In this low-interest rate environment most investors know parking their money in a bank CD is almost a surefire way to lose money against inflation. For the average individual, investing in the stock market can be complicated. So what is someone to do?
You have to be concerned about high fees, good asset allocation and whether a financial advisor has your best interest at heart. Betterment is one possible solution to make investing easy.
Traditionally, investing and asset allocation require basic finance skills — which many individuals lack. If you were to use an investment advisor, their fees are quite cost prohibitive. Which is why advisors are usually available only to high-net-worth individuals. Betterment gives similar investment advice, in an automated fashion and at a much lower annual fee.
How Does Betterment Work?
Betterment is all about the endgame. When saving, we don’t care about investment theory; we care about the result. We are investing for some purpose, whether saving for retirement, college, home down payment or for a vacation trip to Hawaii.
Betterment walks you backward in the steps required to meet your end goal. From your initial deposit, monthly savings and time horizon, Betterment will tell you the chances of achieving your objective.
There’s no researching which investments you need to purchase or at what percentage for each. Betterment does this for you automatically. This makes investing easy for beginners and is different than any other discount stock broker we’ve reviewed.
Betterment’s goal is to maximize return while minimizing the risk. This sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s not. The question I’m sure you are asking is how do they do this? They do it via the Modern Portfolio Theory, or MPT for short. By investing in a diverse pool of assets, it should collectively lower the risk and yet stabilize returns over the long term.
Traditionally this type of service was available only to a full-service financial adviser. So this makes Betterment somewhat unique since it’s all done via automated methods.
Betterment was created to make investing as easy as opening a bank account. But let me be clear, Betterment is not FDIC insured. Your returns are not guaranteed and are subject to market risk. It’s possible your investment could lose principal, though compared to other investment options that don’t have principal risk, they do have other types of risk. Betterment is an SEC registered broker-dealer and member of FINRA/SIPC.
With the service, you don’t own individual stocks or bonds; instead, investments are held in the form of exchange-traded funds (ETFs). The ETFs own a portion of the equities market via indexing. The asset allocation between these various ETFs then ensures your account is not weighted too heavily into one particular area, company, country or sector. While this doesn’t lead to outrageous returns, it prevents putting all your eggs in one basket.
- Available Accounts — Traditional IRA, Roth IRA, Rollover IRA, SEP IRA (New), Trusts, Non-profit, Individual and Joint.
- No Initial Deposit — You can open a Betterment account with no initial deposit.
- Low Annual Fees — Builder: 0.35% of average balance, with $100/mo. direct deposit, Better: 0.25% of average balance, $10,000 minimum, Best: 0.15% of average balance, $100,000 minimum.
- Custom Asset Allocation – Based upon your risk profile and account type (taxable vs. tax deferred) the asset allocation is customized.
- Tax-Loss Harvesting – Helps minimize your taxable investments by offsetting gains with loses. Available to all taxable accounts.
- Automatic Portfolio Rebalancing – When your portfolio gets out of the target allocation, Betterment will automatically buy and sell the ETFs within your portfolio to rebalance the allocation.
- Automatic Deposits – Transfer money into your account on a scheduled basis. Options available are: monthly, twice a month, every other week, and weekly.
- SmartDeposit – Automatically make deposits if your bank balance goes over a specified amount.
- RetireGuide Calculator (New) — Help plan for retirement by plugging in your existing savings.
The way Betterment is designed, you have access to a lot of automated options and the process is streamlined so that it requires little day-to-day involvement. It’s “set it and forget it,” compared to traditional investing options.
Easy Signup Process
The signup process is easy and takes approximately five minutes. During the process, you respond to a series of short questions about your investment needs. There is also a slide bar that allows users to set the allocation of their assets, e.g., 60% stocks with 40% bonds. Once the choices are selected, you must then link your personal checking account. Money can be transferred into the Betterment account whenever you desire or you can set up an automated deposit.
When money is moved into the account, Betterment will then automatically purchase exchange traded funds (ETFs). The purchases will be made based on the way you’ve defined your asset allocations. Your investments are very liquid and selling your investments is also made simple. Betterment will perform the sell trades for you. Any dividends earned will be automatically reinvested. Each quarter, any portfolio that is off by more than 5% is rebalanced automatically.
