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Betterment Review [Updated 2012]

One of the online discount brokers that is getting a lot of attention right now is Betterment [3]. This site launched fairly recently, and the concept won the “Best of Show” at FinovateFall 2010. The overriding principle behind Betterment is simplicity.

For those who are interested in a “set it and forget it” approach to investing, Betterment is a solid choice, specializing in using low-cost ETFs to achieve diversity. Betterment will even automatically change your asset allocation [4].

Here is a rundown of Betterment:

How Betterment Works

Betterment is very straightforward. Betterment is registered with the SEC, and it carries SIPC insurance [5]. Like many other online brokers, it’s fairly easy to sign up online and get started. As you sign up with Betterment, you will enter your basic personal information required by all investment accounts. Then, you answer a few questions that help determine your asset allocation.

All of the investments available are ETFs. You decide how much money you want in stock ETFs, and how much in Treasury ETFs. Your stock ETFs are include those on the Dow, as well as value stocks, midcaps and even a total market ETF. The bond ETFs are iShares Barclays: SHY [6] and TIP [7].

Once your asset allocation is determined, and you fund your account, you can begin investing. There is no minimum to open, so that makes it easy to get started with what you have. It’s also possible to set up an automatic investment so that you are investing every month with money from your checking account or some other account.

Every three months, Betterment will re-allocate your portfolio. Your holdings will be assessed, and then re-balanced, depending on your previous specifications. Additionally, if your allocations drift more than 5% — even if the three-month mark hasn’t been reached — Betterment will automatically re-allocate. You can change your desired asset allocation as your goals change. Additionally, your investments change as you adjust your goal settings. Betterment takes care of all of it.

Instead of charging per-trade fees, Betterment charges fees based on your yearly account balance. The fee is pro-rated, and ranges from 0.15% to 0.35%. You will be charged the higher fee if you have a low account balance. The starter account with a $0 beginning balance and $100/month minimum deposit costs 0.35% a year. Once you hit an account balance of $10,000, your fee drops to 0.25%. You pay the 0.15% fee if your account balance is $100,000. Plus, once you reach $100,000, you have access to customized portfolio options.

Downside to Betterment: Limited Options

Betterment really is for the investor who is mostly hands off. There aren’t very many investment options. You can’t invest in individual stocks or mutual funds. There aren’t many bond options to choose from. For the hands-on, frequent trader, Betterment probably isn’t the right product.

Additionally, you have to be willing to trust Betterment to re-allocate your holdings appropriately in some cases. Customizing your portfolio, at least at first, isn’t really an option. If you are looking for a full-service online broker [8] offering a variety of options, Betterment is not for you. However, if you want a simple account that allows you to pretty much put things on automatic, Betterment can be an attractive option.

Have you used Betterment? What do you think?