Betterment vs. Vanguard: Which Is Best for You?

Advisors, Brokers, Investing

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. So how does that, plus Vanguard’s brokerage services, 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.

  • vanguardlogo
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  • Management Fee 0.30% for Vanguard Personal Advisor Services. Vanguard also offers no-fee ETFs/mutual funds for DIY investors
  • Account Minimum $0 for brokerage; $50,000 for PAS
  • Promotion None

Betterment vs. Vanguard at a glance

 BettermentVanguard/Vanguard Personal Advisor Services
Overall
Management fee
Betterment has three services:
  • Betterment Digital (online advice): 0.25%
  • Betterment Plus (online advice + one planning call per year): 0.40%
  • Betterment Premium (online advice + unlimited access to financial advisors): 0.50%

Clients can manage their own accounts or enroll in online advisor Vanguard Personal Advisor Services for 0.30%. PAS includes access to a team of financial advisors. Account balances over $500,000 get a dedicated advisor.
Investments
ETF portfolios built from up to 12 asset classes; expense ratios range from 0.09% to 0.17%
Brokerage:
55 commission-free ETFs and over 2,600 no-transaction-fee mutual funds
Vanguard PAS:
Portfolios created on individual basis out of Vanguard index funds with expenses that range from 0.05% to 0.19%. ETFs and active funds incorporated if needed.
Account minimum
  • Betterment Digital: $0
  • Betterment Plus: $100,000
  • Betterment Premium: $250,000
Brokerage:
$0; fund minimums $1,000 and up.
Vanguard PAS:
$50,000
Account fees (annual, transfer, closing, inactivity)
None

  • Vanguard PAS clients may incur transaction fees
  • Brokerage charges $20 annual fee; waived if account balance is over $50,000, client signs up for e-delivery or has at least $10,000 in Vanguard funds
Accounts managed
  • Individual and joint non-retirement accounts
  • Roth, traditional, SEP and rollover IRAs
  • Trusts

  • Individual and joint non-retirement accounts
  • Roth, traditional, SEP and rollover IRAs
  • Trusts

    *Vanguard PAS will consider 401(k)s, 529 plans and outside assets when creating a financial plan but cannot directly manage those assets
Tax strategy
Daily tax-loss harvesting on all taxable accounts. Tax-Coordinated Portfolio tool allocates assets across tax-advantaged and taxable accounts according to tax impact
Vanguard PAS:

Assets are allocated strategically among taxable and tax-advantaged accounts to optimize for taxes. Tax-loss harvesting is done on client-by-client basis. Not offered by Vanguard brokerage.
Automatic rebalancing
Free
Vanguard PAS:

Once per quarter or as agreed upon in financial plan. Not offered by Vanguard brokerage.
Customer support/branches
  • Phone support Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Eastern, Saturday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Eastern
  • Email support
  • Live chat

  • Phone support Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Eastern
  • Email support
Promotion
One month free management with $10,000 deposit
None

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 — or, for that matter, Vanguard Personal Advisor Services — 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% for its basic digital offering, which does not include access to human advisors. The Betterment offering that’s most similar to Vanguard Personal Advisor Services is Betterment Premium; both include unlimited access to a team of financial advisors. Vanguard Personal Advisor Services charges 0.30% and requires a $50,000 minimum investment; Betterment Premium charges 0.50% and requires $250,000. At Vanguard, you get a dedicated advisor once your balance tops $500,000.

Winner: Vanguard’s brokerage services for DIY portfolio managers, of course. Betterment Digital wins for clients who are happy working strictly with a robo-advisor, but Vanguard Personal Advisor Services wins pretty handily for clients who want access to financial advisors, due to its lower cost, lower minimum balance requirement and dedicated advisor offering at $500,000.

Investments

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. As previously noted, many of those ETFs are from Vanguard.

On the other hand, investors at Vanguard can self-manage their account, selecting from 55 commission-free ETFs and over 2,600 no-transaction-fee mutual funds. The ETFs are all Vanguard funds, but the mutual funds come from both Vanguard and other issuers. Vanguard also offers access to individual stocks, option contracts and bonds.

Then there’s Vanguard Personal Advisor Services, which builds portfolios on a client-by-client basis but primarily uses Vanguard index funds. Expense ratios on portfolios from Betterment and Vanguard Personal 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.

Features

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. Vanguard also performs tax-loss harvesting as needed.

Betterment takes an automatic approach, rebalancing via algorithm as needed and searching daily for tax-loss harvesting opportunities. Accounts enrolled in Betterment Plus and 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, Betterment Digital is our pick for low-cost, inexpensive robo-advisory services.

For those investors seeking a digital-human hybrid, Vanguard Personal Advisor Services pretty easily beats Betterment Plus and Betterment Premium, due to a lower fee, more personalization and a lower minimum deposit requirement.

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