Schwab Intelligent Portfolios review 2021

Bankrate senior reporter James F. Royal, Ph.D., covers investing and wealth management. His work has been cited by CNBC, the Washington Post, The New York Times and more.

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Schwab Intelligent Portfolios Logo

Best For

  • Entry-level plan with no advisory fee
  • Unlimited access to advisors with premium service
  • Advanced financial planning

You might initially think of broker Charles Schwab only as an option for “do-it-yourself” investors, but the dean of discount offers up a highly competent robo-advisor, too: Schwab Intelligent Portfolios. Those “do-it-for-me” investors will find Schwab an attractive option due to its no-fee structure for its base-level service, while those with a bit more coin will find the broker’s premium service a good fit, especially with its unlimited access to real financial advisors. 

Schwab makes a great fit for many investors, especially those who can make good use of its premium service. But it does require a higher minimum to get started and doesn’t offer tax-loss harvesting until you have a sizable amount of money, while rivals Betterment and Wealthfront both have more modest minimums and loss-harvesting programs available to all.   

Schwab Intelligent Portfolios at a glance

Star Rating

5
  • Cost: 5 of 5
  • Investments and Portfolios: 4.5 of 5
  • Account Types: 4.5 of 5
  • Features and Tools: 4.5 of 5
  • Customer Experience: 5 of 5
  • Account Minimum:
    $5,000 for the basic tier, $25,000 for the premium tier
  • Management Fee:
    Free for the basic tier, $30 per month for the premium tier
  • Account fees:
    None for basic, $300 one-time start-up costs for premium
  • Portfolio Mix:
    53 ETFs across 20 asset classes. Four broad portfolio strategies: global, U.S.-based, income and municipal bond
  • Fund Expense Ratio:
    Costs range from 0.05 to 0.18 percent, depending on portfolio mix
  • Account Types:
    Individual, custodial and joint taxable; Roth, traditional and rollover IRAs; trusts; SEP IRA and SIMPLE IRA
  • Cash Management Account:
    Yes, cash sweep at FDIC backed account at Schwab Bank, but must open separate account
  • Customer service:
    Phone and chat 24/7; more than 300 branch locations
  • Tax Strategy:
    Tax-loss harvesting is available and free with assets >$50,000
  • Rebalancing:
    Yes
  • Tools:
    Many goal-setting and tracking tools, including Play Zone
  • Promotion:
    Cash bonuses starting at $100 for a $1,000 deposit, up to $500

Pros: Where Schwab Intelligent Portfolios stands out

Affordability

Schwab Intelligent Portfolios has two service tiers – basic and premium. They both offer good value, although at different price points and they target audiences having varying needs.

The base-level service offers key features of a robo-advisor at no fee: portfolio management, auto rebalancing and tax-loss harvesting. That fee is lower than what you’ll find across the industry, where the standard is about 0.25 percent. To put that in perspective, you’re NOT paying about $25 annually for every $10,000 you have invested. 

The premium-level service ups the game in one key way – unlimited access to advisors with a certified financial planner (CFP) designation – and it could be a game-changer for many clients. These advisors must operate by a fiduciary standard, that is, in your best interests. 

The cost: $30 a month plus a one-time $300 set-up fee. It’s an attractive price, especially if you’re more flush with cash, because you’ll pay one flat monthly price regardless of how much money you bring to the table. In contrast, most robo-advisors charge a percentage of your assets.

So Schwab is trying to attract two groups with its robo-advisor: entry-level investors with some but not a lot of money and those with a bit more who can see the value in its premium tier. 

Of course, investors will also have to pay for the ETFs they’re invested in, as they would at any robo-advisor or if they invested on their own. Schwab says that a typical portfolio would have an expense ratio of between 0.05 and 0.18 percent, with more conservative portfolios being on the lower end and more aggressive ones toward the higher end. In terms of money, that would be a cost of $5 to $18 annually for every $10,000 you have invested there. 

Premium-tier human advising

Just a few more words on Schwab’s premium tier, because it tries to solve a problem that many investors have with traditional robo-advisors: the lack of a human advisor for less routine questions and more specialized expert support. So by adding a human advisor into its offering, Schwab is trying to bridge a gap in what a typical robo-advisor provides. That’s the big added feature of the premium tier and likely the most compelling reason for you to upgrade to it. 

But you’ll have to bring at least $25,000 to take advantage. For that reason the premium tier is not likely to make sense for many investors. And depending on your needs, it may not even make sense at this minimum. At the minimum threshold, you’ll pay an effective fee of 0.7 percent (still well below a typical human advisor’s 1 percent fee), though that rate falls quickly as you grow your assets. Sitting on a million bucks? You’re still paying only that $360 fee, an effective rate of below 0.04 percent. So it can be highly beneficial for the mass affluent. 

The premium tier provides serious value for those who can bring money to the relationship.

Customer support

One of Schwab’s strengths as a broker is its customer support, whether that’s via phone, chat or physical branches. So it’s good to see that robo-advisor customers have access to the company with the same high level of service as its brokerage customers. That includes 24/7 access to U.S.-based customer support via phone or chat. 

You’ll also be able to go into a Schwab branch, at more than 300 locations, for further help. For some clients this physical presence may be an advantage over online-only rivals. 

