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Betterment Review: Get Up To 6 Months Commission Free!

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Betterment is an online brokerage that takes an interesting twist to the usual DIY approach to online investing. With that in mind, I’m doing a Betterment review to go over how they might be able to help you reach your investment goals. If you’ve not heard of Betterment they began in 2008 during the beginnings of the Great Recession as a way to simplify investing in the stock market for those who either lack the time or knowledge to invest and want a basic no-frills portfolio.

Before I go any further with my review of Betterment, I want to be transparent in that I do not have an account with Betterment currently. With that in mind, I’m leaning on my experience in the online brokerage industry for this Betterment review as it allows me to understand the offerings of a brokerage as well as how the meet the needs of their clients.

What makes Betterment so unique from other brokerages is that you do not trade individual stocks or mutual funds, but you invest in a bucket of Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) that are personalized to your specific goals. The other thing I really appreciate is that they’re geared towards those who’re looking to invest with little money or those who are just starting to invest in the stock market, which I applaud. That said, let’s get on with the Betterment review.

BETTERMENT FEATURES

 

You Don’t Actively Trade: As I said previously, you do not actively trade stocks with Betterment. That is simply not their approach. Their approach is very similar to a buy and hold type of investment strategy where they’re looking towards the long term goals as opposed to trading individual stocks.

Buckets to Choose From: If you do not trade stocks with Betterment, then what on earth are you investing in? It’s quite simple, they select buckets of ETFs based off of what information you give them. They have two main buckets they go from and you personalize from there the amount each ETF will make up of your portfolio. The first one is their stock market bucket which seeks to give you balanced exposure in the US as well as internationally. It is made up of:

  • VTI – Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF
  • VTV – Vanguard US Large-Cap Value Index ETF
  • VOE – Vanguard US Mid-Cap Value Index ETF
  • VBR – Vanguard US Small-Cap Value Index ETF
  • VEA – Vanguard Europe Pacific (EAFE) ETF
  • VWO – Vanguard Emerging Markets ETF

The second basic bucket they provide is their bond bucket, which they have completely overhauled recently to add more options. It is made up of:

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

 

They Personalize Your Service: The nice thing about Betterment is they don’t just stick you in a grouping of funds, but offer something that is personalized for you. When you open an account with Betterment they ask you questions to get at your goals which allows you to personalize what bucket they’ll put you in.

Retirement Income: This is a new feature added by Betterment that allows you set up a system for sustainable cash flow for those that are in retirement. Decumulation during retirement can be tricky to balance and Betterment provides investors in retirement a way to better balance that.

Straight Forward Pricing: By having no trading of individual stocks, you avoid any commission fees which is great. However, Betterment doesn’t offer you their service altruistically thus there is a charge for what they offer. Their pricing is as follows:

  • Builder Plan – .35% of your balance, but requires a monthly deposit of at least $100
  • Better Plan – .25% of your balance with a $10,000 minimum balance
  • Best Plan – .15% of your balance with a $100,000 minimum balance

Those fees are annual and accrue on a quarterly basis. If you’re unable to make the $100 monthly deposit and have under $10,000 in your account they’ll move you up to the Better plan with a $3 monthly charge.

Betterment

ADVANTAGES OF BETTERMENT

 

Great for Beginners: The thing I really like about Betterment is they’re great for beginners. Having spoken with many beginner investors in my past, I know investing can be confusing. If you’re a new investor and simply want to get started then Betterment is a good option as it does a lot of the work for you without having to figure out on your own what funds to buy.

They do the heavy lifting: The other big thing I like about Betterment is they do a lot of the heavy lifting for you. They rebalance your account for you as well as reinvest any dividends for you. For the beginning investor this really makes Betterment unique among some of the alternatives. This is where someone like Motif Investing differs from Betterment. Betterment offers dividend reinvesting whereas Motif Investing does not. That might not be big to some, but it is something to look out for.

