Acorns vs Betterment vs Wealthfront: Epic Robo-Advisor Battle
- Written by Andrew Fiebert
We get a lot of emails asking which is better: Acorns vs Betterment vs Wealthfront. In this article I’m going to break down each of the services and let you know who deserves your investment.
Competition is heating up among the Robo-Advisors. For someone just looking to invest with the right service it’s getting harder and harder to tell where you should put your money. I’ve used Acorns, Betterment and Wealthfront extensively for years.
The whole point of going with a Robo-Advisor is the ease of use. Based on the research, it’s highly unlikely you’ll out perform the market on your own. Better yet, if you tried to do it on your own it would be much more expensive.
Before we get started, I also wrote an incredibly in-depth Betterment Review, an equally detailed Wealthfront Review as well as interviewed the Acorns founders so if you’re looking to go even deeper check those out. In this article I’ll be focusing more on the nuances of each service than the nitty gritty features and how they work.
Let the Robo-Advisor battle begin!
A Birds Eye View
Every good investment comparison needs a sexy chart breaking down the differences. I’m not one to leave you wanting so bask in its glory:
On paper they’re very comparable but as you know, the magic is in the details. In order to objectively compare Acorns vs Betterment vs Wealthfront I’ve come up with three main rounds the services will battle in to win your investment.
Round 1: Ease of Use and Sex Appeal
Acorns has a beautiful app and a beautiful website. It’s one of the best designed apps on my phone by a long shot. I’m of course not the only one to notice this – they’ve won some sort of design award every year since they opened their doors.
That’s definitely sexy investing, am I right or am I right? This Round was actually just going to be called Ease of Use but Acorns elevated it to Sex Appeal. I’m willing to bet this is the biggest way they get people to try them out. Sexy screenshots.
That can also be a downside though. We’re about investing for the long term here so if you need to keep opening your app just to see the pretty colors, you’ll also see daily fluctuations and go slowly insane.
These screens definitely play into ease of use as their app screams hours of OCD design discussions. From adding your checking account (see: Round-Up account later in the article) to selecting how risky you want to be – they make it all very easy. It’s important to note that while I only put up screenshots of their app, their website is equally pleasant to look at.
Betterment on the other hand does not have nearly as sexy an app. In fact, their app is pretty plain focusing on getting the job done. Get in, get out, get on with life. If you’re looking for where they flex their design chops you’ll need to visit their website.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there is beauty in simplicity and in this area Betterment has nailed it.
They’ve spent hours deciding what to remove from the app and how to tweak wording to elicit “better behavior” from their customers. For example, during a market downturn people tend to act irrationally and sell (you’re suppose to sell high, not low). By conveying the tax implications when you attempt to withdraw they’re able to keep more people doing the right thing. One point for transparency!
This is, unfortunately, where I feel Wealthfront falls flat. As a service they’ve come quite a long way in regards to their interface – this year they practically redesigned everything. That’s actually why it’s so disappointing.
While their app does look pretty sexy, all you need to do is compare and read the reviews vs Acorns and Betterment and you’ll see that there are some issues that need to be dealt with.
Acorns and Betterment have spent an enormous time here and as a result have figured out quite a bit when it comes to what works. All Wealthfront has to do is steal the good, add their personality and improve on anything they think they can do better.
That looks very familiar, where do I remember seeing that? Oh yea, it’s pretty much the exact graph Betterment has had for years with new colors and all the useful features removed. Yawn.
It’s actually not that bad if you can actually find how to get here. After they have you add in all your personal accounts your dashboard becomes a confusing mess. If I wanted to hunt and click I’d switch to Vanguard.
At the end of the day, Acorns and Betterment are easy to use in that it takes almost no effort to set them up or use them. Wealthfront is also pretty easy but requires a little more fumbling around. For a service that bills itself as the easy way to invest they really need to put more focus here.
ROUND WINNER: Acorns. Both Acorns and Betterment are easy to use but Betterment’s app isn’t nearly as sexy and you have to visit their website to see pretty graphs.
Round 2: Investing Methodology
Perhaps the biggest question I had was why invest with either of these services. Before they existed I just picked the best Vanguard funds I could find and parked my money there.
It wasn’t until I learned how they invested that got me hooked.
While both services boast that they use Modern Portfolio Theory to determine investments, Acorns takes the bragging one step further to say that their “portfolios are developed with help from Dr. Harry Markowitz, the Nobel Laureate commonly referred to as the Father of Modern Portfolio Theory“. Impressive.
That said, this is about as much as you’ll find from Acorns on how they do things. I get that most people don’t care to know the details but what about the people who do? Am I not sophisticated enough to handle it?
Betterment not only tells you what’s going on but they jump a few sharks in the process.
In addition to giving you an exhaustive 3,386 word white paper entitled “Our Investment Selection Methodology“, they proceed to give you interactive graphs and charts in every conceivable form.
