Wealthfront is one the largest independent robo-advisors with nearly $11 billion in client assets under management. They have combined the best of modern technology with rigorous investment research to provide diversified, low-cost, tax-efficient portfolios comprised of index ETFs.
In plain English, Wealthfront makes it easy for anyone to get access to a diversified, long-term investment portfolio (and financial advice) without the high fees and account minimums of traditional wealth managers.
Wealthfront offers Cash Cow readers their first $5,000 managed free. For balances larger than $5,000, the management fee is a flat 0.25% per year.
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Since launching in December of 2011, Wealthfront has grown into one of the most sophisticated robo-advisors in the world.
Much of this success can be attributed to Wealthfront’s team of experts. CEO Andy Rachleff is chairman of the endowment investment committee at the University of Pennsylvania and a faculty member at Stanford’s School of Business. He was previously the co-founder of Benchmark Capital.
The investment team is led by Burton Malkiel, Ph.D., who is the Professor Emeritus of Economics at Princeton University and author of the best-selling A Random Walk Down Wall Street. Other members of the investment committee hold a doctorate degree or the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation.
Wealthfront’s Investment Process
Getting started with Wealthfront takes less than ten minutes. The onboarding process can be completed free of charge with no strings attached.
You can create a free account, complete the risk tolerance questionnaire, and review Wealthfront’s investment recommendations without paying a dime. Account funding is the last step in the onboarding process should you choose to proceed.
1) Create a free account
When creating a free Wealthfront account, you will be asked to select your investment goal. You can choose between retirement savings, general savings, college education, or something else entirely. Your answer will help Wealthfront suggest the correct type of investment account.
Wealthfront then asks you to complete eight multiple-choice questions about your investment preferences and risk tolerance. The questionnaire is designed to assess your willingness and ability to accept investment risk, and Wealthfront uses this information to recommend an appropriate asset allocation.
Traditionally, risk-tolerant investors will own more stocks than bonds, because stocks have historically offered the greatest growth potential of any common asset class.
2) View investment recommendations
After you complete the questionnaire, Wealthfront will explain your assessed risk tolerance on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the highest risk level. When I went through the process, I scored a 10/10, which is not surprising. I have a long investment horizon, making stocks a great investment choice for me.
Using your risk tolerance and financial goals, Wealthfront recommends a diversified investment portfolio. You can review the detailed investment recommendation before funding your account, providing a layer of transparency that I appreciate.
The investment recommendation varies by account type. If you are opening a taxable account, Wealthfront recommends select ETFs to increase your expected after-tax return. If you are opening a retirement account, Wealthfront recommends a slightly different set of ETFs to maximize potential growth.
For Taxable Accounts, Wealthfront recommends a combination of the following ETFs:
- Vanguard U.S. Total Stock Market Index (VTI)
- Vanguard Developed Foreign Stock Index (VEA)
- Vanguard Emerging Markets Stock Index (VWO)
- Vanguard Dividend Yield Stock Index (VIG)
- Vanguard Municipal Bond Index (VTEB)
- State Street Energy Select Sector (XLE)
For Retirement Accounts, Wealthfront recommends a combination of the following ETFs:
- Vanguard U.S. Total Stock Market Index (VTI)
- Vanguard Developed Foreign Stock Index (VEA)
- Vanguard Emerging Markets Stock Index (VWO)
- Vanguard Dividend Yield Stock Index (VIG)
- iShares Emerging Market Bond Index (EMB)
- iShares Corporate Bond Index (LQD)
- Schwab Real Estate Index (SCHH)
By combining these various ETF asset classes, Wealthfront investors are able to own thousands of financial securities at a very low cost.
The percentage of each ETF in your portfolio depends on your risk tolerance. In my example, here is the recommendation for a taxable account:
As you can see, it’s an aggressive mix of 90% stocks, 5% natural resources, and 5% municipal bonds.
If I select a retirement account, Wealthfront recommends a different portfolio:
The recommendation is 74% stocks, 16% real estate, and 10% taxable bonds.
Wealthfront makes these recommendations to maximize your after-tax investment returns.
3) Open and fund your account.
If you don’t like the Wealthfront recommendations, you can change your asset allocation by adjusting your risk tolerance. Once you decide on your preferred portfolio, simply click “next” and fund your new account with a minimum of $500. If you aren’t ready to fund your account, you can save Wealthfront’s recommendations in your account and return at a later date.
