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Investing

How to Invest: A Guide for Novice Investors

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

You’ve heard this line over and over again: To be smart with your money, you need to both build your savings and invest. The savings part is easy: Stash money away in a savings account — a little at a time — to pay for particular goals, like an emergency fund or a new car. Investing is a different story, and learning how to buy securities that will grow in value over time isn’t quite so simple.

Investments are made for the long term, and investing involves taking on risk. That might make you nervous, but investing is essential for your financial health. Compound interest and market gains can help your money grow a much higher rate than a savings account, helping you build long-term wealth for your retirement.

How to invest in 6 easy steps

The idea of investing might be intimidating, but don’t worry, it’s not as hard as you think. In fact, you can learn how to invest and get started in just five simple steps.

1. Start investing early

When you’re young, time is on your side. That’s especially true when it comes to investing. And the earlier you start the better, according to Brandon Renfro, a certified financial planner and an assistant professor of finance at East Texas Baptist University.

“Earnings from investments compound over time,” Renfro said. “The longer you give yourself to earn that compound return, the more money you will have when you reach a goal, such as retirement.”

Returns from your investing start slow, but compounding yields big gains over the long term. Let’s say that you start investing $200 per month at age 25 at a 7%  annual return. After five years, you would have saved $12,000 and earned only $2,400.

However, if you keep adding $200 to your investing portfolio every month until age 70, you’ll have contributed $120,000—and earned almost $976,000, for a total portfolio value of $1.1 million.

You don’t always get a steady return on your investment, as in the example above. The market fluctuates, moving up and down, dramatically sometimes. But over the long term, the market produces regular returns. According to the financial firm Morningstar, the long-term average return from the stock market is near 10%.

Investing while you’re young allows you to ride out any short-term losses so you can take advantage of gains over the long-term. Even if the market dips over the near term, over the 20- to 30-year time frame, you’ll see reliable growth rates.

2. Decide how much to invest

When deciding how much to invest, it’s important to take your goals into consideration. If you have high-interest debt or if you don’t have an emergency fund, it may make more sense to pay down your debt and build a small savings account before you invest.

After that, think about your long-term goals, such as planning for retirement. You’ve likely heard experts recommend that you save millions of dollars, but don’t let that scare you. When you’re just starting out, it’s important to start saving whatever you can and to keep contributing consistently.

Vanguard, one of the biggest investment companies, recommends that you save 12% to 15% of your income for retirement. If that sounds impossible right now, save what you can afford, even if it’s just $25 per month. Over time, those small amounts will snowball, helping you build a sizable nest egg.

If your employer offers a 401(k) retirement plan and matches contributions, try to contribute enough to qualify for the full match. That’s free money you’d otherwise leave on the table.

3. Understand how investment accounts work

When you’re ready to start investing, it’s important to think about what kind of account you want to open. There are three core investment account types:

  • Employer-sponsored plans: Some employers offer retirement investment accounts to their employees, such as a 401(k) or 403(b). You may even be eligible for an employer contribution match, putting more money toward your goals. There are tax benefits to contributing to these plans, helping you save money at tax time.
  • Individual retirement accounts (IRA): An IRA is a great way for you to start saving for retirement on your own, outside of an employer-sponsored plan. There are traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs, which both offer tax benefits.
  • Individual taxable accounts: Another way to save is by investing in an individual taxable account, otherwise known as a brokerage account. There are no tax benefits to these accounts, but they also don’t have limitations on contributions or withdrawals like employer-sponsored plans or IRAs do. If you’re saving for a goal beyond retirement, like buying a home, an individual investment account is the best choice.

According to Natalie Pine, a certified financial planner and managing partner of Briaud Financial Advisors, IRAs and employer-sponsored accounts are strong starting points.

“There is no wrong way to save, but when you are young, a Roth IRA, 401(k), 403(b) is a great option,” Pine said. “You pay low taxes now and have tax-free growth for the rest of your life and the lives of your beneficiaries.”