It seems that not only do they want to share every nuance of their decisions, they spent a considerable amount of time making it easy to digest and, dare I say, enjoyable.
Betterment made a very conscious decision to treat me like an adult. Better yet, it feels like there is nothing to hide, all their cards are on the table. With all the attention to detail around educating me it makes me wonder how much attention to detail is baked into their product.
Acorns has 6 funds that they distribute your investments in depending on your risk level. They give it to you in this nice compact format.
Betterment has 13 funds that they distribute your investments in depending on your risk level. They give you slightly more information, and of course it’s interactive because they can’t help themselves.
Wealthfront’s Chief Investment Officer has a reputation that certainly precedes him. Burton Malkiel was a director at Vanguard for 28 years, served on the Council of Economic Advisers, was president of the American Finance Association, was dean of Yale School of Management and wrote the popular book A Random Walk Down Wall Street that’s sold over 1.5 million copies. If the guy never slept a night in his life I wouldn’t be surprised.
Their Investment Methodology white paper is certainly very nerdy and includes plenty of charts, and graphs. Bask in their glory:
I found it really cool that they shared their expectations as compared to other industry standards as well as their expected standard deviation of those results. Sufficiently nerdy with enough references and citations to make your favorite Librarian proud.
This is coming after my less than awesome impression of Wealthfront’s interface. It certainly restored a lot of confidence but, I have to admit, when you compare it to Betterment’s work in this area they are simply outdone. I learn through interaction and I was able to gather more from Betterment’s approach just tooling around on their page for 5 minutes.
ROUND WINNER: Betterment. It certainly came down to Betterment vs Wealthfront. Betterment just made better choices, went the extra mile to educate the shit out of their customers and aren’t afraid put it all out there. Not to mention they run Monte Carlo simulations and use heavy data analysis to make the best decisions. I’m throughly impressed. Celebrity names only go so far, I want to see and actually absorb the gory details.
Round 3: Advanced Features
Why invest in either Acorns, Betterment or Wealthfront? Sure, laziness is a factor but they already share everything they put my money into, what keeps me from just investing myself and saving the fee?
The first advanced feature is automatic rebalancing, a solution to what is commonly referred to as Drift. I’m talking about the one on the right.
Simply put, Drift is what happens to your portfolio over time as some investments grow faster than others. Since the past is no indication of the future, it’s important to maintain your portfolio balance.
It also helps significantly reduce risk. If in year one you think you’re at a 50% risk level, it better stay that way. Both services protect you from risk with zero tax implications.
One problem with trying to mirror what Acorns, Betterment or Wealthfront does on your own is that you’ll get charged commission from your broker every time you buy or sell. None of these Robo-Advisors charge you transaction fees so should you contribute to or withdraw from your account – it’s free. That savings alone pays for the use of the services.
After Automatic Rebalancing and Zero Transaction Fees, that’s where the feature similarity ends. Each service has one killer feature distinguishes it from the pack.
Acorn’s core feature is Round-Ups. The idea is that you link your checking accounts and credit cards to Acorns and they will round every transaction up to the nearest dollar and invest it. Spent $5.06 at Starbucks? You’ve just invested $0.94.
All these small acorns start to add up and before you know it you’re saving and investing. This is perfect for the person who has trouble saving.
Betterment and Wealthfront’s core feature is Tax Loss Harvesting (Betterment calls it TLH+). TLH harvests the natural dips in the stock market as losses to weigh against your gains automatically. I explain TLH in depth in our Betterment review as well as our Wealthfront review.
As it turns out, Wealthfront was first to market here but these days the service is practically the same on both services.
Without going too deep, with clever behind the scenes work both Betterment and Wealthfront work to reduce your “on paper” investment gains. Most people will pay a 15% tax on their investment gains. With TLH you can expect to increase your overall market gains by 0.99% or pay 14.01% in taxes. So, for every $1,000 you invest you can gain up to $10 more in tax savings.
Acorns doesn’t provide Tax Loss Harvesting. If you expect to earn more now than when you retire, Tax Loss Harvesting can be very beneficial bringing significant gains over time to your portfolio.
Wealthfront’s killer feature is Direct Indexing. As you have more money invested with Wealthfront they take advantage of economies of scale. At $100,000 and higher they will start directly investing in the stocks that make up the funds instead of just the funds themselves.
This provides two key benefits. First, you save on the fees from owning the funds themselves. So, if you were invested in VEA for example (part of most Wealthfront distributions) you’d have a yearly fee of 0.09%. With Direct Indexing you’ll start to save on fund fees because Wealthfront removes the middle man.
Betterment went outside the box and created RetireGuide. Most financial tools give a lot of lip service to retirement and how important it is but few actually put their money (and talent) where their mouth is. Betterment set the bar very, very high.
They cover the basics like how much do you make and when do you want to retire but every retirement calculator you’ve ever used does that. That’s the price of entry. What really impressed me is how they account for things like existing assets and cost of living in how much income needed in retirement.
