|Disclosure: Please note that this article may contain affiliate links|
Ok, let’s get this out of the way first:
What exactly do you mean when you say free?
By free, what we are referring to here, are the robo advisors that don’t charge a management fee.
Of course now you may wonder what are the other potential costs and how are these free services able to make money?
The answer is that depending on which robo you use, there can be trading or withdrawal fees and there is also another fee called expense ratio, you can read about that here.
Typically however the above mentioned fees will not be too exorbitant, I am not saying that you should ignore them but the management fee is usually what makes up the biggest part.
Best Free Robo Advisors – My top 3 picks
The following are my top 3 picks. There are some alternatives further down the article, please do your due diligence before choosing.
1. SoFi Invest
I have selected SoFi Invest as my top low budget pick because it is hard to beat a service that comes without management fee, a minimum account balance of $1 and even a smart beta investing strategy.
You can choose between 10 different investment strategies. The portfolios are a mix of ETFs and stocks.
To top if off, you have free access to certified financial planners.
The only downside is the lack of tax loss harvesting.
2. M1 Finance
If you’re looking for a combination of robo-advisor with DIY investing, M1 Finance offers the best of both worlds.
M1 allows both self-directed and robo-investing. In other words, you can pick your investments, while allowing the M1 robo-advisor to manage it for you.
M1 requires $0 money to open an account and they have a $0 management fee. You can invest in individual stocks or ETFs, but if your account has no activity for 90 days, they charge a fee. You need plenty of financial know-how if you want to take over your investments, though. M1 doesn’t use financial advisors, so all decisions are between you and the M1 algorithm.
Investors that know what they’re doing and don’t need hand-holding when creating goals do well with M1. You can set up automatic deposits and you have access to a line of credit equal to 35% of your portfolio if you have at least $10,000 invested. M1 operates in ‘pies’ or circular charts with each piece representing a piece of the investment.
3. Schwab Intelligent Portfolios
How does sophisticated investing without a management fee sound?
That’s what Charles Schwab Intelligent Portfolios offers. They have a large ETF selection and automatically rebalance your portfolio as needed. It’s a great way to have hands-off investing that helps you reach your goals without the stress involved with DIY investing.
You do need a minimum of $5,000 to open an account, and if you have as much as $25,000 invested, you have access to its premium account, which does cost $30 per month but provides unlimited access to its financial advisors. Schwab offers investments from 20 different asset classes and with 53 ETFs to choose from. You can open both non-retirement and retirement accounts including Roth and rollover IRAs.
The one downside is that you need $50,000 invested for Schwab to implement tax-loss harvesting strategies, but they offer access to a variety of cash management products with decent APYs.
Another bonus? Schwab offers 24/7 customer service – that’s not something you find with many robo-advisors.
Some of the following alternatives do come with a management fee, but don’t let that scare you. They all come with a unique angle and one of them may just be the perfect match for you.
If you want a free personal finance dashboard, look no further than Personal Capital.
You don’t have to sign up for their advisory services, but you can use their personal finance tools that include a spending tracker, asset allocation, and 401K checkup.
The personal finance dashboard gives you a bird’s-eye view of your finances overall. Learn your net worth, cash flow, spending patterns, and portfolio balances all in one place. It takes the confusion and stress out of figuring out where you stand.
When it comes to investing, you get access to a human advisor with Personal Capital, so it’s a bit of a hybrid robo-advisor. The downside is that you need $100,000 to take advantage of their investment services. Personal Capital charges 0.89% of your assets under management if you have less than $200,000 invested. If you have more than $200,000, not only do you get lower fees, but you also get two dedicated financial advisors on your account.
Personal Capital doesn’t charge any other account fees and everyone (even those with less than $200,000 invested) have access to a team of financial advisors. You may not talk to the same advisor each time, but they all operate with the same philosophies.
When it comes to DIY investing this is the one true competitor that M1 Finance has. The platform is heavily geared towards mobile users and a younger customer base in general.
