Advertiser Disclosure

Investing

Guide to Choosing the Right IRA: Traditional or Roth?

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

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
Matt Becker |

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

Advertiser Disclosure

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. 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% 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.

Kat Tretina
Kat Tretina |

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

Advertiser Disclosure

Investing

Personal Capital Review 2019

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

Personal Capital is a hybrid of a traditional brokerage and a robo-advisor. It offers portfolio design via algorithm—like many competing robo-advisors—and also lets you buy individual stocks, design portfolios and access human financial advisors. In fact, the company dislikes the term robo-advisor, and prefers to call itself a “digital wealth manager.”

Be advised that the minimum balance requirement is $100,000, meaning that Personal Capital is only a viable choice for investors who have already accumulated a sizable nest egg. It’s not a product for beginners, although it is a great choice for people who have sufficient funds.

Founded in 2009 by a former CEO of PayPal and Intuit, the company claims that it offers “full financial planning at no additional cost.” It charges an asset management fee of 0.89%, which is on the low side for personal financial planning, but it’s on the high side for robo-advisors, most of whom charge less than 0.50% per year. The fee drops as low as 0.49% for high-balance investors, but need a balance of more than $10 million to qualify for the lower rate.

Personal Capital
Visit Personal CapitalSecuredon Personal Capital’s secure site
The Bottom Line: Personal Capital offers automated and active investing features, as well as in-depth financial planning advice, all of which should appeal to users who can swing the minimum balance requirement of $100,000.

  • Access to financial advisors at all asset levels
  • Individual stock investing and customized portfolios
  • Useful financial dashboard tools

Who should consider Personal Capital

Personal Capital is best suited to high-balance investors looking for a less expensive and more hands-off strategy than working with a full-service investment firm. The initial phone consultation with an advisor can help users evaluate their financial position and what they need to do to hit their goals.

The minimum balance required to begin investing with Personal Capital is $100,000, and you need at least $200,000 in investable assets to unlock the ability to customize a portfolio with individual stocks. This level also earns you recommendations and support from two dedicated financial advisors.

Note that anyone can take advantage of the site’s free account aggregation and monitoring tools, which let you test retirement and savings assumptions and make sure your plan will help you achieve your goals.

If you are a socially conscious investor, Personal Capital offers an investment strategy that restricts certain businesses or industries based on their ESG rankings.

Personal Capital fees and features

Amount minimum to open account
  • $100,000
Management fees
  • 0.89% for accounts of $100k - $1M
  • 0.79% for accounts of $1M - $3M
  • 0.69% for accounts between $3M and $5M; lower fees for accounts over $5M
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
  • SEP IRA
  • Trust
Portfolio
  • Personal Capital offers 6 high-level asset classes.
Automatic rebalancing
Tax loss harvesting
Tax loss harvesting detailPersonal Capital's tax optimization process focuses on three key areas: tax allocation, tax loss harvesting and tax efficiency.
Offers fractional shares
Ease of use
Mobile appiOS, Android
Customer supportPhone, 24/7 live support, Email, 5 branch locations

Fee tiers and wealth management options

Personal Capital charges variable annual management fees depending on your total account balance:

  • Up to $1 million: 0.89%
  • First $3 million: 0.79%
  • Next $2 million: 0.69%
  • Next $5 million: 0.59%
  • Over $10 million: 0.49%

It offers three levels of wealth management services, depending on your total account balance:

  • Investment Service: Balances of $100,000 to $200,000 get access to a team of financial advisors and an actively managed portfolio of ETFs.
  • Wealth Management: Account balances of $200,000 to $1 million unlock access to two dedicated financial advisors, specialists in real estate and stock options and a customized portfolio with regular reviews, as well as enhanced tax optimization.
  • Private Client: When your account balance includes more than $1 million, you get two dedicated financial advisors; priority access to specialists and the firm’s investment committee; in-depth support for retirement, wealth and estate planning; and private equity investment options.

If your balance is below $200,000, you can invest in ETFs but you cannot customize your portfolio. Personal Capital will recommend a target allocation that’s based on the profile questions you answered during the sign-up process, plus other financial information you’ve provided. While you can choose from among different target allocations, you won’t be able to create a custom allocation.

That said, Personal Capital does offer an ESG-optimized portfolio for users interested in socially responsible investing. In addition to limiting exposure to fossil fuels, the company’s ESG basket filters out companies with material exposure to things like adult entertainment, gambling, tobacco, military contracting and guns.

Tax optimization is available at all portfolio levels. Personal Capital “tax optimizes” by making sure people put the right investments in the right accounts (i.e. taxable accounts versus retirement accounts) and by tax loss harvesting, which means realizing losses to offset gains. All levels of service also offer portfolio rebalancing. Accounts are reviewed daily for tax-efficient rebalancing opportunities.

All accounts above $200,000 can invest in individual stocks and customize portfolios. Certain accounts with assets over $1 million may be able to invest in individual bonds. With assets over $5 million invested with Personal Capital, users may gain access to private equity investments.

Personal Capital Cash

Personal Capital recently launched a cash management account, Personal Capital Cash. The account earns 1.55% APY for people without a Personal Capital advisory account, and 1.60% APY for customers with an advisory account. Personal Capital Cash pays slightly less than other similar high-yield savings accounts, but there’s also no minimum balance and there are no fees associated with it.

