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Robo-Advisor Performance Is Only One Piece of the Puzzle

When choosing a robo-advisor, do check investment performance — but also look at account minimums, access to human advice, fees and other factors.
Feb. 12, 2021
Advisors, Financial Planning, Investing, Investments
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If you’re trying to choose a robo-advisor to invest your hard-earned money, your first instinct might be to compare investment returns. After all, you want your money to be safe — and grow.

The problem is, there’s no guarantee a robo-advisor with stellar returns last year will outperform this year.

And while it’s wise to verify that a robo-advisor’s performance isn’t way out of step with its competitors, that’s only part of the picture. Consider these eight elements when choosing the best robo-advisor for you:

1. Account minimum

First, narrow the list to robo-advisors with a minimum account requirement that works with the amount you want to invest.

For example, our list of the best financial advisors includes Schwab Intelligent Portfolios Advisory and Vanguard Personal Advisor Services. Both offer valuable services, but Schwab requires a $25,000 minimum investment and Vanguard requires $50,000.

At the other end of the spectrum, Betterment, Ellevest and Wealthsimple have $0 account minimums, and Wealthfront’s is $500. (Vanguard Personal Advisor Services, Betterment, Ellevest and Wealthfront are NerdWallet advertising partners.)

» Check out our full list of best robo-advisors 

2. Availability of human advisors

Robo-advisors vary in how much access, if any, you get to a human advisor. For example, Betterment Premium offers unlimited phone calls with a team of certified financial planners. Meanwhile, Wealthfront doesn’t offer access to live advisors, but it does have robust (and free) financial planning tools.

Consider how important it is to you to have a human available to field your questions.

» Looking for a human advisor? View our picks for the best financial advisors


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3. Investment lineup

One plus to using a robo is you don’t have to think too deeply about investment choices. But do pay some attention. “You want to know where your money is being invested,” says David Goldstone, research analyst at BackEnd Benchmarking, which publishes the Robo Report, a study comparing robo-advisors’ investment performance.

You may need to fill out a questionnaire to get a picture of where your money will be invested. “A majority of them want some information about you before they give you a look under the hood,” Goldstone says.

Make sure the recommended portfolio makes sense for your individual circumstances.

For example, Schwab’s Intelligent Portfolios service keeps a relatively high percentage of investors’ money in cash — a minimum of 6%. That may not be ideal for, say, a young investor eager to harness the market’s long-term gains. Read our review of Schwab Intelligent Portfolios.

Look for a decent fit, but don’t obsess. Getting started — even if your portfolio isn’t perfect — is what counts, because investments need time to grow and compound.

For long-term goals, “Investing is better than leaving your money in cash,” says Barbara Roper, director of investor protection at the Consumer Federation of America, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “You do not have to get everything exactly right to be better off than you would be sitting on the sidelines, particularly if you’re keeping your costs to a minimum.”

4. Fees

Once you’ve narrowed your list, compare fees. That includes management fees — which tend to range from 0.25% to about 0.50% — and investment fees. Even seemingly small fees can have an outsize impact on long-term financial health.

We detail average investment fees in our robo-advisor reviews. For example, here’s our Wealthfront review, where average investment fees — called expense ratios — are between 0.08% and 0.11%, and our Betterment review, where expense ratios range from 0.07% to 0.17%.

5. Portfolio rebalancing

The main reason for using an investment advisor is getting help managing your portfolio, so it makes sense to find one that offers rebalancing to keep your asset mix correct over time. “It’s one of the benefits of the automated platform,” Roper says. “If the stock market booms or crashes, you don’t have to figure out how to adjust it. It does that adjustment for you.”

You may also want to look for additional services, such as tax-loss harvesting.

6. Account types

These days, most major robos offer taxable and retirement accounts, but maybe you’re looking for a 529 plan for your kid’s college savings. Make sure your robo-advisor offers the types of accounts you need.

7. Portfolio choice

Some robo-advisors allow you to customize your portfolio to address certain needs, such as minimizing taxes or producing income if you’re in retirement. If you’re interested in impact investing, you might opt for a robo-advisor that offers a socially responsible investing portfolio. For example, SoFi allows users to choose an impact area to focus their portfolio around, such as environmental conservation, gender equality, education or health care.

8. Investment performance

If a robo’s returns differ substantially from the competition, take note. It’s best to look at long-term returns — five years or longer — because short-term returns don’t give you a complete picture. There’s just one problem: Many robos haven’t been around that long.

“Performance measures [of] less than five years are meaningless,” Roper says. “You get a view into how something does in one type of market.”

Still, she adds, “If you have a firm that’s significantly underperforming or that seems all over the board, that would be a concern.”

BackEnd Benchmarking’s Robo Report, available for free on its website, has data on robo-advisor performance going back more than three years. (BackEnd is owned by the people who run Condor Capital Management, a fee-only investment advisory.)

Here is the 2.5-year annualized return data, which is net of fees and covers Dec. 31, 2017, to June 30, 2020.

Robo-advisor performance

Robo-advisor2.5-year annualized return
Ally Financial3.22%
Axos Invest4.38%
Fidelity Go3.88%
Merrill Edge2.83%
Personal Capital1.72%
TD Ameritrade3.62%
Wells Fargo3.52%
Zacks Advantage3.49%

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