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Investing

How to Buy and Sell Stocks

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.

Maybe you haven’t invested in stocks yet. Maybe you have a 401(k) or IRA. Perhaps you have a micro-investing app with steadily increasing gains. No matter where you are in your investing journey, the process of how to buy stock and how to manage your own portfolio can seem daunting.

While there’s definitely a learning curve when it comes to investing, it’s never been easier to buy your first stock. Robo-advisors, micro-investments, and simple web platforms that allow you to buy, trade and sell stocks on your phone have made investing in the stock market effortless.

Why invest in the stock market?

Just because it’s easy to buy and sell stocks doesn’t mean the process is a no-brainer. First, it’s important to understand why you want to invest in the stock market. Why buy stock as opposed to, say, putting your hard-earned money in a savings account? The answer is that unlike other options, such as savings or bonds, stock shares likely have higher potential returns than stocks or bonds. But of course, with high returns comes risk: The volatility of the stock market means while you hope your investment gains value, there’s no guarantee it will do so.

Once you own stock shares, you literally own a small percentage of a company. If the company does well, not only does the stock gain in value, but you may receive what’s known as a dividend — a portion of the company’s earnings, usually paid on a quarterly basis. If the company continues to do well, the share continues to pay dividends, which a stockholder may reinvest in the stock market or withdraw as passive income.

Alternatively, a stock investor may decide to sell all or some shares of their stocks to maximize the gains they made. If the share price has increased in value, an investor can sell those stock shares at a profit.

A beginner’s guide to stocks

The concept of buying and selling stocks is simple. But, in reality, words and phrases like “ETF”, “blue chip”, “index” and “yield” may make you feel like you’re learning a foreign language. So how do you get started?

First, forget about stocks for a second and focus on your financial goals. While investing in the stock market can be a smart financial strategy, experts generally agree that it’s important to focus on paying down debt and establishing an emergency fund before investing extra cash. That’s because while stock returns on long-term investments can be good — the average annual return of the S&P has been around 10% since 1928 — interest rates on debt can be higher.

Once you feel comfortable with your finances, think ahead to your goals to decide on the right investment strategy for you and your family. Do you want to buy a house? Save for retirement? Have money set aside for a rainy day? These answers will affect how to buy and sell stocks, and what your stock portfolio may look like.

A portfolio represents the entire range of assets you own. You may buy shares or securities for specific companies, but it’s common — especially for beginner investors — to invest through a mutual fund, exchange-traded fund (ETF) or index fund. These funds can have any number of stocks, as well as commodities, real estate, foreign investments and bonds that are diversified to protect investors from potential risk. You may choose investment options that range from conservative to aggressive, with aggressive funds generally being chosen if you’re hoping for big gains — and are okay with potentially having a big loss.

While you can withdraw money in the stock market at any time, it’s often best to think of money you invest as relatively untouchable. That’s because it takes time for money to grow, and also because the nature of the stock market is to ebb and flow — if you withdraw all your investments as soon as you see share prices start to fall or your portfolio lose value, you may miss future gains.

Your goals, as well as your comfort with risk, will influence how you buy stock. Many beginner investors don’t buy stock alone: Research, investment advisors, robo-advisors, and portfolio recommendations can all come into play to help you come up with the best investing options for you. It may be that you want to actively monitor your stocks, or you may want to set a strategy and check in once or twice a year.

How to buy and sell stocks

If you’re looking to invest, there are several places to consider as you decide where to buy stocks, with pros and cons to each. It’s also important to note that it’s easier than ever to buy stocks online. That said, different platforms have different fees, limitations and considerations.

A traditional brokerage firm

A few decades ago, the only option to buy stock would be a brokerage firm. Even today, with plenty of online platforms to aid investors, brokerage firm can be a good option if you’re planning to invest in individual stocks. Major brokerage firms include TD Ameritrade, Edward Jones, Charles Schwab and Fidelity. In addition, many banks have brokerage services.

Some brokerages have a minimum amount required to open an account, and may charge fees for any buys, sales or trades. Brokerage firms also have stockbrokers on staff who can work with you to select stocks. A brokerage firm is an ideal option if you want to be hands-on with stock selection.

Online-only broker

Is there a way to avoid a fee for buys and trades? While the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) charge a fee for all stock sales orders regardless of brokerage, commission fees can range between brokerage options. Some traditional brokerage accounts have fee-free options for ETF sales or trades, and some online startups, like Robinhood, charge no commission fees for any stock buys, sells, and trades (though fees from third-parties may apply).

Some online-only brokers have the option of working over the phone with a live broker, which can be an option if you wish to buy and sell individual stocks. In general, being aware of any fees — regardless of which option you choose — is smart, since over time, fees can eat into your hard-earned capital.

A robo-advisor

In the past decade, robo-advisors have become popular for those interested in buying stocks online. These providers offer automated portfolio management. Algorithms, as well as the information you input regarding financial goals and risk tolerance, will create a customized portfolio.

Robo-advising services are offered by many traditional brokerages, but companies such as Betterment, Wealthfront, Wealthsimple and Ellevest are devoted to robo-advising. This can be a good option if you don’t wish to actively be involved in your investments, as these providers also tend to automatically recalibrate your portfolio if there’s any dramatic shift or change.

In general, robo-advisors specialize in algorithmically created portfolios and may not give you the option of buying individual stock. The fees may be lower than traditional brokerages, and may be based on a percentage of your overall portfolio.

