tax bracket both now and in retirement. According to the conventional wisdom, a traditional IRA and Roth IRA should provide the same result.

But they don’t, and the reason has everything to do with the difference between marginal tax rates and effective tax rates.

Right now, their contributions to the traditional IRA get them a 15% tax break, meaning they can contribute 15% more to a traditional IRA than they can to a Roth IRA without affecting their budget in any way.

But in retirement, the effective tax rate on their traditional IRA withdrawals is only 10%. Due again to a combination of our progressive tax code and tax breaks like the standard deduction and personal exemptions, some of it isn’t taxed, some of it is taxed at 10%, and only a portion of it is taxed at 15%.

That 5% difference between now and later is why they end up with more money from a traditional IRA than a Roth IRA.

And it’s that same unconventional wisdom that can give you more retirement income as well if you plan smartly.

5 Good Reasons to Use a Roth IRA

The main takeaway from everything above is that the conventional traditional versus Roth IRA wisdom is wrong. Comparing marginal tax rates typically underestimates the value of a traditional IRA.

Of course, the Roth IRA is still a great account, and there are plenty of situations in which it makes sense to use it. I have a Roth IRA myself, and I’m very happy with it.

So here are five good reasons to use a Roth IRA.

1. You Might Contribute More to a Roth IRA

Our case study above assumes that you would make equivalent after-tax contributions to each account. That is, if you’re in the 15% tax bracket, you would contribute 15% less to a Roth IRA than to a traditional IRA because of the tax cost.

That’s technically the right way to make the comparison, but it’s not the way most people think.

There’s a good chance that you have a certain amount of money you want to contribute and that you would make that same contribution to either a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA. Maybe you want to max out your contribution and the only question is which account to use.

If that’s the case, a Roth IRA will come out ahead every time simply because that money will never be taxed again.

2. Backdoor Roth IRA

If you make too much to either contribute to a Roth IRA or deduct contributions to a traditional IRA, you still might be eligible to do what’s called a backdoor Roth IRA.

If so, it’s a great way to give yourself some extra tax-free income in retirement, and you can only do it with a Roth IRA.

3. You Might Have Other Income

Social Security income was already factored into the example above. But any additional income, such as pension income, would increase the cost of those traditional IRA withdrawals in retirement by increasing both the marginal and effective tax rate.

Depending on your other income sources, the tax-free nature of a Roth IRA may be helpful.

4. Tax Diversification

You can make the most reasonable assumptions in the world, but the reality is that there’s no way to know what your situation will look like 30-plus years down the road.

We encourage people to diversify their investments because it reduces the risk that any one bad company could bring down your entire portfolio. Similarly, diversifying your retirement accounts can reduce the risk that a change in circumstances would result in you drastically overpaying in taxes.

Having some money in a Roth IRA and some money in a traditional IRA or 401(k) could give you room to adapt to changing tax circumstances in retirement by giving you some taxable money and some tax-free money.

5. Financial Flexibility

Roth IRAs are extremely flexible accounts that can be used for a variety of financial goals throughout your lifetime.

One reason for this is that your contributions are available at any time and for any reason, without tax or penalty. Ideally you would be able to keep the money in your account to grow for retirement, but it could be used to buy a house, start a business, or simply in case of emergency.

Roth IRAs also have some special characteristics that can make them effective college savings accounts, and as of now Roth IRAs are not subject to required minimum distributions in retirement, though that could certainly change.

All in all, Roth IRAs are more flexible than traditional IRAs in terms of using the money for nonretirement purposes.

3 Good Reasons to Use a Traditional IRA

People love the Roth IRA because it gives you tax-free money in retirement, but, as we saw in the case study above, that doesn’t always result in more retirement income. Even factoring in taxes, and even in situations where you might not expect it, the traditional IRA often comes out ahead.

And the truth is that there are even MORE tax advantages to the traditional IRA than what we discussed earlier. Here are three of the biggest.

1. You Can Convert to a Roth IRA at Any Time

One of the downsides of contributing to a Roth IRA is that you lock in the tax cost at the point of contribution. There’s no getting that money back.

On the other hand, contributing to a traditional IRA gives you the tax break now while also preserving your ability to convert some or all of that money to a Roth IRA at your convenience, giving you more control over when and how you take the tax hit.

For example, let’s say that you contribute to a traditional IRA this year, and then a few years down the line either you or your spouse decides to stay home with the kids, or start a business, or change careers. Any of those decisions could lead to a significant reduction in income, which might be a perfect opportunity to convert some or all of your traditional IRA money to a Roth IRA.

