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Years ago, if you didn’t want to pick investments on your own, you’d link up with a financial advisor, who would manage your money for you, end-to-end.
Then, that industry began to corrupt itself, with many financial advisors investing in stocks that weren’t necessarily best for the client, but rather best for their commissions. Enter fee-based advising.
Fee-based advisors solved this problem by charging a flat fee and offering sound, financial advice.
But some people felt that this was TOO high-touch, and wanted something more hands-off.
So a few years ago, robo-advisors like Betterment came to center stage, promising advisor-like management without interaction. Essentially, your advisor was a complex algorithm.
But slowly, the desire for more touch arose. Rather than swinging all the way back to financial advisors, the industry has formed a few hybrids–a service that offers a robo-advisor WITH the high touch of a human financial advisor–meaning you can have your cake and eat it too.
So in this article, I’m going to do a deep dive into one of the most promising hybrids–Vanguard Personal Advisor Services. And by the time you’re done reading, you’ll be able to decide on a) if a hybrid is for you and b) whether Vanguard is the right one.
What is Vanguard Personal Advisor Services?
By now, you’ve probably heard of Vanguard. The Vanguard Group was founded back in the ‘70s. Today, they are one of the most well-known investment brokers for the ETFs and mutual funds they have.
While you probably know about their funds, you may not know that they started Vanguard Personal Advisor Services as part of their business about five years ago. Vanguard did this to break into the robo-advisor space but didn’t want to go full-robo.
So, they bundled it with investment guidance from a real person. At the end of 2019, this program managed over $160 billion in assets, too. So it’s not a small startup at this point.
There’s also a minimum balance requirement of $50,000 (more on this below).
How it Works
Like other robo-advisors, Vanguard Personal Advisor Services will ask for incredibly specific details to get you started with a portfolio that makes sense for YOU. They ask about your planned retirement date, your risk tolerance, your age and current assets, and more.
This allows Vanguard to get a good picture of your finances and make recommendations to match. After that, the back-end algorithms do most of the work to construct your portfolio, but you’ll most likely speak with a financial advisor before moving forward with your plan.
This is a lot different than pure robos like Wealthfront and Betterment. I look at it as a system of checks and balances. The robo algorithm produces your portfolio, but you then walk through it with a live financial advisor to make sure it’s correct and right for you and your needs. The entire process may take about a month.
Vanguard Personal Advisor Services Features
The portfolios constructed are diverse and focused on the individual investor’s needs. After you go through the survey and speak with an advisor, you’ll get a portfolio that best matches your risk tolerance and level of preferred investment aggressiveness.
What’s nice is that as you progress through your plan (i.e., getting closer to retirement, for instance), the portfolio adjusts to be in line with meeting those objectives. Meaning, that you might be investing in more bonds than stocks as you get closer to retirement.
Or perhaps tell your advisor that you want to be more aggressive, so the ratio of stocks may increase. Either way, you end up with a well-constructed, diverse portfolio.
Building off the point above, in addition to being diverse, the portfolios are what I would consider intelligently managed. You’ll see investment types from across a variety of classes and sectors so you’re not pigeon-holed into a certain type of investment.
Without getting too far down a rabbit hole, suffice it to say that Vanguard follows Modern Portfolio Theory, which in essence is maximizing value for a predetermined risk level. Put more plainly, their goal is to help you get the highest return at the lowest cost while driving toward your specific financial goals.
If you’ve ever read Benjamin Graham’s book The Intelligent Investor, you’ll remember that he says “Mr. Market” can be moody (the market can fluctuate wildly). But robo-advisors like this don’t care about Mr. Market. They invest consistently and for the long-run, and don’t make decisions based on what the market is doing RIGHT NOW. This should definitely put you at ease.
As a client, you can have a multitude of goals and asset allocations, based on what is needed for that specific goal. For example, if you have a child going to college in five years, you’re going to be less aggressive with that portfolio than you would if you’re saving for retirement in 30 years.
