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I recently received an email from a reader name Shameer. His message prompted a great question, which I wanted to share with you all:

“Would you suggest having my SEP IRA at Betterment or Vanguard? It’s new, I have no money in there now. But I wanna choose and be done with it. I’m listening to your podcasts from the first episodes onward, and I recall seeing an article where you wanted to move your SEP from Vanguard to Betterment, but don’t know if you actually did it.”

I always appreciate when you guys write in, as it gives me the opportunity to cover topics that I may have forgotten to go back and discuss, such as this one.

I may have mentioned in the past that I wanted to switch to Betterment. I actually considered both them and Wealthfront, but decided to stay at Vanguard in the end. I still believe both Betterment and Wealthfront are great options for SEP IRAs, regular IRAs, and taxable accounts, but I chose to stay with Vanguard for a number of reasons. They run your investments a bit differently, which works better for me.

With that being said, let’s compare Betterment and other robo-advisors with Vanguard.

Balancing Your Portfolio

Betterment and Wealthfront are both considered robo-advisors, or automated investment advisors. This makes investing a simpler process, and I can see why it’s appealing to many people. If you’re younger or a new investor, this will probably be the most enticing option to you.

You won’t need to make many decisions when choosing a robo-advisor. In fact, you’ll only need to make one: use their questionnaire to determine the percentage you’d like invested in stocks versus the percentage you’d like in bonds. They even have prepackaged asset allocation plans, to make it simpler.

Once you make that decision, these companies will do all of the allocation for you.  You invest your chosen amount and they will divide it up among eight to ten ETFs. They even include some Vanguard ETFs in this. They’ll also rebalance your portfolio when needed and reinvest your dividends. This is sort of a “set it and forget it” way of investing, which many people prefer.

Read More: Wealthfront Review


There is a downside to going the robo-advisor route: it’s gonna cost you.

The fee for using Betterment, for example, begins at 25 basis points (or .25%). This fee goes up to 0.40% if you take advantage of unlimited access to their CFP’s. This is over and above the expense ratios of the EFTs, which range from 5-15 basis points. Why the added cost? Well, you have to pay for the service these automated advisors are providing; it isn’t free for them to allocate your assets and reinvest your dividends, and this is where you pay.

For a limited time however, Betterment is offering up to one year of their services for free.

Read More: Betterment’s  up to One Year for Free Promotion

So, will an additional 25-40 basis points really make that much of a difference? If you’ve been paying attention to our past podcasts, you know that compound interest really is the most important thing you have going for your finances. While these fees won’t be the end of the world, it can really add up. Why spend extra money if you don’t have to?

Can You Get the Same Services as Betterment, But From Vanguard or Fidelity?

I’m glad you asked! You absolutely can.

Vanguard, for instance, has something called target-date retirement funds. This is a structure where you put all of your money in one mutual fund and they divide it into four of their funds – one for domestic (US) stocks, one for foreign stocks, one for US bonds, and one for foreign bonds.

As you near retirement and want to shift your investments to a more conservative path, they will slowly begin to change your asset allocation to favor bonds. It’s a very slow process. If you’re 20-40 years from retirement, your investments will be almost entirely in stocks. As you near retirement, though, Vanguard begins to shift more of your investments into bonds..

If you want a fixed asset allocation that doesn’t automatically shift (the same as what Betterment and Wealthfront are offering), you can go with Vanguard’s Life Strategy funds. You can choose anywhere from 80% stocks/20% bonds to 80% bonds/20% stocks, and that allocation will not change.

Fidelity offers similar options. They call them the Freedom Funds.

Related: Vanguard vs. Fidelity Comparison

So, Why Move to Betterment?

Well, you don’t have to. It really just depends on how many basis points you are willing to spend on your investments, and exactly what you’re looking for regarding asset allocation.

Personally, I like to be in control of my rebalancing and manage my own investments. If that’s not of interest to you, Betterment and Wealthfront are great options. I’ve had the privilege of helping several young adults open their first investment accounts, and many of them have chosen one of these robo advisors. Then again, Vanguard’s target-date retirement funds are effectively the same thing. It all comes down to preference.

Read More: Betterment Promotions

A Note on Fidelity

By the way, Fidelity’s target-date retirement funds are very different. First and foremost, they’re very expensive. The Fidelity Freedom 2035 funds, for example, are a whopping 77 basis points! That’s quite the jump from Vanguard’s less than 20 basis points for its target date funds. Part of the reason for this is that your money will be divided among 20 or so funds with Fidelity.

