The bottom line: Betterment is a clear leader among robo-advisors, with two service options: Betterment Digital has no account minimum and charges 0.25% of assets under management annually. Betterment Premium provides unlimited phone access to certified financial planners for a 0.40% fee and $100,000 account minimum.
Pros & Cons
Multiple investment options.
Fractional shares mean all your cash is invested.
Robust goal-based tools.
No direct indexing.
Compare to Other Advisors
Up to 1 year
of free management with a qualifying deposit
career counseling plus loan discounts with qualifying deposit
amount of assets managed for free
Betterment is a clear leader among robo-advisors. The company offers two service options: Betterment Digital, its legacy offering, has no account minimum and charges 0.25% of assets under management annually. Betterment Premium provides unlimited phone access to certified financial planners for a 0.40% fee and a $100,000 account minimum.
Betterment is best for:
Users with low balances.
Those who want automatic rebalancing.
Users who like goal-based tools.
Betterment at a glance
» Want to check out other providers? See our top picks for robo-advisors.
Where Betterment shines
Account minimum: Betterment is one of the few robo-advisors that doesn't require a minimum deposit. However, that applies only to its Betterment Digital offering. Betterment Premium requires a minimum $100,000 balance in exchange for unlimited phone access to certified financial planners.
Investments: Like many robo-advisors, Betterment bases its investment philosophy on modern portfolio theory, which highlights the benefits of diversification. The company uses exchange-traded funds that represent about 12 asset classes for different levels of risk tolerance and your goals. Customers who want a bit more control over their investment portfolio can use Betterment’s “flexible portfolios” tool to adjust the percentage of their money invested in any particular ETF.
Investors also can choose among three other portfolio options: a "smart beta" portfolio that seeks higher-than-average returns by embracing systematic risks; an income portfolio comprised solely of bonds; and a socially responsible portfolio, which uses ETFs comprising companies whose business practices align with certain social causes.
Betterment's SRI portfolio invests in funds that may exclude companies with poor records on, say, environmental issues — this exclusion process is called negative screening — and seek out companies with exemplary records in that realm, which is called positive screening. Not all of the funds meet the definition of socially responsible investing, or SRI; some asset classes are the same as Betterment’s standard portfolio because the company was unable to find a suitable or low-cost alternative. The company says it plans to add additional SRI funds as they become available.
Betterment automatically rebalances investor portfolios when cash flows in or out — in the form of dividends, contributions or withdrawals — or when the allocation to a particular asset class drifts over 2% to 3% from its target level.
The company’s algorithms check daily for a need to rebalance, and the company buys fractional shares, so there's no uninvested cash in your portfolio. Betterment Premium accounts are also monitored by financial advisors.
Management fees: The company has two plans, each with a different management fee:
Betterment Digital: 0.25% annual fee. Betterment's standard offering, with digital advice and tools.
Betterment Premium: 0.40% annual fee. Access to a team of certified financial planners for account monitoring, plus unlimited phone calls and emails.
Betterment Digital's 0.25% management fee is inexpensive compared with that of many robo-advisors, and if you want to talk to a financial advisor, you can purchase one of the company's financial advice packages (more on those below).
Likewise, the fee for Betterment Premium seems reasonable for access to human advice through a fiduciary advisor like Betterment. The company isn't able to supplement its management fee by using its own funds, the way broker-owned robo-advisors such as Vanguard Personal Advisor Services and Charles Schwab Intelligent Portfolios do. At the Premium tier, you get unlimited phone access to a group of certified financial planners.
For portions of an account balance over $2 million, Betterment Digital costs 0.15% and Premium costs 0.30% (customers who funded their accounts before Sept. 18, 2018, will continue to get free management on their balance over $2 million).
Financial planning packages: Betterment offers advice packages targeted to specific life events. A $199, 45-minute “getting started” package helps new clients set up their Betterment account, make the most of Betterment tools and features, and start investing. The other four packages each cost $299 for a 60-minute call, with advice geared toward college planning, marriage, retirement and general financial health. With all of the packages, you're speaking with a CFP.
