Fund Watch


Betterment.com: This Online Investing Tool Just Got Better

Kathy Kristof

For little cost, get help managing your investment portfolios, no matter how small.



Lazy investors who don't have a ton of money can take heart. There's a good "set-it-and-forget-it" investment option that just got better -- Betterment.

SEE ALSO: Our Slide Show of the Best Online Brokers

Betterment.com is a Web-based money manager that helps investors, big and small, set up no-maintenance portfolios that are both diversified and regularly rebalanced. You set up an account by either depositing a lump sum or making monthly deposits.

There are no account fees or minimum investment requirements. All you pay is an asset management fee that's now capped at 0.35% -- down from 0.9%. Those investing large amounts pay less -- as little as 0.15% per year.

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For that you get a mix of eight investments -- six low-cost exchange-traded index funds that provide exposure to both U.S. and foreign stocks and two that invest in U.S. Treasury bonds. Your assets are allocated between stocks and bonds based on your answers to questions about your goals and your tolerance for risk.

Betterment rebalances your portfolio every three months or when investment results would cause the portfolio to deviate from the mix you chose by more than five percentage points. Rebalancing usually involves selling winners and buying losers, but Betterment does it by reinvesting dividends in the poorer-performing investment categories, which is a more tax-efficient way to go, says Jon Stein, chief executive of Betterment, which is based in New York City.

The company has won widespread accolades for its ability to help small investors venture into the markets. With as little as $10, an investor can get fractional shares in all the different ETFs in Betterment's quiver -- providing diversification and ease that was otherwise unavailable for those with hundreds, rather than thousands, of dollars at their disposal.

However, some advisers say that before the recent price cuts Betterment stopped being a good deal once you invested as little as $10,000. That's when you could clear the minimum investment threshold at Vanguard and get into its low-cost and widely diversified Vanguard Star Fund (symbol VGSTX), which charges annual fees of just 0.34%, without paying a $20 annual fee.

In addition to Betterment's annual fees, there are the relatively small fees -- 0.07% to 0.40% annually -- embedded in the ETFs that make up the Betterment investment portfolios. Still, with the new fee structure instituted in February, Betterment becomes one of the lowest-cost options available for investors of modest means who seek to build a diversified account. And for those wanting to invest smaller amounts than Vanguard will accept, it's the hands-down winner. "To be as competitive as we want to be -- to make this the obvious best choice -- we felt we had to win on all points," says Stein. "One of those points was fees."

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