How to Choose the Best Robo-Advisor for You
In this ultimate robo-advisor guide you will discover the best robo-advisors and how to choose the a digital investment manager for you and your unique financial needs. We will answer all of your robo-advisor questions, including:
- How does a robo-advisor work?
- How do I choose a robo-advisor?
- Are robo-advisors worth it?
You’ll learn about about robo-advisor differences, fees, minimums, investments, services and more.
Since we understand that many of you are in a hurry, we’ll start off with a list of our five best robo-advisors.
Which are the Best Robo-Advisors?
With all the robo-advisors on the market, it’s difficult to settle on just one. Below are 6 favorites here at Robo-Advisors Pro.
1. Betterment – Best Robo-Advisor for Financial Advisor Access
Betterment is one of the first robo-advisors on the market, having launched in 2010. Betterment has two account levels and some a la carte investing options, making it one of the more affordable and customizable robos available. We love Betterment for its easy and cheap access to financial advisors: all clients, regardless of account level, can text with financial advisors. Clients who want more hands-on work with financial advisors can purchase a set number of planning sessions for a one-time, flat fee.
|Overview||Goals-based digital investment manager with access to financial advisors.|
|Minimum Investment Amount||No minimum for Betterment Digital. $100,000 minimum for Betterment Premium.|
|Fee Structure||Digital-0.25% AUM up to $2 million; 0.15% fee over $2 million|
Premium-0.40% AUM up to $2 million; 0.30% fee over $2 million.
|Top Features||Digital and hybrid investment management (with financial advisor access) options. All investors can text with financial advisors. SRI, income and smart beta portfolios available.|
|Free Services||Free portfolio review.|
|Contact & Investing Advice||Phone and email support 7 days per week.|
|Investment Funds||Low fee exchange traded funds from diverse asset classes.|
|Accounts Available||Single and joint taxable brokerage. Roth, traditional, rollover and SEP IRA. Trust.|
|Promotions and Website||Free account management special promotion.|
2. M1 Finance – Best Robo-Advisor for DIY Investors
M1 Finance is incredibly customizable, which makes it the best robo-advisor for investors who like to take control of their finances and design their own investment strategies. M1 Finance uses a “pie” concept to help investors structure their investments. Clients decide what fractional portions of the pie are allocated to which investments, making this easily one of the most customizable investment strategies available today.
|Overview||Free robo-advisor with opportunity to customize investments.|
|Minimum Investment Amount||$100 for typical brokerage account. $500 for retirement account.|
|Fee Structure||Zero account management + trading fees. M1 Plus is $125 per year.|
|Top Features||Choice to use pre-made portfolios or to create your own. M1 Finance manages + rebalances. M1 Borrow + M1 Spend offer lending and banking.|
|Free Services||Account creation, management + rebalancing. Investment trading.|
|Contact & Investing Advice||Email or phone 9-5 M-F CT + on-screen help button.|
|Investments||6,000 stocks and/or ETFs traded on the NYSE, NASDAQ + BATS exchanges|
|Accounts Available||Individual and joint taxable accounts; traditional, Roth, SEP and rollover IRAs; corporate, trust, LLC + partnership business accounts.|
|Promotions||Current promo includes limited interest free loan from M1 Borrow|
3. Wealthfront – Best Robo-Advisor for Techies
If you like technology, Wealthfront has you covered. This robo-advisor offers quite a few options for an affordable price. Clients benefit from digital financial planners and daily tax-loss harvesting. Wealthfront also offers clients further financial support, like free portfolio reviews and a home buying guide. One of the original robos, Wealthfront continues to grow and offer their clients increasingly valuable services for a low account management fee.
|Overview||Automated investment management robo-advisor with extra features.|
|Minimum Investment Amount||$500|
|Fee Structure||0.25% of AUM. Zero fees for cash account.|
|Top Features||Digital financial planner. Daily tax loss harvesting. Hi yield cash account. Loans available.|
|Free Services||Free portfolio review. Home buying guide.|
|Contact & Investing Advice||Phone for clients & Email 24/7.|
|Investment Funds||Low fee, diversified stock & bond ETFs.|
|Accounts Available||Joint & individual taxable, Trust, Traditional, Roth & rollover IRAs, Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) IRAs, & 529 College Savings Plan accounts.|
|Promotions||First $5,000 managed for free.|
4. Ellevest – Best Robo-Advisor for Women
Ellevest is the first robo-advisor designed specifically for women. While anyone, regardless of gender identity, can open an account with Ellevest, this robo-advisor was designed by and for women. This is important because women have many more obstacles to successful investing. They tend to earn less than men because of the gender wage gap and lost earning potential due to childbirth and caretaking, for one. Ellevest is designed to account for the difference in women’s overall earnings and makes recommendations based on these unique challenges.
