Robo-Advisors Can Simplify Your Investments. Here’s How to Decide If It Makes Sense For You

Image to accompany article explaining what robo-advisors are, and how to decide if one makes sense for your investing strategy Getty Images / NanoStockk
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For newbie and hands-off investors, robo-advisors are one of the best ways to handle your investments. They’re enticing with low fees, friendly user interfaces, and minimal work on your part. 

If you’re just getting into investing and want to explore all your options, you’ll want to know what a robo-advisor is and if getting one is the right fit for you.

What Is a Robo-Advisor?

A robo-advisor is an automated investing software that uses your personal investing information to make investment decisions on your behalf. 

“The first robo-advisor to hit the market was Betterment in the aftermath of the Great Recession,” says Riley Adams, a CPA, senior financial analyst at Google and owner of Young and the Invested. “The company pioneered the idea of asking their users questions and making investment portfolio decisions based on these answers and the goals they have.”

Over the last nearly 15 years, other companies have popped up or created robo-advisor branches to already existing firms. For instance, Fidelity has Fidelity Go, its robo-advisor offering alongside its traditional advisory platform. Betterment, Wealthfront, and Ellevest all began as robo-advisor-only firms. 

How Robo-Advisors Work

When you sign up with a robo-advisor, they all start with some basic questions about you, like how old you are, your investment goals, and how much you can reasonably contribute to your account. Based on algorithms or mathematical rules and formulas, the tool determines an appropriate model for your investment portfolio based on your needs and preferences.

“A robo-advisor platform has an initial data gathering process where you answer questions related to your finances, risk tolerance, and timeframe,” says Cassandra Kirby, private wealth advisor at Braun-Bostich & Associates, a financial advisory firm. 

Using software, the robo-advisor puts together your entire investment portfolio within a few minutes. You can do it without ever talking to another human. This is one of the most appealing parts. 

“One of the best ways to outperform the stock market is through not making mistakes when everyone else does,” Adams says. “Often, emotion drives these mistakes. Robo-advisors don’t fall prey to emotions, instead relying on programmatic investment elections and asset allocations.”

Some people like the idea of working with a human to get tailored, specific financial advice. But it’s not required to get started or even have an ongoing relationship with your investments. A common barrier for newbie investors is removing the idea that you need to be an expert investor. In reality, you only need a few dollars (and minutes) to get started.

Cost of a Robo-Advisor

Most robo-advisors charge either a fixed monthly fee or a percentage of assets under management (AUM), somewhere around 0.25% to 0.50%. Adams says your portfolio determines which fee would work best for you.

“If you plan to build a large portfolio in quick fashion, choosing a low-fixed fee might save you more over time,” he says. 

Let’s take a look at what that looks like in real money. Ellevest charges $1 a month for its essential tier, which includes investing. If you open your account with $5, 20% of your cost is going to paying for the Ellevest platform. As you continue to add money, that percentage goes down. If you have $100,000 in your account, $1 is 0.001% of your assets under management — far less than some competitors.

Betterment charges 0.25% of your assets under management. For $1,000, that equates to about $2.50 a year. But for $100,000, that’s $250 a year.

These might seem like big numbers, but using a human financial advisor might cost you even more. Adams says most financial advisors charge anywhere from 0.50% to 1.5% or more of AUM. But you’re getting personalized attention, with someone building out an entire financial plan and managing your investments that are tailored just for you.

Besides robo-advisors, there still is an option of managing your investments yourself. Picking low-cost ETFs, target date funds, or mutual funds that track broad indexes are good options. Just be sure to pick funds with low expense ratios, or fees

Some robo-advisors offer a hybrid option, letting you roll with a robo-advisor most of the time but offering financial advisors for when you want to talk to someone. Sometimes this is included in your fee, other times it’s an extra fee.

But all in all, these services make it easier to start planning for the future and get your financial goals in order. 

Pro Tip

For many newbie and novice investors, robo-advisors can be a great way to invest. With low fees and minimal management, you can get started with just a few dollars.

Is a Robo Advisor Right for You?

Getting started with investing is already going to take some homework. To make sure you’re choosing the right type of advisor, ask yourself a few questions, like:

What are my needs? 

If you don’t have a lot of assets, family, or even knowledge about investing but you know how beneficial it is to long-term financial growth, a robo-advisor should be enough. But the more money you have (and the more assets you own), the more you might need tailored financial advice. This way, someone can work with your specific situation to make sure your investments are working right for you.

What can I handle? 

If you’re interested in learning the ins and outs of the stock market and hand-picking your stocks and other securities, you might want to look at discount brokers rather than robo-advisors. Brokers let you handle all the work yourself and the fees tend to be less compared to robo-advisors, depending on what you’re investing in. 

What are my long-term investment plans? 

The vast majority of people only use investment accounts to fund retirement. But that doesn’t mean that’s the only type of investment account out there. If you want to put money away for retirement, you can set it with a robo-advisor. If you need help with other financial things, like buying a home or getting a budget in order, you may want to think about talking to a financial advisor. 

Can I talk to a human? 

If you really don’t want to miss out on human interaction, it’s fine to explore personal financial advisors. But if you’re just jumping into investing, a financial advisor might not be beneficial and a robo-advisor is enough.