One question facing robo-advisors like Betterment: If these services are simply building portfolios out of index funds and exchange-traded funds — primarily from Vanguard — why wouldn’t investors just go straight to the source?
Vanguard has heard that question, of course. That may be one reason why it created its own successful online advisor, Vanguard Personal Advisor Services, and launched a strictly digital, lower-cost option, Vanguard Digital Advisor, in 2020. So how do these services, plus Vanguard’s brokerage, compare with a managed experience at Betterment? This Betterment versus Vanguard comparison shakes that all out to help you decide which company is best for you.
For details on each service, click to expand the accordions below.
Costs and account minimums
It’s almost inarguable that building and managing your portfolio yourself will save you money, at least strictly on a fee basis.
But in some cases, that extra fee for management — especially the relatively small one charged by online advisors — is worth it. That extra layer might prevent you from panic selling during a downturn, for example, or guide you toward investments that are best suited for your goals. Both could improve your investment returns.
And so while you could build a portfolio yourself at Vanguard using many of the very same funds that Betterment uses, you also have to commit to managing that portfolio. That means selecting investments, rebalancing as needed, keeping your hands off when they’re not needed and performing tax-loss harvesting and tax optimizations if it’s a taxable account. None of this is particularly hard; you just have to do it.
If you don’t want to do it, there are robo-advisors. Betterment charges 0.25% and requires no minimum for its basic digital offering; Vanguard charges 0.15% for Vanguard Digital Advisors, with a minimum investment requirement of $3,000.
Both companies also have options for clients who want access to human financial advisors:
Vanguard Personal Advisor Services charges 0.30% and requires a $50,000 minimum investment, with unlimited access to financial advisors via phone, email or video. Clients with a balance of more than $500,000 get a dedicated advisor; others have access to a team of advisors.
Betterment Premium charges 0.40% and requires $100,000 for phone and email access to a team of financial advisors.
Winner: It depends on what type of investor you are. Vanguard’s brokerage is easily the best choice for DIY investors. For investors who prefer to be hands-off, Betterment Digital wins for clients who are happy with goal-oriented tools and features, and don't need access to a human advisor, as Vanguard Digital's offerings are fairly basic (though the company says more tools and features will roll out soon).
Vanguard Personal Advisor Services wins pretty handily for clients who want robust access to financial advisors. Compared with Betterment Premium, Vanguard PAS is lower cost, has a lower minimum balance requirement and includes a dedicated advisor offering at $500,000.
This is almost an unfair battle for Betterment, which by design streamlines investment choices down to around 12 exchange-traded funds that it then uses to build a variety of portfolios with varying levels of risk. Many of those ETFs are from Vanguard.
On the other hand, investors at Vanguard can self-manage their account, selecting from thousands of commission-free ETFs and no-transaction-fee mutual funds. Vanguard also offers access to individual stocks, option contracts and bonds.
Then there’s Vanguard Personal Advisor Services and Vanguard Digital Advisors, both of which primarily use Vanguard index funds. Expense ratios on portfolios from Betterment and Vanguard's online advisor services are in the same ballpark. One thing worth noting: Vanguard has an interesting structure in that the company is owned by its funds. That means fund investors benefit when the company does well. But some investors will still prefer an independent advisor like Betterment, which has the freedom to choose investments from all fund families.
Winner: Vanguard, but Betterment gets points here for its independent status.
Most online advisors offer some form of regular rebalancing, along with tax-loss harvesting for taxable accounts. It’s part of the appeal; investors may not do this on their own, and this kind of account hygiene can increase your after-tax returns and ensure you’re taking the appropriate amount of risk.
Vanguard Personal Advisor Services rebalances quarterly or as outlined in each client’s financial plan, but it doesn't offer automatic rebalancing. The service also performs tax-loss harvesting as needed. Vanguard Digital Advisors clients get automatic rebalancing, but the service's tax strategy is limited at this point.
Betterment takes an automatic approach, rebalancing via algorithm as needed and searching daily for tax-loss harvesting opportunities. Accounts enrolled in Betterment Premium are also monitored by the company’s team of financial advisors.
Both companies practice smart asset location, strategically placing tax-efficient investments like municipal bond funds in taxable accounts. (This only applies, of course, in situations where the client has both types of account.)
Winner: We’d give an edge to the daily, reflexive rebalancing and tax-loss harvesting of Betterment, but some investors may prefer Vanguard Personal Advisor Services’ more personalized approach.
Which is best for you?
For some, this is an easy answer. Want to build your own portfolio? Open a brokerage account or IRA at Vanguard and DIY from their excellent funds. If you’re looking for an online advisor with powerful planning tools and features, Betterment Digital is our pick for low-cost, inexpensive robo-advisory services.
For investors seeking a robust digital-human hybrid, Vanguard Personal Advisor Services pretty easily beats Betterment Premium, due to a lower fee, more personalization and a lower minimum deposit requirement.
» Want to check out other providers? See our top picks for robo-advisors.
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