Best Robo-Advisors: 2017 Top Picks

Advisors, Investing

NerdWallet offers financial tools and advice to help people understand their options and make the best possible decisions. The guidance we offer and info we provide are deeply researched, objective and independent.

We spent over 300 hours reviewing the top robo-advisors before selecting the best for our readers. And to help you find the one that’s best for you, we’ve highlighted their pros, cons and current offers.

The robo-advisor has officially gone mainstream, with a series of automated advisory launches over the past year by incumbent online brokers. E-Trade put out E-Trade Adaptive Portfolio, Fidelity now has Fidelity Go, and TD Ameritrade launched TD Ameritrade Essential Portfolios.

And yet despite — or perhaps because of — their ties to established heavy hitters in the field, these newcomers brought little innovation. Most failed to stand out in NerdWallet’s in-depth analysis of the industry, falling short of independent startups like Betterment and Wealthfront or merely mimicking those services at a higher price.

What is a robo-advisor?

A robo-advisor is an online, automated portfolio management service. Because these companies use computer algorithms — a set of rules to choose appropriate investments based on your risk tolerance and time horizon — robo-advisors can offer their services for a fraction of the cost of a human financial advisor.

That lower-cost management, combined with features like automatic portfolio rebalancing and tax-loss harvesting, can translate into higher net returns for investors. A robo-advisor is a good fit for you if you prefer to be largely hands-off with your investments — letting someone else do the work of building and optimizing your portfolio — and you don’t have the kind of complex financial situation that requires a direct relationship with a human financial advisor.

To help you pick the best robo-advisor for you, we’ve selected the top two online advisors in six categories.

The best robo-advisors overall

Wealthfront and Betterment offer low management fees, reasonable minimums and innovative tools.

It takes a lot for smaller, independent companies to maintain their footing amid a slew of new launches, but Betterment and Wealthfront have managed to do that. They pioneered this industry, and they remain the best two options for most investors, according to NerdWallet’s objective ranking system. That’s due to their low account minimums, easy-to-use interfaces and innovative features. Both robo-advisors offer automatic rebalancing, tax-loss harvesting and diversified portfolios.

They also share the same fee, to an extent: Both services charge 0.25%. Wealthfront manages $10,000 of every account balance for free, which makes that service slightly less expensive overall. But Betterment gives customers access to a team of financial advisors through in-app messaging with its basic service, and more robust access (messaging and phone) for an additional charge (0.40%) through Betterment Premium. Betterment Premium requires a minimum balance of $100,000.

Best robo-advisors for socially responsible investors

These advisors offer access to SRI portfolios. 

Robo-advisors used to overlook the needs of socially responsible investors, but no more: Slowly they’re adding SRI portfolios to their offerings for investors who want to align those portfolios with their values. Leading the pack is Wealthsimple, which offers a portfolio of six socially responsible ETFs, including exposure to bonds.

Betterment just recently added an SRI offering, and you could call it a slow rollout: Thus far, customers can choose this option to gain exposure to two SRI ETFs that replace the standard portfolio’s total U.S. stock market fund. The rest of the SRI portfolio mirrors Betterment’s standard portfolio, though the company says it is actively searching for acceptable SRI alternatives.

Best robo-advisors for free management

These robo-advisors will manage your portfolio free of charge.

Let’s make one thing clear: Very little in financial services is completely free. Both WiseBanyan and Charles Schwab Intelligent Portfolios offer portfolio management free of charge, but the investments used — primarily exchange-traded funds — still carry expense ratios.

Investment expenses are an added cost at all of these robo-advisors, so overall, you’re still likely to pay less for these services. Do you get what you pay for? In some ways. WiseBanyan offers tax-loss harvesting only as a paid add-on. Opting in will bring your total cost to 0.25%, up to a maximum of $20 a month. That’s in line with top choices Betterment and Wealthfront. Schwab offers tax-loss harvesting only on taxable account balances of $50,000 or more. The company uses many of its own funds in client portfolios, meaning those aforementioned expense ratios add to its bottom line, but the portfolios are impressive, drawing from over 20 asset classes.

Best for access to a financial advisor

These robo-advisors combine the lower costs of online investment management with human advisors.

If you’re not comfortable with a computer taking the reins, but you’re intrigued by the lower management fees involved, you might be interested in a hybrid service that pairs computer automation with human financial advisors. The best of these hybrid services come from Vanguard Personal Advisor Services and Charles Schwab Intelligent Advisory. Not to be confused with Charles Schwab Intelligent Portfolios mentioned above, Intelligent Advisory is a human-enabled online advice offering.

