Betterment.com Review: Easy Investing For Busy People

NOTE: Betterment is offering six free months to new users. Find out full details here. Read on for the most updated information about Betterment.

Lately I’ve been hearing a lot about a new investing website and brokerage account through Betterment.com. What is Betterment? At it’s very basic it’s another in a long line of online brokerages that allow you to hold stocks and bonds as investments via ETFs, like an account through Etrade or ShareBuilder.

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But it’s more than just that. It’s also a tool that helps automate the investing process to make it simpler for the average user, and for those who are just too busy to stay on top of their investing accounts all of the time. So today I thought I’d do a review of Betterment.com.

Betterment Background

betterment logoBetterment.com is a new player as far as brokerages go. Betterment.com was founded by Jon Stein in 2008. Betterment.com launched at TechCrunch Disrupt 2010 NYC. In December 2010 Betterment.com received $3 Million in a series A financing round from Bessemer Venture Partners (lead) and Anthemis Group.

Betterment LLC is a Registered Investment Advisor with the SEC and they’re SIPC insured. You can be assured of the same protections as you would with a larger financial institution. Of course since this is an investing account and not a savings account, there is no assurance of not losing your money.

Betterment only launched in 2010, but they are already receiving a lot of buzz with writeups in The New York Times, CNNMoney, Investment News, Mint.com and more.

Awards

When the website launched at the end of 2010, it was already receiving quite a bit of recognition for it’s innovative ideas and approach.

  • TechCrunch Disrupt NYC 2010 “Battlefield Finalist”
  • TechCrunch Disrupt NYC 2010 “Best NYC Startup”
  • FinovateFall 2010 “Best of Show”
  • 2014 – The First Automated Investing Service to Reach 50,000 Customers With More Than $1 Billion Under Management.

Since they launched in 2010 they’ve had plenty of recognition, and now have over 50,000 happy customers with over $1 billion in assets under management.  Not too shabby.

How Does Betterment Work?

So what exactly is Betterment, and how does it work? The basic idea is this – a lot of people are either just too busy to get too far into the weeds with their investment decisions, or they are too intimidated by the array of choices out there when it comes to investing. Betterment attempts to take the confusion out of the process by making investing simple.

betterment depositSo when you set up an investment account with Betterment, they make the process super simple. After you signup, The only choices you’ll need to make are:

  • How much to invest.
  • How much of your investment you want in equities (Stock Market).
  • How much you want in bonds.

You can also set up automatic investments on a regular basis if you want to.

Within stocks and bonds, they divide up your holdings into a variety of ETFs so that you are diversified. Here is what you get on the stocks side:

  • Vanguard Total Stock Market 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)

For bond ETFs here is what you get:

  • iShares Short-Term Treasury Bond Index ETF (SHV)
  • Vanguard Short-term Inflation-Protected Treasury Bond Index ETF (VTIP)
  • Vanguard US Total Bond Market Index ETF (BND)
  • iShares National AMT-Free Muni Bond Index ETF (MUB)
  • iShares Corporate Bond Index ETF (LQD)
  • Vanguard Total International Bond Index ETF (BNDX)
  • Vanguard Emerging Markets Government Bond Index ETF (VWOB)

The exact allocations of each stock or bond ETF will depend on the allocation you choose. Either way, the stocks and bonds you get will give you a nice diversified portfolio.

Asset Allocation And Visualization Tools

To me one of the selling points of Betterment are the allocation and visualization tools you can use to set your investment goals. You can update your asset allocation, and investing time horizon and see about what kind of returns you can expect to see given your amount invested, level of risk and historical returns. It’s pretty interesting to play with the tool and see the differences you can expect given different allocations.

Let’s say that you have about $50,000 invested as the demo account does. If you have 80% invested in stocks and 20% in bonds, given a 20 year time horizon it will show you a forecasted range of returns that you could expect to see – anywhere from $100,000-$600,000. Change the percentages and timelines and it can drastically affect your results.

Betterment Returns

So if you decide you want to change your allocation either to include more stocks or bonds, you just move the slider up or down, and then hit the “change” button, and Betterment will update your account holdings and purchasing decisions going forward. Piece of cake!