Goal-based saving: Betterment’s sign-up process takes you through a goal-setting exercise, asking for your age and current annual income. Then, it suggests a series of goals based on your answers, estimating a safety net of three to six months of expenses, a retirement savings target and a general investing goal. Each goal comes with a recommended target and asset allocation, which you can adjust. You can also add other, personalized goals that will dictate the account types used and the way your money is invested. And you can set up auto-deposits into each goal.
High-yield savings: Betterment also offers a way for you to stash your savings with them. Called Cash Reserve, it comes with an interest rate of 0.30%. (This interest rate is variable and may change.) Your savings will get up to $1 million in FDIC insurance coverage, there's no minimum balance requirement and you won't pay a fee on your balance.
Two-Way Sweep: You can link your checking account to your savings with Betterment, and the company's Two-Way Sweep feature will move any unused money — that is, money that its cash analysis tool sees as excess, based on your regular spending — into your savings. It also can move cash back to your bank account when your balance runs low. You can change the target balance for your linked checking, and Betterment sends an alert before making a sweep, which gives you the opportunity to cancel if you like.
» Want more details? Read about Betterment's Everyday Cash Management Account.
Retirement planning: Betterment’s retirement planning tool lets you link your non-Betterment accounts, including 401(k)s, giving a full picture of all your savings and investment accounts. With this information, the tool can offer comprehensive retirement planning advice, including comparing current savings levels with your desired spending levels in retirement, answering questions about whether you’re saving enough money, when you’ll be able to retire and if you’re using the correct savings vehicles and investments. It updates and syncs to outside accounts daily and allows for Social Security data uploads.
Charitable giving options: Betterment also offers a charitable giving tool that gives customers a tax-efficient way to donate appreciated securities to charities directly on the Betterment platform.
Where Betterment falls short
No direct indexing: Like many other robo-advisors, Betterment offers tax-loss harvesting on taxable accounts. The platform automatically reviews your investments daily to reduce tax exposure. But it doesn’t have a direct-indexing tool like Wealthfront, which provides this service on taxable accounts with balances of $100,000 or more. Direct indexing buys the single securities held by an index, rather than the ETF tracking that index. That can help single out tax-loss harvesting opportunities and save investors with taxable accounts a significant amount of money.
Betterment's Tax-Coordinated Portfolio is a solid attempt to bridge this gap. This is an "asset location" strategy that automatically puts tax-efficient investments into taxable accounts and investments that have a heavy tax burden into tax-advantaged accounts that will shelter them. (You need to have both taxable and tax-advantaged retirement accounts at Betterment for the strategy to work.) Betterment also offers a Tax Impact Preview tool that lets you see the potential tax hit of any portfolio moves before you make them.
Safety net goals: One of Betterment’s suggested goals is a safety net — read: emergency fund — which it advises investing 15% in stocks and 85% in bonds. Betterment recently dialed those percentages down from 40% in stocks and 60% in bonds. That's good news, because conventional advice says short-term savings such as an emergency fund probably shouldn’t be invested at all, because you may need access to the account quickly (which could mean being forced to sell investments when the market has lost value, instead of waiting for a time when the market has gained).
Betterment says its tests show that this allocation is a reasonable alternative to cash, but you'll need to decide whether you're comfortable investing your emergency fund. Many people would sleep better at night with at least some of this money in a savings account (such as Betterment's Cash Reserve). Also, the company concedes that taking money out of your safety net account could have capital gains tax implications, including short-term capital gains, which are taxed at higher rates than long-term gains. Withdrawals from a standard savings account aren't taxed.
Cutting ties: On occasion, for a variety of reasons, there may come a time when you want to part ways with a company. For Betterment customers, that can be a bit onerous. Transferring everything out of a Betterment account to another company requires a hefty amount of mailed paperwork. As in, snail mail.
Is Betterment right for you?
Betterment is one of the largest independent robo-advisors, and the speed at which it has been able to attract clients and assets is impressive. Its goal-oriented tools and features should appeal to retirement investors, and the human advice offering is inexpensive compared with other independent hybrid advisors, such as Personal Capital. Investors with taxable accounts are likely better off at Wealthfront. (For a full overview of how Betterment stacks up to Wealthfront, read our detailed comparison.)
Arielle O'Shea contributed to this review.
on Betterment's website