Most account types are supported, including:
- Traditional & Roth IRA accounts, including 401(k) and 403(b) rollovers
- Personal and joint brokerage accounts
- 529 college savings plan
- Corporate accounts
- SEP-IRA accounts
- Trust accounts
Differentiated Asset Location – Wealthfront uses a different mixture of asset classes for your taxable and retirement accounts. For example, because municipal bond interest is exempt from federal taxation, Wealthfront recommends that muni-bonds be held in a taxable account. On the other hand, corporate bond interest is taxed as ordinary income, which is why Wealthfront recommends they be placed in a tax-sheltered account.
Automated Rebalancing – Wealthfront maintains your desired asset allocation over time. Hypothetically, let’s assume that your portfolio begins with an asset allocation of 50% stocks, 50% bonds. Over time, stocks might outperform bonds resulting in a portfolio comprised of 60% stocks, 40% bonds. That’s not ideal because the portfolio now has more risk than you are comfortable accepting. Rebalancing is the act of returning your asset allocation to 50/50. Wealthfront rebalances the portfolio using efficient methods:
- Intelligent Dividend Reinvestment – Wealthfront automatically reinvests all dividends into the asset class that is underperforming, reducing the need to sell investments.
- Cash Flow Reinvestment – If you’re adding to your Wealthfront balance over time, they use those funds to automatically purchase the asset class which is underperforming. Again, this maintains your ideal asset allocation without requiring the sale of one asset class (which results in less taxation).
Tax-efficient Withdrawals – When you sell any financial asset in a taxable account, you will realize a gain or loss. The tax consequences of your sale depend on the holding period. If you sell an investment after holding it for 365 days or less, you have a short-term capital gain (or loss). If you sell the investment after holding it for 366 days or longer, that is considered a long-term gain (or loss). Short-term capital gains are treated as ordinary income, while long-term capital gains are taxed a preferential tax rate.
When you request a withdrawal from your taxable account, some of your investment must be liquidated (sold) so that you can receive cash. Wealthfront offers a withdrawal system that is designed to minimize taxation. First, they sell any positions that will result in no taxable gain. Second, they sell any positions that result in long-term capital gains. As a last resort, they sell the positions that result in short-term capital gains.
Passive-Plus Investing and Tax-Loss Harvesting
Wealthfront now offers four unique features designed to increase your return on investment and reduce your tax liability.
1) Daily Tax-Loss Harvesting – Free for all taxable Wealthfront accounts, tax-loss harvesting is the process of selling investments that have declined in value and replacing those investments with highly correlated alternatives.
By selling an investment at a loss, you earn the right to deduct that loss from your taxable income – thus lowering your annual tax burden. By replacing the original investment with a highly correlated alternative, the risk and return profile of your portfolio is unchanged, even as you gain tax savings. These tax savings can then be reinvested to further grow the value of your portfolio.
At Wealthfront, when one of your ETFs drops in value it is automatically sold and quickly replaced by a highly correlated alternative.
2) Stock-level Tax-Loss Harvesting – Available to clients with $100,000 or more invested in a taxable account, Wealthfront will create your own index portfolio, harvesting losses among individual stocks. This feature is unique to Wealthfront and cannot be found anywhere else.
Instead of using a single ETF investment to implement the U.S. stock allocation of a portfolio (typically Vanguard’s Total Stock Index (VTI)), Stock-level Tax-Loss Harvesting replaces VTI with individual securities.
Thus, if a single stock in the portfolio is down in value, it can be sold to harvest losses (even if the overall market is up). In Wealthfront’s standard index ETF portfolios, no tax-loss harvesting benefit would be available unless the U.S. stock market ETF (VTI) declined in value.
Wealthfront offers three levels of Stock-level Tax-Loss Harvesting to clients:
- Wealthfront 100: Available now for taxable accounts of $100,000, the Wealthfront 100 will utilize up to 100 of the largest capitalization stocks from the S&P 500 combined with specific ETFs to provide US stock market coverage equivalent to Vanguard’s Total Stock Market ETF (VTI).
- Wealthfront 500: Available now for taxable accounts of $500,000, the Wealthfront 500 utilizes up to 500 stocks from the S&P 500 combined with the Vanguard Extended Market ETF (VXF) to provide US stock market coverage equivalent to Vanguard’s Total Stock Market ETF (VTI).
- Wealthfront 1000: Available now for taxable accounts of $1,000,000, the Wealthfront 1000 utilizes up to 1000 stocks from the S&P 1500 combined with the Vanguard Small-Cap ETF (VB) to provide US stock market coverage equivalent to Vanguard’s Total Stock Market ETF (VTI).