Automatic Re-allocation

Betterment Rebalance Allocations

One of the nice things about an account with Betterment is that it will automatically re-balance your portfolio for you every three months, or if your allocations drift more than 5%. Without re-balancing your account can easily shift over time to have an allocation that is heavier on stocks or bonds than you want it to be. If you start out at say 80/20 stocks to bonds, if you don’t reallocate over time you could one day find that your account has an allocation more like 75/25 or 70/30.

This is one of those things that most investors neglect to do on a regular basis, so it’s nice to have that part of the account be automatic.

Tax Efficient Investing

One big change that Betterment has made in the past couple of years was to implement a more tax efficient philosophy.  They have implemented strategies to make Betterment more tax efficient and increase returns for most users.

Tax Loss Harvesting

Betterment will look at your portfolio and help offset your capital gains through Tax Loss Harvesting – which could add an estimated +0.77% in after-tax returns, annually. So what exactly is Tax Loss Harvesting?

Tax loss harvesting is the practice of selling a security that has experienced a loss. By realizing, or “harvesting” a loss, investors are able to offset taxes on both gains and income. The sold security is replaced by a similar one, maintaining the optimal asset allocation and expected returns

While tax loss harvesting used to have a $50,000 account balance minimum, it is now included at no cost for all users!

TaxMin Lot Selling

Betterment helps save on taxes by using TaxMin Lot Selling.

Choosing which lots of shares to sell can greatly impact the investment taxes you pay. Using our TaxMin cost basis accounting method, we go beyond the industry standard (FIFO). We intelligently liquidate each of your lots when you withdraw to minimize your capital gains.

Tax Impact Preview

Betterment will give you real time tax information that will help you to make more informed investing decisions. If you decide to change your allocation or make a withdrawal, their Tax Impact Preview tool will allow you to see what kind of an impact the change will have on your taxes, and returns.

Tax impact preview

Tax-Efficient Investments

Betterment only invests in exchange traded funds (ETFs) which are generally more tax-efficient, when compared to mutual funds. Investing in ETFs can provide an estimated .7% in tax savings per year.

Smart Rebalancing

Betterment uses cash flow and dividend reinvestment in order to reduce the need to sell shares to rebalance your account.  This can lower your capital gains taxes over time.

Fees And Charges

Here is where the rubber meets the road – what kind of fees and charges can you expect for using Betterment vs. Vanguard or some other low cost investment company?

UPDATE: As of 2/22/2012 Betterment lowered their fees for all users. You can now expect fees in the range of .15%-.35% depending on your balance instead of .3%-.9%. That’s quite a reduction from their previous fees, and is much appreciated. Betterment Fee Reduction Details Here.

There are no minimums to invest, and there are no fees for trades. Betterment charges a pro-rated yearly fee that is in a range of 0.15% to 0.35%, depending on your account balance.

betterment pricing and fees

For balances under $10,000 the fee is 0.35% annually or $3/month. With a balance over $10,000 you will be charged 0.25% annually. Balances over $100,000 will be charged 0.15% annually, and will include a personal consultation if your balance is $500,000 or more.

NOTE: All accounts also now get tax loss harvesting at no additional cost and no minimums. Previously there was a $50,000 minimum for this service, but that minimum no longer applies after Betterment removed the minimums for tax loss harvesting in April 2015.

The fees for Betterment originally ranged anywhere from 0.3% up to 0.9% annually when they launched. For many folks that was where they probably stopped reading, as having a 0.9% fee on account balances would be far too high, especially for folks who are more versed in the stock market and have confidence that they could buy a target retirement fund, or low fee index fund via Vanguard or similar low cost mutual fund company. Going with a low cost provider like Vanguard would mean a much lower cost because when you do it yourself there are no management fees. Depending on the balance that can be quite a bit of money you’d be saving by doing it all yourself.

Thankfully Betterment quickly reduced their fees from the high .9% for most folks with low balances, and it is now only .35% or $3/month, which is very competitive for what they provide.

Conclusion

Betterment.com launched at the end of 2010 and have received a ton of good press and accolades for their innovative investment platform. I have to admit that I am impressed with how they have taken a difficult subject – investing – and made it much more accessible to the average person. The fact that you can make automatic investments, allocations are automatically adjusted, and that it can be a cost effective option for some investors with smaller amounts to invest make it an attractive offering. Betterment returns promise to be as close to matching the market as possible.

