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Investing for retirement with a robo-advisor

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Robo-advisors have been one of the fastest-growing sectors of the investment world over the last decade. The reason: they help investors develop an investment portfolio at low cost, typically well below what a traditional financial advisor charges for similar services. In fact, many robo-advisors offer services that a human advisor would never be able to provide.

Getting your retirement right is a big deal, and a robo-advisor can help you get there. These automated advisors can build an investment portfolio based on your needs, such as when you want to retire and how much risk you can stomach. It’s simple to get started and easy to continue growing your wealth. You can add money over time – ideally, on a regular basis – and the robo-advisor keeps you moving toward a more secure future.

Here’s what a robo-advisor is and how you can use one to invest for your own retirement.

What is a robo-advisor?

We all get nervous when it comes to our money, and that’s why the term robo-advisor seems so off-putting to some people. They don’t like the idea of some computer system managing their money. Not only does it not seem to fit their needs, but it may even feel downright dangerous to some. Those are reasonable concerns when you first encounter the idea of a robo-advisor.

However, a robo-advisor has been programmed to do what a human financial advisor does. A robo-advisor is just an algorithm, a computer process, that mimics the decision-making and considerations that a real, live advisor would make.

If you told your advisor that you needed money for a goal – buying a house, paying for a college education, retirement – a good advisor would select investments that meet those needs.

For example, if you needed money in the short-term, an advisor would select a financial product such as a CD that guarantees a specific return over a specific time frame, when you need it. If you have a longer-term goal such as retirement, then the advisor would select investments that better fit that goal and that deliver higher, long-term returns.

This process is exactly what a robo-advisor does, too. To build a portfolio that meets your needs, robo-advisors typically use exchange-traded funds (ETFs). ETFs are among the cheapest ways to invest, and they can be mixed and matched to create a wide range of portfolios that meet your individual needs and risk tolerance.

How to invest for retirement through a robo-advisor

Here are the things you will need to get started with a robo-advisor. Once you’ve selected a robo-advisor, you can get your account opened and funded in minutes. So it’s super easy to get started on your way to a more comfortable retirement.

If you want to open a retirement-focused account such as an IRA, you can do that through a robo-advisor. If you want a general investing account, the robo-advisor can do that, too.

1. Select a robo-advisor

Selecting a robo-advisor is actually one of the more difficult steps in the process, in part because the steps that follow are so easy. Robo-advisors compete on the features they offer and their management fees, and you’ll want to compare them across the following traits:

  • Management fee: This is the fee you’ll pay to the robo-advisor for managing your account. It’s generally figured as a percentage of your invested assets. The industry standard is 0.25 percent annually, though some robo-advisors charge more or less.
  • Their funds’ expense ratios: Each robo-advisor offers a different selection of ETFs, and you’ll want to check to see how much these funds charge. ETFs charge investors a percentage of the amount invested. Any number under 0.10 percent is excellent.
  • The number of funds offered: A robo-advisor may offer fewer than 10 funds or more than 100 — with many offering a couple dozen. A higher number of funds may allow the robo-advisor to craft a more customized portfolio.
  • Tax-loss harvesting: Tax-loss harvesting is the technique of selling losing investments for a tax benefit, and it can help reduce your taxes and boost your long-term gains. It’s a premium feature that many robo-advisors don’t offer.
  • Automatic portfolio rebalancing: Portfolio rebalancing helps bring your portfolio back into alignment with the long-term allocations recommended by the robo-advisor. Some robo-advisors can do this with minimal impact to your taxes.
  • Goal-planning tools: Goal-planning tools can help you figure out whether you’re on track for your goals, whether that’s retirement, a house or something else.
  • Option for a human advisor: Some robo-advisors give you access to human advisors for no extra cost or for an extra fee. These advisors can prove helpful when you have an unusual question or need further advice.
  • Customer support: A widely available customer support team can answer more routine questions and help you out with technical aspects of a service.

These traits are some of the most important, but you’ll also want to consider your own needs and whether a given robo-advisor fits those, rather than whether it’s the most popular.

For example, you may find it useful to have a yearly meeting with a certified financial planner to ensure that you’re on track to your goal. This popular feature may cost more, requiring an upgrade to your service, though some robo-advisors offer it as part of their base account.

To get you started, here are some of the most highly rated robo-advisors:

Betterment and Ellevest are independent robo-advisors, while Schwab, Fidelity and SoFi offer these services as part of a broader selection of services. Here’s Bankrate’s complete rundown on the top robo-advisors.

2. Fill out an information sheet and risk questionnaire

After you’ve decided on a robo-advisor, you can move through the process relatively quickly. You’ll fill out some basic information, including your name, address and other personal information to set up your account.

One important step in this process is a questionnaire that assesses your risk tolerance, and it’s the same kind of questions you would answer for a human advisor. The questionnaire gauges how much risk you’d be willing to take on in order to get a certain level of return.

It provides scenarios that ask you to envision how you’d react to, say, the stock market going down 20 percent. Would you want to sell, buy more or do nothing? Would you be willing to accept a 10 percent loss in exchange for 20 percent gain?

