Money management has long been a luxury available only to those select few with huge assets to invest. The digital age, as it tends to do, has upended that. Robo-advisors provide financial advice and investment strategies using algorithms that have gotten rapidly more advanced, providing you with virtually all the knowhow of a traditional human advisor and a lot of mathematical power — plus they won’t scoff if you have less than a couple hundred thousand in the bank. They’re now common offerings among major financial institutions. And, best of all, they’re much, much cheaper than traditional, human advisors. But that doesn’t mean they’re flawless, and they’re certainly not all created equal. We talked to experts about what to ask when considering a robo-advisor.
What are the fees?
“Most people were shut out” of the old world of financial advisors because they didn’t meet investment minimums required to get started, says Greg McBride, chief finanical analyst for Bankrate.com. Robo-advisors have radically shifted the landscape, but it’s still important to keep in mind how much you’re giving up for their services. Wealthfront and Betterment, two popular robo-centric advisory companies, charge an annual 0.25% fee on account balances with no opening fee, whereas “under the traditional model, you generally pay one percent,” according to McBride.
How rich do you need to be?
Many traditional money managers will turn you away if you don’t have six-figure amounts to invest, according to McBride. That has made robo-advisors a no-brainer for many, but some do require minimums. Services like Ellevest require no money to open an account, Betterment doesn’t have a minimum balance, but Wealthfront requires a minimum of $500 in the account balance. Know what will work for your financial state, but also keep in mind, McBride adds, that “if you don’t already have $500 in a savings account for emergencies, then hold off on robo-advisors.”
What about the cost of the specific investment funds?
That algorithm-enhanced advice isn’t the only thing that will take some of your money when you invest. There are typically management fees associated with the funds and ETFs robo-advisers select for you. While robo-advisers aim to keep these as low as possible — almost always focusing on index funds, which merely try to match market returns — they still push up your overall costs, which lowers your investment returns. Check your robo-adviser's web site for an estimate of these additional fees, and if you can't find it there the robo's customer service department should be able to tell you.
What kind of investing specialties are available?
Not all investing is about simple, one-size-fits-all returns over time. Sometimes it's geared toward specific live events. “What is it that you’re looking for and does the robo-advisor offer it?” McBride says. An example: If you’re focused on investing for retirement or in a 529 account to save for college, you want a plan that will cater to those and maximize any possible tax advantages.
Is there tax-loss harvesting?
It’s always a good idea to keep Uncle Sam in mind when you’re shoveling your money into a new enterprise. Tax-loss harvesting is the process of “matching up gains and losses so that you can reduce your capital gains tax bills,” McBride says. “It’s a pretty common offering among robo-advisors but a valuable one nonetheless.” That is, if you’re investing in taxable accounts, but if you’re only looking at retirement and college-savings accounts, it’s not a factor.
What’s the tailored plan for you, and how does it compare to competitors?
A robo-advisor presents you with a questionnaire that’s used to create a customized plan for your needs. Your goals and appetite for risk are key for identifying the right strategy. “Before you even sign up, robo-advisors will pretty much all ask the same questions,” says Arielle O'Shea, NerdWallet's investing and retirement specialist. If the plan you receive, however, doesn’t match up with your comfort level for investment risk or otherwise seems off, look for options to further customize your portfolio. And go ahead and get investment roadmaps from other robo-advisors so you can comparison-shop. Hey, it works on Amazon, and it works for investing.
How has the robot performed?
Markets hit high highs and sorrowful lows, but you always want an investment portfolio that will weather storms. While robo-advisors are still in their nascent phase compared to their conventional counterparts, there’s research showing which have the edge over time. Barron’s compiled a thorough ranking of various options that includes performance scores based on market benchmarks.
How messy is your financial picture?
Robo-advisors can do everything a flesh-and-blood advisor can do… almost. “I don’t think a robo-advisor is a good option if you have a really complicated financial situation or you want super-holistic service,” O'Shea says. That means, say, if you’re seeking advice on insurance coverage and estate planning, go elsewhere. “Those are the kinds of things a human advisor will be able to help with and recommend other people.” Again, though, for the less-seasoned investor, robo-advisors can do more than a fine job.
Can you talk a human?
Sometimes we all need a little one-on-one connection of the non-AI kind. While research suggests that younger people oftentimes don’t want to talk to a human, according to O'Shea, it can be a crucial addition to a robo-advisory package. Various services now offer limited access to financial experts, in addition to standard customer service. While it does sometimes come with added feeds, it can be a “great middle option that gives you sort of the best of both worlds,” O'Shea adds. And if you’re someone nervous about a computer telling you what to do, it could be a make-or-break feature.
How scared of investing are you?
“The final question to ask is one to ask yourself,” McBride concludes. “Are you comfortable with a lack of handholding, especially when markets are volatile?” Which, it should be noted, they have been recently. If you bail and withdraw your assets at the first sign of trouble, you’re making a rookie investment mistake. Stocks will go up and down, but you have to be in the game for the long haul to reap maximum rewards. And with a robo-advisor, “you’re not going to have someone to call every time” the market gets shaky, McBride adds. “It’s important to know that going in.”