But when it comes to Betterment vs. Vanguard Personal Advisor, niche is the operative word. While there are some similarities between the two robo-advisors, each appeals to a very different investment market segment.
Betterment is oriented toward new, small and medium investors, who are looking for comprehensive low-cost investment management. Vanguard Personal Advisor is more suited to very large investors, and those who already invest through Vanguard, and are looking for a low-cost managed investment option.
Before we get to a deep dive into the various offerings by the two investment platform, the table below summarizes and compares the basic service levels and other features offered by both Betterment and Vanguard Personal Advisor:
|Features||Betterment||Vanguard Personal Advisor|
|Minimum Initial Investment||$0 Digital; $100,000 Premium||$50,000|
|Accounts Available||Individual and joint taxable accounts; traditional, Roth, SEP and rollover IRAs; trusts and non-profits||Individual and joint taxable accounts; traditional, Roth, SEP, SIMPLE and rollover IRAs; trusts|
|Advisory Fees||Digital: 0.25% to $2 million; 0.15% over $2 million; Premium: 0.40% to $2 million; 0.30% over $2 million||0.30% up to $5 million; 0.20% on $5 million to $10 million; 0.10% on $10 million to $25 million; 0.05% above $25 million|
|Tax-loss Harvesting||Yes||On a client-by-client basis only|
|Mobile App||Android & iOS devices||Android & iOS devices|
|Socially Responsible Investing||Yes||No|
Betterment is the largest independent robo-advisor in the industry, with $13.5 billion in assets under management. It’s a pure robo-advisor, meaning it isn’t a subsidiary of a larger general investment brokerage platform.
Best for new and small investors
Betterment targets new and small investors, who can open accounts with no money at all, then take advantage of very low-cost automated investment management.
That includes everything from portfolio design to investment management, such as:
- Automatic reinvesting of dividends
- Periodic rebalancing of asset allocations to maintain portfolio targets
- Tax-loss harvesting for all clients, regardless of portfolio size. (Many robo-advisors offer this service only to clients with larger account balances.)
Betterment uses Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT) to create and manage your investment portfolio. MPT emphasizes asset allocation as a way to maximize returns and minimize portfolio risk.
Signing-up for Betterment
When you sign-up for Betterment, you’ll need to complete a questionnaire that determines your investment goals, time horizon, and investment risk tolerance.
Your portfolio is then constructed of 14 individual exchange traded funds (ETFs), each representing a unique asset class. These can include US and foreign stocks, and US and foreign bonds. Using just a handful of funds, your Betterment portfolio can be invested across thousands of different securities.
To learn more about Betterment, read our full review or visit their website!
About Vanguard Personal Advisor
Vanguard Personal Advisor is the robo-advisor service offered by investment giant, The Vanguard Group. One of the largest investment firms in the world, Vanguard has more than $5.3 trillion in assets under management.
Vanguard is the largest mutual fund company in the world, and ranks second only to BlackRock’s iShares as the largest provider of exchange traded funds (EFTs). Vanguard’s ETFs are so efficient and well-regarded that they are commonly included in portfolios provided by the majority of robo-advisor services, as well as other investment management services.
Like many other large investment firms and brokerages, Vanguard is offering its own robo-advisor, in Vanguard Personal Advisor. In fact, Vanguard Personal Advisor is the world’s largest robo-advisor with $112 billion in assets under management.
Vanguard Personal Advisor caters to larger investors by virtue of the very low fees charged on multi-million dollar accounts.
To learn more about Vanguard visit their website!
In our investment platform comparison reviews we like giving at least an approximation of a head-to-head comparison of investment returns. Unfortunately, while investment performance information is available for Betterment, none is published by Vanguard Personal Advisors.
But in the interest of at least partial disclosure, we’re going to show Betterment’s investment performance since its founding. We will then make certain assumptions about the returns for Vanguard Personal Advisors. It’s not much to go on, but at least you’re getting half the story.
Betterment provides a historical performance tool that provides limited data on investment returns. Looking at its performance from its launch date of January 2008, through the end of July 2018, we see in the screenshot below that a portfolio comprised of 80% stocks and 20% bonds returned exactly 86%:
Over a space of 79 months from January 2012, through July 2018, the 86% return translates to an average annual return on investment of an incredible 9.9%. That’s especially impressive when you consider 20% of the portfolio was invested in low yielding bonds.