Both Vanguard and Schwab Intelligent Advisory have relatively high minimum investments — $50,000 and $25,000, respectively — but offer personal service with access to financial advisors. Schwab had the benefit of being a little late to the game, launching a few years after Vanguard and undercutting its management fee slightly; it charges 0.28% to Vanguard’s 0.30%.

Both services offer unlimited access to certified financial planners, which is an advantage over other hybrid advisors, which typically employ registered investment advisors. Clients with balances above $500,000 might prefer Vanguard, as that level of assets gains them access to a dedicated financial advisor rather than a team of advisors.

Best robo-advisors for taxable accounts

These robo-advisors offer first-rate tax efficiency and optimization services.

Both Wealthfront and Personal Capital offer superior tax optimization services for customers with taxable accounts, like individual or joint nonretirement accounts, especially those with high balances.

Wealthfront’s direct indexing service, available for balances of $100,000 or more, buys individual securities rather than index funds or exchange-traded funds, zeroing in on tax-loss harvesting opportunities. The company says the service can add as much as 2.03% to annual investment performance.

Personal Capital also uses individual securities rather than funds in accounts with balances of $200,000 or more, though it draws from a smaller selection. That company says its tax optimization strategies can increase returns by up to 1% annually.

Best robo-advisors for IRA management

Betterment and newcomer Fidelity Go both offer quality resources for retirement investors.

Nearly all robo-advisors will manage your IRA, so what makes these guys special? Both services are retirement focused. Betterment’s RetireGuide allows users to link non-Betterment accounts, including outside 401(k)s, then offers comprehensive retirement planning guidance and behavior-finance-rooted tools that can push you to save more.

Fidelity is one of the biggest 401(k) plan providers, making for easy 401(k) to IRA rollovers if you already have other accounts there. But this robo-advisory offering adds to that lineup: Fidelity Go users get full access to the broker’s retirement planning tools and apps.

Costs are similar at both companies, though the pricing structure is different. Betterment charges a standard management fee of 0.25% for its digital offering, then uses funds that charge expense ratios of between 0.09% and 0.17%. Fidelity Go breaks from the traditional robo-advisor pricing model to charge an all-in fee that includes investment expenses; that cost is just 0.35% for retirement accounts. The company has a higher minimum investment requirement, however, at $5,000 to Betterment’s $0.

Best robo-advisor for 401(k) management

Blooom will manage your employer-sponsored retirement plan.

Most robo-advisors manage IRAs and taxable accounts but leave you in the dark about your 401(k). Blooom attempts to fill that hole. The company charges a flat monthly fee of $10 and focuses on management of employer-sponsored plans like 401(k)s and 403(b)s.

Blooom works within the investments offered by your plan and offers free analysis so you can test the service before signing up. It also provides financial advisors who can help investors with a range of financial planning questions.


Best robo-advisors: Summary

Robo-Advisor
Best
for
Highlights
Annual Fee
Promotion
Account minimum
Start investing
Wealthfront
Wealthfront
Overall
and minimizing taxes
Tax efficient direct indexing (accounts $100,000+)
0% - 0.25% of account balance
$15,000 managed free (NerdWallet readers)
$500
Betterment
Betterment
Overall, IRAs,
socially responsible investors
Goal-based tools help savings, guide asset allocation
0.25-0.40% of account balance
Up to 1 year of free management with qualifying deposit.
$0
Wealthsimple
Wealthsimple
Socially responsible investors
Broad SRI portfolio
0.40% to 0.50% of account balance
$50 cash bonus with qualifying deposit
$0
WiseBanyan
WiseBanyan
Free
Free management;
add-on services are paid
Free
n/a
$0
Charles Schwab Intelligent Portfolios
Charles Schwab Intelligent Portfolios
Free + Access to a financial advisor
Trusted leader in financial services
Free
n/a
$5,000
Blooom
Blooom
401(k)s
Manages employer 401(k) plans for flat fee
$10
per month
n/a
$0
Vanguard Personal Advisor Services
Vanguard Personal Advisor Services
Access to financial advisor
Portfolios built on client-by-client basis with advisor
0.30% of account balance
n/a
$50,000
Personal Capital
Personal Capital
Minimizing taxes
Hybrid service; some tools free; individual securities ($200,000+)
0.49-0.89% of account balance
n/a
$100,000
Personal Capital
Fidelity Go
IRAs
Retirement planning tools; all-in fee
0.35% of account balance; includes investment expenses
n/a
$5,000

Not sure which advisor to choose? Here’s what you should consider:

Management fees

This is what you’ll pay annually to have an account at a robo-advisor. The fee, which is often assessed as a percentage of your assets with the advisor, is typically deducted from your account balance.

