Betterment will build you an efficient portfolio comprised of widely diversified, low cost ETFs. If you don't want to manage your own portfolio, or hire a financial advisor, Betterment is tough to beat for the very low price.
I really enjoy reading and writing about investment strategies. But that’s not the norm, and most folks don’t like tweaking their investment portfolio. It takes time and effort that could be spent elsewhere.
Those individuals who do prefer a hands-on approach to investing often end up trading frequently and chasing performance. That was how I began investing. I’d read a few online tips, or do some research and buy a companies stock because I thought for sure: “They are a great company with a strong balance sheet. They are also making great products. Therefore the stock price will appreciate.”
After devouring a number of books, articles, and research related to finance and investing, I learned how foolish I was. Mountains of relevant research can be found documenting the failures of frequent stock trading, stock picking, market timing, and chasing hot investment tips.
A much better (and proven) way to invest requires very little work at all. It’s a passive, long-term strategy that ignores the ridiculous financial news and short term stock pricing.
By embracing this simple strategy, investors can bypass most of the fees and expenses related to trading that erode investment performance. These include things like commissions to buy/sell securities, sales charges or loads charged by brokerage firms and “advisors,” and unnecessary taxes. This strategy also helps mitigate the problems arising from investor behavioral flaws such as overconfidence, loss aversion, and mental biases, all of which often lead to the act of buying high and selling low during our ongoing boom and bust economic cycles.
This proven strategy involves owning low-cost index ETFs that are well diversified in a number of different markets and market segments. You can attempt to do this yourself at a firm like Vanguard, or you can have a company like Betterment do it all for a minimal fee.
I’ll admit upfront that I’m impressed with the value proposition offered by Betterment. They do everything related to portfolio management for you, and they do it very well. They even go beyond low-cost, diversified ETFs and provide tax loss harvesting, automatic rebalancing, and a slew of other valuable services for a measly 0.15% in annual fees. On a $100,000 portfolio, that’s only $150.
Betterment Review Introduction
Betterment is growing quickly and currently manages more than $2.8 Billion in assets for clients. The company takes pride in offering portfolio management services that are affordable and easily accessible by the masses.
Here is a nice review of the firm done by the CEO and Bloomberg:
Betterment’s selling point is ease of use. The online user interface is designed to be simple and minimalistic. And it works very well. For the individual who wants to automatically deposit some money each month and have it properly invested without having to worry about anything else, Betterment is for you. There’s no researching which investments you need to purchase or deciding when to rebalance your portfolio. Betterment does it for you automatically.
With the service, you don’t own individual stocks or bonds. Investments are held in the form of exchange traded funds, or ETFs. The asset allocation between these various ETFs then ensures your account is not weighted too heavily in any specific asset class, company, country, or sector. This diversification helps to lower overall investment risk.
Betterment Investment Choices
When you deposit money with Betterment, it is seamlessly invested in a blend of two baskets: Bond Fund ETFs and Stock Market ETFs. Betterment gives you control over your portfolio by letting you adjust the proportion of your money invested in each of these baskets. Betterment uses ETFs instead of mutual funds because they have lower expense ratios, and they receive preferential tax treatment, making them a better overall investment vehicle.
Stock Market Funds
Betterment’s investment committee has chosen ETFs that reflect the broad U.S. market, as well as international markets, which allows you to invest in thousands of publicly traded companies at once. Currently Betterment uses the following ETFs:
Vanguard U.S. Total Stock Market Index ETF (VTI)
Vanguard US Large-Cap Value Index ETF (VTV)
Vanguard US Mid-Cap Value Index ETF (VOE)
Vanguard US Small-Cap Value Index ETF (VBR)
Vanguard FTSE Developed Market Index ETF (VEA)
Vanguard FTSE Emerging Index ETF (VWO)
Why they recommend these options:
The U.S. exposure covers the total U.S. stock market with a slight tilt towards value and small-cap stocks. The value and small-cap tilt has historically outperformed the broad market, based on research by Nobel-prize winner Eugene Fama and Kenneth French.
By adding international stocks, investors benefit from growth overseas in developed markets, including the U.K., Japan, and Europe, which lowers portfolio risk. The emerging market stock ETF allows investors to capture growth in small but expanding markets such as Brazil, India, and China. This further diversifies the portfolio, and results in lower risk for a given level of return.
Betterment’s investment committee has recently chosen to greatly expand their bond offerings. They now use:
iShares Short-Term Treasury Bond Index ETF (SHV)
Vanguard Short-term Inflation-Protected Treasury Bond Index ETF (VTIP)
iShares Corporate Bond Index ETF (LQD)
Vanguard Total International Bond Index ETF (BNDX)
Vanguard Emerging Markets Government Bond Index ETF (VWOB)
(For IRA accounts only)Vanguard US Total Bond Market Index ETF (BND)
(For Taxable accounts only) iShares National AMT-Free Muni Bond Index ETF (MUB)
Why they recommend these options:
These bonds ETFs allow investors to balance four different risk factors: U.S. interest rate risk, U.S. company credit risk, international interest rate risk, and international credit risk.