So, you can have different goals set up with different risk levels and asset allocations. On top of that, you can connect other financial accounts to Vanguard so they can see your entire financial picture.
What might look unbalanced in your Vanguard account may balance your entire portfolio quite well when you think about things like a 401(k) or IRA you have sitting somewhere else. You can make changes to your goals whenever you want, as well.
Plenty of Planning Resources
Another thing I love is the level of resources Vanguard gives you. You’ll get access to helpful articles, calculators, checklists, and more. This will help you make your own independent decisions on goals, risk tolerance, etc.
You can also go a bit deeper and see how major life events may impact the future value of your portfolio. For example, having a baby, buying a home, or sending a kid to college all cost a lot of money–the tools with Vanguard can help you plan for these but also adjust as necessary.
Pricing for Vanguard Personal Advisor Services
Vanguard charges an advisory fee of 0.30% up to the first $5 million you have invested and managed. This amount is paid on a quarterly basis. If for some reason you have over $5 million invested and managed (and if you do, kudos to you!), your fee goes down to 0.20% on the amount that’s over $5 million.
For buying and selling Vanguard ETFs, you will find no service fees.
Signing Up for Vanguard Personal Advisor Services
As I briefly mentioned above, signing up for Vanguard Personal Advisor Services can be a lengthy process–but the hope is you’ll have a much better portfolio in the end. To start, you’ll need to go through a survey to detail your entire financial picture, your investment goals, and your level of risk tolerance.
From there, and like most other robo-advisors, you’ll get a framework for an appropriate portfolio, modeled around your goals and objectives. In most cases, your investments will be geared toward Vanguard mutual funds or ETFs, which is their bread and butter.
After that, you can schedule a video chat or phone call with a live financial advisor to go over your plan and make any necessary adjustments. Some people will love this, others might not because it adds time to get started.
Before anything is put into place, you need to agree on the plan with your advisor, which adds a bit more time until your portfolio “goes live.”
As I mentioned before, you are able to bring non-Vanguard funds into your managed portfolio in certain cases. I can’t think of any other robo-advisor that gives you the option–in fact, most just pick funds for you and that’s that.
Also mentioned above, you need at least $50,000 to get started with Vanguard Personal Advisor Services. You also have to continuously maintain that balance.
What’s nice, though, is that this includes any number of Vanguard accounts you have managed, whether existing or new. So if you have $25,000 in a current Vanguard IRA, you’d only need to invest $25,000 additional — and have both accounts managed — to start with Personal Advisor Services. And, your Personal Advisor Services relationship can include individual taxable accounts, joint taxable accounts, or IRAs (Roth and Traditional are available).
Vanguard Personal Advisor Services Security
The Vanguard website utilizes 256-bit SSL encryption and provides two-factor authentication. Your funds are held with Vanguard Marketing Corporation, an affiliated broker-dealer, that provides SIPC insurance.
One thing to note is that any uninvested cash goes into a money market account. This account is NOT FDIC-insured, so it’s in your best interest to invest the money and put excess cash elsewhere.
Mobile Support for Vanguard Personal Advisor Services
While there isn’t a mobile app SPECIFICALLY for Personal Advisor Services, the Vanguard Personal Advisor Services site is mobile-friendly. You can sign up, do the survey, and access your account from your smartphone. I pulled it up on my iPhone and it’s simple to navigate without any issue.
Vanguard does have a mobile app (iOS, Android, iPad, and Kindle) for all of your Vanguard accounts, though. I wouldn’t say their mobile app is the sleekest I’ve ever seen, but it does the job. One thing I do like is that you get two-factor authentication with the mobile app–so your accounts are extra-secure.
Vanguard Personal Advisor Services Customer Service
Customer service is available from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., Monday through Friday, for Vanguard Personal Advisor Services. You’ll have a separate number to call for Personal Advisor Services than you would for your normal Vanguard accounts, however.
One thing I don’t like is that there’s no chat feature. Most companies offer a chat feature now, so you don’t have to wait on hold (or even call) but Vanguard doesn’t.