The amount you convert will count as taxable income, but because you’re temporarily in a lower tax bracket you’ll receive a smaller tax bill.

You can get pretty fancy with this if you want. Brandon from the Mad Fientist, has explained how to build a Roth IRA Conversion Ladder to fund early retirement. Financial planner Michael Kitces has demonstrated how to use partial conversions and recharacterizations to optimize your tax cost.

Of course, there are downsides to this strategy as well. Primarily there’s the fact that taxes are complicated, and you could unknowingly cost yourself a lot of money if you’re not careful. And unlike direct contributions to a Roth IRA, you have to wait five years before you’re able to withdraw the money you’ve converted without penalty. It’s typically best to speak to a tax professional or financial planner before converting to a Roth IRA.

But the overall point is that contributing to a traditional IRA now gives you greater ability to control your tax spending both now and in the future. You may be able to save yourself a lot of money by converting to a Roth IRA sometime in the future rather than contributing to it directly today.

2. You Could Avoid or Reduce State Income Tax

Traditional IRA contributions are deductible for state income tax purposes as well as federal income tax purposes. That wasn’t factored into the case study above, but there are situations in which this can significantly increase the benefit of a traditional IRA.

First, if you live in a state with a progressive income tax code, you may get a boost from the difference in marginal and effective tax rates just like with federal income taxes. While your contributions today may be deductible at the margin, your future withdrawals may at least partially be taxed at lower rates.

Second, it’s possible that you could eventually move to a state with either lower state income tax rates or no income tax at all. If so, you could save money on the difference between your current and future tax rates, and possibly avoid state income taxes altogether. Of course, if you move to a state with higher income taxes, you may end up losing money on the difference.

3. It Helps You Gain Eligibility for Tax Breaks

Contributing to a traditional IRA lowers what’s called your adjusted gross income (AGI), which is why you end up paying less income tax.

But there are a number of other tax breaks that rely on your AGI to determine eligibility, and by contributing to a traditional IRA you lower your AGI you make it more likely to qualify for those tax breaks.

Here’s a sample of common tax breaks that rely on AGI:

  • Saver’s credit – Provides a tax credit for people who make contributions to a qualified retirement plan and make under a certain level of AGI. For 2017, the maximum credit is $2,000 for individuals and $4,000 for couples.
  • Child and dependent care credit – Provides a credit of up to $2,100 for expenses related to the care of children and other dependents, though the amount decreases as your AGI increases. Parents with young children in child care are the most common recipients of this credit.
  • Medical expense deduction – Medical expenses that exceed 10% of your AGI are deductible. The lower your AGI, the more likely you are to qualify for this deduction.
  • 0% dividend and capital gains tax rate – If you’re in the 15% income tax bracket or below, any dividends and long-term capital gains you earn during the year are not taxed. Lowering your AGI could move you into this lower tax bracket.

Making a Smarter Decision

There’s a lot more to the traditional vs. Roth IRA debate than the conventional wisdom would have you believe. And the truth is that the more you dive in, the more you realize just how powerful the traditional IRA is.

That’s not to say that you should never use a Roth IRA. It’s a fantastic account, and it certainly has its place. It’s just that the tax breaks a traditional IRA offers are often understated.

It’s also important to recognize that every situation is different and that it’s impossible to know ahead of time which account will come out ahead. There are too many variables and too many unknowns to say for sure.

But with the information above, you should be able to make a smarter choice that makes it a little bit easier to reach retirement sooner and with more money.

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.

Matt Becker
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Matt Becker is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Matt here

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Wealthsimple Review 2019

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided or commissioned by any financial institution. Any opinions, analyses, reviews, statements or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

Wealthsimple may not be the largest robo-advisor in the U.S. — though it is the largest in Canada and made the leap south of the border in 2017 — but it should be counted among the best. It’s especially valuable for newer investors, even though its fees are higher than some rivals’. For that higher fee, clients receive a portfolio review from an actual human and an all-inclusive package without additional fees, which may cost extra at other robo-advisors. Clients also have access to socially responsible portfolios and at least one other unusual perk. Altogether, Wealthsimple is the complete package for beginners to not-so-beginners.

Wealthsimple
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The bottom line: Though it’s on the expensive side, Wealthsimple delivers an investor-friendly product that’s great for newer investors.