A micro-investing platform

These providers take small amounts of money — in some cases, just a few pennies — and invest in ETFs and mutual funds. Micro-investing platforms may be exclusively on an app, and can be a good way to dip your toe into the stock market without a big commitment.

Acorns, Clink, and Stash are three examples of robo-advisors that have micro-investment options. These investment options — which tend to charge a monthly fee of around $1 — can be a good way to watch your money grow, but depending on fees, it may make sense to move the money gained in these accounts into another investment vehicle that offers more robust services. That’s because some micro-investing platforms switch from a flat monthly fee to a fee-based percentage once the account reaches a certain threshold, and it may make more sense to compare fees and choose a lower-fee account once your account reaches that point.

Choose your investment strategy carefully

Your investment portfolio is personal, and while there’s no “right” or “wrong” reason to buy a stock, there are some general best practices. Like so many skills, one of the best ways to learn how to invest is to learn by doing. Brokerages and robo-advisors, in addition to sites like MagnifyMoney, are great for learning common terms and strategies. But you can simultaneously learn and invest, and robo-advisors, brokers and financial planners can give you options for the type of portfolio that makes sense to you based on your financial goals.

For example, a retirement portfolio may look different than a portfolio meant to help you buy a house in the next five years because of the way assets are allocated. Aggressive assets have a bigger risk of loss but potentially bigger rewards; conservative assets may have the lowest risk and lowest potential of return. A customized portfolio will contain some of each in the attempt to help you reach your goal with as much money as possible.

A huge differentiation for new investors to realize is that investing in a portfolio through a robo-advisor or brokerage is very different than, say, actively buying and selling individual stock in the hopes of maximizing return. For example, investing in cryptocurrencies, initial public offerings (IPOs) and even individual stocks is very different than investing in a diversified portfolio meant to grow your money over the long term.

If you do wish to choose individual stocks, it’s smart to research a company and look at their quarterly or annual financial report with an eye toward positive cash flow. You may also wish to invest in stocks simply because you like the company and its mission, you’ve seen a proven track record of the company’s success, or it’s a company that you’ve followed over the years. That said, investing a small amount and watching the performance of the stock can help you suss out a strategy or make a decision whether you’d like to buy more.

How to buy stock today

You’ve done your research, opened a brokerage account and are ready to make your first stock investment. Once you’ve decided what stock to buy and how much money you want to invest, the next step to buying stock is to figure out how many shares to purchase.

Instead of focusing on shares, one common strategy for investors is to use is called “dollar cost averaging.” This strategy focuses on buying shares based on the money you wish to invest, not the number of shares you want. To use dollar cost averaging, simply purchase the same dollar amount of stock at regular intervals. For example, if you wish to buy $100 of stock and Company X is trading at $10 a share, you can buy 10 shares this month. Next month, when Company X is trading at $12.50, you can afford just 8 shares.

This strategy can help can help mitigate risk, since you purchase more shares when prices are low and fewer shares when costs are high. New investors can also learn to ride the ups and downs of the stock market by sticking to a strict budget and purchase schedule.

No matter what investment strategy you choose, the purchase experience varies across platforms. In general, you may be prompted to opt for a market order — which means the stock will be purchased at current market price — or a limit order, which allows you to name a target price at which the shares will be bought. It’s also important to be aware of any fees or commissions that may come from the purchase, and be aware of any limitations on purchases — some brokerage accounts have a cap on the number of buys, sells or trades made in a day.

While it’s smart to research the company you wish to invest in, it’s important not to get overly bogged down on any “best day of the week to buy stock” advice. If you’re planning to invest for the long term, it doesn’t really matter if the stock you buy is slightly lower a day or two after you’ve bought it; what matters most is long-term patterns and movement.

When to sell stock

Is it ever a good idea to sell stock? That depends. In general, money in a retirement account like a 401(k) or a Roth IRA has penalties and tax implications for withdrawals before a certain age, so many financial advisors would suggest those portfolios are left untouched.

But what if you opened a brokerage account or have bought individual stocks? There’s no wrong reason to sell stock — for example, you may need that money to be liquid for an emergency fund or an unexpected bill. Other reasons to sell stocks include diversifying your portfolio, moving away from a company with haphazard performance results, or simply feeling like the time is “right.” Some investors sell stock when the price has appreciated rapidly, using the money to invest in a less expensive stock. Other investors look closely at the valuation of the company. Working with a personal investment advisor can help you figure out smart strategies to sell stock, and your own experiences and research can help you become more familiar with common points at which investors consider selling stock.

In general, it’s usually not a good idea to sell stocks based on emotion alone — seeing a stock dip may make you nervous, but it could be smart to ride out an initial dip or look for larger trends over time.

How do you sell a stock when you’re ready? Platforms vary, but in order to sell a stock, an investor triggers what’s called a sell order. A sell order can be a market order (the stock is sold right now), a limit order (a seller names the minimum price they’ll accept), or a stop order (the sale will be stopped when the stock dips beyond a price limit) Again, it’s smart to be aware of any sale fees or limits within your investment platform.

Investing is an art and a science

There’s no limit to the number of investment strategies, tips and techniques you can try, but one of the best ways to learn to invest is to simply practice. With so many platforms offering investment opportunities for the cost of a latte, it’s never been easier to buy stocks. Keeping track of your long-term investment goals, your capacity for risk, and making sure you’re never investing more than you can afford to lose can help grow your money — and your confidence.

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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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 management Annual rate
Under $5 million 0.30%
$5 million to under $10 million 0.20%
$10 million to under $25 million 0.10%
$25 million and over 0.05%

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.

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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 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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