Vanguard Personal Advisor
Unfortunately, Vanguard Personal Advisor doesn’t publish performance data, so we’re unable to show any reasonable comparison with Betterment on this front.
Betterment vs. Vanguard Personal Advisor Investment performance conclusion
Because of the lack of investment performance data from Vanguard Personal Advisors, we are unable to make a conclusive comparison with the performance of Betterment. However, it’s worth noting that many of the funds in Betterment’s portfolios, particularly the stock funds, are Vanguard ETFs.
That being the case, it’s reasonable to guesstimate that Vanguard Personal Advisors turned in a similar performance to Betterment with an 80/20 stock/bond asset allocation.
- No minimum initial investment requirement, which is perfect for new and small investors
- Simple, low cost fee structure of 0.25% on balances up to $2 million, and 0.15% on larger accounts
- Betterment portfolios include tax-loss harvesting on all account balances, reducing the tax liability from long-term capital gains
- All portfolios include allocations in value type investments – this is one of the most time-honored investment strategies in the industry, and one frequently practiced by Warren Buffett
- Smart beta and socially responsible investing (SRI) options available
- Human assisted investment advice available, as well as access to a dedicated personal financial advisor on account balances of $100,000 or more
Vanguard Personal Advisor:
- Use of Vanguard funds, which are some of the most popular and lowest cost funds available, so much so that they are commonly employed by most robo-advisors (including Betterment) and other investment management services
- The ability to engage in self-directed investing through the Vanguard brokerage platform, while also taking advantage of professional management through Vanguard Personal Advisor
- Access to a live financial advisor, particularly with an account balance of $500,000 or more
- Lower fees on larger portfolios – Vanguard Personal Advisor fees drop down to 0.05% on portfolios of $25 million or more
- Use of mutual funds in your portfolio, which offers an opportunity to outperform the market, rather than merely match it the way most robo-advisors do
- Betterment’s fee structure bottoms out at 0.15% on account balances over $2 million, which means it’s not competitive with Vanguard Personal Advisor on account balances in excess of $10 million
- Betterment portfolios are limited strictly to stocks and bonds, and don’t diversify into alternative investments, like real estate or natural resources
Vanguard Personal Advisor:
- The minimum initial investment requirement of $50,000 will eliminate new and small investors
- The annual advisory fee of 0.30% is higher than the 0.25% charged by Betterment
- Since Vanguard Personal Advisor doesn’t use non-Vanguard funds in the construction of its portfolios, it may be leaving some important investment options out of the equation
- While Betterment employs tax-loss harvesting as a general strategy, Vanguard Personal Advisor uses it only on a case-by-case basis
- No smart beta or SRI equivalent portfolios
Investing in value stocks
This is a strategy involving investing in stocks of companies that are out-of-favor with the investment community. Typically, such companies are being overlooked due to past events, which have since been resolved. Such companies typically have strong fundamentals, and can represent one of the best long-term investments available.
Betterment offers this strategy on all portfolios, with its small-, medium-, and large-cap US stock allocations all based on value stocks. This strategy gives regular Betterment investors an opportunity to outperform the general market over the long-term.
Financial advisors for accounts over $100,000
Betterment offer financial advisors on portfolios of $100,000 or more, and it has an annual fee of 0.40%. On account balances of $2 million or more, the advisory fee drops to 0.30%.
This option is available to all Betterment clients. The platform designs a portfolio for you, but you have an opportunity to adjust the asset allocations, giving you some measure of control over your final portfolio.
This is a specialized portfolio offered on accounts of $100,000 or more. It’s managed by Goldman Sachs, and is another strategy offering an opportunity to outperform the market.
It does this through active portfolio management, but does involve higher risk, as well as the potential for higher reward. There is no additional fee for this option.
Socially Responsible Investing (SRI)
Betterment gives you an opportunity to move at least some of your portfolio into SRI. You can do this by replacing the large-cap US stock and emerging stock allocations with three different SRI ETFs. It will give you an opportunity to invest at least some of your portfolio according to your personal beliefs.