  • Free portfolio review and no extra fees
  • Access to financial planners
  • Higher account management fee

Who should consider Wealthsimple

Wealthsimple is a great choice for investors who are looking for a few more perks from their robo-advisor and who don’t mind paying a bit more for that privilege. It’s also a solid choice for those looking to get into socially engaged investing or halal investing and those who need basic access to financial planners. In these respects, it’s a good choice for beginners who need more guidance. Finally, for those with larger accounts, Wealthsimple provides expanded access to planners as well as special airport lounge access.

Wealthsimple fees and features

Amount minimum to open account
  • $0
Management fees
  • 0.5% (less than $100K deposited)
  • 0.4% ($100K+ deposited)
Account fees (annual, transfer, inactivity)
  • $0 annual fee
  • $0 full account transfer fee
  • $0 partial account transfer fee
  • $0 inactivity fee
Account types
  • Individual taxable
  • Traditional IRA
  • Roth IRA
  • Joint taxable
  • Rollover IRA
  • Rollover Roth IRA
  • Custodial Uniform Gifts to Minors Act (UGMA)/Uniform Transfers to Minors Act (UTMA)
  • SEP IRA
  • Trust
Portfolio
  • ETFs cover 10 asset classes.
Automatic rebalancing
Tax loss harvesting
Tax loss harvesting detailTax loss harvesting is automatically activated for Wealthsimple Black clients; it is available to all Wealthsimple clients.
Offers fractional shares
Ease of use
Mobile appiOS, Android
Customer supportPhone, Email

Strengths of Wealthsimple

  • Free portfolio review: Wealthsimple offers a free portfolio review as a way to get its foot in the door, much like FutureAdvisor does. With Wealthsimple, you provide your personal details, upload your financial statements and make an appointment with one of the company’s financial planners. The review includes an assessment not only of your investments but also of your debts and how much you’re paying for the funds or investments you currently have. It also includes plans to minimize your taxes and sets up your financial goals — so you know where you’re going. The entire process is led by a Wealthsimple financial planner, who has a fiduciary duty to act in your best interest. Even if you don’t opt for Wealthsimple, it’s a free review of your whole financial life by a professional, so it’s hard to go wrong there.
  • Expanded access to financial planners: While everyone at Wealthsimple has some access to financial planners, those enrolled in Wealthsimple Black (for accounts of more than $100,000) receive more access. This includes a formalized financial plan, which features a strategy for generating retirement income and a goals-based investing plan for retirement or for those big purchases in life. This access is one of the larger perks of the service and should be a draw for those who need this kind of planning and advice.
  • No extra fees and access to some unusual perks: Even if Wealthsimple does charge one of the higher account management fees, it doesn’t nickel-and-dime you on other fees like many other robo-advisors do. A transfer-out fee that might run you $75 at a rival is free here. And tax loss harvesting and portfolio rebalancing are included as a standard part of the management fee.Wealthsimple also allows you to purchase fractional shares, which is a nice bonus for beginning investors who may not have enough money to buy a full share of a fund with a high price tag. That ability allows you to purchase the full range of funds recommended for you and fully diversify even smaller cash deposits immediately — getting you in the game more quickly.Finally, the most unusual perk offered by Wealthsimple has nothing to do with investing. If you have more than $100,000 with the robo-advisor, you’ll become part of Wealthsimple Black, the firm’s upgraded service that offers access to more than 1,000 airline lounges in over 400 cities. If you’re a frequent traveler, that’s a nice perk.
  • Socially engaged investing: Looking to build a portfolio filled with socially responsible companies? Wealthsimple can help you do that, investing in six exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that support major socially engaged themes, such as low carbon, gender diversity and affordable housing. The company builds three types of portfolios using these investments depending on your risk tolerance: conservative, balanced and growth.Wealthsimple also offers Shariah-compliant halal investing, which is in accord with Islamic law. All investments avoid profiting from gambling, tobacco, arms or other industries that violate Islamic law. The diversified portfolio consists of 50 Stocks that have been vetted by a third-party committee of Shariah scholars. Because the portfolio is all Stocks, it’s riskier than more balanced portfolios that include Bonds (which are forbidden under the investment mandate).

Drawbacks of Wealthsimple

  • Account management fee: The account management fee — clocking in at 0.5% (less than $100K deposited) for basic accounts — is probably the biggest drawback at Wealthsimple. Basic accounts at other major rivals are around 0.25%. But it’s not always an apples-to-apples comparison, as Wealthsimple clients have some access to financial planners as well as the other free services above. And Wealthsimple manages the first $5,000 for a year for free, so that helps newer investors get started with their nest egg.Clients who deposit more than $100,000 will automatically join Wealthsimple Black, reducing their management fee to 0.4% and gaining more extensive access to a financial planner. Still, this reduced fee remains above those of rivals offering access to financial planners, including Schwab Intelligent Advisory (at 0.28% and a minimum of just $25,000) and Vanguard Personal Advisor Services (0.30% and a $50,000 minimum). These options beat Wealthsimple on the minimum for the higher tier of service too.
  • Customer support: Wealthsimple provides adequate customer service, and you can call in to have your account or investing questions answered by a professional. But the hours feel somewhat limited: Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. EST and Friday from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. EST. You also can drop Wealthsimple a line via email, but don’t expect an online chat or off-hour responses.

