Ellevest is a robo-advisory service specifically designed for female investors with the goal of closing gender money gaps. The driving force behind the firm, Sallie Krawcheck, felt that most investing firms design portfolios primarily for men, ignoring the special needs of women.
In an article announcing the launch of Ellevest, published back in 2015, Krawcheck said, “Women do not invest to the same extent that men do: a lower percent of us have started saving for retirement than men, we have saved less for retirement, and we park 68% of our money in cash.” She encourages women to ask for raises and to start investing as soon as practical in order to take advantage of compounding. Her vision with Ellevest was to change the underlying investment product to suit the needs of women rather than changing women to make them invest more like men.
Ellevest has three levels of investing guidance. Our review focuses on the company’s Digital offering, although clients who qualify are offered the opportunity to move into accounts that offer additional help from a financial planner and career coach at an additional fee.
The platform includes a simple website and mobile app
Portfolios can be tweaked to make them more or less aggressive, depending on the goal
You can manage multiple goals in a single account
Ellevest helps reduce overall taxation of your portfolio
Only individual accounts are enabled. No trusts or joint accounts available
The platform provides oddly aggressive recommendations for older customers
The overt attempt to appeal to women is clumsily done at points
Portfolios can’t be changed much beyond adjusting the risk level
Although females are the stated focus, Ellevest welcomes clients of all gender identities and gender expressions. Dads, husbands, brothers, and other male friends are also welcome to open accounts. The platform uses gender-specific salary curves and longevity data to power the forecasts for goal planning. When planning for retirement, you’ll see longer life spans for women, encouraging females to have enough money saved up for those lengthy post-paid-employment years.
There is some positive reinforcement built into the steps you go through to set up an account. For example, every potential client is smart and successful by default.
You’re asked about household income and then walked through a list of other accounts so that Ellevest can develop a complete picture of your assets. Entering estimates for account balances held in IRAs, 401(k)s, taxable investing accounts, checking and savings helps the Ellevest algorithm to model your financial position against the goals you identify.
The next step is to look over the list of goals suggested by Ellevest and choose the ones you want. Ellevest calls this a “goal shopping” page – and this is one of the instances where the attempt to appeal to women feels a bit clumsy. Regardless, the goal-setting process is straightforward, if somewhat unfortunately named. You simply click on the goals you would like to plan for and, when you’re done, you then prioritize the goals. Ellevest suggests totals for your goals, taking into consideration your current salary and other assets. Some goals can be edited, such as the “Emergency Fund,” but others like “Build Wealth” cannot.
Once you’ve approved of the goals for your account, you’re shown a suggested portfolio’s asset allocation. You can see the specific ETFs and mutual funds being suggested prior to funding the portfolio.
Ellevest scores low in this category because the contents are only partially transparent prior to funding and portfolios are not customizable.
Building wealth is one of the primary goals that Ellevest promotes. All of Ellevest’s services focus on achieving investing goals rather than on beating a market index. You can invest in multiple goals at one time, such as retirement, a down payment on a house and starting your own business. Ellevest looks at your profile, goals and timeline, then recommends goal-specific portfolios, target amounts, assets on hand and other factors to generate a customized investment plan.
Once your various goals are defined, you can play with the assumptions to figure out how to achieve them all. You may see that you have to push one of your goals further out into the future to maximize the possibility of fulfilling another shorter-term goal. This overall big picture is particularly valuable for people with multiple goals and limited resources – which is most of us.
One of the surprises when reviewing this site was an aggressive portfolio recommended for someone who is over age 60 with a 20-year period for building wealth. This could be because the model puts a heavier weight on the longer average lifespan of women. However, a very similar portfolio was recommended for a potential customer in her 30s. While women arguably need to be encouraged to take on risks for portfolio growth, most portfolio management rules suggest that someone over 60 needs to be mostly focused on capital preservation.
There is no specific college planning capability, although the defined goals you can plan for include Kids, Home, Emergency Fund, Starting a Business, Big Splurge and Build Wealth.
One of the most intriguing and unique services Ellevest offers is for those rolling over a 401(k) or 403(b) from an employer-sponsored account. After you upload a current account statement from your existing retirement plan, Ellevest conducts a detailed review of your current 401(k) or 403(b) plan, including what you pay in fees, your investment options, and what advisory services may be available to you. After a thorough analysis, Ellevest emails you to let you know if rolling the account over is in your best interest.
Funding the portfolio is straightforward. You can set up automatic deposits into your Ellevest account on a twice-monthly, monthly or quarterly basis. You can also deposit a portion of a paycheck directly into your Ellevest account. There are no banking or credit cards currently offered through Ellevest.