When I first reviewed Betterment, their stock asset allocation was slightly different than what is available today. Originally, Betterment did not include international equities and included only TIPS for the bond portfolio. They have since fixed this with the new model portfolio, which was a much-needed improvement.
Stock Portfolio Makeup
- Vanguard U.S. Total Stock Market Index ETF (VTI)
- Vanguard U.S. Large-Cap Value Index ETF (VTV)
- Vanguard U.S. Mid-Cap Value Index ETF (VOE)
- Vanguard U.S. Small-Cap Value Index ETF (VBR)
- Vanguard FTSE Developed Market Index ETF (VEA)
- Vanguard FTSE Emerging Index ETF (VWO)
Bond Portfolio Makeup
- iShares Short-Term Treasury Bond Index ETF (SHV)
- Vanguard Short-Term Inflation Protected Bonds ETF (VTIP)
- Vanguard U.S. Total Bond Market Index ETF (BND)
- iShares National AMT-Free Muni Bond Index ETF (MUB)
- iShares Corporate Bond Index ETF (LQD)
- Vanguard Total International Bond Index ETF (BNDX)
- Vanguard Emerging Markets Government Bond Index ETF (VWOB)
Betterment’s portfolio is now much more diversified and includes low-cost, liquid, index-tracking ETFs. Their tax-efficient algorithm is geared toward maximizing your money’s ability to grow.
The percentage of the ETF allocation is no longer fixed, either. Depending upon your allocation of stocks-to-bonds, Betterment adjusts the allocation of each individual ETF to meet the efficient frontier. In plain English: This means Betterment has optimized the portfolio to give you the best performance possible.
All the ETFs Betterment has selected are great picks. They all follow their respective index very closely and are very liquid (which lowers the bid/ask spread), tax efficient and low in annual fees.
Even with these recent changes in their asset allocation, I would like to see some additional asset classes, such as commodities and REITs.
However, Betterment’s portfolio should be more than adequate for someone investing less than $100,000. Betterment no longer offers custom portfolios if you have over $100,000 in assets. Betterment now requires $500,000 for custom portfolios. But based upon the new portfolio mix, the need for customization (except, as I mentioned, in the sectors above) is now almost nil.
Tax Loss Harvesting
Betterment has tax loss harvesting (TLH) that helps boost your after-tax returns and is twice as effective as other TLH strategies. Basically, an investor with Betterment can improve their after-tax returns by capitalizing on investment losses.
This service doesn’t require any action on your part and is fully automated for Betterment customers. The extra growth within the investment portfolio has been studied and found that it offers no additional risk or cost. See the graph below:
Is tax loss harvesting right for you? According to Betterment, tax loss harvesting is best for the majority of investors who can write off losses against capital gains. If your capital losses exceed your capital gains, you can still claim the excess loss up to $3,000, or up to $1,500 if you are married filing separately, provided you have other income of at least the amount you’re claiming as a loss. If you’re in a high tax bracket and start using tax loss harvesting now, this service will become more beneficial over time.
Previously you needed more than $50,000 to gain access to this service. However, now all taxable accounts have access to this feature. No minimum deposit is required. But in reality, only larger accounts really see the benefits of TLH.
As an answer to the other retirement tools available online that are too “simplistic, inaccurate and didn’t help predict my income in retirement,” the Director of Advice Products at Betterment, Alex Benke, created RetireGuide.
RetireGuide gives you personalized retirement planning advice on points like your income in retirement based on your savings, when and where you can retire, how much you should be saving per year, and where exactly to invest your money.
This feature takes a look at all of your accounts, whether they’re invested with Betterment or not, to give you a snapshot of your entire financial picture. Unlike other retirement tools, Betterment’s RetireGuide also estimates the amount of spending you’ll do once you reach retirement age.
After filling in your personal information, you can then calculate how much spending you plan to do during retirement, in order to calculate the exact figure you need to be saving. This feature is able to closely project what retirement will look like, by assuming what other kinds of income streams you’ll have (like Social Security benefits), your age and amount of savings per year.
This tool is a game-changer, as it allows you to not only use Betterment’s service to save for the future, but also have a better understanding of what you’ll be spending during retirement, as well as other income factors.