Their Portfolios Stay on Top of the Market: Their buckets are not a ‘set it and forget it’ approach. They’re not changing them willy-nilly either. They recently changed their bond bucket in light of what is going on in the bond world to put their clients in a better position. The powers that be at Betterment do this in order to stay abreast of what’s going on in the market while also positioning investors to succeed. I also love that many of the funds chosen are low in fees so more of your money is working for you. I use the free service available at Personal Capital to stay on top of this myself.

Tax Loss Harvesting: This is a relatively new feature Betterment has added and love it! In simplistic terms, Tax Loss Harvesting allows you to boost the return of your portfolio by selling losing holdings which in turn lowers taxable liability on gains and income. You don’t need to do anything to take advantage of this feature and is automatic to those who have at least $50,000 invested with Betterment. To my knowledge, Betterment is the only brokerage out there which offers such an automated tool.

Betterment

DISADVANTAGES OF BETTERMENT

 

Pricing Structure: The main disadvantage I see with Betterment is their pricing structure. It is clear and straightforward, but I’m not personally a fan of quarterly fees. That said, you also have to look at the fact that you’re paying nothing to trade, you’re paying nothing to do any of your rebalancing and no other fees. In light of that, I think what you pay would be low in many cases – especially if you’re prone to trade a lot within a normal stock portfolio.

BETTERMENT review – my take

 

I think if you’re new to investing and don’t want to deal with the “stress” of picking out investments then Betterment could be a great option for you. Betterment really does seem to take a lot of the work out of investing for you and allows you to go with a balanced buy and hold strategy. In addition to that, they allow you to personalize an investment approach that is applicable to you personally as opposed to an advisor who may put you in something without knowing much about you or what you really want. That’s not to say that advisors are “bad” in any sense, just that you can have more control by managing it yourself.

If you’re new to investing and looking for a service to help you get your feet wet and take some of the leg work out of investing for you then Betterment could be a solid option to look at. That’s also not to say Betterment is only for newer investors as their core approach is one I’d recommend for most that are investing in the stock market. With that being said, depending on your circumstance, Betterment could be a great option to consider for your investing needs.

If you’re looking to open a new account with Betterment they do offer a new account promotion based on the amount you fund your account with. The breakdown of the Betterment promotion is as follows:

  • Fund with less than $5,000 = 1 month free of charge
  • Fund between $5,000 and $24,999 = 3 months free of charge
  • Fund between $25,000 and $99,999 = 4 months free of charge
  • Fund over $100,000 = 6 months free of charge

Open an account with Betterment today and get up to six months commission free!




What do you think of the Betterment approach to investing?

 

Photo courtesy of: 401(k)2012

 

 

Summary
Reviewer
John Schmoll
Review Date
Reviewed Item
Betterment
Author Rating
5
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I'm the founder of Frugal Rules, a Dad, husband and veteran of the financial services industry. I'm passionate about helping people learn from my mistakes so that they can enjoy the freedom that comes from living frugally. I'm also a freelance writer, and would love to help out if you have the need. If you're wanting to grow your blog, check out my blog coaching services to see how I can help you take your site to the next level.

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24 Comments

  • I’ve read a bit about Betterment before, and it sounds like good stuff. More info for Rick and I to consider as we get ready to start investing. Fun and games planned for this weekend, woohoo!
    Laurie @thefrugalfarmer recently posted…Homemade Laundry Detergent : A ReviewMy Profile

    • John says:

      Assuming it’s a good fit for you then it could be a good potential fit Laurie. Like I’ve said in the past, feel free to ask me any questions as you move closer to that Laurie I’d be happy to help. :)

  • I have been with Betterment for over a year. My account has brought in over 12% returns for the year and I think that is good enough for me. It is easy and I like it. They currently hold my Roth IRA. That being said, I will be opening a different brokerage account just to do some individual stock trading focusing around dividend paying stocks.
    Grayson @ Debt Roundup recently posted…Reader Poll – Cash Back or Travel Rewards Credit Cards?My Profile

    • John says:

      I seem to remember you mentioning that in the past Grayson. Glad to hear they’ve worked well for you and think it’s great you’ll be looking to add some to that through dividend paying stocks.