4. Understand what to invest in

Once you’ve chosen an account structure, you can think about what type of asset classes and investments you want to make. There are several different investment options:

  • Stocks: When you buy a stock, you’re purchasing a share of a company like Apple or Google. Your gains or losses are dependent on the company’s performance and trends in the stock market.
  • Bonds: Bonds are loans you make to the government or corporation in exchange for interest payments over a set time period.
  • Mutual funds: With a mutual fund, you pool your money together with other investors to purchase a mix of stocks, bonds, and other securities that would otherwise be too expensive to purchase on your own.
  • Exchange traded funds (ETFs): Like mutual funds, ETFs are pooled investment options that allow you to invest in a diversified portfolio. However, they’re traded like stocks on the stock exchange.
  • Index funds: An index fund follows the performance of a specific market benchmark, such as the S&P 500 Index. The fund’s manager will a preselected collection of hundreds or even thousands of stocks and bonds, diversifying your portfolio.
  • Options: When you invest in options, you create a contract that allows you to buy or sell a security at a fixed price within a specific period of time.
  • Cryptocurrency: Cryptocurrency is a digital representation of assets used to buy and sell goods; one of the most well-known versions is bitcoin. It’s a very risky and volatile investment option, but it’s gaining popularity.

5. Choose an investment strategy

Next, think about your investment strategy. Consider your own risk tolerance. Some people are comfortable taking on more risk, thinking it’s worth it to potentially see high returns. Others get panicky when they see the market dip, and prefer more conservative investments that offer lower, steadier returns. Choose an investment strategy that works for your comfort level.

  • Consider how long you have until your target date. For example, if you’re planning on retiring in 30 years, you can choose a more aggressive portfolio that’s more heavily invested in stocks.
  • If you have short-term goals, like buying a home within the next five years, you want to invest more conservatively. You may put your money in a high-yield savings account or invest in low-risk bonds.
  • If you’re feeling overwhelmed, consider investing with a robo-advisor. Automated investing platforms like Betterment or Wealthfront review your financial goals and risk tolerance, and comes up with a comprehensive investment plan for you. The robo-advisor will invest your portfolio in a range of ETFs, mutual funds, stocks, or bonds, and will rebalance your portfolio as you approach your investment target dates. Many robo-advisors have low fees, and have no account minimums, so you can invest even if you don’t have a lot of money.

The most important part is simply getting started. “While it is important to plan, don’t let the details overwhelm you to the point of inaction,” advised Renfro. “It’s better to get started now understanding just the basics than to keep putting it off.”

6. Automate your investments

According to Pine, consistency is key to your success as an investor.

“With regard to investing, consistency is essential to avoid emotions driving decisions that ultimately lead to poor performance,” she said. “If you stick with a system, whatever that may be, you are more likely to weather various storms than if you trade around a lot and catch investments at the wrong time.”

Making regular contributions will help you build long term wealth. When you’re short on cash each month, finding extra money to invest may feel impossible. However, there are different strategies you can use to invest, even if you don’t have a lot of cash:

  • Pick an investment account with a low minimum: Some discount brokers have very low account minimums. For example, Fidelity and Charles Schwab have $0 minimums, so you get started with just a few dollars.
  • Invest your spare change: Investment apps like Acorns allow you to engage in micro-investing, where you invest your extra change. The app syncs to your bank account or credit card. Every time you make a purchase, the app rounds it up to the next dollar, and deposits the difference to your investment account. For example, if you pay $2.53 for a cup of coffee, the app would deposit $0.47 into your investment account. Over time, those small amounts can add up.
  • Set up recurring contributions: If possible, set up recurring withdrawals into your investment account. Setting up automatic deposits will take out the money before you can mentally spend it, helping you stay on track.
  • Deposit windfalls: If you receive any money unexpectedly, such as a bonus at work, your tax refund, or a gift from a relative, deposit that money directly into your investment account. It’s extra cash, so you won’t need it to make ends meet, and it can help you reach your long-term goals.

Always keep learning

As a new investor, the most important thing to do is to get started as soon as possible. The earlier you invest, the more time your money has to grow.

After you’ve opened an account and made your initial investment, spend some time learning about your investment options. There’s always something new to learn, and growing your knowledge base can help you make more informed investment decisions, which can pay off over the long run. And keep reading on MagnifyMoney to learn more about investing!

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 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.

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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