Smooth onboarding

The onboarding process is as smooth and as seamless as these things go. It’s particularly easy if you’re already a Schwab client, because much of your personal information is already loaded into the account, and all you need to do is verify that it’s correct and agree to some legalese. 

From there you’ll answer a dozen questions about your goals, risk tolerance and return expectations. Are you saving for a specific goal, such as college, a house or retirement? The robo-advisor takes those specific needs into account as it creates your portfolio. 

As you go through the questions, you can see your portfolio allocations take shape in a pie chart to the left. You’re comfortable with risk and want to buy more stock when the market is down? Watch your allocation to stocks climb! If you decide later that you don’t like your portfolio allocation, you can redefine your profile and receive different allocations. 

You can be up and running in 10 minutes easily, and then you’ll just need to fund the account. If you already have assets at Schwab, you can quickly transfer them over and be on your way. 

Broad range of investment options

In total, Schwab Intelligent Portfolios uses 51 different ETFs across 26 different asset classes, and these form the building blocks of all potential portfolios. A larger range of investment choices may allow the robo-advisor to tailor the portfolio better to achieve desired outcomes.  

Schwab offers three broad portfolio strategies from which it can customize your individual portfolio:

  • A global strategy, which includes U.S. and international stocks, fixed income and cash
  • A U.S.-based strategy, which includes U.S. stocks, fixed income and cash
  • An income-focused strategy, which offers more exposure to "blue-chip" companies, higher-yielding assets such as preferred stocks and other short-term floating-rate notes

The robo-advisor can also substitute tax-free municipal bonds in place of fixed income securities, where it may make sense for taxable accounts and higher-income individuals. 

Quick comparison of Robo-Advisor options:
Robo-Advisor Overall Rating Cost Rating Investments and Portfolios
Schwab Intelligent Portfolios logo
5 4.5 of 5
Wealthfront review 2021 logo Read Our Review
5 5 of 5
Betterment review 2021 logo Read Our Review
5 5 of 5
Ellevest review 2021 logo Read Our Review
4.5 5 of 5

Cons: Where Schwab Intelligent Portfolios could improve

Account minimum

There’s no question that Schwab’s minimums are way above what the rest of the industry typically requires to open an account (i.e., nothing or virtually nothing). You won’t be able to access even the basic service without bringing $5,000 to the account, and the premium tier requires a much heftier $25,000. 

In the case of the premium tier, it may already be a moot point if you have relatively few assets. Why pay the monthly fee, especially if you don’t need the access to human advisors. For the basic service, though, you’ll have to show some financial commitment to access Schwab’s no-fee package. 

Invested heavily in Schwab funds

Let’s be very clear: Schwab uses many of its own branded funds in constructing your portfolio, and that’s one way it can afford to offer its robo-advisor at no end cost to investors. By investing your money in its own funds, it earns fee income from those investments.  

There’s a conflict of interest here, but Schwab discloses clearly (not just in the fine print) that it does so and does not duck the issue at all. In fact, Schwab discloses which ETFs it’s using for a given investment category. So you can easily look up the costs of these funds.

For stock funds (as of April 2020), Schwab funds are the primary choice for all but a handful of investment selections, while Vanguard funds make up a large portion of secondary ETFs. For bond funds, Schwab selections comprise just a handful of the primary choices, with Vanguard and other well-regarded names dotting the field.  

What does this mean for you? It may mean you’re paying more for a category than if you went with an independent robo. But it may also mean that you’re getting the lowest expense ratio on the market. And it looks like this second option is closer to the truth. 

In comparing the robo’s primary and secondary ETF selections, Schwab funds were at least as cheap as the secondary funds being used. That doesn’t mean it’s using the cheapest ETFs on the market, but if they’re beating a discount leader like Vanguard, they’re doing something right.

Finally as a practical matter, even if Schwab doesn’t use the very cheapest fund, it’s offering average expenses of between 0.05 and 0.18 percent on its investment portfolios. Even if the broker were charging a slightly higher price of 0.01 or 0.02 percent, it would end up costing you literally $1 or $2 annually for every $10,000 you have invested – small potatoes. 

Tax strategy

One downside to Schwab Intelligent Portfolios is that you’ll need at least $50,000 in the account to take advantage of its tax-loss harvesting service, which has the robo trying to maximize your tax benefit. So if you have the minimum amount on either the basic or premium tiers, you still won’t be able to access this potentially valuable feature. That’s too bad, when major competitors such as Wealthfront and Betterment provide this feature to all users.

You’ll have to specifically opt into tax-loss harvesting, which you can do as you open your account or later. 

Bottom line

Schwab Intelligent Portfolios offers a robo-advisor that is likely to work well for many investors, and it could be a natural add-on for those who already have an account with the broker. The no-fee structure is a great enticement, of course, but those who can use the premium service tier (when it makes financial sense) will derive a lot of value from real fiduciary advisors, especially as their assets climb but their fees don’t. And Schwab competes favorably by bringing its solid reputation for customer support into the mix, too. 

If you’re looking to get a robo-advisor at a low cost, you could also look at SoFi Automated Investing or even Ellevest, which offers an investing plan at just $1 a month. Or if you need unlimited access to financial advisors you could turn to Betterment’s Premium plan.  

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