  • I do have a Betterment account and it is as easy as you said. I signed up for the bonus earlier this summer, but have kept the account open just to not pay the trading fees, which can eat up your investment if you aren’t putting in a lot of money. I’ll see after a year how the fees compare with doing the same thing at Vanguard.
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    • John says:

      That sounds good Kim, glad to hear that it has been easy for you. That said, I’d be inclined to think the fees would likely be better at Vanguard.

  • Matt Becker says:

    I think Betterment is definitely a good choice, though I would still prefer that someone start with one of Vanguard’s target date fund, as long as they can meet the $1k minimum. The fees are slightly lower, though the difference isn’t big enough to get too up in arms about. But overall I think the more services like this that exist, the better.
    Matt Becker recently posted…Navigating the Excitement and the Fear of Having a Second ChildMy Profile

    • John says:

      I think they can be, assuming it’s the right fit for your needs. I’d likely be more inclined to go the Vanguard route if you want something simple, though I do like how Betterment seems to take a lot of the guess work out for the novice investor.

  • J. Rodriguez says:

    I recently wrote a review of Betterment. It was that review that got me to start investing. I got into Betterment and earned over 9% in 4 months. I’m loving it. This is a great outline too!
    J. Rodriguez recently posted…What Are Secured Credit CardsMy Profile

  • Great review John, and I appreciate you pointing out some of the negatives of Betterment as well as the positives. I am looking to open some investment accounts in the new year, perhaps an IRA and then an individual stock trading account. I definitely appreciate your reviews so far this year on various investment companies, most of which I am looking into currently.
    DC @ Young Adult Money recently posted…Target now offers In-Store Pickup OptionMy Profile

    • John says:

      Thanks DC! Yea, each brokerage has their own set of good/bad things and those related to Betterment are a bit unique. Thanks for the feedback on the reviews, that’s my hope. I have a couple more planned over the next few months and will follow it up with a roundup overview afterwards.

  • I agree that Betterment may be good for beginning investors. I like the pool of funds they use, which are mostly low-cost Vanguard index funds. They use a strategy that is called slice-and-dice where rather than using the market cap-weighted index fund (VTI), they add in some mid and small-cap value index funds. I do some of this on my own without paying Betterment’s additional fees. My only hesitation with recommending Betterment to new or small investors is that people often stay with what they are comfortable with. That would not be all that bad with Betterment, but people would make more money by eventually handling their investments themselves. Personally, though, I would rather just give a new investor a copy of the Bogleheads’ Guide to Investing, let them read it, and then help them set up a portfolio.
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    • John says:

      I like their pool of funds and do that on my own as it is. That is a good point about new investors staying with what they’re comfortable with and can really hinder them in the long run if they stay with that mindset.

      I see your point on what you’d recommend, the problem is though that the large majority of new investors out there can’t do that effectively. I spoke with people in that spot every day for several years and even that was advanced for them.

  • Nick Loper says:

    I’ve been torn between using a service like Betterment or WealthFront, or a traditional financial advisor, but am kind of terrified by the giant upfront fees and the research to suggest that index funds outperform managed funds over the long run.

    And then reading that the Vanguard funds have even lower fees. So still not sure what to do.

    In fact, the indecision has led to sitting on the sideline for most of the year and missing a nice 25% run up!
    Nick Loper recently posted…My Best and Worst Investments of the YearMy Profile

    • John says:

      I’ve not heard much about WealthFront, so I couldn’t answer to that. I can understand not wanting the fees of a traditional advisor though.

      Sorry to hear you’ve missed out of the run up. That said, you generally can’t go wrong with a solid, low-cost index fund especially if you’re undecided on where to put your money in the market.

