Betterment Review 2021: Pros, Cons and How It Compares

Betterment’s goal-oriented tools and helpful tax strategies should appeal to investors of all types. Access to human advisors is available with the Premium plan, or by purchasing a standalone advice package.

Arielle O'SheaMar 4, 2021
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Our Take

5.0

NerdWallet rating 

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.

Betterment

on Betterment's website

on Betterment's website

Fees

0.25%

management fee

Account Minimum

$0

Promotion

Up to 1 year

of free management with a qualifying deposit

Pros & Cons

Pros

  • Multiple portfolio options and customization.

  • No account minimum and low fees.

  • Fractional shares mean all your cash is invested.

  • Robust goal-based tools.

Cons

  • No direct indexing.

Compare to Other Advisors

Betterment
SoFi Automated Investing
Ellevest
NerdWallet rating 
NerdWallet rating 
NerdWallet rating 
Fees

0.25%

management fee

Fees

0%

management fee

Fees

$1 - $9

per month

Account Minimum

$0

Account Minimum

$0

Account Minimum

$0

Promotion

Up to 1 year

of free management with a qualifying deposit

Promotion

Free

career counseling plus loan discounts with qualifying deposit

Promotion

2 months free

with promo code "nerdwallet"

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Full Review

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:

  • Hands-off investors.

  • Retirement investors.

  • Users with low balances.

  • Those who want automatic rebalancing.

  • Users who like goal-based tools.

Betterment at a glance

Account minimum

$0 for Betterment Digital, $100,000 for Betterment Premium.

Account management fee

0.25% for Betterment Digital, 0.40% for Betterment Premium.

Investment expense ratios

Average expense ratio of 0.11%.

Account fees (annual, transfer, closing)

None.

Portfolio mix

  • Core portfolio uses ETFs from 13 asset classes.

  • Portfolio options include: Betterment Core, Betterment Socially Responsible Investing (SRI), Goldman Sachs Smart Beta, Blackrock Target Income, Betterment Flexible Portfolio.

  • Portfolio mix is well-diversified but lacks exposure to non-market correlated assets like real estate investment trusts (REITs) and commodities.

Socially responsible portfolio options

Clients can choose to invest in SRI portfolio options for no additional fee.

Accounts supported

  • Individual and joint nonretirement accounts.

  • Roth, traditional, rollover and SEP IRAs.

  • Trusts.

  • Ability to link external accounts for personalized advice (but not direct management).

  • High yield savings/cash account (not charged management fee).

Tax strategy

  • Tax-loss harvesting

  • Tax-Coordinated Portfolio tool

  • Tax Impact Preview tool

  • Charitable giving tool

Automatic rebalancing

  • Free on all accounts.

  • Monitored daily. Buy/sell rebalancing triggered whenever portfolio drifts, reaches or exceeds 3%.

  • Also, Betterment uses any cash flow, such as a dividend or deposit, to partially rebalance your portfolio.

Human advisor option

  • Betterment Digital doesn't offer access to financial advisors. However, for a fee, anyone can buy an advice package that includes a consultation with an advisor, regardless of if they have a Betterment account or not. Prices range from $199 to $299.

  • Betterment Premium customers get unlimited phone calls and emails with a team of certified financial planners.

Savings account/cash management option

  • High-yield savings with no fees or minimum balance requirements, unlimited transfers and FDIC coverage for balances up to $1 million.

  • New Cash Goals feature enables customers to save in separate buckets for different goals.

Customer support options (includes website transparency)

  • Phone support Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Eastern time for checking and cash reserve inquiries.

  • Phone support Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Eastern time for investing and general inquiries.

  • Email support and questions answered through social media as well.

» 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.

Portfolio options and customization: Like many robo-advisors, Betterment bases its investment philosophy on modern portfolio theory, which highlights the benefits of diversification. In its core portfolio, the company uses exchange-traded funds that represent about 13 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 made up solely of bonds; and socially responsible portfolios, which use ETFs comprising companies whose business practices align with certain social causes.

Betterment has enhanced its existing SRI portfolio (first made available in 2017) and renamed it the Broad Impact portfolio. It has also added two other SRI portfolios, Social Impact and Climate Impact. Social Impact brings additional focus to U.S. companies that value diversity, and Climate Impact zeroes in on mitigating climate change.

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 3% from its target level.

The company’s algorithms check daily for a need to rebalance, and the company buys fractional shares, leaving 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. 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.

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 cash account: 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.

Betterment also offers a checking account with no minimum balance, no monthly maintenance fees and no overdraft fees. The company reimburses ATM fees worldwide.

In July 2020, Betterment released its new Cash Goals feature, which lets customers save purposefully by creating separate buckets of cash for each financial goal, yet see all of their money in one place.

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 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, as it's designed to match or beat inflation. 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.

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.)

Key terms in this review

Robo-advisor

Betterment is a robo-advisor, also known as an automated investing service or online advisor. Robo-advisors use computer algorithms and advanced software to build and manage your investment portfolio, and are much cheaper than an in-person human financial advisor.

Fractional shares

Fractional shares let investors purchase stock or other investments based on a dollar amount they select rather than the price of a whole share. This may be particularly advantageous for investors who are working with limited money but want to build a highly diversified portfolio. Betterment buys fractional shares, leaving no uninvested cash in your portfolio.

Tax-loss harvesting

Tax-loss harvesting is an investment strategy that can significantly reduce capital gains taxes. In taxable accounts, the practice involves selling losing investments to offset the gains from winners. Betterment has tax-loss harvesting, but not stock-level tax-loss harvesting (also called direct indexing), which is available at Wealthfront and Personal Capital. Direct indexing may save some investors even more on taxes.

Expense ratio

An expense ratio is an annual fee charged by mutual funds, index funds and ETFs, as a percentage of your investment in the fund. If you invest in a mutual fund with a 1% expense ratio for example, you’ll pay the fund $10 per year for every $1,000 invested. If high, these fees can significantly drag down your portfolio returns, but the expense ratios of the funds used in Betterment portfolios are low. Expense ratios are paid in addition to Betterment’s management fee.

CFP

A CFP is a certified financial planner, a type of financial advisor who possesses one of the most rigorous certifications for financial planning knowledge and adheres to a strict ethical standard. Betterment Premium customers get unlimited phone access to a team of certified financial planners for a 0.40% annual management fee and a $100,000 account minimum. That type of access is probably enough for many investors, but those who have complex or personalized needs may benefit from working one-on-one with a CFP instead.

Automatic rebalancing

Automatic rebalancing is regular rebalancing of your portfolio in response to market fluctuations or other factors that shift your portfolio out of its intended investment allocation. The market moves and over time, your allocation will move, too. So if your target was having 60% in stocks and 40% in bonds and stocks are doing well, you could end up having 70% in stocks, which may be more risk than you are comfortable with. With automatic rebalancing, the computer monitors your allocation and will automatically adjust your investment if it gets out of line. Betterment’s algorithms check daily for the need to rebalance within your portfolio.

Tiffany Lam-Balfour contributed to this review.

on Betterment's website