If you are into short term trading this could definitely be an interesting choice for you. Check out our in-depth comparison between M1 Finance and RobinHood to know all about the differences.
Are you a socially responsible investor? If so, you’ll love Wealthsimple and its various socially responsible portfolio options. You may also love the access to financial advisors; no matter how much you have invested – that’s hard to come by with robo-advisors.
WealthSimple’s management fee is a bit on the high side, though, so it makes up for everything that you get.
With its $0 minimum opening balance requirement, Wealthsimple is great for beginners just starting. Wealthsimple doesn’t charge any other account fees except for the management fee, so you don’t have to worry about hidden fees eating your profits. Wealthsimple offers between 6 – 10 asset classes, with a focus on social responsibility. You can open a taxable account, IRA, Roth IRA, and SEP account.
Wealthsimple offers re-balancing as needed and tax-harvesting strategies. They also have excellent customer service hours. Wealthsimple is great for those just starting out that don’t want the little amount of money they invest to get eaten up by fees. You can even buy fractional shares with Wealthsimple which makes it easy to invest in even the most expensive stocks, as you only have to buy the portion you can afford.
Futureadivsor is another free robo-advisor (sort of). The free services don’t involve investment management, automatic rebalancing, or tax-loss harvesting. You need at least $5,000 invested and to pay a management fee of 0.50% to get all of those services and more.
If you already have a TD Ameritrade or Fidelity account, Futureadvisor makes sense, but it’s also great for DIY investors that want the comfort of a robo-advisor without too much ‘in your face’ pressure. In other words, you can do what you want, to a point, and still use the benefits of Futureadvisor.
The ETF expense ratios range from 0.14% to 0.18%, and there aren’t any other account fees. However, you may incur your own fees if you have to transfer from your broker to TD Ameritrade or Fidelity to use Futuradvisor’s services. Futureadvisor has up to 12 asset classes, but they aren’t transparent on the number of ETFs they offer.
If you have a managed account (pay the management fee), you get free tax-loss harvesting and automatic rebalancing, which is the point of a robo-advisor. That gives you the hands-off feeling while you still have some control.
Futuradvisor offers access via email and phone Monday – Friday and they have plenty of financial tools to help you maximize your savings and investments.
Wealthfront is great for beginners. Even if you don’t have any experience in investing, Wealthfront makes it easy.
All you need is $500 and you can open an account. Wealthfront walks you through the sign-up process and it’s so simple. Just enter your personal information and then answer the simple questions they ask that assess your goals and risk tolerance. From there, Wealthfront takes over.
They create a great portfolio for you that you can tweak if you don’t like something. Wealthfront has low-cost ETFs with an average expense ratio of 0.08%. They have 11 asset classes to choose from, and the average portfolio includes around 6 of them.
Wealthfront allows you to open a variety of accounts including IRA, Roth IRA, college savings plan, and a cash account. There’s no management fee for the cash account, but all others have a 0.25% management fee.
Wealthfront uses tax-loss harvesting and offers smart beta investing for those with $500,000 invested. They automatically rebalance portfolios, but they don’t have an option for any type of human financial advice. Wealthfront is a true robo-advisor where everything is done online and is based on your answers, giving you a hands-off but successful way to invest.
Which is the best free robo advisor?
That depends what you are looking for in a robo advisor. In my opinion M1 Finance is the best solution if you are a self-directed investor who wants full control over your portfolio. If, however you are more of a set-it-forget type of investor, Schwab or SoFi Invest may be a better fit for you. Take a look at our comparison to make a well-informed decision.
Are they really free?
Free in this context means that the advisory doesn’t charge a management fee which is usually the biggest cost.
Depending on which robo you use, there can be other fees such as trading or withdrawal fees and there is also another fee called expense ratio that comes with investing in ETFs that you can also expect with most robos. Also keep in mind that some have an account minimum that can be pretty high.
How do free robo advisors make money?
These companies can make money from interest, for example on lending securities or interest on margin loans. They will also try to upsell you other services, it is estimated that the income robo advisors make from fees is only 20-30% of their overall income.