Ellevest uses what it calls the Ellevest Tax Minimization Methodology, including tax-efficient muni bonds in taxable portfolios and rebalancing to maximize taxable losses and minimize taxable gains whenever possible. Ellevest doesn’t advertise this as tax-loss harvesting, but the effect is the same. You don’t have to concern yourself with the tax management of the portfolio, just the funding.
Like many robo-advisories, Ellevest creates set investment portfolios based on the criteria you put into the algorithm. These are primarily made up of ETFs from Vanguard, iShares, Schwab, and others, as well as mutual funds. You can choose an impact portfolio, which is partially invested in impact-focused ETFs and mutual funds, such as the iShares MSCI USA ESG Select ETF and the Pax Ellevate Global Women’s Leadership Fund. The Pax Ellevate Global Women’s Leadership Fund, for example, is a way for women to invest in companies that invest in gender diversity and women’s leadership. The impact portfolio option is an area where Ellevest’s commitment to specifically helping women invest comes off as genuine and strikes the perfect note.
Ellevest takes a risk control focus on monitoring and rebalancing portfolios. Portfolios are rebalanced only when they have drifted away from their asset allocations beyond pre-specified thresholds that are specific to the goal and investment time horizon. Controlling your portfolio risk is more important to Ellevest’s rebalancing methodology than rigidly maintaining a specific asset allocation. If your portfolio is falling behind your stated goal, however, Ellevest prods you to make appropriate adjustments, such as pushing the goal date out further into the future or making larger and more frequent deposits.
Ellevest’s web experience is mobile-enabled, and there is a native iOS app. Android users will have to navigate to the Ellevest website on their mobile device. The iOS app is missing some of the goal-tracking functionality of the website, however, so you might be better off using the mobile web.
The website makes frequent use of drop-down menus in order to minimize data-entry errors. You can easily see an overview of your entire account or click on the goal labels in the top banner to visit each one individually.
Ellevest discontinued its online chat capability, so help is provided mostly by the FAQs on the website or by calling into customer support. The hours for phone calls are limited (9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Time), but the phone was answered quickly by a knowledgeable representative in our tests. Ellevest also provides support via text message and Facebook Messenger.
If you’ve moved up to a Premium or Private Wealth account, you have access to financial planners and career coaches.
Education & Security
The website is easy to navigate and many questions are covered in the FAQs within the support section. There are some articles and videos on the website, plus an online magazine that is packed with female-centric investing and career tips and updated daily. The magazine includes one-minute videos with Ms. Krawcheck, and the content is posted to a variety of social media platforms.
The website and mobile app utilize high levels of security with two-factor authentication and encryption. When you invest through Ellevest, your assets are held by Folio, a broker-dealer/custodian that carries excess Securities Investors Protection Corporation (SIPC) insurance that covers up to $10 million per customer.
Commissions & Fees
The fees for a Digital account include a 0.25% annual fee for assets under management outside the emergency fund. Emergency funds are held in cash, and there is no management fee. In addition, there are fees for the underlying ETFs and mutual funds that range from 0.06% to 0.17% for Core portfolios and 0.13% to 0.20% for Impact portfolios.
- Monthly cost to manage a $5,000 portfolio: $1.04
- Monthly cost to manage a $25,000 portfolio: $5.21
- Monthly cost to manage a $100,000 portfolio: $20.83
Is Ellevest a Good Fit for You?
Although Ellevest welcomes all comers, it is designed with single women in mind. This is refreshing most of the time and even poignant when it comes to the impact portfolio, but it bordered on cringe-worthy a few times for this reviewer. Ellevest is still relatively young as a platform, having launched in 2017. Empowering women to invest is an excellent goal, and the company’s approach will continue to evolve in a way that advances that goal while avoiding some of the pitfalls of a gendered approach. Ellevest does strike the right tone when it comes to the FAQs on the website and most of the overall user experience.
If you are single and have multiple goals to manage, Ellevest could work well regardless of what gender you identify with. The process of rolling over a 401(k) or 403(b) is handled well, and the Ellevest platform is designed to save money on fees and taxes. It stakes up well within the robo-advisories on customer service, fees, portfolio management and so on. At times, the portfolio suggestions seemed aggressive, but the customization of the model for gender-specific salary curves and longevity data likely play a role in that. In fact, Ellevest may one day make the case that managing a portfolio for a single woman is different from simply teaching the computer to apply modern portfolio theory given an amount and a deadline.
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