Is Wealthsimple safe?

Wealthsimple manages more than $2 billion in client assets, so it’s a trusted name in the industry. Client assets — which technically are held by the company’s broker, Apex Clearing, and not Wealthsimple itself — are safeguarded by the Securities Investor Protection Corporation (SIPC). This ensures that in the event of a bankruptcy, customers’ assets are insured to at least $500,000 (including $250,000 in cash only). That doesn’t protect you against the market falling or other risks of investing, but it should give you peace of mind about Wealthsimple.

Final thoughts

Wealthsimple should be an attractive candidate for any new investor looking to understand how to build a portfolio. The firm provides access to its financial planners for all investors, though clients in the higher service tier will receive more extensive time with them. The free portfolio review also is a solid service for beginning investors, and those looking to build a socially engaged portfolio should consider Wealthsimple.

Beginning investors who are focused primarily on fees (and need less access to education and advice) might consider shifting to Wealthfront or Betterment. Those who need more advice and can bring more than a little coin to their accounts also might want to consider Vanguard Personal Advisor Services or Schwab Intelligent Advisory. But Wealthsimple will be a solid fit for most.

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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.

James F. Royal, Ph.D.
James F. Royal, Ph.D. |

James F. Royal, Ph.D. is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email James here

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YieldStreet Review 2019

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided or commissioned by any financial institution. Any opinions, analyses, reviews, statements or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

YieldStreet is the type of fintech company that the internet makes possible: The investment manager, founded in 2015, connects borrowers with investors in alternative assets, taking a fee from each deal it completes. These alternative investments include short-term loans that might traditionally have gone to well-connected investors, such as placements in real estate, litigation finance, and marine vessel acquisition and deconstruction.

The appeal for investors (who must be accredited) is the high yields offered on the deals, and YieldStreet has engineered financings worth more than a half-billion dollars. Also of interest is what YieldStreet claims is its investments’ low correlation to the stock market, meaning these assets won’t zag when the market does. That provides diversification away from publicly traded companies and offers greater safety to an investor’s overall portfolio.

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The bottom line: YieldStreet provides high yields on illiquid real estate and alternative investments, albeit with high fees.

  • Clearly explains the benefits and risks of individual investments
  • Offers a variety of investment types
  • Charges pricey management fees

Who should consider YieldStreet

The prospect of high interest on a limited-term loan can be enticing, but you’re invited to the club only if you’re an accredited investor. That means you’ll need to have at least $200,000 in income for the past two years as an individual, or $300,000 if joint. Alternatively, you need at least $1 million in assets, not including your primary residence. So YieldStreet is not for casual investors who decide they want to invest in real estate loans.

Another factor: As an investor, you’ll need to analyze the prospectuses of various loans, which the company will provide you. While YieldStreet outlines many of the risks, it’s ultimately up to you to decide what to invest in, and that requires more work than simply buying an index fund and kicking back. These are illiquid investments, so if you need the money soon, you’re better off elsewhere.

YieldStreet fees and features

Amount minimum to open account
  • $10,000 (possibly higher for specific offerings)
Commission1% to 4% management fee on all offerings
Account types
  • Individual taxable
  • Traditional IRA
  • Roth IRA
  • Custodial Uniform Gifts to Minors Act (UGMA)/Uniform Transfers to Minors Act (UTMA)
  • Solo 401(k) (for small businesses)
  • Trust
Customer supportPhone, Email