  • I just can’t seem to wrap my head around their fee structure, which is really kind of high (considering most accounts will likely have less than 100k), compared to a vanguard index fund. Do they use some sort of algorithm based on answers to questions, or is it personalized service?

    • John says:

      From what I’ve read and researched it’s not algo based, but it personalized to you. That said, I could certainly be wrong on that. What you have to remember about the pricing though is that you’re paying nothing for the trading, rebalancing, etc. It may not be cheaper than a Vanguard fund, but you’d be surprised at how many have difficulties deciding on a Vanguard fund.

  • Sounds like a solid approach. However, this is really just another wrapper around a diversified portfolio of index funds. Look, you can go to Fidelity, Schwab or Vanguard and get pretty much the same thing. They have detailed questionnaires to judge risk tolerance and you sit down with them to craft a portfolio of diversified no-load mutual funds, index funds and ETFs. You do a mix of large, medium and small funds that cover growth, value and blend and you can get a fairly close result with less cost.
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    • John says:

      I think it is for the right investor Steven. That said, yes many can go the route of Fidelity, Vanguard and the like but many would not even qualify to have that ability to sit down and talk with someone about the right kind of portfolio to set up for themselves because of the amount they’d be starting with. In the end, it’s another option for a beginning investor to consider as they need to make sure they find something that fits what they need and are comfortable with.

  • Cindy says:

    I keep seeing comments that Betterment is good for beginners. But is it good for someone who’s been investing but is not the DIY type. I’ve been investing for over 10 years, however I have not been active with my accounts. I’ve gone with an advisor and bought some mutual funds that they recommended and it’s just sitting there. I just came to realize how much I’m paying in fees and wanted to look at reinvesting somewhere else. I want something simple but will still get me to my retirement goal. I don’t mind paying a little bit of fees to not have to worry about researching who to invest with and opening accounts with multiple brokerage firms. I also like the automatic rebalancing and tax loss harvest. Would you say this is good for someone like me? I am concerned about the self-custodian part…is my money safe? Is the gains they say accurate?

    • John says:

      Thanks for stopping by Cindy! Not knowing your exact situation, it can be hard to say with definitive confidence that it would be good for you. That said, if you are looking for a more hands off approach that will do much of the heavy lifting for you then Betterment could be a decent option. The fact that they take care of much of the ins and outs is something that’s attractive to me as you don’t really have to deal with it day in and day out as well as having a ton of fees as a result.

      In terms of protection of your money…with Betterment being a brokerage you’re covered through SIPC insurance, which is the brokerage cousin to the FDIC. With SIPC, you’re covered up to $500,000 in account value, of which $100,000 can be cash. What SIPC essentially covers is if the brokerage goes belly up your principle is covered to that amount, though not any losses you may have incurred in the market. Short story long, you’re money would be covered up to that $500,000 threshold. :)

  • Marie Constantin says:

    How about safety with this new company? To my understanding the SPIC insurance didn’t help many of the Stanford, the Madoff, or the Morales victims. Where are the assets held? How safe are these people?

    • John Schmoll says:

      All great questions Marie! I can’t really speak much to the other victims, but I’ve read quite a bit that some of the Madoff victims were repaid by SIPC, though maybe not completely. The question, as I understand it, is whether or not they were direct investors of Madoff or if they came in indirectly.

      At any rate, in relation to Betterment, personal assets at Betterment are held in street name. Meaning, they’re separate from any other assets at Betterment and are not used to be loaned out (as in the case of a margin account). They do offer the standard SIPC coverage – $100k cash & $400k securities and they’re a custodial just like someone like Schwab or Fidelity where they’re required to keep all records of your assets.

      I hope that helps and please let me know if there is anything else I can answer in relation to this. Thanks for stopping by. :)
      John Schmoll recently posted…What Time of Day Are You More Likely to Spend Money?My Profile

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