All in all – I think Betterment will be a great offering for many folks who are investing smaller dollar amounts, and who don’t want to do all the legwork and regular re-allocation of assets. If they want a set it and forget type account, Betterment should probably be one of the first that they consider. And now that they’ve got a bonus just for signing up, I think there’s really nothing to lose! I’ve signed up myself, and now have about $9500 invested with the service.

Betterment is offering six free months to new users who open up an account with at least $100,000 and keep their accounts withdrawal free for 90 days*.

Signup Bonus When You Open A Betterment Account. Click Here.

Have you used Betterment.com, or are you considering it? Tell us your thoughts on Betterment in the comments!

Betterment

Betterment
9.95

Ease of use

100/10

    Design

    100/10

      Cost Efficiency

      98/10

        Investment Strategy

        100/10

          Pros

          • - Easy to use
          • - Proven methods
          • - Low cost
          • - Automatic re-allocation
          • - Tax efficient investing

          Cons

          • - Fees higher than DIY

          Last Edited: 15th April 2015

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          Comments

            Share Your Thoughts:

          1. says

            “For many folks this is where they’ll probably stop reading as having a 0.9% fee on account balances would be far too high”

            I didn’t stop reading but I lost all interest right then. That seams pretty high for what it offers. The features it offers are pretty basic, IMO. In some cases you can find a full service financial advisor for around 1%. I guess if I am paying that much I would rather have someone I can meet with in person if desired.

            When I was on there website I found it a bit weird that they were comparing themselves to a bank. Saving and investing are drastically different things because of the risk of loss associated with investing.

            Great review, keep up the good work.

            • says

              Hey Chris,

              Jon Stein, Founder and CEO of Betterment.com here. We’re making investing easier and more accessible for busy people.

              Betterment is an investment account. The accessibility we offer makes Betterment more similar to a bank account than other investment accounts are similar to a bank account – other investment accounts that have minimums, lock up your money for a certain amount of time, or charge you for every trade – on the way in and on the way out.

              What more accessible means, to me, is that you can get your money back at any time – without paying a transaction fee – and without a minimum balance requirement. So you never have to worry. And that’s why I think the comparison to online savings accounts is helpful.

              Of course, there’s risk in investing, and your principle is not protected. Betterment is not a bank. It is an investment account. You’re right to point that out, and we do the same.

              On fees, the “full service” advisors you talk about typically don’t do anything more valuable than what Betterment does – they just charge more. And they have minimums of $50,000 to $500,000 – making them less accessible to most Americans. Our fee is quite reasonable considering the the ease of use, accessibility, and automation we provide.

              Thanks for reading,

              Jon.

          2. says

            Jon,

            I appreciate that you’ve developed a platform for investing for the general public with no minimums. I’m sure that a lot of retail investors will be able to take advantage of it.

            Out of curiosity, do you change investment allocations or holdings on a discretionary basis?

          3. says

            Hi Derrik,

            We never change your investment allocation – that is solely up to the consumer. However, we will make allocation recommendations based on each individual’s goals and risk tolerance.

            We passively manage the portfolio like an index fund, but we actively monitor it to ensure that we are always bringing our customers the best ETFs possible. Our goal is to grow with the market, not to try and beat the market – we believe this is the healthiest way to invest.

            -Alan
            VP Marketing | Betterment.com

            • says

              Thanks, Alan.

              So would it be fair to say that once the client has chosen their desired equity allocation percentage that your role is allocate that equity choice into the right percentage of equity asset classes (large, medium, small, value, growth, international) within the best ETFs that are available?

              Derrik

          4. says

            Hi Derrik,

            If I am understanding your description correctly, I think how you have framed it is a pretty good way to look at us. One note: we currently are not invested in international, but will be soon.

            I hope this was clear, but everyone reading this should also feel free to email directly at alan@betterment.com any time questions arise – I will do my best to be as responsive as possible.

            I hope this was helpful
            -Alan

            • says

              Peter, welcome to Betterment! We’re so glad you’re giving us a try. Let us know if you’ve got any questions or suggestions to make the product better.

              – Jon.

          5. john says

            unrelaistic that you will no trade for 6 years– and reallocation is inevitable at least once or more a year– that requires monitoring and selling– your asset allocation will be off for at least 10 months— and that requires commitment and discipline
            in all, what you have described as simple is not that simple— thats why betterment can be a real good choice for most…
            consider betterment as an allocation in and of itself– and you can still trade on your own with another percantage of your funds..
            keeping some cash is also good..

