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Robo-advisers have become popular in the past few years, and industry experts expect them to become even more popular in the years ahead. That’s because robo-advisers offer low-cost financial advice that meets the needs of many investors.

What is a robo-adviser?

The term robo-adviser sounds really high-tech, but it’s actually much simpler than you might think. A robo-adviser is a financial adviser that uses an investment program, an algorithm, to automatically select investments for you.

The investment choices are based on things such as:

  • How much risk you’re willing to bear
  • What level of returns you want
  • When you need the money

Based on these factors and others, the robo-adviser selects a portfolio of exchange-traded funds (ETFs) using sound investment management. For example, the robo-adviser creates a diversified portfolio of ETFs, rather than just investing it all in one fund. Extensive research has shown that diversification reduces your risk and can actually increase your returns.

It’s simple to get started with a robo-adviser, and you can quickly set up an account online. And because it’s online and automated, robo-advisers are much cheaper than traditional in-person financial advice. Plus, you usually get some other cool benefits thrown in, too. Features such as portfolio rebalancing and tax-loss harvesting are typically offered, both of which should improve your returns over time.

Here are the best robo-advisers in December:

What does a robo-adviser cost?

While the costs vary from service-to-service, typically the cost of a robo-adviser has two major components:

  • Management fee: This fee typically costs 0.25 percent to 0.5 percent of your assets on an annual basis, though fees may be lower or higher. So every $10,000 invested would incur management fees of $25 to $50.
  • Funds’ expense ratios: The robo-adviser will invest your money in various funds that also charge fees based on your assets. The fees can vary widely, but range from 0.05 percent to 0.65 percent, costing $5 to $65 annually for every $10,000 invested, though some funds may cost more. These fees will be deducted proportionally on a daily basis by the fund company, and they will be almost invisible to you.

While sometimes the robo-adviser charges a few incidental fees when you require something special, in general you won’t run up any extra charges. So it doesn’t cost you anything extra to buy and sell funds, move money out of your account or change your allocation if your risk tolerance changes.

Since you’re investing, your returns aren’t guaranteed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), so you can lose money. However, money that your robo-adviser puts in a cash account is typically protected by the FDIC.

Overview: Top robo-advisers in 2019

Betterment – Best for service

As one of the top players in the industry, Betterment sets the standard for service. It offers automatic rebalancing, tax-loss harvesting, a personalized retirement plan as well as the opportunity to buy fractional shares in funds so that all your money is invested rather than having to wait until you have enough funds to buy a full share. You can sync outside accounts, too, and receive advice on them, while customer support is available seven days a week. Betterment’s premium plan ups the game with access to a human adviser.

Management fee: 0.25 percent – 0.4 percent, depending on service level

Account minimum: $0

Wealthfront – Best for low fees

One of the largest robo-advisers, Wealthfront offers goal-based investing that helps you understand how your financial choices today affect your future. Wealthfront also provides tax-loss harvesting, and the fees on its ETFs are among the lowest in the industry. Plus, the firm provides attractive interest rates on its FDIC-insured cash management account, and doesn’t charge management fees for it, either.

Management fee: 0.25 percent

Account minimum: $500

Ellevest – Best for goal-based investing

While Ellevest targets women specifically, its financial planning incorporates the needs of everyone. Ellevest is great for goal-based investing, even if you have multiple goals. The basic service level offers automatic rebalancing and tax minimization, while the premium account ups the ante with one-on-one access to certified financial planners and executive coaches.

Management fee: 0.25 percent – 0.5 percent, depending on service level

Account minimum: $0, for the basic service level

SoFi Invest – Best for educational resources

SoFi has expanded into the realm of robo-advisers with an incredibly investor-friendly service. The company provides automatic rebalancing and goal-based planning to help you reach your life objectives. Plus, you’ll get career services, access to financial advisers and discounts on other SoFi products for no extra cost.

Management fee: none

Account minimum: $1

Charles Schwab Intelligent Portfolios – Best for usability

With its Intelligent Portfolio robo-advisery, Charles Schwab is going hard after the robo-adviser market. Well-known for its investor-friendly practices, Schwab brings this same spirit to robos, with no-cost features such as rebalancing, automatic tax-loss harvesting and 24/7 access to U.S.-based customer service.

Management fee: none

Account minimum: $5,000

Bottom line

The biggest advantage of opening a robo-adviser account is having an experienced company manage your money at a reasonable fee. But once you’ve opened the account, you’re just getting started. You’ll want to continue investing money over time to increase your savings. Now more than ever, it’s easy to open an account and get started on the path to financial security.

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Editorial Disclaimer: All investors are advised to conduct their own independent research into investment strategies before making an investment decision. In addition, investors are advised that past investment product performance is no guarantee of future price appreciation.