Personal Capital partners with UMB Bank, which holds deposits in Personal Capital Cash in a network of different banks and arranges FDIC insurance coverage. The account offers up to $1,500,000 in FDIC insurance, well above the standard $250,000 level available with conventional deposit accounts.

Financial dashboard tools

One of Personal Capital’s strengths is that it offers financial tools to help you understand and track your entire financial life. These tools are free and available to anyone who downloads the app. You may register and link all your financial accounts to Personal Capital, such as bank accounts, brokerage accounts, loans and credit cards. Once they are linked to the app, your personalized financial dashboard gives you a view of your:

  • Net worth: You can see your current net worth for the past 30 days, including the change in this measure over the last 30 days and today’s change.
  • Cash flow: The dashboard offers a graphic representation of your cash inflows and outflows for the past 30 days, arranged by category (paychecks and deposits on the inflow side, mortgage and other expenses on the outflow side). Click on any category to dive into the detailed transactions there, or click the whole category to compare this month’s spending to last month’s spending and see transactions by category.
  • Portfolio balances: You’ll see the value of your investment accounts for the past 30 days, along with change values over the past month and today’s value.
  • Portfolio allocation: This is a top-down view of your investments across all asset classes—although only if your assets are invested with Personal Capital. If you’ve linked outside investment accounts, their value will be included in your portfolio balance, but the site doesn’t include those assets among your allocation.
  • Gainers and losers: If you’ve got individual stocks in your portfolio — which would make you a higher-level investor—you’ll see how they’re performing versus the S&P 500.
  • Retirement savings: The dashboard recommends how much you should be saving toward retirement each year and how much you’ve saved to date this year. It can also predict whether your retirement portfolio will support your retirement spending.
  • Emergency fund: You’ll see how much cash you’ve got stashed away. If the dashboard feels you could be investing part of that for greater return, it will recommend moving some money around.

Strengths of Personal Capital

  • Access to financial advisors. At all levels of investing, users have access to financial planners who can answer questions and offer advice on saving and investing. In fact, the company requires you to schedule a (free) chat with a financial advisor in order to set up your financial dashboard.
  • Big picture planning. Because Personal Capital advisors will professionally review your whole financial picture, you’ll receive recommendations based not only on your answers to questions about risk and goals, or what you have invested at Personal Capital, but also what you have in your 401(k) and other retirement accounts. They’ll also offer advice on college savings plans and estate planning strategies, although estate planning is only available with investable assets of $1 million or more.
  • Free financial tools. Even if you don’t invest with Personal Capital, you can still access a wealth of free financial tools that will analyze your net worth, cash flow, retirement and savings situation and make recommendations. You also get one free phone call with a Personal Capital advisor.

Drawbacks of Personal Capital

  • High minimum balance. To open an account with Personal Capital, you’ll need at least $100,000 in invested assets, which is the highest of most robo-advisors on the market. Compare this to Vanguard Personal Advisor Services, which requires a $50,000 account minimum, and to Charles Schwab Intelligent Portfolios Premium, which requires a $25,000 buy-in. And some robo-advisors, such as Wealthfront, require as little as $500.
  • High management fees. Personal Capital charges an asset management fee of 0.89% for portfolios between $100,000 and $1 million, which is also among the highest fees charged by robo-advisors. By comparison, Vanguard charges just 0.30% and Wealthfront charges 0.25%. When you top $1 million in assets, the management fee goes down, but just to 0.79% for $1 million to $3 million, and 0.69% for $3 million to $5 million, and so on. Once you get over $10 million, you’ll pay 0.49% in asset management fees, which is still higher than most competitors.
  • Non-customizable portfolios for beginners. Until you reach an asset level of $200,000 and up, you can’t alter your investment mix, and you’re limited to ETF investing only.

Is Personal Capital safe?

Most fintech users are comfortable linking their financial accounts to an investment platform, and Personal Capital’s safeguards are in line with standards. They partner with financial tech industry veteran Yodlee to facilitate account aggregation, and user bank and brokerage credentials are only stored at Yodlee.

The site uses two-factor authentication when you sign in and encrypts your credentials and personal data with military-grade encryption algorithms. The company protects its data centers with various systems designed to prevent hacking and monitor for suspicious activity, and the data centers follow stringent financial and international security standards protocol.

Personal Capital also helps you keep an eye on things by sending an (optional) daily email with every transaction that occurred during the previous 24 hours in all your linked accounts, including your bank, broker and credit cards. Keep an eye on the activity and make sure you recognize all the transactions.

As far as insurance, all investment securities are held by an SIPC member broker custodian, protecting your securities up to $500,000, and Personal Capital Cash is FDIC insured up to $1,500,000.

Final thoughts on Personal Capital

Personal Capital is worth considering if you have $100,000 or more to invest on this platform. Though lower-level users can’t customize their portfolios, asset allocation models seem to outperform comparative benchmarks much of the time.

Investors should carefully consider whether they’d like more control over their investments or whether they’re willing to pay higher-than-average fees for the services Personal Capital offers. In the meantime, the financial planning tools and initial consultation will give the average investor some insight into how they’re doing and where they’d like to go.

Open a Personal Capital accountSecured
on Personal Capital’s secure website

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.

Kate Ashford
Kate Ashford |

Kate Ashford is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Kate here