|Overview||Automated investment management robo-advisor that invests specifically with the needs and challenges of women in mind. Offers financial and career advisors.|
|Minimum Investment Amount||There is no minimum investment amount required for Ellevest Digital. Ellevest Premium requires a $50,000 minimum.|
|Fee Structure||Ellevest digital - 0.25% |
Ellevest premium 0.50% of AUM (includes career + financial advisors)
|Top Features||Goals based investing, enabling you to invest in portfolios developed for various goals, such as emergency funds, retirement and home downpayment. Tax-minimization strategy. Premium service provides access to CFPs + career coaches.|
|Free Services||Free personalized investment plan and access to financial articles in resource center.|
|Contact & Investing Advice||Available by live chat, email or phone, during regular business hours.|
|Investment Funds||21 low-cost, commission-free ETFs primarily from Vanguard. Other fund providers include Barclays, Nuveen, iShares, Charles Schwab and Van Eck.|
|Accounts Available||Taxable brokerage accounts, Traditional, Roth, & SEP IRAs|
|Promotions||Receive $50 for a funded account. Elle Ambassadors receive cash and swag after referring friends, who sign up.|
5. Personal Capital – Best Robo-Advisor for Affluent Investors
Personal Capital is one of the most expensive robo-advisors on the market and requires a hefty initial investment—but it’s worth it for affluent investors. Certified Financial Planners come standard for Personal Capital investors. Additionally, clients can expect tax-loss harvesting, diverse asset classes, and individual stocks, as well as a comprehensive financial plan. Personal Capital also offers Private Banking with access to estate and tax planning.
The best thing about Personal Capital is that anyone has access to a suite of financial planning tools, such as cash management and retirement and investment planning tools. These free financial tools are comparable to other paid investment managment trackers.
|Overview||Digital investment management robo-advisor in concert with human financial advisors.|
|Minimum Investment Amount||Zero minimum for access to free investment management tools. $100,000 minimum for managed accounts.|
|Fee Structure||0.89% for investments of $1M to $2.9M. Fees decline as assets increase. Low 0.49% for accounts over $10 M.|
|Top Features||Free investment and retirement management tools for all.|
For paid users: Certified Financial Planners, full financial plan, individual stocks, diverse asset classes, tax-loss harvesting and cash management.
|Free Services||The most comprehensive suite of financial planning tools including cash management, investing and retirement planning tools.|
|Contact & Investing Advice||24/7 email access. Phone, video and chat with financial advisors (for paid users).|
|Investment Funds||Individual stocks, ETFs, low fee bond and alternative asset ETFs. Individual bonds for accounts +$1M.|
|Accounts Available||Individual & joint investment accounts. Roth, traditional, SEP & rollover IRAs. Trusts.|
|Promotions||Free financial, retirement, and portfolio tracking tools.|
6. Schwab Intelligent Portfolios – Best Free Robo-Advisor
Schwab Intelligent Portfolios can afford quality service with no AUM fees because of its relationship with the brick and mortar Schwab company. This relationship gives Schwab Intelligent Portfolios clients access to Schwab’s proprietary ETFs, which means ultra low fund management fees! Schwab also offers a diverse range of investment options. If that isn’t enough, Schwab Intelligent Portfolios clients also have branch access to human financial support.
|Overview||Automated investment management robo-advisor with basic service and premium. Cash flow income also available.|
|Minimum Investment Amount||$5,000 for Intelligent Portfolios. $25,000 for Schwab Intelligent Portfolios Premium.|
|Fee Structure||Zero management fees for Intelligent Portfolios. $30 per month for Schwab Intelligent Portfolios Premium plus $300 set up fee.|
|Top Features||Certified Financial Planners for all Premium Customers. Branch access for all customers. 53 ETFs across 20 asset classes. Monthly income paycheck available for distributions from accounts.|
|Free Services||Zero management fees for all basic Intelligent Portfolio customers.|
|Contact & Investing Advice||24/7 live phone support, branch access, online live chat, and email.|
|Investment Funds||53 low fee stock and bond ETFs representing 20 asset classes.|
|Accounts Available||Individual, joint, and more types of investment accounts. Roth, traditional, SEP, Simple & rollover IRAs. Trusts.|
|Promotions||Free account management for basic plan.|
Finally, all of your robo-advisor questions will be answered here, and you’ll come away understanding if a low-fee digital investment manager is best for you.