RetireGuide syncs with more than 13,000 external accounts to:
You can also now update the age at which you expect to receive Social Security benefits and even upload a Social Security statement file from SSA.gov for even more precise advice.
We’ve noticed that the microsavings services are gaining in popularity. Services like Acorns, while they work, really aren’t an adequate savings strategy.
In response to these services, Betterment created the SmartDeposit feature. When this optional feature is turned on, it will automatically invest any money over a specific amount within your bank account. You specify the maximum bank account balance and the maximum amount to deposit into Betterment. SmartDeposit then takes care of the rest. Like Acorns it is a forced savings strategy, but in much larger amounts.
From our research, the average individual might save $100–$200 per month using Acorns — which really is just OK for a rainy-day fund. For most it isn’t enough to save for retirement. Acorns also does not offer retirement account options, whereas Betterment does. Putting your savings into a retirement account is a much wiser option.
SEP IRA Support
Betterment recently announced the option to invest your SEP (Simplified Employee Pension) IRA with them and get up to 12 months completely free. This offer is available for new and existing Betterment customers.
Betterment’s SEP IRA process is quick and easy to set up, with minimal paperwork, and offers a high contribution limit of up to $53,000 for 2015 and 2016. In addition, your earnings grow tax free and include tax-deductible contributions. Currently, Betterment does not support SEP IRA plans with more than one participant, but they plan to offer this soon.
The great thing about their service is you can start with little money to invest and the fees are quite low (0.35%). Once you get past $10,000, they decrease the annual fee to 0.25%. Past $100,000 invested with Betterment, it lowers to 0.15%.
While you can start with no money, they do request you deposit at least $100 each month. Otherwise you get charged an additional $3 per month, if under $10,000. I think that’s a great idea on their part. It creates some forced savings and I have no issue with their pricing. This fee structure translates to about $17.50 a year on an account with a $5,000 balance.
- Simple Asset Allocation — Betterment teaches the ropes to investing and, more importantly, proper asset allocation. This, in my opinion, is very good as too often I hear about inexperienced investors with poor, or no, asset allocation.
- Low Management Fees — Their fees are low enough that if you have less than $10,000 to invest it won't eat away much of your investments.
- Perfect for Young Investors — Betterment makes investing accessible for young investors by automating the investing process. It leans heavily toward dollar-cost averaging, which is the perfect long-term investing solution for inexperienced or young investors.
- RetireGuide Calculator — An easy-to-use retirement planner tool, though not as comprehensive as Personal Capital's Retirement Planner.
- Not the Best for Higher Net Worth Individuals — For the more advanced investor or higher net worth individual, Betterment might not be the perfect fit. If you can roll your own asset allocation and know investment theory, there's little need for using a service like Betterment.
- No Two-Factor Authentication — Currently Betterment does not support two-factor authentication security, which would make it more difficult for hackers to compromise your account.
When we first reviewed Betterment, we gave them three and half out of five stars. This was mainly because of their high annual fees and limited asset allocation. But with the decreases in their fees, improvements in their asset allocation, and constantly adding new features, Betterment is an almost perfect investment service. We now rate them five out of five stars.
Betterment’s service makes it super easy to implement a savings plan. You can set up a new taxable account in minutes or transfer an existing 401(k) or IRA account.
Without question, the fees are much lower than if you were to hire a professional money manager. If anything, with a professional money manager you would get similar or lower returns but pay much more in management fees.
Their goal-setting feature makes their service somewhat unique and perfectly visualizes the steps required to meet your objectives. Though this feature is available in some personal finance apps (like Quicken), Betterment’s is one of the best available either online or offline.
The more advanced investor will do better with a more diverse asset allocation selection, and save money in annual fees in the process. For individuals with more than $100,000 who do not want to do it themselves, Personal Capital might be a better option.
Typically, individuals with that level of net worth or greater have a much more complex investment portfolio. Unlike Betterment, Personal Capital has access to see your entire net worth. This allows them to get a more holistic view of your life. Betterment’s asset allocation is cookie cutter and makes it somewhat limited for more advanced needs. Keep in mind, Betterment does not know about or have access to other accounts outside of their service.