In fact, many investors speculate that in the near future, more and more robo advisors will switch to a zero-fee model.
Guide – things to consider before choosing
Before you choose a robo-advisor (free or not), you should know what to consider. No two robo-advisors are the same and no two people have the same needs.
Check out this guide on what you should look for in a robo-advisor.
Let’s face it; if you don’t have enough money to cover the minimum deposit, it’s not worth investing there. Many robo-advisors, like Wealthsimple don’t require a minimum deposit. You can open an account with nothing, but honestly, where does that get you? While it’s nice to know you don’t need a balance, you essentially do if you want to reach your goals.
Some robo-advisors, though require large minimum depots, we’re talking in the thousands. This should be one of the first things you look at. If you can’t meet the deposit requirements, you’ll either face excessive fees or be unable to use the services. Stick with advisors that fit within your means.
Ease of Use
You deal with a robo-advisor primarily online, so you want one that is user friendly. Now, what you consider user-friendly and what I consider it may be two different things. Make sure you take the time to explore the app – see what it’s like. Do you feel comfortable with it? Can you navigate to where you want to go easily?
Investing is stressful enough. If you can’t manage the robo-advisor’s platform, you won’t find any relief in using a robo-advisor at all. Take your time and feel out the system before deciding. Most of the robo-advisors we mentioned above have great user-friendliness, but remember, it’s a matter of personal opinion.
Do you want a robo-advisor that gives you a little more leeway? For example, M1 Finance allows the perfect combination of DIY investing with robo-advisor tendencies. Maybe you don’t need something that flexible, but think about what you need.
Will your goals change? Do you need a robo-advisor that allows you to make changes? A lot of them don’t, so keep this in mind as you shop around. If you want to change your risk tolerance or add another goal, you need a flexible robo-advisor that allows multiple goals and changes throughout your investments.
Not all robo-advisors offer the same account types. Think about your goals. Are you saving for:
- A house
Each of these has different goals and needs. For example, if you’re saving for retirement, do you want a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA? A traditional IRA offers tax benefits now and a Roth IRA offers tax benefits when you retire. What about college? Do you want a college savings plan or a taxable account? You have a lot of decisions to make and then once you know, you need an advisor that offers what you need.
Not all robo-advisors, for example, offer Roth IRAs or college savings plans.
Types of assets
What assets does the robo-advisor offer? Look at the asset classes and the type of assets. Wealthfront, for example, has 11 asset classes. Do you want to invest in things you are familiar with or that you believe in? For example, is social responsibility important to you? Not all advisors offer socially responsible trading, so you may have to look around to find what you want.
Think of the ETFs too. Not only should they align with your beliefs and risk tolerance, but look at their cost. What’s the expense ratio? There’s no sense in losing all of your earnings just to pay for the ETFs.
If a robo-advisor lets you set more than one goal, make sure they are integrated. If they aren’t, you’ll find yourself saving for one until it’s complete and then moving to the next goal. While it’s great to complete one goal, you’ll be so far behind with the other that you’ll need to play catch-up. If you have more than one goal in mind, look for a robo-advisor that has the capability to manage it.
Do you need something else out of your robo-advisor? Do you need a loan or do you want deeper financial advice? Each robo-advisor has its own ‘quirks.’ Look around to see what they offer. You may find services you didn’t even think you needed until you knew they existed. Why not get all of your financial services from one provider? It makes it more convenient, easier on you, and sometimes less expensive.
Look for the robo-advisor that suits your needs. No two people have the same investment needs. You’ll want a robo-advisor that’s affordable, easy to use, and provides the advice/investments you need to make the most of your money.
If you have any questions or want to share your experience with any of these services, please comment below!
Michael is a senior writer at The Robo Investor. He earned his master’s at the Craig Newmark School of Journalism at CUNY, and is currently taking CFP courses at the University of Scranton. He has been an avid finance enthusiast ever since he started investing at the age of 23. Meet the Team