What is a robo-advisor?
Robo-advisors are the digital response to traditional human financial advisors. Most robo-advisors use algorithms—a set of calculation rules—to help you manage your money without any human input besides your own. Other robos use algorithms and/or other financial management tools in connection with human financial support.
Though robos have been gaining rapidly in popularity, they’re hardly a new concept: they first appeared around the financial crisis in 2008. Betterment, one of our favorites at Robo-Advisor Pros, has been around since 2010. Robo-advisors are not going anywhere soon.
Robo-advisors have very little overhead costs since they are hosted electronically, whereas human financial planners need buildings, lighting, and a livable salary—in short, robo-advisors are able to charge much less for what amounts to the same services. And since they don’t need to sleep, robo-advisors are often “always on” and ready to help you manage your money. This makes them a very appealing alternative to traditional money management as we have known it.
Learn more: Robo Advisor FAQ
Photo by Becca Tapert on Unsplash
How does robo advice work?
If you’re wondering how does a robo-advisor work? you’re not alone.
Robo advice is very similar to traditional financial advice: the robo-advisor performs a series of calculations based on your financial goals, your risk tolerance, and the market conditions. Depending on the robo-advisor you are using, the platform might either make investment decisions for you or a human financial advisor may act as a liaison between you and the robo.
A computer algorithm is created to give you the best investments for your goals, age, and risk-tolerance.
Robo-advisors make investment decisions based on your preferred portfolio allocations as well. Many robos will periodically rebalance your portfolio to ensure that your investments stay in-line with your goals and preferences.
The benefit to using a robo-advisor is that their calculations can be completed very quickly—much faster than a human counterpart, no matter how talented the financial advisor may be. And the robo-advisors computer algorithms aren’t impacted by emotional decision-making.
Learn more: How do Robo-Advisors Work?
What are the main differences between robo-advisors?
Choosing between robo-advisors comes down to deciding what sort of support you need for your investments. There are 8 main differences between robo-advisors. These differences affect how robo-advisors work to manage your money, what options you have in terms of accounts or investment types, and what you will pay for the services you will receive.
1. Robo-Advisor Investment Minimums
Robo-advisors have a very wide range of required minimum investments. Some robo-advisors, like Wealthsimple and Ellevest Digital, do not have minimum balance requirements—Axos Invest (formerly WiseBanyan) requires only $1.
Not all robo-advisors are as immediately affordable to newcomers, however. Vanguard Personal Advisor Services and Ellevest Premium both require a $50,000 minimum investment to use their services. And while clients can use Betterment Digital with no minimum investment required, they will need a $100,000 minimum investment in order to use Betterment Premium.
The good news is that these robo-advisors represent the extreme ends of the minimum investment spectrum. There are plenty of affordable, low minimum investment robo-advisors on the market.
2. Robo-Advisor Fees
Another difference between robo-advisors is the fees you pay for the services. Just like with investment minimums, the fees charged by robo-advisors can vary from completely free to upwards of 0.90% at a high-end robo-advisor like TD Ameritrade’s Selective Portfolios service.
There are many low-fee robo-advisors available, and they are often fairly comparable to the higher-fee alternatives. However, fees alone shouldn’t completely dictate which robo-advisor you choose—you’ll need to determine whether the services provided truly meet your needs.
Learn more: Robo Advisor Fees from Lowest to Highest
3. Robo-Advisor Services
The service that comes standard with all robo-advisors, regardless of fees or minimum investment amounts is portfolio rebalancing.
Nearly all robo-advisors offer portfolio rebalancing, which is used to keep your portfolio in-line with your preferred allocations and ensures your investments remain diverse. Robo-advisors do vary on how frequently they rebalance their portfolios—some may rebalance once a quarter, whereas others will rebalance whenever your portfolio deviates from it’s pre-determined asset allocation percentages.