Betterment also distinguishes between taxable and retirement accounts when allocating bonds. Taxable accounts hold federally tax-exempt municipal bonds. Retirement accounts maintain exposure to U.S. investment-grade bonds. This strategy optimizes after-tax returns.
Market Risk is Present
In this Betterment review, I have to provide a common sense reminder. Betterment’s stock and bond investments are subject to market risk. If financial markets are up, your balance will likely grow. When financial markets go down, your balance will likely shrink. You have no guarantees and Betterment is not a FDIC insured savings account.
If you need your money in the short term, a savings account might be the best place for it, because you’re guaranteed to get back the the same dollars you put in (known as your principal).
When you invest in stocks and bonds, risk is present and you can lose money. The fact that you are taking more risk also means that you’ll likely earn higher returns over the long run.
For example, consider this graph showing the real (inflation adjusted) investment performance of various asset classes since 1802:
Over many years, the stock market has outperformed less-risky investments, such as bonds. Both investments have historically outperformed cash equivalents, such as a savings account. But when investing in stocks and bonds, the value of your portfolio can fluctuate.
At times when stock prices are down, it is often best to be patient and take the opportunity to add more money to your account, rather than to withdraw money when your securities are worth less. You want to be selling investments when they’re up, not when they’re down. And over long periods of time, the stock market has always trended up.
What Does Your Portfolio Look Like?
When it’s all said and done, the stock and bonds ETFs listed above are blended together to create your ideal investment portfolio. Betterment will ask you a set of questions to determine your risk tolerance and age, then use that information to create your unique portfolio.
If you are young, that probably means holding more stocks than bonds to maximize long term growth. As you age, your bond allocation slowly increases to provide more stability. In my example, Betterment suggested that I have 90% stocks, and 10% bonds. That’s a solid recommendation, and what I would expect. Here is how that looks:
The Betterment fees depend on your investment account balance. Any account with a balance under $10,000 is charged 0.35% annually. Once you have $10,000 invested, they decrease the annual fee to 0.25%. If you have $100,000 or more invested, the fee lowers to 0.15%.
While you can start with no money at all, they do request you deposit at least $100/month. If you don’t, you pay $3 per month in fees instead of 0.35% (until you have $10,000 saved). This expense gives an incentive for people to commit to saving and investing a certain amount each month.
Remember that in addition to the Betterment fees stated above, you’ll have to pay underlying ETF expenses. When you invest in any ETF, you will pay a fee. This is not unique to Betterment, and they don’t receive any kickback on the ETF expenses.
For instance, the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index ETF (VTI) that Betterment uses has a fee of 0.05%. If that were the only ETF held in your Betterment account (it’s not, this is just an example), and you had roughly $100,000 invested, you would pay 0.15% for the Betterment services and 0.05% for the ETF. The total annual expenses would be 0.20% or $200 on a $100,000 portfolio.
When it’s all said and done, it’s quite likely that your total ETF fees will average around 0.10%, plus the 0.15 – 0.35% Betterment management fees. That’s cheap for ongoing wealth management.
When reviewing Betterment, I wanted to verify the security measures taken by Betterment to ensure proper account safety. I was not disappointed and they do an excellent job of securing each individual account. They have the same security protection as commercial banks, including:
Fraud Protection – Betterment will work to recover any loss that results from unauthorized use of your Betterment account
SIPC Coverage – Securities in your account are protected up to $500,000 in the case of fraud or mismanagement
256-bit SSL Encryption – Increased data security for all your accounts
Paramount Privacy – Your personal info is never shared without consent
Betterment’s Tax Efficiency
Betterment includes a number of services that can reduce tax liability and increase investment returns. These are all included at no extra charge.
Tax Loss Harvesting – Capital losses can lower your tax bill by offsetting gains, but the only way to realize a loss is to sell the depreciated asset. At its most basic level, tax loss harvesting is selling a security that has experienced a loss — and then buying a correlated asset (i.e. one that provides similar market exposure) to replace it. Here is a good video on the mechanics:
This process provides tax alpha, which increases after-tax returns over time. Free for all customers with a taxable account, Betterment now provides a sophisticated, fully automated service called Tax Loss Harvesting+ (TLH+)
According to Betterment’s Research, this service would have increased Betterment returns by 0.77% each year over the last ten years. That means this feature alone more than covers the annual Betterment fee, and is not possible if you manage your own portfolio.