At this point, some robo-advisors may also ask you about your financial goals. Maybe you want to buy a new car in a few years or a house, or perhaps you’re just amassing money without a specific goal other than retirement or financial independence.

The more honest you are about your goals and risk tolerance, the more the robo-advisor will be able to tailor your portfolio to meet them.

3. Determine how much you can invest

Based on your goal, the robo-advisor will construct a portfolio of funds that should get you there. The robo-advisor considers your risk tolerance, income and timeline when constructing the portfolio. So, a lower risk tolerance would lead to safer investments, though they probably offer a lower overall return, while a higher risk tolerance leads to higher-return funds.

It’s a similar situation with your investment timeline. If you’re investing for retirement and you have a few decades before you need the money, the portfolio is likely to offer a higher-risk, higher-return portfolio – think more stocks and fewer bonds. Your longer time horizon gives you time to ride out the stock market’s ups and downs, resulting in an expected higher long-term return.

If you have a short-term goal such as a down payment on a house within three years, then the robo-advisor will make a portfolio to hit that timeline. For short timeframes, a portfolio will likely consist of less risky investments such as bonds and money market funds. These will offer lower returns, but won’t usually fluctuate as much, so the money is likely to be there when you need it.

Based on these factors, the robo-advisor helps you decide how much to invest to meet your targets. But the final decision is always in your hands. You’ll have to decide how comfortable you are with committing money to the strategy and how much you’ll be able to contribute.

4. Deposit money regularly

After you’ve set up your plan, you’ll be able to set up how much money you want to contribute to it. One choice is to commit money regularly to your retirement plan. You’ll take advantage of an investment strategy called dollar-cost averaging, in which you average your purchase prices over time. Unless you follow the market closely, this strategy could be the optimum one for you. If you have a 401(k) account, then you’re already undertaking this strategy there.

So, find an amount that you can save regularly, set up the robo-advisor to withdraw that amount and then sit back and let the investments work. While this step looks easy, it will become harder when the markets fall, because you’ll be tempted to stop contributing and wait until things look “safe.” But the best returns are made when everyone is panicked, such as in March 2020.

5. Retire comfortably

If you’ve set up your account and are contributing regularly, then you’re taking the steps to a comfortable retirement. As your income grows, you should consider adding more to your robo-advisor account and keep the progress going. Regular investments should put you on track to a financially secure future and maybe even financial independence (and an early retirement).

Why let a robo-advisor manage your money?

Robo-advisors have become so popular because they meet investors’ needs and do so at a low cost. Those are two of the largest reasons to consider checking into robo-advisors to better learn what they have to offer.

Robo-advisors use the same decision-making tools that a human advisor would to select investments for you. Many robo-advisors allow you to set specific goals, when you want to meet that goal, as well as how much risk you’re willing to take on. Then the robo-advisor selects the funds to create an investment portfolio that should meet that goal.

Robo-advisors perform these tasks for a lower cost than traditional advisors. Because financial decision-making is automatic, it can be cheaper to create an algorithm that does it all through software. That often saves investors money in reduced expenses, which can then be invested.

For example, a traditional advisor might charge 1 percent of your assets (annually) to manage your money. On a $10,000 portfolio, that’s $100. Now, that may not sound like much, but what if you have a $100,000 portfolio? The advisor is likely making the same kinds of decisions about where to invest, but since you have more money, you’re paying more for those decisions — $1,000, to be exact.

A robo-advisor lowers those costs substantially. A standard robo-advisor may charge 0.25 percent of your assets annually. In other words, on a $10,000 portfolio, that’s $25 annually. On a $100,000 portfolio, it’s $250. If you want a higher level of service, for example, consultations with a human advisor, some firms offer a higher price point, often around 0.4 percent or 0.5 percent. For instance, Personal Capital offers this premium tier, as does Betterment, but you’ll need a higher level of assets (think $100,000 and up) to get in the door.

However, several reputable robo-advisors offer their service without a management fee. Schwab Intelligent Portfolios offers a comprehensive set of services for investors, and Interactive Advisors provides a huge range of fund options. Meanwhile, SoFi Automated Investing offers low-cost ETFs.

These management fees usually cover everything the robo-advisor does, including any trading costs, and special features such as tax-loss harvesting (if offered). Many robo-advisors also offer auto-rebalancing as part of their management fee.

However, regardless of which robo-advisor you select, there’s one additional fee – the fees on the ETFs selected by your robo-advisor called expense ratios. Typically, these fees range from 0.05 percent of assets to 0.15 percent annually. The good news: ETFs are among the cheapest possible ways to invest, and robo-advisors are generally good about selecting cheap funds.

So robo-advisors offer many of the portfolio services of a human advisor at a much lower cost.

Bottom line

Robo-advisors help take the cost out of planning for retirement, while still giving you the high-quality experience of a traditional advisor. That’s helped drive their huge growth over the last decade, and their simplicity should help them continue to gain acceptance with investors.

As you’re exploring the world of robo-advisors, determine what your needs are — do you need a human sometimes? — and then find a robo-advisor among the many that meets them as best as possible.

Learn more:

Written by
James Royal
Senior investing and wealth management reporter
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.
Edited by
Senior wealth editor