Many robos also offer tax-loss harvesting. Tax-loss harvesting capitalizes on your investment losses to balance out any capital gains taxes at the end of the year. Unlike portfolio rebalancing, tax-loss harvesting is not universally available with robo-advisors .
There are also premium services to consider, which are usually available from the robo-advisors with higher fees or investment minimums. Ellevest, for example, offers premium clients a career coaches and financial advisors.
Access to human financial planners is often a premium service as well, with some of the low-fee robo-advisors adding this in only for their Premium—higher balance, higher fee—clients.
4. Robo-Advisor Advice Options: Human or Robo?
Some robo-advisors completely forego the human touch, relying solely on the robo-advisor algorithms to provide financial support to their clients. M1 Finance and Wealthfront are examples of this approach. Clients of M1 Finance and Wealthfront can access human support for technical issues but should not expect any financial advice from human financial planners.
A robo-advisor like TD Ameritrade, however, does offer financial support from human professionals. Clients who have Selective Portfolio accounts ($25,000 minimum investment, fees on a sliding scale from 0.90% to 0.55% AUM) can stop into a TD Ameritrade building and talk with financial professionals during business hours or schedule a chat. Even Betterment has added a human financial planner option to their Digital account, allowing Digital clients the option to text with an advisor.
Learn more: Betterment’s Financial Advisors
5. Investment Approaches: Passive and Active Robo-Advisors
Most robo-advisors rely on a passive investment strategy. Passive investment accounts are usually created with index-matching ETFs that attempt to match the overall stock and bond market returns.
Research substantiates the passive index fund investment approach and finds that in most cases it is quite difficult for active fund managers to best the returns of the market.
Although, some robo-advisors offer active investment management strategies. While the robo-advisors still rely on their algorithms to calculate investment decisions, just like they do in the passive management strategy, actively managed robo-advisors use human financial professionals to help make decisions beat the market.
Betterment’s Goldman Sachs Smart Beta portfolio is only one such example of how an actively managed robo-advisor might look.
6. Robo-Advisor Account Types
Robo-advisors tend to offer various IRA accounts. Most offer traditional and Roth IRAs, though others offer or will soon offer simple IRAs, SEP IRAs, and 401(k)s.
It is also common for robo-advisors to offer both joint and individual account options.
If you’re looking for something besides an IRA, you’re in luck: robo-advisors like Wealthfront are beginning to offer 529 accounts. Still other robo-advisors offer UTMA accounts, business accounts, and trusts.
7. Types of Investments Available for Robo-Advisors
Many robo-advisors use exchange-traded funds, otherwise known as ETFs. The ETFs robo-advisors use include stocks and bonds, and may be limited in their diversification option or incredibly varied, M1 Finance is one robo that offers its clients thousands of options.
For religious or socially-aware investors, robos have begun to offer both Halal-compliant and socially responsible investment options. Robo-advisors who offer these sorts of investments favor companies and movements that make a difference in society by promoting sustainable practices and fair treatment of workers.
Finally, still other robo-advisors may offer their clients the opportunity to invest in real estate or commodities.
8. Cash Management and Lending
Convenience is one of the highest selling points for robo-advisors. In order to best serve their clients, many robos are starting to offer lending services. This prevents clients from having to search around for multiple financial services.
Wealthfront is one of the robo-advisors now offering a portfolio line of credit for investors who need to borrow money for one-time expenses.
Learn more: What are the differences Between Robo-Advisors?
Photo by Helloquence on Unsplash
Who is robo investing best for?
There are both general and specialized robo-advisors on the market now, making it easy for everyone to find a robo-advisor that fits their specific needs and financial situation. Whether you’re a seasoned investor with a multimillion-dollar portfolio or a novice looking to start a retirement account with funds from your first full-time job, you are bound to find a robo that you can rely on.
If there’s a robo-advisor out there for anyone, you might be wondering how to choose a robo-advisor. First ask yourself: what is your biggest need? Are there any niche investing interests you have? For example:
- If you’re a beginner investor or curious about robo-advisors, but don’t have much to invest, you might benefit from a robo-advisor that appeals to millennials.