Betterment EverydayTM Cash Reserve
Betterment’s EverydayTM Cash Reserve is a top-of-the-line savings account that offers a APY. You won’t need a minimum balance to get this APY, plus you’ll pay no monthly fees. Finally, you’ll also be able to make an unlimited number of withdrawals (typically, you can only make six).
Betterment will also soon offer an Everyday Checking account – you’ll need to put your name on the waitlist. It will come with no fees, no minimum balance, and reimbursed ATM fees.
Why choose Vanguard Personal Advisor?
Work with a Vanguard Advisor
This is a unique service among robo-advisors, who more commonly look to minimize human contact in the drive to minimize fees. But when you work with Vanguard Personal Advisor an advisor is available from the very beginning.
The advisor will begin by getting to know you, your goals, and your financial situation. He or she will then work to create a custom designed financial plan.
Your portfolio will then be managed with a combination of human and automated management. The advisor will stay on top of your financial plan’s progress, and make revisions as necessary. Rebalancing will take place on a quarterly basis, or when a major asset allocation strays from the target by more than 5%.
Use of mutual funds
One of the fundamental differences between Vanguard Personal Advisor and most other robo-advisors is that Vanguard doesn’t rely entirely on index-based ETFs. ETF-only portfolios are designed to be strictly passive investments. That is, while they’ll match the underlying market, they can never exceed it.
But by including mutual funds, Vanguard Personal Advisor portfolios hold the potential to outperform the underlying market. That’s because mutual funds are typically actively managed. Fund managers trade stocks within the portfolio in an attempt to maintain positions in stocks of companies that are outperforming the market. It doesn’t work that way 100% of the time, but it does offer that potential.
Lower fees for larger portfolios
Vanguard Personal Advisor’s base annual advisory fee of 0.30% is admittedly higher than Betterment’s 0.25%. But Vanguard’s fee works on a sliding scale, dropping down to 0.20% on accounts over $5 million, 0.10% on accounts over $10 million, and 0.05% for account balances of $25 million or more.
It’s clear Vanguard is targeting high net worth individuals with Vanguard Personal Advisor. The ability to manage a portfolio of $25 million or more for just 0.05% per year is practically like providing a professional investment management service for free.
Investments are held in Vanguard funds
This is something of a mixed bag. The negative is that Vanguard does not take advantage of some of the many good funds offered by competing brokers. But there’s no question Vanguard funds occupy a prominent place in the robo-advisor universe.
They are included in most robo-advisor portfolios. Not only are they some of the most widely recognized and used funds, but their ETFs have a very low annual expense ratio, averaging just 0.08%.
Access to Vanguard’s other investment options
One of the most fundamental differences between Betterment and Vanguard Personal Advisor is in the overall organization. Betterment is a robo-advisor – period. Vanguard, on the other hand, is a major investment brokerage firm, in which Vanguard Personal Advisor is just one component. That will give you the ability to maintain self-directed investments in stocks, ETFs, and mutual funds, while also having part of your portfolio professionally managed through Vanguard Personal Advisor.
One caveat however is that while Vanguard is one of the major providers of both mutual funds and ETFs, it isn’t the most cost effective or efficient brokerage platform for the average investor. Its trading fees are higher than the average for the industry, and its trading tools are more limited.
For most investors, who may just be looking for a low-cost automated investment platform, Betterment will easily be the better choice. Not only does it have a lower base fee, at just 0.25%, but it has no minimum initial investment requirement. This is in dramatic contrast to Vanguard Personal Advisor, which requires a minimum initial investment of $50,000.
But where Vanguard Personal Advisor excels is in catering to those with larger investment portfolios. With $50,000, you can get more hands-on help from a Vanguard financial advisor. And with a portfolio of at least $500,000, you can get a dedicated financial advisor.
Vanguard Personal Advisor also certainly makes sense for very large investors, those with portfolios in excess of $10 million or $25 million, due to the extremely low annual advisory fees.
Finally, Vanguard Personal Advisor will work better for those who prefer to mix a robo-advisor option with self-directed investing. Vanguard isn’t one of the top investment brokerage firms from an individual trading perspective, but it does give you the option of including different types of investing with the same platform.
Perhaps the main dividing line between Betterment and Vanguard Personal Advisor is the size of your portfolio. For most investors, Betterment will be the better choice. But for those with multi-million dollar portfolios, Vanguard Personal Advisor will be the go to platform.
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