Wealthfront has written a few research-oriented white papers on the topic of tax-loss harvesting. They conclude that a portfolio including Wealthfront’s Daily Tax-Loss Harvesting service and Stock-level Tax-Loss Harvesting service could add up to 2.03% annually in additional investment returns (compared to VTI only)
3) Smart Beta – Halfway through 2017, the Wealthfront investment committee introduced Smart Beta for taxable accounts of $500,000 or more.
Smart Beta blends five single-factor strategies (value, momentum, high dividend yield, low market beta, and low volatility) with the cap-weighted market index (VTI) to generate a new modified index. This new index then serves as the benchmark for the tax-loss harvesting algorithm in your portfolio.
Historically, this strategy has provided additional portfolio gains and more opportunities for tax-loss harvesting. When combined with the Daily Tax-Loss Harvesting and Stock-level Tax Loss Harvesting features previously described, Wealthfront estimates the overall after-tax benefit to be as much as 3% each year, as discussed in their latest research.
4) Risk Parity – At the beginning of 2018, Wealthfront introduced the newest PassivePlus strategy, Risk Parity, which aims to increase your risk-adjusted returns in a wide range of market environments through an enhanced asset allocation strategy. This new strategy is available as part of a diversified portfolio for Wealthfront clients with taxable investment accounts of $100,000 or more.
The key benefit of Risk Parity is the way it balances the risk of an investment portfolio, which will increase your portfolio’s average annual expense ratio. Wealthfront structured this Risk Parity implementation as a mutual fund in order to preserve the value they offer through their Tax-Loss-Harvesting and Portfolio Line of Credit. Just as the ETFs they use have an associated expense ratio, the Wealthfront Risk Parity Fund has an expense ratio of 0.25%. Fortunately, your weighted average annual expense ratio will only increase by 0.03%.
Risk Parity is designed to increase your long-term net-of-fees, after-tax, risk-adjusted returns, and you can select this investment strategy in your account settings.
Portfolio Line of Credit
Wealthfront’s Portfolio Line of Credit offers you access to immediate cash without disrupting your investment strategy. Wealthfront clients with an account valued at $100,000 or more have immediate access to the line of credit.
- Interest Rate: Your line of credit is secured by your diversified investment portfolio, and current borrowing rates depend on the size of your portfolio.
- Complete Flexibility: Borrow the amount you need, when you need, for any reason. Then repay on your own schedule.
- No Application or Fees: If your account is eligible, you have a line of credit. Simple as that. No paperwork, credit checks, or application process. Just request the cash (up to 30% of the current value of your Wealthfront account) and Wealthfront sends you the money as quickly as one business day.
This line of credit is an excellent way to obtain cash, should you ever need immediate liquidity. Many of Wealthfront’s clients use PLOC to pay tax bills, down payment on a home, etc.
Path is Wealthfront’s financial planning experience – free for all customers. Path allows you to link all of your external financial accounts through your Wealthfront Dashboard.
You can track your financial progress in real time. Path uses your real transaction history to calculate a rolling 12-month average of how much you’ve been saving and spending, then provides advice on how to achieve your financial goals using this data.
If that’s something you’re interested in, take a look at this video:
Home Planning with Path
In 2018, Wealthfront expanded Path to help clients plan for a future home purchase. Here are some the features included in this update:
- Personalized Home Affordability Estimate: Path uses third-party data on home prices and mortgage rates combined with your financial information to provide an accurate estimate of what you can expect to afford when it’s time to purchase a home. Path’s home affordability estimate even accounts for expenses beyond the mortgage, such as closing costs, property taxes, maintenance, and insurance.
- Saving and Goal Tradeoffs: Path makes recommendations on which accounts are best to save for a home, how much to save each month, and provides a realistic time frame for the purchase. You can also interactively explore the impact of saving more or saving for a longer period of time, and how this will affect your existing financial goals.
- Virtual House Hunting: Path links to Redfin, allowing you to virtual house hunt in locations across the country. You can see what’s possible with affordability estimates, and even track specific neighborhoods for real-time market fluctuations.
- Home Planning in Retirement: Home equity can be a powerful asset to utilize in retirement. Path projects the value of your purchased home in the future and allows you to try on different scenarios to see how your financial status will change if you sold or downsized in retirement.
With this addition, Path is one of the most comprehensive financial planning tools available today (and entirely free for Wealthfront clients).