- Women may find a woman-focused robo-advisor like Ellevest to be their best choice. Though anyone can invest with Ellevest, the creators of this robo-advisor specifically kept women’s unique challenges in mind when they designed their algorithms.
- If you’re looking for general money management, including budget tracking, you might check out Personal Capital, Mint, or Quicken—however, if you want the added benefits of a robo-advisor, you’ll need to look toward Personal Capital.
- Retirees don’t need to miss out! Many robo-advisors specifically cater to retired or soon-to-be retired individuals.
- Only a few robo-advisors allow cryptocurrency investment options, but there are still options!
- Investors with large portfolios may prefer to work more closely with human financial planners. TD Ameritrade and Vanguard Personal Advisor Services are all ideal for wealthy investors who want the ease of a robo-advisor and the know-how of a human financial planner.
Visit the robo selection wizard, answer 4 questions and get a robo-advisor recommendation.
History of Robo-Advisors
Robo-advisors have been around for more than a decade—a tribute to their staying power. Far from going out of style, robo-advisors have been careful to adjust according to market changes in an effort to best serve customers; they have also embraced new developments in technology in order to keep pace with the world of finance.
The first iteration of a robo-advisor was in 2006, when Mint’s personal financial management systems began. Although Mint is more of a money management tracker than a true robo-advisors.
Betterment and Wealthfront were launched in 2008, Personal Capital began in 2009 and FutureAdvisor hit the market in 2010.
Since 2010, robo-advisor assets under management have climbed exponentially. Only 4 years after Betterment and FutureAdvisor were offered to the public, robo-advisors were estimated to hold $19 billion in assets under management. This exploded to $224 billion AUM in 2017, and are expected to hit $1 trillion in the near future.
Robo-Advisors vs. Financial Advisors
If financial planners have been working just fine, why switch to robo-advisors?
The problem is that human financial planners aren’t working just fine for many people. Financial professions often charge 1-2% AUM annually. Compared to the average robo-advisor, which charges 0.20-0.50% AUM, these financial professionals seem quite expensive. While some robo-advisors like Schwab, M1 Finance, SoFi, and Axos Invest do not charge investment management fees.
Because of the necessary expenses and time restrictions of keeping human financial planners employed, these services are often only available to wealthier investors who have a large investment ready to go.
On the other hand, human financial professionals are able to answer your questions, provide education, and walk you through turbulent market conditions in a way that their robo counterparts cannot. For some investors, this is the biggest selling point: they’re looking for someone to walk with them every step of the way.
Still, robo-advisors have the edge in terms of access: since they’re available 24/7 and rely on automated algorithms to make decisions, clients can be assured their money is constantly working for them.
Robo-advisors aren’t completely erasing the need for human financial planners, of course. When humans and robos work together, they complement the others’ strengths in a way that helps you, the client, have a stronger portfolio.
How much do robo-advisors cost?
Robo-advisors are much cheaper than their human advisor equivalents. While human financial planners may charge up to 2% AUM, a robo-advisor like Betterment charges only 0.25% AUM. On a $100,000 portfolio that would be $2,000 in fees for the financial professional, but only $250 for Betterment.
M1 Finance is one of the most affordable robo-advisors out there, with no account management fees.
Quite a few robo-advisors offer basic and premium packages, with rates ranging from 0.25-0.50% AUM. Betterment and Ellevest each offer a Digital plan for 0.25% AUM, with Premium services at 0.50%.
Though its free retirement calculator services are fantastic, Personal Capital is one of the most expensive robo-advisors on the market. Clients who want to go beyond their calculator services can expect to pay 0.89% AUM on accounts under $3 million. However, there’s good news for very wealthy investors: Personal Capital offers a sliding scale, which means that accounts valued over $10 mil will be charged only 0.49% AUM. Personal Capital also offers private wealth management which include estate planning, tax and other services.
To help you make a decision at a glance, we’ve compiled a comprehensive list of fees, ranking robo-advisors from lowest to highest fees.
Which robo-advisor has the best returns?
Robo-advisors have boasted good returns over the last few years. However, it’s important to remember that good returns in one year does not necessarily guarantee good returns the following year. As always, the market can and will fluctuate. Thus, looking at trends and long-term returns is the best way to accurately measure a robo-advisor’s performance.
