With the rise of robo-advisors and investment apps, you have more options for growing your money today than a few years ago.
Looking for a hands-off approach to investing? Betterment and Wealthfront, pioneers and leaders in the robo-advisor industry, may be a good fit. (If you’re unsure what these services offer, see our primer on robo-advisors.)
Prefer to have your investments accessible at your fingertips? Acorns and Stash, two popular apps, help you navigate the world of investing from your phone and offer unique approaches to investing that you won’t find at most stockbrokers. (Looking for an app? Check out our review of the best investment apps.)
Which is best? That all depends on what you want in an advisor, how actively you’ll manage your investments and how much, or how little, you have to invest. Betterment, Wealthfront, Acorns and Stash each offer a unique spin on managing your investments, with some relative strengths and weaknesses, depending on your goals.
At a glance
Account management fees
|0.25% to 0.40%, depending on plan||First $5,000 managed free for NerdWallet readers; 0.25% after that.||$1/month for taxable investment accounts; $2/month for IRA accounts (Acorns Later)||$1/month for accounts under $5,000 ($2/month for IRA and Roth IRA accounts under $5,000); 0.25% for all accounts $5,000 or more.|
|$0||$500||$0 to open account; $5 required to start investing||$5|
|Exchange-trade funds from up to 12 asset classes. Socially responsible investing portfolio available.||ETFs from 11 asset classes||ETFs from up to seven asset classes||Over 35 ETFs available|
|Phone and email support||Phone and email support||Phone and email support|
|Up to one year of free management with qualifying deposit||First $5,000 managed free for NerdWallet readers||Free for college students with a valid .edu email address for up to four years from signup date||First month free|
Betterment, Wealthfront, Acorns and Stash all have something important in common: They’ll help you grow and manage your investments. Another notable similarity? They’re all designed for investing in exchange-traded funds.
But the similarities end there. Even Betterment and Wealthfront, NerdWallet’s top overall picks among the best online advisors, have important differences. (Read more about how these companies stack up head to head: Wealthfront vs. Betterment).
These four services vary in the amount required for investment, the types of accounts supported, tax implications and all-important fees. Here’s a look at the advantages and disadvantages of each.
Betterment recently revamped its pricing and added access to financial advisors, two changes that help distinguish it from its peers. Among its other unique features: The company uses behavioral finance techniques to help encourage goal-setting and discourage fear-driven decisions that could hurt portfolio performance. It also lets investors buy fractional shares, so you can start investing even if you can’t afford a full share of a particular asset. Finally, Betterment offers a socially responsible investing portfolio, allowing you to align your investments with particular social causes.
- Management fee: 0.25% to 0.40%, depending on plan
- Account minimum: $0
- Promotion: Up to one year of free management with a qualifying deposit
Betterment is the largest robo-advisor, but it falls short on a few key attributes. The platform doesn’t have a direct indexing tool, which is important for taxable accounts. Direct indexing lets investors buy the individual securities within an index, rather than the ETF that tracks it, and that can provide a tax advantage. Betterment also doesn’t support 529 college savings plans.
» Read NerdWallet’s full Betterment review
Here’s one way to stand out from the growing crowd of robo-advisors: Offer free management at the outset — that’s what NerdWallet readers get on their first $5,000. Wealthfront has some important money-saving features for taxable accounts. It also offers investments beyond ETFs, including natural resources and real estate. Its direct indexing service uses individual securities to single out tax-loss harvesting opportunities, available to investors with balances over $100,000. Finally, the platform recently added management of 529 college savings plans.
- Management fee: 0.25%
- Account minimum: $500
- Promotion: NerdWallet readers get first $5,000 managed for free
Wealthfront doesn’t offer access to human advisors, so it can’t compare with Betterment on that feature. Another downside is that Wealthfront doesn’t let investors buy fractional shares, which means you’ll have some money that’s not being invested. In addition, it maintains a cash balance that’s equal to the fees you’re projected to pay over the next year.
» Read NerdWallet’s full Wealthfront review
Like squirrels gathering up nuts for winter, investors can make small investments that will add up over time with Acorns. Part robo-advisor, part automated savings tool, Acorns rounds up your purchases on linked credit and debit cards to the nearest dollar, then funnels that change into a computer-managed investment portfolio.
- Management fee: $1 - $2/month
- Account minimum: $0
- Promotion: College students get up to four years free
Acorns targets beginner investors; there are no management fees for four years for college students with a valid .edu email address. Its automated approach will help jump start an investment strategy even if you don’t have much money. Acorns also has a program called Found Money, where you’ll get cash back on qualifying purchases with a list of partners.
The fees for the service are $1 a month for a taxable investment account and $2 a month for IRA accounts, called Acorns Later. Depending on the amount you have invested, that cost could be very minimal or a high percentage of your assets. Big accounts do better here: If you’re building a balance from the small change derived from roundups, the flat fee could quickly eat any investment returns.
» Read NerdWallet’s full Acorns review
Selecting investments can be overwhelming, especially for beginner investors. Stash tries to make the process more approachable, offering theme-based strategies for investing in ETFs and a selection process that’s based on the account holder’s risk tolerance and goals. In other words, it’s not quite a robo-advisor, but it’s certainly not a full do-it-yourself broker, either.
- Account fee: $1/month for accounts under $5,000; 0.25% for accounts of $5,000 or more
- Account minimum: $5
- Promotion: Free for the first month
All of Stash’s resources are easy to read and understand and are complemented by an array of educational content. Stash encourages engagement among its customers, via mission-based strategies that allow you to align your investments with your beliefs and share your investment choices via social media. Finally, it’s easy for beginners to navigate.
Stash now supports both traditional and Roth IRA accounts, in addition to individual taxable accounts. But Stash has some important limitations. The subscription fee for investors with low balances can be quite high as a percentage of assets. What’s more, the ETFs offered through Stash have higher average expense ratios (0.34%) compared with those offered by robo-advisors.
» Read NerdWallet’s full Stash review
Deciding which of these advisors is best for you will depend on, well, you. What works best for you may not make sense for a friend or family member, and vice versa. It’s important to be mindful of your investing goals, any tax implications you may incur from each of these services and how your various accounts will work together.
» Need more guidance? Here’s how to choose a brokerage account
Anna-Louise Jackson is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @aljax7.