As you can see, you have a number of choices for your investment portfolio. Betterment, Wealthfront, Vanguard, and even Fidelity are all great options. Some may suit you better, however, either in regards to the amount of fees you’ll pay or just the convenience of the investment process.

Which company do you prefer and why? How many basis points is too many, in your opinion?

Author Bio

Total Articles: 1118
Rob founded the Dough Roller in 2007. A litigation attorney in the securities industry, he lives in Northern Virginia with his wife, their two teenagers, and the family mascot, a shih tzu named Sophie.

Article comments

C L says:

Hi Rob,

Is there a reason you did not include Schwab’s Intelligent Porfolio in your analysis?


Paul says:

I think Schwab’s Intelligent Portfolio borders on deceit.

Yes, the service they provide is “free”, but you pay for each EFT in the portfolio! Some of those EFTs are 0.48%!!! I am not saying Schwab has a bad product, I’m saying the way they package their product makes it more difficult to compare the offerings so you can make an informed decision as a consumer. As you rebalance your holding over the years, your EFT costs may rise or fall…… For me, I’d like to know my costs up front and make an informed decision that falling for a “free product” that is anything but free.

Howard Klein says:

I’m surprised you didn’t mention tax loss harvesting as a reason to go with a Betterment. In my opinion, that alone is worth the price of the service. While this obviously applies only to taxable accounts, it’s an important difference between the life strategy funds and Betterment.

Paul says:

Thanks for the great article. I could not agree more and note that most companies really have to outperform just to make up the difference between their and Vanguard’s fees. I estimate that over the last 25+ years I’ve saved roughly $32,000 just by having my money at Vanguard than the others. The money we lose in fees is almost criminal…

Sean says:

I chose vanguard for retirement, but Bettterment for taxable. Although, I think the robos slightly overstate the value of tax loss harvesting, I do believe it adds more value than the .15. (Or .35) compared to the many hours per year I would have to spend to do it as well (this is something technology is perfectly suited for).

In my retirement accounts, I prefer the my own asset allocation and the rebalancing control based on multiple 401ks/IRAs, but Betterment is close enough and I believe slightly better after tax loss harvesting compared to the couple hours a month I spend reviewing my plan/investments…a distinction that I think would be good to consider.

Sean II says:

Not the same Sean as other comments.

Curious why there is no mention of WiseBanyan in the talk of robo-invesitng. For those people who got in before 3-Oct-16 I think, they are all founding members and only pay the ETF fees. No fee directly to them like Betterment or Wealthfront.

I have my Roth IRA with WiseBanyan and am happy with the service.

I find it interesting that they don’t charge additional fees yet they are hardly mentioned in comparison articles. I wonder if its because they are not marketing themselves and paying people to review them

Paul Andrews says:

This FinTech is still one of those industries where I think most consumers should be price inelastic. It’s pretty darn easy to get the necessary diversification through index funds, and really doesn’t require much time/effort on the part of the investor anymore. For the sake of saving tens of thousands of dollars over the course of an investors lifetime, I still think the “manual” way of investing still works out best. Great post, thanks for sharing!

John Antolak says:

While Fidelity Freedom funds are expensive, they have now introduced Freedom Index funds with much lower expense ratios (0.15%). Inside, they have a total market index fund, a total international index, and bond index and a commodity index (just a small percentage, not sure why they bother). You have to search for “Freedom Index”. I found out about them when they added them to our 403b plan maybe a year ago. The name similarity can be confusing, but these look to be a response to Vanguard’s offerings.

Jeff says:

Rob — I see this post was updated in 2018 but still no mention of Fidelity’s Freedom Index funds (lousy name…) which, as John noted above, have expense ratios between 0.17% and 0.19%, which isn’t bad. (Not as good at Vanguard’s at 0.14%, but 3 to 5 basis points is a pretty slim difference.)

Also, on the Schwab Intelligent Portfolio comment above, many of the ETF’s they use are at ERs of 0.06% or so. All in, the portfolio ERs range from 0.06% to 0.20%, which seems comparable to the other robos. The real ding on the Schwab portfolios isn’t expenses, it’s the cash allocation of 6% to 10%+, and this is where Schwab makes its money. Whether that leads to lower total returns given how Schwab builds its portfolios has been a subject of debate, but it seems hard to believe it wouldn’t reduce returns vs being fully invested.