Also, I can’t personally speak for the Personal Advisor Services customer service, but I do know that my hold times for my regular Vanguard investment accounts have been outrageous in the past. Take that for what it’s worth.
If you have specific investment-related questions, though, you can schedule a time to speak with an advisor, which leads to my next point.
You’re able to speak with a financial advisor whenever you want by scheduling an appointment. This is a huge advantage that Vanguard has over other standard robo-advisors. The only downside is that if you have less than $500,000 invested, you are connected to a group of advisors, so you won’t have the same one every time. On the other hand, though, if you have over $500,000 invested, you will have a dedicated financial advisor that you’ll work with each time.
Pros and Cons of Vanguard Personal Advisor Services
Financial advisor access — One of the biggest upsides to this service is the fact you get access to financial advisors. You can choose to use them or not, but they’re there if you want more guidance and coaching.
Relatively cheap — For what you’re getting, this is a great deal. 0.30% isn’t bad even for a robo advisor. But when you throw in live financial advisors, it makes it well worth the cost.
Full financial picture — You can bring non-Vanguard funds with you, as well as connect external accounts so your advisor can see the entire financial picture. This is one gripe I have with regular robo advisors, as they create a portfolio assuming you have no other investments.
Education section — While they offer plenty of resources, the Investing Education section is mediocre at best. The articles there look like the content you can find anywhere (so nothing new).
High barrier to entry — You need at least $50,000 with Vanguard to enroll in Vanguard Personal Advisor Services. Yes, this can be across multiple accounts, but still, it’s a big investment in one company if you’re not sure whether you want to have this account long-term or not. Also, for you to get lower fees and dedicated access to a single financial advisor, you need significantly more money ($5 million and $500,000, respectively).
Slow — The fact that it can take almost a month to get your account fully up and running is frustrating.
Alternatives to Vanguard Personal Advisor Services
Betterment is comparable to Vanguard Personal Advisor Services, in that you get the traditional Betterment platform (a true robo-advisor) as well as ongoing, unlimited access to advice by phone and email with Betterment Certified Financial Planners.
You need to have at least $100,000 with Betterment, and it will cost you 0.40% per year, which is a higher minimum and higher annual cost than Vanguard. You also will have whatever funds Betterment chooses for you–versus the higher-touch experience you get with Vanguard (not to mention, the Vanguard funds).
For a more hands-off experience, though, this might be for you.
Schwab Intelligent Portfolios Premium
Like Betterment Premium, Schwab Intelligent Portfolios Premium is very much like Vanguard Personal Advisor Services. With this service, a robo-advisor builds, monitors, and automatically rebalances a diversified portfolio based on your goals. You’ll also have unlimited one-on-one guidance from a Certified Financial Planner, as well as a multitude of additional tools and resources.
Price-wise, you can get started with just $25,000–but you will have to pay a one-time planning fee of $300, plus a $30/month advisory fee after that. It’s cheaper than Vanguard to get in, but it could end up costing you more in the long run.
Who is Vanguard Personal Advisor Services For?
I really think those who will benefit the most from Vanguard Personal Advisor Services are more experienced investors, especially if you’re looking for a company with a long, reputable history. You may also want to go with Vanguard if you appreciate the value of speaking with a live person, but want to let a robo handle the bulk of the work.
To me, it’s a perfect balance between a traditional robo-advisor and a regular financial advisor. While you can certainly set it and forget it after your account is up and running, having the ability to talk to someone and kick around ideas on what you should and shouldn’t do with your investments is a huge value-add.
On the flip side, if you want a completely hands-off experience, want to get started quickly, and don’t care about specific Vanguard funds, you might be fine with a regular robo-advisor like Betterment or Wealthfront.
Overall, there’s a lot to like about Vanguard Personal Advisor Services. They aren’t necessarily the cheapest option and they certainly don’t have the lowest account minimum, but they stand firm on their high-touch, white-glove service, combined with a true robo-advisor, to help give you the best chance of meeting your goals.