College Planning with Path
In addition to home planning, Path now includes customized college planning advice. With this addition, Path walks you through every important aspect of college planning and delivers a complete, personalized assessment in three steps:
- You Select A College – Wealthfront connects to every U.S. college to calculate the estimated cost of tuition, room and board, books, etc. You can change your desired school at any time and the data will update automatically.
- Path Calculates Financial Aid – Using outside data for each college and their specific approach to calculating financial aid, along with the personal details that you’ve shared through Path, Wealthfront provides a customized estimate of financial aid per school.
- Path Shows You How Much You Can Pay For – Path will show you how far your estimated savings will go towards covering college expenses. Just like with retirement, you can adjust the inputs to see the impact of increased savings.
Wealthfront is the only robo-advisor offering a cost-effective 529 plan and a personalized college planning service all in one.
Wealthfront Security and Protection
Wealthfront protects your investments through the following measures:
SIPC Insurance: Wealthfront is protected by SIPC insurance. This insurance covers up to $500,000 in securities for each type of account you hold with Wealthfront. An IRA is considered a different type of account than a taxable account for this purpose, but different types of IRA accounts are considered one account for this purpose. SIPC insurance also covers up to $250,000 in cash.
Third party custodian: Your assets are held in an account at RBC. Wealthfront only has the right to issue trading instructions against your account. The firm cannot access your money, other than to receive the agreed upon advisory fee. You are the only one who can deposit into, or withdraw from your account.
No rehypothecation: Wealthfront clients only have cash accounts (not margin accounts) at RBC. That means at no time can the cash or securities held in your account be loaned out or borrowed by Wealthfront.
Everything in street name: Wealthfront only invests in SIPC covered securities registered in street name at the Depository Trust Company (DTC). That means the securities purchased on your behalf by Wealthfront are held separately from other Wealthfront assets and remain fully insured.
For all of the services described in this review, Wealthfront charges an advisory fee of 0.25% per year. Cash Cow Couple readers receive their first $5,000 managed free.
Wealthfront clients incur no other fees outside of the 0.25% advisory fee. There are no trading commissions, custodial fees, or exit fees if you close your account.
Keep in mind that although Wealthfront charges no additional fees, you will have to pay fees for the underlying ETFs that you own through Wealthfront. You would pay these even if you managed your own portfolio. These are typically around 0.10% annually on top of the 0.25% management fee.
Once you have an account opened and funded, you can get an additional $5,000 managed free for each friend that you invite who opens and funds their account. The person invited gets an additional $5,000 managed for free as well. That’s $5,000 for both people involved. There’s no limit to the amount you can get managed for free and these funds are managed free for as long as the account remains open.
No fractional share investing – Betterment and M1 Finance allow investors to utilize fractional shares, but Wealthfront does not. For example, if an ETF costs $125 per share today, but you only have $100 available in your investment account, these other firms will allow you to purchase a partial share. At Wealthfront, no investment would occur until your account balance exceeds $125.
No cash equivalent investments – At Wealthfront, your money is invested in a blend of stock and bond ETFs. Financial markets are risky, and you can lose your money even in their most conservative portfolio. If you are a very risk averse investor, or if you need immediate access to your funds, consider a high-yield savings account.
No customization – Wealthfront recommends a diversified set of ETFs to everyone, but no customization is allowed. For example, if you would rather choose a different type of real estate investment or trade individual stocks, that’s not allowed. The Wealthfront team makes very good, research-based recommendations, but you can’t replace or delete any of their chosen ETFs.
Wealthfront Review Summary
Wealthfront offers quality asset management and financial planning services for a very reasonable fee. But I think Wealthfront offers even more to a select group of people:
Individuals just getting started: Wealthfront recently lowered their minimum account balance to just $500. When combined with the $5,000 free management offer, Wealthfront is a great option for new investors or individuals wanting to test the service.
Young professionals and families: Wealthfront is focused on offering services and features that directly address the needs of young professionals. The Wealthfront 529 College Savings Plan and Path (Financial Planning) are examples of unique services designed to help young families manage their finances.
Individuals who have an extensive network: All investors who sign up through our website begin with $5,000 managed free, but each additional referral results in an additional $5,000 managed free. Someone with an extensive network could have a sizable portfolio managed for free.
Individuals with $100,000 or more to invest in a taxable account: Retirement accounts don’t count because no tax-loss harvesting is available. Taxable account balances in excess of $100,000 receive Wealthfront’s Passive Plus suite of tools, which become increasingly valuable as your account balance grows.
The combination of features offered by Wealthfront is unmatched by other robo-advisors, as detailed in my Wealthfront vs M1 Finance vs Betterment comparison.