Strengths of YieldStreet

  • High yields and easy-to-make investments: YieldStreet couldn’t really make it any easier, technically, to select potential investments. It’s easy to allocate a certain amount of your capital to each loan, and the prominent details of each are presented in an easy-to-read summary. You’ll read sections on the investment’s positives and negatives, and you can download further information too. It’s easy to go by what YieldStreet says, but investors will want to investigate and analyze each investment themselves.And those high yields? The company is targeting 8% to 20% annual returns, a level that would make almost any investor’s mouth water. The company projects that already-financed investments are on track for a 12.6% annual return.
  • High interest on cash account: Investors can fund their investments from the YieldStreet Wallet, which allows users — even unaccredited investors — to earn 2% on the cash in their account. It’s like an online bank account, and it’s backed by a real bank, Evolve Bank & Trust. That’s an attractive rate for investors looking to stash their cash while waiting on their next YieldStreet investment or even for average investors to stockpile their money at an above-average yield.
  • No principal loss on prior investments: YieldStreet really wants you to know upfront that investors have lost no principal on their investments. It’s one of the first things the company’s website highlights. Each investment is asset-based — that is, backed by collateral — meaning it’s supported by an asset such as real estate or a legal settlement. Collateral provides greater safety to the loans that are on offer. If a loan does go sour, YieldStreet works with the loan’s originator to recoup as much of the principal and outstanding interest as possible, potentially through legal action. While the track record has been good so far, it can turn at any time.

Drawbacks of YieldStreet

  • Pricey management fees: The company clearly outlines that it takes a 1% to 4% management fee on all offerings on its financed deals, and that isn’t cheap. For each deal, the company highlights the expected net investment return, and it would be all too easy to bury the management fee in the fine print. But it does disclose the fees on its summary page for each deal (and not in illegible legalese either), so kudos for that.Still, those fees are expensive, especially as management fees on index funds of publicly traded companies are quickly plummeting. Of course, the appeal of YieldStreet is the access to traditionally inaccessible deals, and the company is charging a premium for that access.
  • Illiquid investments: Another downside to these investments, relative to traditional stock and bond investments, is that they are tied up completely for the life of the project and are illiquid. The company clearly spells out how long each project should last, and projects may run for just a few months to several years. If you can’t keep your money in that long and need access to it, this kind of investing won’t be for you.
  • Ongoing fees: It’s not just the management fee that comes out of your account but also an ongoing fee for each investment, and this fee depends on the type of legal structure set up to house the investment. This fee pays for such things as an annual audit and filing fees with the SEC. Depending on the specific type of structure, first-year fees run $100 to $150, while subsequent years cost $30 to $70.That can be more pricey than you think and can really ding your returns, especially if you’re investing smaller amounts. For instance, if you invested the minimum in each deal — $10,000 — and earned a 9% return, a $150 fee would eat up one-sixth of your first-year interest and as much as one-twelfth of your interest in subsequent years. That’s no trivial fee, and it encourages you to invest more in each deal, which may or may not be prudent.
  • Uncertain risks and an unproven business model: The company does provide key details of each deal, a useful guide for what to watch out for and a prospectus. However, there may be further or unknown risks investors must ascertain for themselves (just as there are in publicly traded investments). That means investors in YieldStreet really need to be able to analyze these potential investments effectively and perhaps even have some background conducting such analysis. There’s no one who’s going to do this work for you, so if you’re not comfortable doing it, YieldStreet may not be for you.In addition, the quality of YieldStreet’s investments is still untested by a significant recession — remember that the company was founded in 2015 — and such a test will prove how viable this model is longer term. The returns on offer here imply high risk, and risky investments often perform poorly during tough times. Of course, this is not a prediction but something prudent investors will want to analyze for themselves.

Is YieldStreet safe?

The biggest risk at YieldStreet is the investments themselves, and that varies on a case-by-case basis. That said, the company boasts that investors have had $0 loss of principal while enjoying (or slated to enjoy) an annual return of 12.6%. Each investment fund is held in a separate company whose sole purpose is keeping the investment secure, and in the event of YieldStreet going bankrupt, a new manager could be appointed for the funds.

The company’s YieldStreet Wallet, which pays interest on cash balances, is held by the FDIC-backed Evolve Bank & Trust, meaning that any cash deposits are insured up to $250,000. None of this protection, however, means that your at-risk investments at YieldStreet won’t lose money.

Final thoughts

YieldStreet is an interesting investment offering enabled by the connective power of the internet, and it’s allowing investors and borrowers to come together in new ways. The potential for high returns is there for investors, but these returns also imply high risk. While the track record is favorable so far, YieldStreet is too young to have gone through a recession. With high-risk investments, things can change quickly, so investors should invest accordingly.

Accredited investors who find the risk and fee structure a bit too much also may turn to publicly traded stocks, where fees are moving ever lower. While such investments don’t offer the low correlation to stock markets, they offer a time-tested model and potential exposure to the world’s best businesses (and you can even invest in real estate if you want).

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James F. Royal, Ph.D.
James F. Royal, Ph.D. |

James F. Royal, Ph.D. is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email James here

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