Smart Rebalancing – Portfolio rebalancing is basically shifting money between the asset classes you’ve decided to invest in. If your defined portfolio was 60% stocks, 40% bonds, the goal is to keep that asset allocation in balance. Over time, you might end up with 70/30 if you never rebalance your portfolio. That’s not good because you’ll have greater risk than you originally intended. As such, rebalancing is a good idea for most investors, but it often involves selling one asset class and buying another, which can result in additional taxation. Betterment uses all available cash flows and reinvested dividends to rebalance your portfolio. This reduces the need for selling to rebalance, which should lower your capital gains liability over time. Betterment also never triggers short-term capital gains to rebalance, further saving you tax dollars.
TaxMin Lot Selling – Better uses a unique algorithm to sell securities with losses before gains, and securities with long term gains before short term gains. This is a more efficient way to handle portfolio transactions, and minimizes short-term capital gains.
Tax Efficient ETFs – Betterment uses ETFs instead of mutual funds, which can result in additional tax savings each year. ETFs are a much more tax-efficient investment vehicle that mutual funds in taxable accounts.
Betterment uses details about your personal retirement goals to recommend a globally-diversified portfolio tailored to your needs. The retirement advice takes into account all sources of income, your savings rate, where you live, and what you will spend during retirement. It also considers all of your assets and investment accounts, even if they are held outside of Betterment.
The result is a comprehensive view of your financial progress, with personalized advice on how to achieve your financial goals and retirement goals. The RetireGuide system will recommend the amount that you should be saving in order to achieve your goals. If you’re approaching, or in retirement, the system optimizes investment returns and recommends sustainable withdrawal rates to help maximize how far your nest egg can go.
Other Important Features
SmartDeposit – Betterment’s new feature which allows you to automatically invest any excess savings that are sitting in your bank account. You tell Betterment how much you want to keep in your bank account at all times, and specify how much you want to invest, then Betterment uses those guidelines to automatically transfers funds from your bank account to Betterment on a regular basis. This allows you to continue building a bigger investment portfolio without holding too much cash.
Sound Principles – The company deeply believes in long-term, index investing which has been academically proven to outperform active trading strategies. With Betterment, you’ll get wide diversification and really low fees, which are primary indicators of investment success.
Beautiful Design – Betterment has a wonderful, easily accessible interface that can be accessed on any computer, tablet, or smartphone. The interface allows investors to easily control and edit any investment accounts held at Betterment.
Fractional Investing – Betterment can buy fractional shares of an ETF which means 100% of you money is working for you 100% of the time. If a share costs $100 and you only have $60 remaining, you’ll still buy 0.6 shares. This isn’t possible for the individual investor.
Behavioral Realities – Many people begin investing with good intentions, only to see the idea fade away like last year’s New Years resolution. If you don’t enjoy managing and rebalancing your portfolio, and reading about investing, you might neglect it altogether. Betterment does everything for you, and helps reinforce positive investment behavior in exchange for a reasonable fee.
Great Customer Service – Betterment employees are on hand 7 days a week to answer your questions by phone, email or live chat. Everyone we have talked with at the company has been kind and helpful.
Pricing – Compared to many financial advisors and portfolio managers, the fees are very low. I have no problem with what they are charging.
Cost of Service – Betterment charges very low fees for the service they provide, and I think they provide great value. But if you are willing to learn all about investing and portfolio management, you can learn how to invest your own money without any management fee. I personally buy and sell my own ETFs, but I also enjoy doing it and spend a lot of time reading. Most people do not, and Betterment is a great option.
Investment Options – There are only a set number of ETFs available through Betterment, although that number has increased. Some people might desire a few more investment options.
How To Get Started
The signup process is easy and takes less than five minutes. During the process you respond to a series of short questions about your investment needs to help determine proper asset allocation, or you can manually set the asset allocation of your choosing (ie: 70% stocks and 30% bonds). Once the choices are selected, you must then link your personal bank account. Money can be transferred into the Betterment account whenever you desire, or you can setup an automated deposit from your paycheck.
You have the ability to create a new Traditional or Roth IRA and fund up to $5,500 (+$1,000 if you are age 50+) in 2015. Or you can create a regular taxable account with no funding limits. Betterment also allows the creation of trust accounts.
Betterment also allows you to rollover an existing qualified plan (401k, 403b, pension, IRA, etc.) into a Betterment IRA if you’d like to let them handle your retirement funds instead of a past employer. This process can be done entirely online, and is impressively efficient.
They also recently added the ability to create a SEP-IRA account for self employed individuals. The SEP-IRA is flexible, easy to setup, and has large contribution limits (up to $53,000 in 2015).
Betterment Review Summary + Signup Bonus
If you want a really simple solution to successful investing, I recommend Betterment. If you want something that won’t confuse you or require much effort, I recommend Betterment. If you want a simplified, low cost wealth management service based on sound investment principals, look no further.
Betterment is a brilliant idea for what it is – a fairly priced, hands-off and accessible approach to successful investing.