For example, if I lived in Ames, Iowa (50010) like Thomas, Betterment’s calculator tells me that my cost of living will be 4% less expensive than the national average. However, I live in Hoboken so it’s 116% more expensive than the national average.
Therefore I’ve got to save an epic amount more both if I want to continue living here AND retire here. Having Betterment break things like this down for me is eye opening to say the least. Perhaps I need to retire next door to Thomas.
Good calculators give you the answer, great calculators make you think. This is definitely a great calculator.
ROUND WINNER:Betterment narrowly wins here. Again it comes down to Betterment vs Wealthfront here. While Wealthfront’s Direct Indexing is insanely awesome, you need to have $100k with them to take advantage which rules out most everyone.
Round-Up by Acorns is a novel idea and great for the non-savers but it wont exactly make me more money. I want my money to grow faster automatically and TLH does that. Couple that with RetireGuide and you’ve have a platform I can get behind.
Acorns vs Betterment vs Wealthfront: Bottom Line
FINAL WINNER: Betterment
Acorns is great for Students and people who can only invest what’s found in their couch cushions. Investing the “spare change” of your monthly expenses is a good idea in theory but generally doesn’t amount to much.
The average American makes 59 transactions a month. If every transaction ended in $0.01 then the average American would invest $58.41 a month with Acorns. Not enough for most people to retire on.
Considering you invest more, the Acorns platform is solid but it wont blow your mind. Sure it’s free for students but at what cost? Betterment and Wealthfront’s TLH will add 1% to your gains. Is it worth saving 0.15% to lose 1%?
Wealthfront is a sizable step up from Acorns in what it provides to their customers. Their biggest advantage is Direct Indexing – it’s the type of feature I dream about. Unfortunately it’s only for people that are far richer than I am. Perhaps when they allow normal people like me to use the service I’ll jump ship.
Both Betterment and Wealthfront were founded in 2008 so they have a few years head start on Acorns and it shows. Acorns was founded in 2012, not long before our chat with their CEOs. Four years is an eternity for startups.
They’ve also focused much more on having a well rounded platform. Some of the most frequent emails we get are about planning for retirement so any advisor should make a priority to advise. Betterment gets this.
As we’ve mentioned on the show, we think Betterment is the best platform for the average investor. Wealthfront is great for your first $15k (managed free) and then again at $100k. Acorns is a very cool and unique addition to the Robo-Advisor space but when it comes to my money I want some real advantages if I’m going to be paying for it.
Get a Deal on Your Robo-Advisor of Choice
We’ve spoken with the CEOs of all three companies. We even got schooled on Opportunity Cost with Dan Egan the head of Behavioral Finance and Investments at Betterment.
As a result we were able to nab you some deals if you join one of these Robo-Advisors through us.
5 Questions: Roth IRA’s, Investing 10K, and Using Acorns
In this episode discuss Roth IRA’s, how to invest $10 grand and using Acorns to invest your spare change.
1. Where is the best place for my Roth IRA? Vanguard has a $1000 entry barrier so it’s in Betterment which may complicate a later rollover. Should I stay in Betterment or wait until I have the $1000 for Vanguard? And where should I put it in Vanguard? Stay in the Betterment Roth, get to $1000 and roll in into Vanguard Life Cycle Fund which is not as hard as you think. Stay in Vanguard until you get $100,000 and then go back to Betterment because the fee will be lower. The most important thing is to stay in the market.
2. What is the best way to invest $10,000 when you have no debt but a low interest mortgage? Betterment or a Vanguard index fund. For that amount of money, Vanguard will have lower fees. But if you don’t want to make any decisions, use Betterment, it’s the easiest way to invest.
3. How can I stop checking my Betterment account everyday? Please help! I do this too. It’s so hard to stop. Damn geo-politics lately is messing with my shit, losing me money! But remember, we’re in for the long con. Checking it everyday is not going to resolve the situation in Syria or Ukraine or Hong Kong. Delete the apps from your phone for a start. Make it inconvenient to check. Then schedule the check up. Set it as an alert on your phone for once a week and only check it then. Slowly taper up until you’re just checking once a month or so.
4. Where should I aggressively invest $20,000? Is this enough to get into real estate in North Jersey? Our only debt is $13,000 in student loans. Debt is an emergency so pay off the loan and put the rest in Betterment or Vanguard. Let the money grow in the investment accounts so you can invest in real estate eventually.
5. I opened a Betterment account a month ago. Should I start an Acorns account too if I pay for everything on a credit card? Yes, Acorns will work with credit cards as well as debit. It pulls the rounded up amount from your checking account, not from your credit card. And it adds up. You aren’t going to retire on your little acorns but you can use them for something fun like the new iPhone.
Thanks for the questions everyone! You can send them via Twitter, Facebook or e-mail.
Tank #7 Farmhouse Ale: A Belgian style ale.
Betterment: The easy way to invest.
Acorns: Invest your small change.
Vanguard: The next step in investing.