          6. Kelly Ju says

            As a person who is interested in investing and yet overwhelmed by the enormity of the research and time required to properly invest, I have found Betterment to be an excellent beginners product! I love the ease and simplicity the site and can’t wait to see where this all goes (hopefully up up up).

          7. Mark says

            I know most discount brokers charge a fee for transferring out (typically $50 to $100), and I can’t seem to find this anywhere on the Betterment website. Thinking of signing up but worried that I could get slapped with a steep transfer out fee later on.

            Does anyone have this information?

          8. Frustrated @ Bettermnet says

            I want to bring this to the attention of clients of betterment that betterment charges a fee up to $400 if you want to do a direct (in-kind) transfer from betterment to another brokerage. I have been trying to do a direct transfer of Roth IRA from betterment to another brokerage firm and was quoted this amount.

            This fee is also listed in their customer agreement in section 23. Please be aware that your only option could be an indirect roll over if you don’t want to pay $400 in transfer fees.

            Betterment does not openly advertise this fee, which I think they must do when they list any or all fees on their website.

            • says

              Katherine from Betterment commented on another site about this:

              Thanks for the comment. As I posted in response to you a few other blogs, you are correct, there is a fee that would be assessed should a 3rd party direct transfer be requested. This is because it would involve a 3rd party to complete the action – it is not a feature provided with your account. Betterment will NOT charge any transaction fees to allow you to complete an indirect transfer of your account, and is our recommended method.

              While we apologize that the new brokerage may charge fees for the trades of moving funds into your account as cash, we do our best to provide an option that does not cost anything extra.

              So there you go.. Sounds like there is a fee for a direct, but not indirect, rollover.

              UPDATE 2015: There is no longer any fee for this. Betterment responded to our inquiry about this fee:

              In the past, to perform a transfer out request it was an extremely manual process for us. We have since developed more robust systems that allow us to complete these requests with ease. To clarify, although we had this fee at one point it was never assessed.
              Additionally, we have updated our customer agreement since then. If you would like to view our recent customer agreement, see here: betterment.com/customeragreement . On page 57, it reads “The fee provisions of the Brokerage Agreement and Advisory Agreement notwithstanding, there will be no charge for transferring Assets to another broker-dealer.”

              • DeAnna says

                Forgive me, I’m new to this whole investment thing and an independent investment advisor suggested I try Betterment rather then employ him at this time given the small amount I have to invest right now. But from the reviews I’ve read it looks like this is a good option for someone like me who knows nothing about the stock market and has a small amount to invest but that once you have over $50,000 it’s better to transfer to something where you have more control over the funds you are investing in. So in reference to the above question about the $400 transfer fee, I don’t know what you mean by direct or indirect transfer? If I want to open a Roth IRA with Betterment and transfer it later to another brokerage or online DIY brokerage is that going to cost me?

                • says

                  I agree that using a service like Betterment may be a good plan if you have a small amount to invest right now. Since they have no minimums, it’s a good place to start. I might argue that it would still be a good place to invest even after you’ve reached $50,000 – possibly even better because of their tax loss harvesting and other features.

                  Direct transfer and indirect transfer refer to how your funds are transferred out – either via a direct funds transfer to your new brokerage, or via an indirect transfer where they transfer your money to your linked account, and then transfer the funds to your new broker via your own bank account within 60 days. You should be able to do that without fees. My understanding is that as of 2015 you can only do one such transfer per calendar year, so if you transferred it out, you’d have to wait til the following year to transfer it again.

                  In regards to fees for doing direct transfers to another brokerage, my understanding is that there is no longer a fee. I reached out to Betterment and they responded that this was the case:

                  In the past, to perform a transfer out request it was an extremely manual process for us. We have since developed more robust systems that allow us to complete these requests with ease. To clarify, although we had this fee at one point it was never assessed. Additionally, we have updated our customer agreement since then. If you would like to view our recent customer agreement, see here:

                  betterment.com/customeragreement

                  On page 57, it reads “The fee provisions of the Brokerage Agreement and Advisory Agreement notwithstanding, there will be no charge for transferring Assets to another broker-dealer.”

          9. BongoMan says

            I keep putting $100 or so in Betterment with frequency. Then I just forget all about it which seems to be the big advantage. You just contribute and ignore it once you have your allocation right. Best formula- subtract your age from 100– that is the percentage that you should be in stocks

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