Why it matters: Any fee, including a management fee, reduces your return. If you’re earning a 7% annual return on your portfolio, and you’re paying a 0.25% annual management fee, your return is effectively 6.75%. Even small fees add up over time.

Expense ratios

These are like management fees, only they’re paid not to the robo-advisor, but to the investments the robo-advisor uses. Mutual funds, index funds and exchange-traded funds all charge this annual fee to cover the costs of running the fund.

Why it matters: Same reason as above: All fees eat into your investment return. You can’t avoid expense ratios as a fund investor, whether you invest through a robo-advisor or on your own. But you can keep them down by choosing an advisor who uses low-cost funds. Knowing average mutual fund expense ratios can help you gauge whether you’re paying too much.

Account types

Investment accounts fall into two general categories:

  • Retirement accounts, such as IRAs and 401(k)s. These offer tax advantages for contributions and often have rules about how much you can contribute and when, and how you can take distributions. Read more about retirement accounts.
  • Nonretirement accounts. Often called taxable accounts, there are no specific tax advantages for contributions to these, but they’re also not subject to contribution limits or distribution rules.

Why it matters: Make sure the robo-advisor you choose manages the kind of account you want to open. Your account also helps determine which features apply to you — for example, tax-loss harvesting, discussed below, is only used on taxable, nonretirement accounts.

Investments

Most robo-advisors use low-cost index funds and ETFs.

  • Index fund: A mutual fund that passively tracks an index or benchmark. A Standard & Poor’s 500 index fund, for instance, aims to mirror the performance of the S&P 500. Index funds attempt to follow the market, not beat it, and hold a group of individual investments, making them inherently diversified. Learn more about index funds.
  • ETF: Like an index fund, an ETF holds many individual investments and tracks an index or benchmark. The major difference is that ETFs trade on an exchange, like individual stocks, and can often be purchased for a lower investment than a full-fledged fund. Learn more about ETFs.

Why it matters: Be sure the advisor you choose offers the investments you want, and to make sure those investments are low cost. A select few robo-advisors add in actively managed mutual funds, individual stocks or customize portfolios completely.

Tax-loss harvesting

Tax-loss harvesting involves selling losing investments and using the loss to reduce or eliminate the taxes you’ll owe on capital gains. The IRS has plenty of rules around this — and the practice itself is fairly complex — so it’s a boon if a robo-advisor is willing to do it for you. Here’s a full explanation of tax-loss harvesting.

Tax-loss harvesting can be harder with the fund portfolios that most robo-advisors use — because index funds and ETFs hold a number of different investments, you can’t dial down to specific losers as easily. An index might be up overall, but still hold investments that are down. Some robo-advisors buy individual stocks to replicate an index, allowing them to sell specific losers. Wealthfront calls this service direct indexing.

Why it matters: It might not. Tax-loss harvesting doesn’t apply to retirement accounts, where taxes are deferred and capital gains taxes don’t come into play. It only applies to taxable accounts, where it might save you a significant amount of money.

Rebalancing

A portfolio is fluid, and market fluctuations can cause the mix of investments you hold — called your asset allocation — to get out of sync with your goals. Rebalancing brings that allocation back to its original mix. Many robo-advisors check for rebalancing opportunities daily and make portfolio changes when an allocation strays by a set amount — say, 5% or more.

Why it matters: When a particular asset class is doing well — let’s say the U.S. stock market is roaring — you could end up with more of your money in that class than you intended, due to outsize growth. If your original allocation was 50% stocks and 50% bonds, a portfolio that has shifted toward 70% stocks is probably too risky. Learn more about rebalancing.

Access to human advisors

Many robo-advisors have merged computer-driven portfolio management with access to human financial advisors. The level of that access varies: Some services offer a dedicated advisor to individual clients; others offer only email or online chat with a team of advisors. As you can imagine, you’ll pay more for the former.

Why it matters: The financial advice industry has traditionally locked out small account balances. These services bring at least some level of human advice to accounts of any size. If you’re loathe to turn things over completely to a computer, a hybrid service is a good middle ground. Here’s more about how to find the best financial advisor for you.

Socially responsible investing

Often called SRI, impact investing or values-based investing, investors who employ this strategy aim to align their investments with their values. Companies that promote social good are often included in SRI funds and portfolios; companies in controversial industries, such as guns or fossil fuels, may be excluded.

Why it matters: If putting your money where your values are is important to you, you’ll want to choose a robo-advisor that offers investments that meet those standards.

Arielle O’Shea is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: aoshea@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @arioshea.

Updated September 15, 2017.