That being said, Wealthfront was easily the best performing robo-advisor in 2019, followed closely by TIAA Personal Portfolios. While the average return on conservative retirement accounts was 10.25% for 2019, Wealthfront performed at 17.43% growth.
Many other robo-advisors also performed well, with each category averaging over 14% growth.
Learn more: Robo Advisors with the Best Performance
How do robo-advisors make money?
Robo-advisors still need to make some money in order to stay in business. But how do robos like M1 Finance and AxosInvest make money when they don’t charge account management fees?
Robo-advisors all make money in different ways, but some of the most common include:
Percentage-based fees for account management. This is the most obvious way that robo-advisors earn money. These are the fees that many robo-advisors charge, though there are a few exceptions. Many robo-advisors also cut clients a break, lowering the fees as the clients’ portfolios grow in value.
Selling or referring clients to related services help robo-advisors stay make money. These services might be loans, credit cards, or other financial services. This is common for many free robo-advisors nowadays. Even credit bureaus, who offer free versions of their credit score monitoring programs, will push credit-worthy clients toward new credit cards and loan refinancing programs.
Ads on their mobile apps, websites, or blogs, including sponsored posts. Not all robo-advisors will allow ads to display on their websites, but they may appear on mobile apps. Many robo-advisors are also blogging, and sponsored posts are a great way to earn a bit of money while still communicating educational information to their clients.
Kickbacks from proprietary investments. Schwab is a great example of this. Because Schwab Investment Portfolios has dedicated Schwab ETFs, the robo-advisor receives “kickbacks,” or a small commission, for investing client money in these ETFs. Much like affiliate marketing, these purchases don’t cost the client anything—however, robo-advisors who rely solely on proprietary ETFs may be limited in terms of diversity.
Learn more: How do Robo Advisors Make Money?
Benefits of Using Robo-Advisors
The benefits of using a robo-advisor are myriad. Beyond simply being low-cost alternatives to traditional financial management options, robo-advisors are also convenient. They are available nearly on-demand, with mobile apps and websites making it easy for clients to check on their investments at any time. While they do not tend to offer 24/7 human support, many are beginning to increase the hours during which support staff are available by phone, email, or chat features.
The opportunity for professional investment management for a low or no fee is one of the greatest benefits.
Convenience is another pro of robo advisors for those investors who use a popular financial platform like Fidelity and then elect to invest with the platform’s digital investment manager, like Fidelity Go.
Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash
Pros and Cons of Using a Robo-Advisor
Advantages of Robo-Advisors:
- Convenient, easy access 24/7
- Lower fees that traditional financial planners
- Algorithmic-based investment decisions, which creates lower margin for error
- No emotions: robos simply adjust to market fluctuations instead of panicking at sudden drops
- A wide range of minimum balances, fees, and niche services designed to meet unique and ever-changing needs
Disadvantages of Robo-Advisors:
- Human financial planners are often available as more expensive additions
- Limited hours for support, both financial support and tech support
- Tax-loss harvesting may cause more trouble than it’s worth
- Little to no control over your investments as robo-advisors handle rebalancing automatically
Learn more: Pros and Cons of Robo Investing
Are Robo-Advisors Worth It? – Best Robo-Advisor Guide Wrap-Up
The short answer to this question is yes, robo-advisors are worth it! Of course, any financial decision should be approached with caution and care: investing is always a risky business, and the market is guaranteed to fluctuate. Investing will never be a get-rich-quick option—those who do well in the market usually settle in for the long haul.
That being said, robo-advisors are a good way to get involved in investing, whether you are just starting out or have been investing for years. They offer low-fee, easily-accessible, automated investing options for a wide variety of individual needs. Higher fee robo-advisors offer additional, premium services that easily rival the services provided by human financial professionals.
While there are some drawbacks to robo-advisors—namely limited connection to human financial support, potential downsides with tax-loss harvesting, and lower control over your individual investments—they are largely outweighed by the many benefits robo-advisors offer.
Are you wondering how do I choose a robo-advisor? Try our robo-advisor selection wizard. This tool makes recommendations based on your risk tolerance, minimum investment amount, and more.
Featured image by Alex Knight on Unsplash
Disclosure: Please note that this article may contain affiliate links which means that – at zero cost to you – I might earn a commission if you sign up or buy through the affiliate link. That said, I never recommend anything I don’t believe is valuable.